Inside Story

Unproductive schooling, counterproductive reform

Three new Productivity Commission reports highlight big problems in schooling and school reform — and in the commission’s own thinking

Dean Ashenden 19 October 2022 3800 words

Making schools more productive? Everett Collection/Alamy

The Productivity Commission has been taking an interest in schools and school reform. Its annual report this year is supplemented by an interim report on the National School Reform Agreement, the machine designed to lift “school performance,” and a review of the education system’s contribution to productivity. All tell unhappy stories, from which are drawn the wrong morals or no morals at all.

First, how are the schools going? In reading, writing and numeracy, as tested for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, NAPLAN reveals some ups and some downs since 2008, but no significant improvement. In science and maths, tested internationally by PISA and TIMSS, Australia is a bit above the middle of the OECD pack, which doesn’t sound too bad until we learn that this represents one in five fifteen-year-olds failing to reach “proficiency” in science, and one in four in maths.

Overall, a quarter of kids leave school without certification of any kind, and the much-discussed “long tail” of attainment persists. Many students don’t reach the minimum standard, and often fail to do so year after year. Kids who start behind typically get further behind. For Indigenous students it’s worse (although things are at least getting better from a very low base). Other sources of “disadvantage” — “geolocational,” disability, language background, and living in out-of-home care — are also of concern.

If school “performance” is a worry, so too is how students feel at and about school. A 2018 survey found that nearly one in three fifteen-year-old students didn’t feel they belonged at school, and more than one in four reported feeling like an outsider. When data of this kind are fed into a Sense of Belonging Index, Australia scores below the 2018 OECD average, and we’ve been sliding since 2003. On the related issue of wellbeing, the commission reports a 2014 survey (the most recent available) as finding that one in five students between the ages of eleven and seventeen had experienced high levels of psychological distress, and one in seven had had an episode of mental illness during the year. The clear implication is that schools aren’t doing enough to help.

Teachers aren’t happy either. They’re shouldering the load, the commission says, and too much of the load isn’t actual teaching. Teachers considering leaving often cite the workload and/or a wish to achieve “a better work–life balance” as reasons. Also cited: “challenges with student behaviour” (26 per cent) and “not enjoying the work” (21 per cent). A mere 2 per cent thought they weren’t suited to teaching.

The second story concerns the National School Reform Agreement, or NSRA. What even is it, as First Dog might say? It is, the commission says, an agreement by nine governments that the pursuit of a “high-quality and equitable education for all students” can be delivered by “three reform directions” and three target outcomes to be “progressed” through “national and state-specific initiatives,” assessed against “seven performance indicators,” and reported to the community in the interests of “transparency” and “confidence.”

So many moving parts! So many devices! So many players! In case the description alone doesn’t make the point, the commission hammers it home: “policy discussions” convened under the NSRA can be “remote” from “the lived experience of teachers and school leaders” (i.e. it’s a talkfest); some initiatives under the agreement have been delivered but others are “stalled”; two of the three “stalled” initiatives — both focused on tracking student progress and tailoring teaching accordingly — “are already thirteen years in the making”; and most of the delivered initiatives are “enablers” rather than rubber on the road.

All in all, the NSRA’s various initiatives are likely to have had “little impact” on student achievement. The next intergovernmental agreement should “focus on a small number of reforms” (i.e. the “reforms” have been all over the shop); initiatives should be limited to those that might benefit from “coordination” and avoid “a one size fits all” approach (i.e. agreements thus far have hindered more than helped); milestones should be clear (i.e. no one knows where we’re up to); and “thorny issues” will need to be “resolved” (i.e. they’ve been ducked).

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the NSRA has not just failed to work but, for fundamental, structural reasons, can’t work, and never will.

The problem began with the Commonwealth’s move into schooling in the “state aid” election of 1963. It was compounded by Whitlam and his Karmel Report and then by the Rudd and Gillard governments when they dollied up Canberra’s imperialism as a “national approach” complete with a National School Reform Agreement.

For the whole of this sixty-year period, the funding, regulation and governance of the Australian school system has fallen between two stools, neither national nor local. It can’t move forward and turn into a genuinely national system because neither the Constitution nor the states/territories will let it.

The two levels of government, the state/territory and the federal, work less with each other than against each other. The NSRA is really neither national nor an agreement; it is a federal coercion arising from federal dollars. As Julia Gillard made clear in 2008 when she filled out some of the detail of the beefed-up Commonwealth role, “reporting on performance will be a requirement of any new school funding agreement.” What the Productivity Commission sees as failures of program design and simple fecklessness are better understood as artful foot-dragging by press-ganged sailors on a rudderless ship.

