How school wars over money hold back our students

As Australian schools slip down global league tables, education debate continues its endless and useless battle over which school sector gets most money. For the sake of our students, it's time for a larger view.

11.12.2013 News

Published by The Australian, Wednesday 11 December 2013

The latest international school education results were disappointing but not surprising. The latest results of the OECD Program for International Student Assessment show Australian secondary students falling further behind their international peers.

In mathematics, reading and science, we are no longer in the top tier of countries.

We now rank 19th in mathematic problem solving. Without substantial change in education policy we will fall further.

Countries are not only moving ahead of us, our students are learning less than they used to. The average Australian 15-year-old student last year performed at a level significantly below the average 15-year-old Australian in 2000. This has occurred during a period of substantial increases in expenditure, both public and private. In real terms, expenditure has increased by more than 40 per cent (or by more than 25 per cent on a per student basis) yet performance has gone backwards. We are not alone in having a mismatch between education dollars and results: a number of poorly performing countries also have increased spending. However, the structure of our education systems exacerbates the problems.

Education debate in Australia is dominated by the representatives of each school sector: the education unions that represent government school teachers, the Catholic school sector and its dioceses around the country, and the independent school sector. The job of the representatives of these sectors is in large part to get as much money as possible for their sector.

These sectors, and the people who run them, care deeply about education and helping their students. But as long as the policy debate is dominated by the interest of school sectors then it will have the same focus it has had for decades: on how much we are spending and which sector gets the most. Commentators who believe it is only the unions who continually push for more money are naive. All sectors play this game.

Most Australian education academics and commentators have accepted the terms of this debate. Many have aligned themselves to a particular sector, essentially becoming an advocate for more money for their sector. In numerous universities, education policy courses focus not on which policies develop the best schools but on funding formulas that divide money among the three school sectors.

As a result, funding and who gets what dominate education policy debate in Australia. Of course, funding matters, particularly for some schools, but it will never be the policy instrument that significantly lifts our school systems. Unfortunately, it dominates virtually all aspects of education, such as inequality. In high-performing systems, policies to address students falling behind focus on improving instruction, often by employing specialist teachers targeted at the early years of primary school. In Australia, debate on how to address education inequality is dominated by which sector gets more money. The result is falling performance and inequality that is worse than the OECD average.

Once again, many have jumped on the latest PISA results as proof that a particular school sector is superior to others or that more money should go to a specific sector. There is no evidence to support these claims. It is the same tired old game. Education Minister Christopher Pyne is right to try to shift the debate from school funding to a focus on school leadership and quality teaching. The focus on the latter has grown during the past decade. The next step is to unpack how teacher quality is to be improved, and the reform strategy that will get us there.

Strategies in high-performing systems start by identifying the level and manner in which students should learn, and the teaching that best develops this learning. All policies and programs are then aligned to develop and evaluate these teaching practices and learning habits. The Gillard government introduced national standards for teachers and school leaders, and trialled several schemes in different schools. Pyne is shifting the focus to initial teacher education, an area long overdue for reform.

For too long, many young teachers have been let down by university courses that fail to prepare them for the rigours of the classroom. Teachers report that many courses have failed to sufficiently focus on important areas of instruction and practical classroom management. Unfortunately, most universities ignored feedback from schools and teachers, further dislocating them from the realities of classroom teaching. This has been coupled with declining admission standards.

In contrast, high-performing systems have high entry standards to teacher education. Universities are evaluated on how well they respond to school feedback. Governments and other bodies comprehensively assess the skills of graduates to see if universities have prepared them to be effective teachers.

The focus on initial teacher education is important for the federal government, as it is one of the few levers they have to improve school education; the states run government schools and it is their efforts that will have the greatest impact.

Some states are implementing programs that should improve teaching and learning.

Victoria’s latest policy statement has important programs to develop teachers’ skills. NSW has perhaps the most comprehensive reform strategy in the country. Federal reforms of teacher education will complement these positive initiatives.

Sadly, policymakers and education leaders pushing these reforms find it a hard sell. Too many are entrenched in the sector v sector game. As long as these voices dominate, we will slip further down the rankings and our students will fall further behind.