Inside Story

Creating and choosing good schools

Creating better schools is a long and often tortuous process, writes Chris Bonnor. The first step is to focus on policies that can actually work

Chris Bonnor 12 July 2012 3520 words

Photo: Torres21/ Flickr

THE Gonski review has started a new conversation about schools by placing student outcomes at the front and centre of the debate about funding – and recommending that we should support students to meet a high standard, regardless of their school. But how do schools improve outcomes for all their students? Why is it that some schools seem to do this better than others? How do we know if schools measure up: what are the measures and who decides? How is this issue played out in what has become a marketplace of schools?

And measure up to what? Schools have always served a variety of purposes. What is most important: their public and democratic purpose, or their role as providers of private and positional goods? Or should national – especially economic – priorities have the greatest influence over policy about schools? Who should schools serve and how can they meet the often conflicting demands placed on them by students, parents and the nation?

In our new book What Makes a Good School?, Jane Caro and I have tried to sort these issues out in a way that made sense to us, and hopefully to a wider audience, especially parents. It’s not that the needs of parents should transcend all others; students should come first. But the preferences of some parents – those who can afford choice – have combined with willing governments to create a bizarre, hybrid framework of public and private schools which, despite all the hype, is delivering far more for some students and families than for others. In our book, we tend to ask questions more than provide definitive answers. The creation of good schools is a long-term process. Deciding which are really “good” can be a formidable challenge and may explain why parents especially are ready to adopt the views of others, particularly if they seem authoritative, about school quality. If all else fails we can just buy a “choosing a school” book from any newsagent.

But how do common generalisations and recycled opinions about schools fare under closer scrutiny, and how can we be better equipped to find out for ourselves?

Our idea of a good school

Generalisations about schools are always fraught, and it can be difficult to judge schools when they can be changing dramatically and yet standing still at the same time. Our collective understanding of schools is also conditioned by a time lag spanning one or two generations. We all went to a school and were variously advantaged, positioned or bruised for life by institutions that in many cases haven’t changed a great deal for decades. In fact some schools work hard to satisfy deeply held but often dated beliefs about what makes a good school – beliefs held not only by parents but also by grandparents who are often a soft touch for school fees.

This lingering image of a good school is one of a top-down managed and regimented place with compliant students who generally progress in lock-step through each school day and through the various hoops created by testing, curriculum and everything else we can throw in their way. While kids have changed in quite noticeable ways through generations X, Y and Z, some judgements about schools assume that students’ learning needs, styles and preferences have remained unchanged since Aristotle.

True, there are certain characteristics about good teaching and school leadership that have stood the test of time, but they increasingly seem to be appropriate for the kids in the mainstream while doing little for those who have ended up at (or have been pushed to) the margins. No one seems to want the latter students anyway – some schools work very hard to avoid them. After all, the mainstream is the safest and most acceptable place for schools to be: sought by parents, supported by governments, and firmly held in place by imposed conventions in curriculum, assessment and reporting.

The net result is that, despite the talk about diversity and choice of schools, the majority really aren’t all that different from each other. The schools that compete for the middle class in particular are very wary about venturing into radical innovation in teaching and learning. And the deluge of what is loosely described as “school reform” has imposed a certain sameness.

This means that the paraded differences between schools don’t amount to a great deal in educational terms. But there is no shortage of schools with special titles or labels that are apparently able to levitate student achievement, produce well-rounded citizens and ease our mounting anxieties as parents. There are endless debates about the merits of single-sex versus co-ed schools, public versus private, specialist versus comprehensive, religious versus secular, nearby versus distant, big versus small – and more recently, locally versus centrally controlled. Once you account for differences in inputs and advantages – including students, teachers and resources – the labels don’t add up to much at all.

These inputs are what make the difference. The core problem that the Gonski review had to resolve was how the inputs can be configured in different ways so that all children can have access to the best possible education, regardless of where they live, the income of their family or the school they attend.

Such a review was always going to be needed. The conversation about good and bad schools has for years obscured widening gaps between schools, gaps that can’t be explained by differences in the quality of teaching and learning. Anyone with the time to do it can line up government, Catholic and independent schools with similar socio-educational enrolment profiles and discover that the NAPLAN differences between them aren’t significant.

Unhappy realities

The real social and academic differences between our schools are grounded in the family and social profiles of enrolled students. There is nothing new about that, but it is concerning that such differences are widening in our quasi-market school system. Nor is it new that the achievement of students is primarily generated by home background; in this respect Australia resembles the pattern found across the OECD. But Australia is different in a key respect: far more of our disadvantaged kids go to schools alongside their peers, and most advantaged kids are in schools with other advantaged kids. We are compounding, not reducing, the impact of socioeducational status.