If schooling can never move on to become coherently national then where can it go? There is really only one alternative: back to the future. Schooling will have to be returned whence it came, to the states and territories. If some or all of them want to get together for whatever purpose from time to time, then that would be up to them, not to the only Australian government that doesn’t actually run schools.

Is that the commission’s conclusion, that the feds should get out of schooling? Its way of saying the unsayable? Perhaps, but probably not. For one thing, the commission is itself a part of the Canberra machine. For another, its idea of “reform” is indistinguishable from that pursued by the Commonwealth.

The Productivity Commission says it is taking an interest in schools because it wants them to be more productive. They will then help, in turn, to make the economy more productive.

How to do that? Well, the commission is staffed by economists, so their first recourse is to human capital theory. Developed at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s, human capital theory addressed a puzzle: why was the US economy so much more productive than most? The first answer: because its relatively huge education system generated a copious supply of educated labour, otherwise known as “human capital.” How does education do that? What is the missing link? The answer was found in the labour market, where employers pay more for educated labour because it is more productive.

Human capital theory went global in the early 1960s after it was picked up and promulgated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (emphasis added). It arrived in Australia in 1964 via the Martin report on tertiary education — the first few pages of which, by the way, offer a compelling insight into the theory and its impact.

In the almost seventy years since then, human capital theory has been rejected outright by some and revised and refined by many others, none of which seems to have reached the commission. Education, it declares, is the source of no less than a fifth of labour productivity growth in recent years “and will become increasingly important in maintaining future growth.” Moreover, education “benefits both individuals and society” — by boosting earnings, increasing fulfilment, improving health outcomes, reducing crime, and lifting social and economic mobility.

All that talk about “benefits,” as if schooling didn’t do a fair bit of damage to a significant number of kids (and to the social fabric). It’s still correlation assumed to be causation (including the preposterous claim that “one standard deviation increase in the effectiveness of the average teacher would raise average lifetime earnings of the classroom by several hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.”) Education is still a driver of economic growth, not a mere supplier, let alone product. But the main problem is that the theory provides no guidance at all about how education itself can be made more productive, apart from the idea that if education is good then more education is even better. That was plausible in the United States in the 1950s and Australia in the early 1960s, but now?

That leaves the commission looking for help in working out what to say about more productive schools. Unsurprisingly, it turns to “effectiveness” theory, currently the orthodoxy in Australian schooling and, despite its origins in the discipline of psychology, very like economics in its assumptions and methods.

The core finding of the “effectiveness” approach is that there are big differences in the effectiveness of individual teachers and teaching strategies. It follows that the way to boost schooling’s productivity (or “performance”) is to boost the “quality” of teaching by getting “better quality” recruits into the profession, disseminating “best practice,” and driving schools to drive teachers to “perform” via standardised tests and published results.

The commission takes to this idea like a duck to water. Suddenly finding itself with the key to schooling productivity, it comes up with lots of bright ideas — twenty-seven of them by my count.

Consolidated, the list looks like this: schools should identify students who are falling behind and respond with “targeted interventions”; learning for all students should be “personalised” via “untimed syllabuses”; equity groups need an “inclusive” approach; student wellbeing must be brought into focus; “systematic” mechanisms must be used to diffuse “evidence-based practices”; Master Teachers are needed, which means boosting the HALT (Highly Accomplished or Lead Teacher) program; on-the-job-learning through “professional development” is a priority; best practice must become common practice; ongoing professional feedback needs to be systematised, perhaps via Quality Teaching Rounds, as used in Singapore and elsewhere; digital technologies can support teachers, reduce teacher admin loads and enhance learning; support staff should be better deployed; schools should focus on “innovation” and “development”; different “models” of schooling should be trialled and evaluated; we should perhaps follow the examples of the US charter schools and England’s academies (which have “transformed” that country’s school system); school hours might be more flexible and extended.

Just how this miscellany squares with the commission’s insistence on focus and parsimony in the NSRA is not explained. More, as anyone who has been around schooling for a while will attest, the commission’s list is reminiscent of countless whiteboards from conferences, workshops, professional development days and the like. Most items arise from a particular cast of mind but otherwise lack any sense of priority or sequence. Those who run schools and systems would be entitled to be offended by this offer to teach them to suck eggs, and by the simple ignorance of those who would teach them.

