Wednesday, March 1, 2017
The sad truth is they much prefer scoring cheap political points and blame-shifting to getting on with developing policies to deal with the various problems the nation faces.
Coming up is policy on schools. We'll be hearing a lot on federal funding of schools in a few weeks when Education Minister Simon Birmingham debates the matter at a meeting with his state counterparts.
I've been boning up on schools in preparation for delivering the Australian College of Educators' Jean Blackburn Oration in Melbourne last week. Here's a taste.
The government keeps telling us the problem with schooling is that, for so many years, we spent more and more on school education and the results did not improve. In fact, they got worse.
Well, the last bit's certainly right.
As summarised by Trevor Cobbold, of Save Our Schools, a public schools lobby group, our results on the OECD's program for international student assessment, PISA, have fallen significantly over the past 15 years. We remain one of the high-performing countries in reading and science, but our maths results have slipped to about average.
The results show continuing declines in the proportion of students at the most advanced levels and also significant increases in the proportion of students below the international standard. This includes high proportions of low socio-economic status, Indigenous, provincial and remote-area students.
We get an even more worrying picture from the results of the national assessment program – literacy and numeracy, NAPLAN.
Peter Goss and colleagues, of the Grattan Institute, have pioneered the technique of converting NAPLAN results into "years of progress", using the results of Victorian students.
They note first that the NAPLAN “national minimum standards” are set very low. A year 9 student can meet this standard even if they are performing below the typical year 5 student – that is, four years behind their peers.
They find that the spread of student achievement from highest to lowest more than doubles as students move through school. Low achieving students fall ever further back. They are two years and eight months behind in year 3, but three years and eight months behind by year 9.
Students in disadvantaged schools make about two years less progress between year 3 and year 9 than similarly capable students in high-advantaged schools.
And get this: bright students in disadvantaged schools show the biggest learning gap. High achievers in year 3 make about 2½ years less progress by year 9 than if they had attended a high-advantage school.
Great. But what about the government's claim to have been spending more and more on schools? Birmingham keeps saying that federal funding has increased by 50 per cent since 2003.
This is highly misleading, particularly since what matters is total school funding, coming from both federal and state governments.
According to Cobbold's fact checking, the real increase in total government spending per student over the nine years to 2013-14 was just 4.5 per cent.
There's more. Although the non-government sector enrols less than 20 per cent of all disadvantaged students, the nine-year increase for non-government schools was 9.8 per cent, whereas the increase for government schools was only 3.3 per cent.
So, does spending more money buy better school performance? Not if you spend it on more of the wrong things.
The truth is that we haven't been spending a lot more in recent times but, in any case, much of what we have been spending hasn't been spent effectively.
Between the federal and state governments, we've given more to advantaged schools than don't need it, at the expense of disadvantaged schools that do need it.
When you study the standardised test results, the answer to how the money could be spent more effectively – that is, in a way that increases the probability it will produce better school performance – leaps out at you: we need to spend more per student on disadvantaged schools and less per student on advantaged schools, where parents have demonstrated their willingness to supplement the school's finances by paying fees.
In other words, the obvious way to make government spending on schools more cost-effective is to put it on a needs basis.
We'll know soon enough whether Birmingham has made any progress on that, or has succumbed to pressure from non-government schools following that less-than Christ-like motto: "For unto every one that hath shall be given".
But though it would help to direct more of the funding to schools with more of the disadvantaged students, we need to ensure schools spend whatever they get as effectively as possible.
One new technique that research says would improve outcomes is "targeted teaching".
One of its advocates, Goss of the Grattan Institute, says teachers should be provided with the time, tools and training they need to collect robust evidence of student learning, discuss it with other teachers, and use it to target their teaching to the wide range of student learning needs in their classroom.
Higher achieving students should be stretched, lower achieving students should be supported to catch up, and no student who stalls should go unnoticed, he says.
The school fosters a culture of progress, in which teachers, students and parents see learning success as being about effort and improvement, not ability and attainment. And see assessment as a way to improve, not to expose student failures.
The best schools in Australia are not necessarily those with the best ATAR or NAPLAN scores, but those that enable their students to make the greatest progress in learning. The goal is for each student to have made at least a year's worth of progress every year, Goss concludes.