Inside Story

The Grattan line

The Grattan Institute has much of importance to contribute to the education debate, writes Dean Ashenden. Its hits and misses reveal a lot about Australian schooling, and ways of thinking about it

Dean Ashenden 2 July 2013 5159 words

Tuomas Kujansuu/iStockphoto

THE Grattan Institute is the most interesting voice in the debate about schooling, and among the most influential. Grattan’s ideas and proposals have supported several elements of the Rudd–Gillard “education revolution,” including its “top five by 2025” target, as well as reforms now under way in several states. Their influence can be found in hundreds of media stories and in conventional wisdoms of current media commentary, as well as in the rhetoric of the Abbott government-in-waiting.

Grattan’s work would repay attention for these reasons alone, but it also has a deeper interest. With the federal government and others, Grattan argues that we have fallen off the pace in schooling, and that we must and can accelerate. Grattan’s hits and misses in pursuing this argument are a measure of the problems and possibilities of Australian schooling as well as the strengths and weaknesses of current ways of thinking about it.

Established only five years ago, Grattan is the first Australian think tank to take a close interest in schooling, and it has already generated an impressive body of work. Its diagnoses of schooling’s ills are forthright and sometimes iconoclastic, and for these and other reasons it is an object of suspicion to some, particularly in teacher organisations and in the public systems. But Grattan is also unfailingly constructive. It rarely advances a criticism without going on to suggest what might work better. Although scholarly in content, its reports are presented in plain English and jammed with illustrations and explanations, charts and diagrams, pull-quotes and bullet points. Closely reasoned, well-evidenced articles for media outlets address the broader climate of opinion.

Grattan’s schools man, Dr Ben Jensen, is an ex-OECD policy analyst, and an economist. Most educationists do not know what economics knows and therefore regard it with disdain or even hostility. Economists, in a widespread view, are bean counters whose numbers and equations mangle the almost ineffable complexities of education and its proper study, and often smuggle in a neoliberal agenda to boot. Jensen’s scepticism about several of Australian education’s staple debates, and his habit of emphasising what “the evidence” (almost always in numerical form) does or does not support, encourage the stereotype of that invasive species, the economic rationalist, as does the occasional heroic pseudo-calculation (that, for example, a 20 to 30 per cent increase in teacher effectiveness would add $240 billion a year to the GDP by 2050). Jensen’s affiliations are likewise suspect to his public sector critics. He is on the board of a high-fee independent school. His media outlet of choice is Murdoch’s Australian.

Grattan has run with four themes: “teacher quality” and its central role in lifting student performance; the misdirected and counterproductive character of debates about schooling in Australia; the use and misuse of resources; and the problem of how to get large-scale, high-speed, long-term improvement in school systems. The common thread is that in thought, word and deed we must focus first and above all on student learning, and we don’t. This is a powerful idea, and there is much to be learned from Grattan’s pursuit of it. But why don’t we focus on the main game? What is it in the old, deep habits of Australian schooling that keep getting in the way? Grattan has yet to settle on an answer. It proceeds as if enduring structures didn’t exist, or it wishes them gone, or it mounts head-on assaults but doesn’t pursue them.

GRATTAN is only one among many advocates of the idea that teacher quality is the key to student performance and therefore to reform, but its version of the case is by some margin the most convincing available. Like other advocates of teacher quality, however, Grattan stops before it arrives at important problems and possibilities.

Grattan traverses the usual teacher quality ground, from entry standards and initial teacher education through professional development to salary and career structures, but in an unusually well-targeted, well-specified and well-evidenced way. Its account is distinctive in its emphasis on school-based, collaborative, career-long teacher development organised around strenuous but supportive appraisal. Ways and means are spelled out in close detail, often by drawing ideas and evidence from the OECD school systems.

There is also, however, a curious paradox, a non sequitur even, in the teacher quality agenda. The announced focus is on improving student learning, but all the attention is on the teacher. “The teacher,” Grattan says, “is the most important resource in Australian schools.” That is not the case. Students are. Students outnumber teachers fifteen to one, and are the only people in schools who can produce (or decline to produce) learning, severally and/or jointly. The focus on “teacher quality” or “teacher effectiveness” assumes that students are recipients or objects or inmates rather than seeing them for what they are: workers, or more fully, co-workers.

As for any other group of workers in any other workplace, what and how much students produce, and how quickly and efficiently they produce it, is much affected by the quality of supervision. But their success depends also on how the work is organised, controlled, sequenced, evaluated and rewarded. There is an extensive literature, a kind of anthropology of the classroom, to suggest that the dominant form of work organisation in schools — the class, the classroom and the lesson — makes the work of students, and therefore of teachers, much less productive than it might be.