Most people understand how and why family background matters, but the impact of school socioeducational status in particular works in quite subtle ways. Yes, students do influence each other at school – parents get this and it explains some of their anxiety about school choice. For parents the social profile of a school’s enrolment is the single most important driver of school choice – with student achievement data not far behind. But schools can also be part of the problem. Schools facing even more students with apparently lower academic ability might introduce a less challenging curriculum and reduce teacher expectations and student opportunities. In one sense you can’t blame them, but it can make a bad situation worse. The flipside is that schools with an advantaged enrolment can and will increase resources, curriculum rigour, and expectations of what students learn and where they will go in the future.

None of this should create a stampede out of low socioeducational status schools because there are big variations in this pattern between students and between schools. The averages created by these trends are no guarantee that any given student is better off in a higher socioeducational status school. Is it always going to be worth sacrificing hours of travel time, existing friendships and quality family time – on the chance that rubbing shoulders with the better-endowed might turn a student’s chances around?

Sources of information

For years we have conducted a proxy debate about schools, allowing popular notions of good and bad to obscure the underpinning social divides between them. But even so, around one-third of student achievement can still be attributed to the school, especially the quality of its teaching and leadership, the configuration of teaching and learning, and that elusive notion of school culture. Good schools exist in all geographic and social settings, but the search for these schools has to focus on what they are doing as schools rather than on which students they enrol.

What this means is that parents now have to work much harder if they want to choose a school, because a closer and more balanced appraisal of local and available schools can easily tell, for their own children, a different story from that available in the media, told over the back fence or apparent from the average trends highlighted by research.

Parents are entitled to information and assurances about the schools in which they may be interested or in which their children are currently enrolled. There are no shortcuts to identifying a good school, however “good” is defined – and the paraded, recycled evidence about our schools always needs closer scrutiny. The “how to choose” literature has become more sophisticated in recent years but it still falls short of getting inside schools.

The My School website, with its confusion of purposes and narrow spotlight on limited aspects of student achievement, still isn’t much help when it comes to accurate and meaningful comparisons of schools. Despite the initial hype, no one seems to know how much store parents place on the website. It certainly tries to create a one-stop shop for those seeking information about schools, but the shelves in this shop are still quite bare: the products offered don’t seem to match what consumers want to buy. Far better information about schools is available from independent school reviews, along the lines of those conducted in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, but the quality and frequency of such reviews across Australia varies considerably.

Parents will always need to combine information from a variety of sources. School publications, including annual reports, have a place – but you often have to read between the lines. Other parents are an interesting source, but to some extent schools are like our other choices: we create narratives to justify what we have done, or outsource the blame if it didn’t work out. Schools create opportunities for parents to take a closer look, but some of these – including visits, exhibitions and open days – are more useful than others.

The quality of teaching and learning

We’ll always need to dig much deeper than the advocacy, the labels and the hype. A good school is an aggregation of good classrooms in which effective teaching and learning are taking place. The challenge for parents is to wade through the visible but often superficial indicators, to discover the real quality of learning. To do this they have to suspend judgement about such things as raw test scores, student ranks, neat books (with one-inch margins), docile students in neat rows, and hours of homework.

The last decade has seen renewed research into and interest in the quality of classroom learning. The research is in no small measure derived from what has been found to work in successful classrooms. Most schools and systems now subscribe to similar frameworks of effective teaching and learning. These tend to focus on three things. The first is the development of an intellectual quality that produces deep understanding of concepts, skills and ideas. The second is a classroom environment characterised by positive relationships where learning is expected and supported. The third is significance: learning needs to be meaningful to students and as much as possible anchored to their needs and passions.

The problem for students and teachers is that some of what excites parents and policy-makers does little to enhance intellectual quality, classroom environment or relevance. Tests are hijacked to make schools accountable and able to be compared: the real need for tests to improve learning takes second place. Curriculum is externally driven: depth of understanding is hard to achieve in subjects where teachers are required to cover too much content or don’t have enough time. The complex task of reporting student achievement is dumbed down to a series of imposed letter grades. Discipline can be confused with compliance: learning certainly suffers if classrooms are chaotic, but regimentation and just being busy don’t create successful learning. Depth of learning has to compete against the long-treasured and more easily tested accumulation of facts. The need for young people to know how to think sits uneasily with those who believe the priority should be to teach them what to think.

This places a huge burden on schools and teachers to do two things. First, teachers have to successfully navigate through imposed rules and rituals which can easily get in the way of proven good practice. It is almost comical to watch as schools, created around successful personalised learning, try to translate to students why on earth they have to do the NAPLAN tests. Not so comical are the increasing stories about the impact of recurrent testing on teacher morale, effectiveness and relationships.

The second task is for schools to effectively communicate to parents about the nature of learning and their expectations of students, something that they do with only mixed success. The learning styles of gen Z, which include multitasking and high use of technology, are different from those of the past. Their classrooms don’t always resemble those experienced by their predecessors. We need to talk with parents about these changes and get beyond one-way and often ritualistic gatherings such as parent-teacher meetings where the script is too often predictable and repetitive.

