Inside Story

The revolution that became a crusade

The government has at last come up with the outline of a strategy for reforming schools, writes Dean Ashenden. The worry is in what the prime minister didn’t say

Dean Ashenden 5 September 2012 2515 words

Strengths obscured: Julia Gillard releasing the government’s response to the Gonski report at the National Press Club on 3 September.
Alan Porritt/AAP Image

THE Gonski proposals were greeted earlier this year with approval, even acclaim. Reaction to the prime minister’s acceptance of Gonski, by contrast, has ranged from scepticism through cynicism to outright anger and hostility, from the left as well as the right.

Both reactions are skewed. The considerable promise and sheer decency of Gonski’s proposals blinded many to their limitations and deformities, most stemming from government-dictated terms of reference. These deficiencies have been canvassed previously in these pages. In a similar if inverted way, the obvious weaknesses of the plan announced by Julia Gillard earlier in the week have obscured its strengths.

The greatest of these is that the government has at last come up with the bones of a strategy for school reform. It has been the most activist pro-schooling federal government since Whitlam, and the prime minister routinely reels off an impressive tick-list: the My School website and its unprecedented exposure of information about what every school does with its money; billions for disadvantaged schools, literacy and numeracy programs, teacher quality, and computers in schools; the national curriculum; and yet more billions on the recession-resisting BER (Building the Education Revolution) program.

But this is all tactic and no strategy, a fact inadvertently thrown into high relief by the genuinely strategic character of the National Press Club speech. All the headings are there: money, scope, timelines, method, monitoring, and inspiriting rhetoric. But why now, five years after coming into office?

Confronted by the question the prime minister claimed that it’s only now that we’re ready for a full-on strategic assault. “We laid this out piece by piece deliberately,” she said. “I’ve timed the work of David Gonski and his panel deliberately.”

Scepticism at an obvious retrofit is fanned into cynicism by the vagueness of the government’s commitments and its conveniently extended timeframes – two years before any money would flow, eight years before it would be in full flood, thirteen years before it is ready to be judged against its announced goal, the coveted OECD top five.

That vagueness and that timeframe encourage the view that what Gillard is really on about here is electioneering, happy to face the music in the unlikely event of a win in 2013, consoled by the thought that she has forced the opposition into policy commitments that it probably can’t afford either, and cheered by the prospect of hammering an Abbott government for repealing Gonski legislation, as it has promised to do.

Gillard has almost certainly done those calculations, but there is reason to believe that the passion displayed in her National Press Club speech is not confected, and to accept that she really does want to drive big reform and really does believe that she can. Unfortunately, she probably can’t.

THE difficulties lie mainly in what the PM did not say. But first, something that was declared, a modest but potentially consequential shift in orientation and rationale. Gonski’s primary focus was on reducing the gap between the best- and worst-educated Australian students, to be justified by its social benefits. The prime minister, by contrast, focused on closing the gap between our own school system and others, on economic grounds, a win for the Grattan Institute’s Learning from the Best report over Gonski’s priorities.

That might not matter if it weren’t set in numbers, but it is. Indeed the one and only target for the entire effort is to get into the OECD’s top five, as measured by PISA tests of reading, maths and science, by 2025. Given that the job is not just to stop going backwards but to accelerate faster than other systems, the target is probably unattainable, but the point here is that it is also inadequate.

The government should do two things. It should add a second target for numbers and proportion of students in the lowest performance band, estimated by Gonski at half a million current students destined to leave school unable to read and write well enough to negotiate daily life or to get and hold a job. And it should expand both targets to reflect a broader slice of what schools do by deploying as soon as possible tests and assessment procedures now in development.

But the big problems are found not in what has been said or grasped but in what hasn’t. The greatest of these is that by almost any measure productivity in schooling is in freefall. Focused on getting value for additional money, the government seems to have missed the much broader and deeper issue.

The best available calculation is by ANU economists Andrew Leigh (now a Labor federal member) and Chris Ryan. They found that between 1964 and 2003 spending on schooling increased by 258 per cent in real terms, while outcomes, as indicated by available evidence about literacy and numeracy, failed to increase at all, resulting in a productivity decline of 73 per cent. The measures are narrow and inexact, and the air of precision misleading, but the general conclusion is irresistible.

There would be perfectly good reason for working at the problem even if money wasn’t so tight, but in any foreseeable future doing better with whatever is available becomes mandatory. That will include ditching the longstanding strategy of endless reductions in class sizes.

Over the period examined by Leigh and Ryan average class sizes very nearly halved. There is now overwhelming evidence to show that past a certain point, long since reached in Australia, class size reductions are in most circumstances both ineffective and very expensive. The fact now to be faced is that the class-size strategy is exhausted. Costs have been out of all proportion to educational ground gained, and there are other and better ways of using resources.

One such option has been suggested by the Grattan Institute: fewer and larger classes to free up time for teachers to meet, plan, analyse and review, and time for the only kind of teacher development that actually works, rigorous, workplace-based appraisal and collaborative feedback and mentoring.

Another indication of the potential of resource-switching is found in a recent US calculation that an increase in average class sizes by five students would fund across-the-board increases in teacher salaries in excess of 30 per cent. That startling figure can be taken together with another Leigh and Ryan study, which found that higher teacher salaries are strongly linked to higher academic standards of entrants to the profession, and this in turn is associated with greater effectiveness in the classroom.

This is not to argue that either Grattan’s suggestion or the strategy implied by the US calculation is the best way to go. It is to suggest that any candidate for spending on and in schools needs to state its case in terms of both costs and effectiveness, and to show how these compare with alternative strategies and tactics.

A SECOND route to the same objective, more fundamental and generative, but also more difficult, is to rethink the core unit of educational production, the classroom.