The point would be important at any moment in the recent history of schooling. Consider, for example, the implications of a quasi-experimental study done in the United States by Henry M. Levin and others nearly thirty years ago, which showed peer and cross-age tutoring to be three or four times as cost-effective in improving students’ reading and maths as conventional classroom instruction, whether conducted in small or large classes, or over standard or extended class time.

But the point of understanding students as workers and the school as their workplace has more weight now than ever before because we are in the early stages of a technology-driven revolution. The rapid growth of “virtual” and “blended” secondary schools in the United States prefigures the coming fact.

Technology will do in schooling what it has long since done in agriculture, mining, finance, transport, communications and the media: it will replace human labour. It will also shift tasks from some workers to others, and from some institutions to others. Machines and students themselves will take over a number of functions hitherto performed by teachers. “Outside” organisations, often commercial ones, will take over some of the functions of schools.

These developments, already under way, will put everything up for grabs: how students relate to tasks, subject matter, each other and adults involved in the learning process; the timeliness, accuracy and utility of feedback on learning; the tasks, division of labour and conditions of employment of adults; the organisation of space and time; budgets, cost structures and infrastructure; the allocation among institutions of what is now known as “schooling” — everything.

It is odd that an economist, working in a think tank (by definition oriented to the future), should not consider these possibilities, even if only to dismiss them, but that is the case. The long-familiar “teacher in the classroom” is the constant in Grattan’s recommendations, its taken-for-granted of schooling. Why this is so is a question to which we’ll return.

GRATTAN’s thinking on the character and consequences of Australian debates about schooling is not pursued in the focused, systematic way of its work on teacher quality, but it is never far from the surface.

Grattan’s general point is that we argue about just about anything except what really matters, and in particular we argue about money, and who gets it. One of Grattan’s first statements puts “ending the debate about how much money is spent in which sector” at the top of its list of five steps towards fixing Australian schools. It has subsequently repeated and elaborated the case for putting aside “our most toxic debate and the saddest part of education in this country — government versus non-government schools.” For decades, Grattan laments in its most recent comment on the problem, “politicians and educators have argued over funding, and whether more money should go to public or private schools. As they did, children’s learning was neglected.” Successful school systems, Grattan insists, have “let go” of such off-target and distracting debates.

On the central importance of what used to be called the “state aid” debate, Grattan is of course correct. It consumes vast amounts of political oxygen badly needed elsewhere. It focuses minds and platoons of lobby groups on amounts and shares of funding rather than how best to use it. It sustains antagonisms within schooling and more generally. It is distracting, divisive and destructive.

But the suggestion that the whole wretched preoccupation can and should simply be set aside, put behind us, “let go” suggests such a limited comprehension of why the debate keeps on keeping on, of the sources of problems Grattan wants to fix, and of what frustrates the fixing, that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps 120 years or so into the dismal story, in 1973, when the problem assumed its present form?

In 1973 the new Whitlam government commissioned a group led by Peter Karmel to settle the poisonous “state aid” question. Working within constraints set by Whitlam, Karmel designed three different funding mixes for three different groups of schools, and provided a funding floor but no funding ceiling. Some parents were required to go on paying fees even if they couldn’t afford to while others who could afford it continued to pay nothing.

This inherently unstable “settlement” triggered a competition between sectors, and made it easier for some families and government-subsidised non-government schools to win. That soon resulted in rapid declines in the enrolment share of public schools. The public systems responded with the doctrine of “choice and diversity” via dezoning, “specialist” schools (in technology, music, sports, performing arts and the like), and an expanded number of selective and de facto selective schools. The forces of competition were loosed within the public systems as well as between them and the rest. The upshot is what the available evidence suggests is the most competition-infused school system in the OECD.

That could be a very good thing, but it all depends on what kind of competition is going on. Just about everyone knows that the present competition is unfair because the players bring such different resources to the game, but unfairness is not the worst of it. The greater problem (and the harder to see) lies in the nature of the game itself. It isn’t a race that encourages everyone to run faster. It is more like zero-sum combat that pits schools against each other for money, for prestige and, above all, for the most desired students.

The nature and consequences of that kind of competition were matters of central concern to Gonski, and are documented at length in the report prepared for Gonski by a high-powered team led by Nous Group. The report found that for reasons of location, income and/or academic promise some families can move schools and many cannot. Those who can increasingly do, and in the doing take their educational, political and cultural capital away from one school and confer it on another. The advantaged schools and their clientele become more so, as do the disadvantaged, and both become more concentrated among their own kind, a self-expanding dynamic half-grasped by the concept of “residualisation.”