Teachers can always make a difference. Student learning doesn’t take place in a vacuum with teachers off to one side just prodding them along. Teachers need to be an active part of the process: providing instruction, feedback and learning strategies, and conveying high but realistic expectations. The standards for quality teachers are now well defined and generally fall into categories of professional knowledge, practice and engagement.

It is useful for parents to know about these standards, particularly if they have reason to believe any teacher is falling short of what is expected. Good teachers know their students and their subject matter, are themselves learners and work alongside colleagues to improve practice across the school. In What Makes a Good School Jane Caro and I outline some of the strategies available to parents when teachers seem to fall short of such standards.

Everything else schools do

But schools have to fight hard to maintain a focus on good teaching and learning. The distractions are pervasive. It is easy to come up with a list of over three dozen community concerns – ranging from swimming to sex education to social skills – that we’ve passed over to schools in the last two decades. Some of these are integrated into the school curriculum; others come and go according to the urgency of the problem, the extent of the inevitable moral panic, or the political push engineered by those most interested. All of them compete against the clamour that schools should do more in the basics.

It’s hardly surprising that schools absorb each new demand; some of them are linked to student learning, and schools want to be seen to be taking action in areas of parent and community concern. It has never been possible to draw boundaries around the things for which schools are responsible, but we seem to have given up trying. Schools are increasingly involved in areas such as student wellbeing, relationship problems and bullying, the fallout from social media and substance abuse, and the constant battle over the way young people dress and behave.

The challenges faced by schools in such areas can be especially demanding where other responsible agencies are poorly supported and schools serve stressed communities with poor social/cultural capital, or where parents believe they can outsource much of their child-rearing responsibility to schools, especially fee-charging schools. Public schools in particular are increasingly caught up in the first scenario, particularly those schools that serve marginalised young people. While private schools can make decisions about the communities and families they serve – something which the charging of fees determines for them – they are quite familiar with the second scenario.

The enrolment shift of the middle class, mainly out of low socioeducational status public schools, reinforces the narrative about such schools not being “good” – regardless of the quality of teaching and learning. In the public mind good schools are those that can enrol “good” students.

Those schools faced with mounting social problems have always struggled to retain their more engaged and ambitious families and to attract experienced teachers. Staff turnover remains high and positions in these schools end up, in the words of many principals, going to any warm body prepared to stand up in front of a classroom. The consequences are borne by the school and its students. The downside of moves towards local management for public schools is that, despite assurances to the contrary, more and more schools will face these problems on their own.

Growing better schools

At the start of this article, I asked how schools can improve outcomes for all their students. For so many schools the real question is to what extent they will be able to do this if nothing else changes, especially if the Gonski review recommendations are not pursued. Can they really do it without better inputs, especially funding, teachers… and even the students they are able to enrol? Even if the Gonski recommendations become an increasingly distant memory, the reasons the review was established won’t go away.

In the search for better schools it is strongly in the public interest that school improvement policies do work and are backed by evidence. The problem is that, as more of Gonski is shifted to the too-hard basket, the attention of governments will revert to the mixed bag of school-focused reforms that have dominated policy initiatives over more than a decade. Nonsense and unproven policy such as reward-and-punishment funding for schools, for example, is never far away. Seventy-eight low socio-educational status schools in South Australia have recently lost their national partnerships funding because they only achieved in half of their targets. Their need hasn’t gone away, just the money. Schools in New South Wales lost $35 million for the same reason. The money has disappeared but the evidence of the effectiveness of such policies of reward and punishment never existed in the first place.

The list of unproven or insignificant school reforms includes competition, choice, narrow-scope testing, school rankings, performance pay, accountability by numbers, school autonomy – the list is a long one. Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s director of education, uses the acronym GERM (global education reform movement) to describe a grab bag of relatively useless school reform initiatives. Australia is seriously infected.

The real paths to better schools are often long and tortuous. It took over five years for one model of personalised learning in Australia, Big Picture Learning, to make a difference to the first school that adopted the model. There are no magic bullets and we can’t clone and scale up the miracle schools and principals we often read about. Real and lasting change and “reform” of schools can’t be legislated or mandated. As the above heading indicates, we don’t just “get” better schools, we grow them.

Parents should be clamouring for the things that do make a real difference for schools. It isn’t much to ask but we should focus on programs and policies that work. We certainly need better systems of school appraisal and development, and teacher improvement. Much of this is within the resources of each school but government and system investment is critical, especially in raising and maintaining the standard of teaching. And we achieve this by getting the best people into teaching, supporting them to the hilt and not retaining those who simply aren’t committed. And we make sure that our investment is targeted at assisting all students in all schools to reach a high standard of achievement. Everything else should slip down the priority list.

It is still too early to know the shape of the post-Gonski era, but all the signs are that, in the hands of political leaders, the key recommendations will be increasingly avoided by the unable and the unwilling. When it comes to improving the opportunities for and achievement of our young people all the burden and blame will once more be flicked back to schools alone. Those fortunate enough to count their blessings among their resources, teachers and students will continue to thrive; those who have far less to count will join those already beyond despair. One way or the other, we’ll all pay the price. •