The Commonwealth’s limited role in improving schools

by Julie Sonnemann and Peter Goss

Published by the Australian Financial Review, Sunday 18 February

Australia has serious problems in school education, but heavy-handed Commonwealth intervention is not the answer.

We’ve been down this path before. Imposing prescriptive federal funding conditions is costly and sometimes counterproductive. It can destroy policy coherence and simply increase red tape. Unless the states and territories buy in to the changes, they will just go through the motions of complying, without actually enforcing real change.

The key point is not whether Commonwealth ideas are any good, it is whether they are likely to result in change for the better in the classroom. State and territory governments can rarely just flick a switch to make a federal requirement happen. Often there are many other elements of the system that also need to change before new conditions can benefit students. It is a complex task.

A good example of a Commonwealth reform idea is to require “explicit teaching to be taught in schools”, as floated in the 2016 federal policy document Quality Schools Quality Outcomes. Explicit teaching – making the intention and learnings of the lesson very transparent to students – is backed by evidence. But this type of Commonwealth policy directive requires a raft of complementary state and territory policies.

First, there needs to be a clear idea of what high-quality explicit teaching involves in every state and school; and many teachers will argue they already do it. Second, teachers need to get the right training, support and incentives to switch to or improve their explicit teaching. Third, the change needs to be able to be verified, and the Commonwealth has few ways to do this.

Primary responsibility

Ultimately state governments have the primary responsibility for running schools. If they are not doing a good job, they should be held to account at the state ballot box, not by the federal government.

This is not to say that the Commonwealth should do nothing. Federal government action can add real value in some areas, especially where there are benefits of scale and coordination.

The Grattan Institute’s new report, The Commonwealth’s role in improving schools, details what the Commonwealth should do if it really wants to help lift student outcomes.

We recommend that the Commonwealth focus strategically on four national reforms, in close collaboration with state and territory governments:

First, the Commonwealth should create a new national school education research organisation to lift the standard of education research and to promote key findings across schools, states and sectors. The new body should create a long-term research agenda and help invest in rigorous research such as randomised controlled trials and longitudinal studies. It should be independent but backed by the Commonwealth and done in close collaboration with the states.

Federal Labor’s announcement on February 16 that in government it would establish a major new research body, the Evidence Institute for Schools, is a strong step forward. Taking the politics out of teaching practices won’t be easy, but it would be worth it. And an institute that genuinely worked with schools could tread the fine line between helping school leaders and telling them what to do, for example by conducting independent reviews of programs being sold into schools.

Better ways to measure  progress

Second, the Commonwealth should invest more in measuring new 21st-century skills, such as teamwork and resilience, in the classroom.

Third, it should develop better ways to measure student progress, for national bench-marking and for use in the classroom. The Coalition’s recently announced National Literacy and Numeracy Learning Progressions is a significant contribution in helping schools better track student progress in these foundational areas.

And fourth, the Commonwealth should invest in high-quality digital assessment tools for teachers in the classroom. Improving how teachers use assessment data is shown to have one of the largest impacts on student learning. Developing high quality assessment tools is expensive, and there can benefits from investing at scale rather than every state government doing it alone.

The extra Commonwealth money for schools under Gonski 2.0 is welcome. The shift in the debate towards how best to use the extra money is still more welcome. But for Australian students to get the most benefit, the Commonwealth must resist the temptation to over-reach by intervening heavily in school education policy.