Gonski was alarmed by the consequent encouragement given to educational inequality, by the poor and worsening performance of students in the most damaged schools, and by increasing social segmentation within the school system. His proposed funding shake-up put these problems front and centre. The trouble is that even if Gonski’s recommendations were to be fully implemented, which is highly unlikely, funding is not the only source of or solution to residualisation. Rules and regulations which allow or encourage residualisation comprise the other.

Australian schools operate as best they can within a regulatory regime that applies different rules to different schools, particularly in regard to funding and to student recruitment, and imposes bad rules (or a lack of them) on all schools, with educational and social consequences outlined a moment ago. The usual prescription of “more autonomy” for schools (or, more candidly, for government schools, to make them more like independent schools) is correct but facile. Of course government schools need to be more “autonomous” if they are to do what is being asked of them (by Grattan among many others), but that belief dodges two crucial questions: In what respects should they not be autonomous? And, whatever the answer is, should it apply equally to all schools, not just those in the government sector?

No school can ever be “autonomous.” Its success is of course shaped by what it is allowed to control, but also by what it isn’t allowed to, or can’t — including what other schools are allowed to do. That is what systems are meant to decide. Trying to work out what a good system would look like, and how to get there from here, is indispensable to getting the kind of schools Grattan and Gonski and many others want to see. Gonski was not allowed to address this side of his problem. Grattan is, but in its anxiety to be shot of the whole “state aid” question, doesn’t.

GRATTAN’s arguments on resource use and on the strategic conduct of reform, by contrast, go head-on at big problems. One argument takes aim at a sacred cow of postwar schooling while the other attacks the imperial assumption that in matters educational, Asia comes here to learn, not vice versa. Both campaigns are, however, as incomplete as they are bold.

The argument about resource use begins from the observation that for decades the funds provided to schools have just kept on increasing, mostly to employ more teachers to put in front of ever-smaller classes. That, Grattan asserts, has been “a huge waste of money.” The evidence here as elsewhere shows that reducing class sizes is “expensive but does little to improve student performance.” Both sides of politics have got it wrong, Grattan says, and so have both kinds of schools, government and non-government alike. The argument behind the argument is even more far-reaching: how resources are used, Grattan is saying, should be a matter for decision rather than habit. It should be informed by evidence and, crucially, by evidence about costs and outcomes, and their relationship.

Here, Grattan has shirt-fronted an article of faith among most parents and teachers, a central plank in the entire strategy of postwar school reform, and the mindset of those responsible for it. Is Grattan right? In my view, very nearly.

The facts of the class-size reduction strategy are more complicated than Grattan allows (and, I should confess, more complex than I have suggested on occasion). In settings such as work with severely disadvantaged kids, for example, small classes are a prerequisite for getting anything done. A smaller-class strategy can be effective on a system-wide scale. Even where smaller classes have not produced the goods, perhaps they could if coupled with the right kind of teacher development and other school-level change.

These are important qualifications to the general point, but the most important distinction to be made is between the desire for smaller classes and the iron fist by which they have been imposed: no class in any school may contain more than a certain fixed maximum number of students.

If we leave to one side for the moment the assumption that in just about every circumstance “the class” will be the best way to combine time, space and effort, we are left with a cascade of unfortunate consequences: if no class can contain more than, say, thirty students, almost every class will have fewer than thirty; the average class size will therefore be well below the maximum, and most classes will have even fewer students than the average; large numbers of teachers will therefore be employed and their salaries and professional standing will therefore remain low; a fair proportion of the money available will therefore go to provision well in excess of the minimum but to no great effect; almost all the available money will be spoken for well in advance of Budget day, not to mention before it arrives at the school; those involved, from top to bottom, will have little or no occasion to look for alternatives, and will therefore stop looking for them; and two fundamentally important ideas will consequently disappear, the idea of opportunity cost (what else could we do with the same money?) and the idea of productivity (what ways of doing educational work are best at turning effort into outcomes?).

If Grattan had done nothing other than question the class-size dogma it would have earned its keep. But its incomplete understanding of the real-world workings of the class-size doctrine means that it has yet to make the most of the powerful concepts of opportunity cost and productivity that underlie its critique. Derived from mainstream economics, those ideas are as constructive as they are corrosive. Their full application would change the established educational order all the way from the daily work of teachers and students to the disposition and policy clout of state and national budgets.

Grattan has been cautious in its exploration of this vast terrain. As already noted, it has not (or not yet, anyway) used work, such as that of Levin and his colleagues, on the cost-effectiveness of different educational methods to question not only class size, but also the class itself, as a taken-for-granted way of combining time, space and effort.