For example, “innovation” has been a mantra since the 1960s and official since the Karmel Report and its Innovations Program. So also for “inclusive” approaches to “equity groups” and another Karmel initiative, the Disadvantaged Schools Program and its many derivatives and like programs. Master Teachers perhaps? The commission appears unaware of the Advanced Skills Teacher initiative of the early 1990s and its ignominious end as just another salary increment. As for charter schools and academies, words fail. The commission seems unaware of Western Australia’s independent public schools program or of a national de facto charter school system, the heavily subsidised, fast-growing independent schools.

If we really did contemplate ramping this up somehow, the American charters and the British academies would serve as warnings. Both programs have been surrounded by controversy and conflict since their introduction in the 1990s and the early 2000s respectively. Evidence on the “performance” of the charters and academies is fiercely contested. But the real issue is to do with their impact on school systems and their performance. Far from “transforming” England’s schooling, the academies are better seen as the most recent episode in a long and often bitter class-based struggle between the “comprehensives” and the grammar schools, while in the United States the charter schools and their bête noire, the public systems, are sites of cultural warfare backed by the two main political parties.

How about the commission’s idea of trialling different “models” of schooling? Is it aware of (for example) the Big Picture schools (which really are transformative)? Or Victoria’s publicly funded “community schools”? Or the chequered histories of Preshil (Victoria), Marbury (South Australia), the School Without Walls (ACT), the Nimbin Community School (New South Wales), the Bowden Brompton Community School (South Australia), among many others? The difficulty isn’t in cooking up “alternative models” or even in getting an alternative model off the ground. The problem is in getting the elephant to learn from the ant. Changing heavily defended structures is a very different thing from finding interstices between them.

Beneath the commission’s simple ignorance is incomprehension. Consider the injunction that best-practice teaching should be common practice. There is, of course, plenty of scope for improvement in how teachers do their work. More than three-quarters of classroom talk is typically teacher talk, and when the teacher does ask questions almost all the answers require only “surface” learning (recall of facts and the like). About half the typical class will already know about half the content of the typical lesson. Students spend most of their time listening, or pretending to. They get little feedback on how they are going; most of what they do get comes from other students, and most of that is wrong. Teachers routinely mistake busyness for engagement, activity for learning. Students — the experts on the quality of teaching — mostly report having had only a handful of teachers who made a lasting and positive impact.

Some teachers do manage consistently to transform the recalcitrant class into a harmonious choir, and many don’t, or do so only sometimes, and the extent to which teachers do or don’t does indeed make a big difference to the quality and pace of students’ learning. But “highly effective” teachers are, almost by definition, the exception. How to get, let’s say, 200,000 of those who don’t teach consistently at that level to catch up with the 100,000 who do? And why, after decades of effort in teacher training, in-service education, thousands of studies and years of hot gospelling about “teacher quality,” is it still not happening?

Is the problem in the teacher and the teaching? Or is it in the organisational form, in the inherently low-productivity set-up of class, classroom, timetable, subject, lesson, test, success, failure? Apart from passing references to “experimenting” with different “forms” and to “untimed syllabus,” the commission neither asks nor canvasses this question. Nor does the commission wonder in which schools those 100,000 (or whatever) very effective teachers, and the 200,000 others, might be concentrated. Any teacher knows the answer to that question; many vote with their feet.

The Productivity Commission is of course correct in another of its suggestions, that “equity groups” would benefit from a more “inclusive” approach. But is it aware that Australian schools now have the highest concentrations of “disadvantaged” (and “advantaged”) students of any comparable OECD country? Plus high levels of segregation by religion and ethnicity? That has to do with the housing market, of course, but it also has to do with something the commission ignores: the organisation of schooling at the macro level rather than its conduct at the micro, and in particular its division into sectors, one government, two non-government, one secular, two “faith-based,” all three funded, governed and regulated in their own way, the game as a whole set up in a way that encourages two sectors to suck the most sought-after families (and teachers) out of some schools and into others. Has the commission read the Gonski report, and the excellent analysis that informed it? Is it aware of the dynamics of the sector system and the growth of “diversity” between schools rather than within each, and that this is what presents schools, from top to bottom, with the “inclusiveness” challenge?

Human capital theory in its unreconstructed form owes its longevity more to the enthusiastic support it attracts from a very large and influential education industry (no less than four of the sources on human capital thinking are education lobby groups) than to its explanatory power or usefulness in guiding reform. We can make much more sense of schooling if we see it as a product as well as (or more than) a supplier/driver of prosperity by providing the educational credentials that fuel the ever-increasing competition between individuals and occupational groups for “positional goods.”

