Wednesday, February 29, 2012
They've done it by focusing not on how the lolly is divided between the rival systems but on the needs of students, with greater funding to be shifted over time to those suffering disadvantage.
Their report has been warmly welcomed by most groups, though not so their request for governments to spend an extra $5 billion a year. And just how willing the states will be to rejig their spending according to the committee's recommendations remains to be seen.
Some have suggested the report, worthy though it is, will be quietly pigeonholed, but I'm not so pessimistic. Just as Ken Henry produced his report on tax reform not for immediate implementation but to provide a road map for change over the coming decades, so the Gonski report will provide a guide to policy-makers on the right - and wrong - direction in which to head.
And now we have that guide to how the funds should be directed, perhaps we can move on to the question of what we most need to do to improve the performance of our schools.
Have you noticed how often our furious debates about education and health are debates about how they should be funded rather than what we should be doing with the money? We seem to be extraordinarily preoccupied with who gets what rather than what they do with it.
Why this obsession with money? Partly because allocating funds is the main thing the federal government does. While the states run the schools and the hospitals, it's the feds who raise most of the tax revenue and decide how it's divided.
But also because all the interest groups involved - the doctors, teachers, health funds and private schools, not to mention the premiers - have an obvious motive to push for a bigger slice. These contesting groups use the media to enlist the support of the electorate, and you and I end up arguing endlessly about funding rather than the substance of education and health.
One attraction of the study that Dr Ben Jensen has been doing on education for the Grattan Institute is its focus on what we could be doing better.
As measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's regular testing of the performance of 15-year-olds at reading, maths and science under its program for international student assessment (PISA), Australia is doing well. We don't do as well as Finland and Japan, but we're consistently better than the Americans, British, Germans and French and about the same as the Canadians.
As more Asian countries are added to the comparisons, however, we're slipping down the rankings. We also have a worryingly wide gap between the performance of our best and poorest students.
So we shouldn't be resting on our laurels. What can we do to improve our schools' performance? Well, it's not simply a matter of spending more money.
Jensen says most studies show more effective teachers are the key to producing higher performing students. "Conservative estimates suggest that students with a highly effective teacher learn twice as much as students with a less effective teacher," he says.
"Teachers are the most important resource in Australian schools. Differences in teacher effectiveness account for a large proportion of differences in student outcomes - far larger than differences between schools. In fact, outside of family background, teacher effectiveness is the largest factor influencing student outcomes."
Jensen says there are five main mechanisms to improve teacher effectiveness: improving the quality of applicants to the teaching profession; improving the quality of teachers' initial education and training; appraising and providing feedback to improve teachers once they're working in the profession; recognising and rewarding effective teachers; and moving on ineffective teachers who've been unable to increase their effectiveness through improvement programs.
His greatest interest is in appraisal and feedback. "Systems of teacher appraisal and feedback that are directly linked to improved student performance can increase teacher effectiveness by as much as 20 to 30 per cent," he says. Such an improvement would lift the performance of Australia's students to the best in the world.
Jensen says our present systems of teacher appraisal and feedback are broken. This is not to attack teachers, which would be both unfair and counterproductive. On the contrary, it acknowledges the central importance of the work of individual teachers and argues we should be investing in their greater effectiveness.
Indeed, no one understands the inadequacy of the present arrangements better than teachers themselves. A survey finds 63 per cent of them say appraisals of their work are done purely to meet administrative requirements. More than 90 per cent say the best teachers don't receive the most recognition and reward, and 71 per cent say poor-performing teachers in their school won't be dismissed.
"Instead, assessment and feedback are largely tick-a-box exercises not linked to better classroom teaching, teacher development or improved student results," Jensen says.
He proposes a new system of teacher appraisal and feedback that avoids a centralised approach. "Instead, schools should have the responsibility and autonomy to appraise and provide feedback to their own teachers."
Appraisal should be based on a "balanced scorecard" that recognises all aspects of a teacher's role. It thus shouldn't rely solely on students' performance in national competency tests but should include such things as teachers observing and learning from other teachers, direct observation in the classroom by more experienced teachers, and surveys of students and parents.
Such an approach would require a culture change in many schools, but it offers huge benefits for relatively little cost.