Nor has it worked through the system-level implications of its arguments. In a recent article, for example, Grattan considers how new Gonski money might be spent on training for principals, teacher mentoring, specialist literacy and numeracy teachers and so on, rather than on the failed option of class-size reduction. But is it enough to spend relatively small amounts of new money more productively, leaving the old money to be spent as it always has been? Isn’t there more to be gained by using the promise of new money as a lever to get employers and teacher organisations to move towards agreements about student–teacher or student–staff ratios rather than fixed class-size maxima — to encourage schools to explore possibilities opened up by research of the Levin kind, or to do a mini-Gonski and put more time and effort into the kids who most need it, as increasing numbers of schools are trying to do?

Any thinking in these directions would take Grattan into another minefield, of course, the heavily defended realm of industrial relations. This, too, is an area of toxic debate eschewed by Grattan. But just as there is no real progress to be made on the distracting and destructive debate between the sectors without tackling the sector system and the regulatory regime that underwrites it, nor can we get anywhere on better resource use without entering the world of industrial relations and agreements. This Grattan has yet to do.

GRATTAN’s argument for a different approach to the management of reform is, like its case on class sizes and resource use, inspiriting at the outset but, in the end, a bit of a let-down.

In a controversial report timed to coincide with the release of the Gonski proposals in February last year, Grattan argued that if we want rapid, system-wide improvement then we need to learn how to do it from the best, and the best are in Asia.

In Grattan’s account, reform in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai has a “relentless practical focus on student learning,” and “high-level strategy” is closely tied to what happens every day in the classroom. These systems exemplify “sequencing,” “integration,” “internal coherence,” “reinforcement,” “whole-system implementation,” “continual reallocation of resources,” and, perhaps most daunting of all, plans sustainable over twelve years.

“There is a high degree of coherence in their strategy, over time, across the system,” Grattan quotes a leading OECD expert as saying of the Hong Kong example, “and they implement with a high degree of precision.” And it works. Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, took only five years to climb from seventeenth and fifteenth in OECD assessments of reading to second and fourth. Systems that languished in the middle of the ruck just ten or fifteen years ago are now challenged for top place only by Finland.

This is certainly not the Australian way of doing things. The twin pillars of our postwar reform have been class-size reduction and “innovation,” a permaculture of experimentation at system, school and classroom level, often developed in opposition to the decaying state education departments, and often reflecting anything but a “relentless, practical focus on learning,” much less “internal coherence,” “whole-system implementation” or twelve-year timeframes. To borrow once again a favourite observation of the chairman of Whitlam’s Schools Commission, “we are good at gardening, but hopeless at engineering.” Grattan is saying that we need to get good at engineering, and it is probably right.

Gardening did seem to work for many years. Over the several decades from the 1970s the look and feel of schools improved out of sight, the education of girls was transformed, curriculum and particularly senior-school curriculum improved, and, perhaps most relevantly, at the turn of the century Australia was at or near the top of the OECD’s league tables. But that run has come to an end. Assessments in reading, maths and science show us flatlining at all levels even while most OECD systems are improving. Some of our old problems (educational inequality and poverty particularly) remain more or less as they have long been. Yet costs have just kept on climbing.

The most damning datum on Australia’s postwar approach to school reform is that in real terms we now spend around two-and-a-half times as much on each student each year as was spent in the mid 1960s. Costs keep running well ahead of educational gains, however calculated. It now seems that gardening actually means piling up new tasks, problems and costs on top of old ones. Grattan’s suggestion that we need to switch to engineering could hardly be more apposite.

But how? Grattan concedes that the political and policy structures of East Asia cannot be transplanted to Australian soil, and that nothing can be achieved without “the political will for change.” The national government of the past six years could hardly be accused of lacking political will, but it has not managed to come up with anything as coherent, targeted or sustainable as the reform programs seen in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea. The trouble is that there is more to be engineered in Australia than in East Asia, and less to do it with.

In the Asian systems a rising tide lifts all boats; they have high equality as well as high achievement. Here, some boats rise at the expense of others; we have deepening inequality and segregation, and sagging performance. In the Asian systems resources can be moved around wherever reform requires (up to forty students in a class to free up time for teacher development, for example). That will not be possible in Australia unless and until there is major change in industrial relations and agreements.

These industrial and sectoral realities are too strong for our machinery of change. The problem lies in political structures as well as “political will.” Decisions about schooling are shaped by myriad interest groups, particularly those that defend the sectors and industrial agreements. These groups in their turn act on an adversarial political system focused on very short electoral timeframes. Authority is divided between government, Catholic systemic and independent schools, and is exercised in different ways in each, as well as between state and federal governments. Teacher education is in the hands of universities unresponsive to employers and schools. We simply have nothing like the capacity for steerage exercised by the Asian systems or, it appears, the political capacity to get it.