That certainly explains a lot more about schooling than does human capital theory, including the explosive growth in education numbers, often far outstripping economic growth; the displacement of much learning and “skill development” from workplaces to front-end, credential-yielding formal education; the increasing organisation of schooling to generate a giant ranking of students, made explicit in Australia by the ATAR; and the secular demographic shift in the school system noted a moment ago. That in turn goes a long way towards explaining why schools and school systems have struggled with so little success to reduce inequality and the “long tail” of attainment, or to help kids who start behind to catch up.

The commission first collapses this heresy into the confines of economics in the form of “signalling theory” (“does a qualification make you smarter or just signal that you are smarter?”) and then briskly dismisses it as not standing up to empirical scrutiny. That understanding “credentialism” might require some sociology, history and political science as well as economics seems not to have occurred.

The commission is on a similarly sticky wicket when it turns to the effectiveness approach to explain schooling. Developed mainly in the United States in the 1970s as a response to the radical and disruptive ideas about schooling widespread in the previous decade, it is deeply conservative in adhering to the received “grammar” of schooling: the class, classroom, timetable, subject, lesson, test, success, failure. Like human capital theory, the effectiveness idea was quickly adopted by the OECD and disseminated around the world by its program of standardised testing. Like economics, it ends up thinking that change is something achieved by technical management, and that is perhaps what appealed to the Rudd and Gillard governments and their goal of “Top Five [in OECD league tables] by ’25.”

Substantial and consequential differences in the “effectiveness” of teachers and teaching strategies undoubtedly exist. Nor can it be doubted that the effectiveness movement has brought some empirical discipline to the waffle endemic in and about schooling. The account of the realities of the classroom given above, for example, is gleaned from a guide to “effectiveness,” the International Guide to Student Achievement. Effectiveness thinking and evidence has been helpful to teachers and schools in providing answers to the crucial question: what works? That question was indeed the title of a foundational text.

Things begin to go wrong when general findings and guidance are turned into the very precise “effect sizes” popularised by John Hattie. Holding students back? –0.32. Diversity courses: +0.09. Mainstreaming/inclusion? +0.27. Reading Recovery: +0.53. And top of all pops, “conceptual change programs”: +0.99. To speak so clearly and confidently in answering the “what works” question, to do all those intricate calculations of “effect,” the effectiveness approach needs to see schools as the box between “inputs” and “outputs” and then take a drastically simplified view of both.

On the “inputs” side it considers only the most proximate causes of differences: teachers and teaching strategies and “interventions.” That screens out all the things that shape and organise the daily work and workplaces of teachers and students, and the working careers of the latter — the organisation of Australian schools into sectors; the big structures of funding, regulation and governance; and the heavily entrenched “grammar” of schooling.

It is equally reductionist on the “outputs” side. Its fundamental, and sometimes exclusive concern is with “outcomes,” and particularly “outcomes” in science, numeracy and literacy, as revealed by standardised testing. The problem is that that is very much narrower than the span of schooling itself — just a fraction of the cognitive fraction of the formal curriculum, which in turn is the source of only one part of “what is learned in school.”

Schooling, moreover, is not only an individual business, and it isn’t just about outcomes. As can be seen in the social, religious and ethnic segregation noted above, schooling shapes the social order. And its twelve years represent something like a fifth of most working lives. So blinkered in this is the Productivity Commission that when it inspects the indicators used by the NSRA it dwells on their technical quality and says nothing about their scope. What schooling needs is not more highly polished indicators but indicators that represent what it is that schools actually do, and should do.

The effectiveness approach has another thing in common with economics: it is so dominant in its field that it has become a true believer in its own “science.” It regards that “science” as the only source of real “evidence” about schooling, and has even achieved a new national institution, the Australian Education Research Organisation, dedicated to that proposition. It cannot see itself any more than it can see much about schools and schooling because it has no philosophy or history and very little of the social sciences and their many derivatives to see with.

In thinking that schooling is all about teaching, effectiveness research sees students as consumers, and then wonders why so many of them become “disengaged” and why “student agency” is so difficult to provide. In its origins and its contemporary functioning the effectiveness movement is not reformist or even conservative. It is reactionary, shoring up a low-productivity and obsolete mode of schooling, and drawing attention away from the big structures that hold it in place. Often singing the praises of teachers and schools, it is in effect if not intention engaged in a form of victim blaming.

It does all this by starting from the wrong point altogether. Schools are less sites of the delivery of the service of teaching than sites of production where the core workforce, those it calls “students,” labour away as best they can within the frame given by history to produce not just learning but themselves and each other. If the Productivity Commission really wants to make schools more productive, then that is where it should start.