We are on the cusp of a revolution in the way the daily work of schooling is done, or could be done anyway, driven by combining outcomes- or standards-based curriculum with low-cost, mobile, powerful and ubiquitous information and communications technologies.

Schools have been fiddling with computers for decades in much the same way that the government has been fiddling with talk about computers. But computers have thus far gone the way of numberless other innovations, absorbed by and pushed to the margins of the dominant order. In other words, they haven’t delivered. But they will, or they will be able to anyway.

There already exists a good deal of software that helps students learn at their own pace in a thoroughly engaging and productive way. But the big gains will come from the management of learning rather than, or as well as, its conduct. “Expert systems” combined with the “soft” curriculum technologies will be able to assess or record assessments of where each student is up to in each area of learning, help figure out the best next step, summon up ways and means of taking it, and monitor progress toward a clearly defined and amply illustrated objective.

Expert systems will open up the private world of the classroom and make possible a different allocation of the labour of learning. Students, both individually and in varying combinations, will be able to take over from teachers some management of the teaching and learning process, as will other adults including parents, support staff, and trainee and intern teachers. Teachers will be able to spend more of their time in expert diagnosis, prescription, planning and supervision. Different staffing structures and career paths would follow.

These emerging possibilities found no place in the prime minister’s account of her revolution-turned-crusade, perhaps because she and her advisers rely so heavily on the so-called “effective schools” research. The effective schools paradigm has done a valuable service in sifting through countless innovations in schooling around the OECD world in recent decades in a successful search for “what works.” But “what works” is actually “what has worked,” in the past. The assumption is that the future of schooling will be continuous with its past.

Moreover, the focus is on what schools and teachers do, which betrays an assumption that what students do is an extension and consequence of the work of the organisation and its staff. Student learning is unconsciously seen much in the way of a patient’s recovery after a stay in hospital, an outcome of the labour of doctors and nurses.

But that is not what happens in schooling at all. Students are workers and producers, indeed the only workers in schools who can produce learning, or decline to. The kinds and amounts of learning they produce are shaped by the quality of supervision, of course, but also by the way their daily work is organised, sequenced, evaluated and rewarded, as for any other group of workers. Improved productivity will be found in attending to all these variables, not just the quality of supervision (as implied by the “teacher quality” agenda), or the character of its context.

Intriguingly, poignantly even, Julie Gillard’s instincts are leading her in exactly this direction even while her announced policies point elsewhere. The very last question from the National Press Club audience went to issues of expenditure, including capital expenditure. The prime minister gave a very long answer, and it took her a long and interesting way from her starting point. She eventually arrived at the following passage.

“[I]f I had a great deal of time,” she told the questioner, “I could ensure that apart from weekends you did not go home between now and Christmas as you went around the country, school after school after school, where you could see how that capital is making a difference to the way they teach kids. Multi-purpose areas, teachers don’t want to teach anymore in 1950s-style classrooms – door closed, kids in rows, one teacher. The capital forces a lot of that teaching style, where what people want now is flexible spaces, get kids over here doing the work that matters for their personalised learning, team teach – have a coach over there sitting with the young boy who’s falling behind, running his fingers over the words, spelling out the letters… Kids don’t want to sit there with a coloured book which has got a photo of someone else doing the experiment. They want to be hands-on in a modern lab doing the experiment themselves, learning from doing it, doing all the little things we want scientists to do. Generate the hypothesis, test the hypothesis…”

The prime minister is quite right to say that different and better ways to go about teaching and learning wait on changes in capital spending and the built environment of schools, but that’s not the half of it. The big barriers to the kind of learning she is groping for lie in the regulation of every aspect of the daily work of students and staff, enshrined in industrial agreements, enforced by vigilant union patrols. The spending strategy of the last fifty years has entrenched the dominance of a single unit of production: one class of a fixed maximum size, one rectangular classroom, one bite-sized forty-minute burst of production after another, one fairly standard-issue adult doing her or his best to make it all function.

These realities have gone entirely unnoticed, so far as I am aware, in any of the government’s policies and programs up to and including the proposal to spend another $6.5 billion on top of the $40 billion-plus already spent each year on schools.

To put the point more bluntly: the Australian Education Union has secured a bonanza, or the prospect of one, in exchange for not a single concession. Unaddressed, this will lead not to the kind of labour process for students so attractive to the prime minister, or to the kinds of top-gun teachers she wants, or to the kinds of rewards unions want, but to yet more teachers on all-too-familiar terms and conditions in front of yet-smaller and unproductive classes.

ONE last absence from the prime minister’s strategy: the machinery of reform. Julia Gillard is perfectly correct to say as she did on Monday that investment in education has to be a patient investment, and to add – as she did in a subsequent address to a conference of mining executives – that school reform demands the kind of lead times with which miners are familiar.

The trouble is that there is no room for patience in the machinery of governance. Many commentators have pointed out that 2025 is four elections away. In fact it’s much worse that that. There will be more than thirty elections between now and then because all nine Australian governments have a finger in the pie. There are, moreover, three sectors and their lobby groups, no love lost, and no less than twenty-three separate schooling jurisdictions.

The chances of an appropriately broad and extended strategy of the kind sketched by the prime minister surviving that ant’s nest are zero. Some readers will recall the even grander Karmel/Whitlam plans, announced and under way in 1973, scaled back in the astringent Hayden budget of 1975, scaled back again by the incoming Coalition government, and finally put out of their misery in the mid 1980s by the first Labor government to follow Whitlam.

One of the larger gaps in the prime minister’s strategy of reform is reform of the machinery of reform itself. Gonski proposed a significant step in the right direction, his “national school resourcing body.” It wasn’t even mentioned in the prime minister’s response. •