At this relatively early stage in its life Grattan has tackled only one of these several sources of our relative impotence. In a recent article it suggested a clearer division of labour between the federal government and the states, but said nothing about much more disabling industrial and sectoral dysfunctions or the vulnerability of schooling to short-term political cycles and pressures in every state as well  as at the national level. Perhaps sniffing the political breeze, and daunted by the structural-cum-political problems embedded in each one of many schooling “jurisdictions” as well as the system as a whole, Grattan seems to have retreated from the very idea of big reform.

GRATTAN’s economic perspective is a crucial contribution to thinking about the future of schooling because it reaches so far down into and across the entire edifice and because it has not yet reached the default mindset of academics, policy-makers and administrators. The economic perspective opens up possibilities running all the way from the organisation of the daily work of students and teachers to ways of driving national reform, although as noted earlier Grattan has yet to explore much of this potential.

Economics is not nearly so helpful, however, in understanding the structures and organisations that determine how resources will be used, or the interest-group politics that defend them. It does not do politics, or history. Nor does economics comprehend the actual work of learning and teaching, and for that the institute’s Ben Jensen has turned to mainstream educational research and its currently dominant idea of “effectiveness.”

The strengths of the effectiveness paradigm include its refusal, by focusing sharply on learning (“student performance”), to get lost in a fog of complexities; its clarity about which of many school-level levers of change produce the best results (teaching particularly); and its rejection of the hundred-flowers approach to school development in favour of clear priorities and orderly, cumulative improvement.

Grattan has inherited the great deficiencies of the effectiveness paradigm along with its strengths. Although the prime focus of the effectiveness movement is improved student performance, its belief in the teacher as the instrument of improvement blinds it to the importance of the student labour process and work organisation. As well, the focus on effectiveness comes at the expense of an interest in the costs of various ways of improving effectiveness, which is perhaps why Grattan has so far made only limited use of the concepts of opportunity cost and productivity.

Above all, the effectiveness paradigm’s concern with “what works” is actually a focus on what has worked in the past. The unnoticed assumption is that what has worked will go on working into the indefinite future because schooling will go on looking more or less as it now does. The effectiveness paradigm marches into the future with its eyes fixed firmly on the past, causing Grattan to neglect the already-begun technology-driven revolution in and around schooling.

Also influential in Grattan’s thinking are the perspective Jensen brought back with him from Paris and the imperatives of life in a think tank. The think tank’s need to get runs on the political board may have encouraged Grattan to avoid discussion of hard-to-change structures. The OECD looks at Australia’s performance by comparing it with other countries, but it doesn’t look at the local origins of those differences or at differences within the Australian system. The international view shows how others do things, but not whether the ways of others can be adapted and adopted here. Seeing what Hong Kong does is no substitute for an analysis of specifically Australian problems and possibilities.

There are three morals to the story. First, the effectiveness paradigm needs to be expanded into a cost-effectiveness or productivity paradigm. Second, the teacher quality agenda should be subsumed within a workplace and industrial relations reform agenda. Third, the search for effective (and cost-effective) schools needs to be done within a search for an effective system of schools.

The questions comprising this third task are the toughest going around, and have yet to attract Grattan’s attention. Is there a way out of the sector system? Is it possible to decentralise, to push real control in some areas down to schools or groups of schools, while also recentralising control in other areas? To turn competitiveness to good account by fixing an inadequate and unequal regulatory regime, and/or devising a new mix of carrots and sticks? Is it possible to get employers and teacher organisations to recast agreements in ways that encourage more productive, technology-rich workplaces while still advancing the terms and conditions of teachers’ employment? And, last, can we do more engineering and rely less on gardening? Is it possible in the Westminster system to put long-term, large-scale strategy at arm’s length from interest groups and an adversarial political system?

It seems very unlikely that the next federal government will be interested in questions of this kind. To the contrary, it may well make selective use of Grattan’s arguments on teacher quality and class size (“better teachers not more teachers”), “toxic debates,” and a better federal–state division of labour as cover for maintaining the structural status quo (the sector system particularly), subsidising “choice” rather than trying to level up the playing field, and reining in federal funding and the federal role. The case for hoping that Grattan will go on to tackle the big structural questions is therefore not that Canberra will soon be thirsting for answers, but that one day — perhaps as it becomes clear that we’re not within a bull’s roar of top five by ’25, or of more important goals — it might be. •