DEBATE ABOUT education policy in this federal election hasn't extended far beyond school funding levels.
There's been a lot of discussion about how much money is needed in schools, but very little about how those funds should be administered, teacher standards or student outcomes.
In this video, former ABC journalist and Rudd Government Parliamentary Secretary Maxine McKew talks to education analyst Professor John Hattie about the issues that are missing from current discourse. (Click here to read a transcript of their discussion)
Hi there I’m Maxine McKew and I’m a Research Fellow here at the University of Melbourne at the Graduate School of Education and I’m here with chief researcher John Hattie.
And we thought we might consider education in the context of this federal election. John, interesting that here we are about 10 days out from the election and with a lot of the money on the table for the school improvement plan, neither side has said much about schools.
It does seem to be the missing subject of debate and certainly not around much. There are a lot of claims that each party is doing what the other party is doing which has kind of neutralised it a bit. But it is a pity that that is one of the missing features because there are differences between the two parties.
As I say there’s something like $15b on the table and of course this started with the work that David Gonski did which has now transmogrified into the National School Improvement Plan and certainly on the eve of the election the Coalition pretty much signed up to this. But what do make of this? When you look at where that money is it’s interesting to see that it’s not really until year five, six that the big dollars kick in, isn’t it?
Correct, it’s very small in the early days. I think the first thing is the way in which the federal government is starting to play a massive role in education. We saw this with Whitlam with higher education many many years ago and now there seems to be a new trend of going towards national curricula, national standards, national assessment and the scary part of that is - what if we’re wrong? Under the current system we’ve got seven chances of getting it right. Under the new system the scary part is that we may only have one, we may only have one system and that’s not always a healthy thing.
So you think that what’s being required is too intrusive?
Oh, it could be. I notice, for example, that in the US Obama has decided not to have a national curriculum. He has a common core, where many states have joined, but he’s been quite keen that not every state joins, because his argument is if we do it once and get it wrong we’re in big trouble. That’s my concern with Australia – is that we will have a one size fits all, and it may not be the best size.
It also means that it’s very much harder for the people at the coalface, the teachers and the schools, to have any influence any more, whereas they could have when it was at the State level. I think that’s one of the things about the national plan that should remain a concern.
So assuming that the money will flow, whatever the result after September 7, what is the best use of that money? You constantly talk about the importance of every child getting a year’s learning for a year’s work. How do we ensure that extra money achieves that end?
That is absolutely the right question about emphasising growth, and at least a year’s growth for a year’s input, as opposed to our current debate which is just achievement. Can we get everybody above average (which is not going to happen). And so how do we move to that growth? And I think there are ways we can do that if we start by saying, what is the biggest problem we have in our schools at the moment? And that is the variability among our teachers.
Now, whilst we like to deny that, and you’ve been out in schools and you’ve seen it – and there’s massive variability. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re all good or they’re all bad, but that differential experience is a major problem. If we can attend to that, we can make a huge difference.
My worry is, though, we’re going to spend it on the peripherals of schooling. Like I notice in the current plans, many States have invested heavily in Teacher Aids in schools. Now, throwing more adults is not going to be the answer, when we know from Peter Blatchford’s work that Teacher Aids have a zero to negative impact on the kids. How can we actually take the expertise we have and get all that expertise excellent in our system? If we do that, we can make a dramatic difference.
And how do you answer that question? I mean again applying money to that issue of teacher variability. What are the things that you see where schools are transforming along those lines?
I can see some stunning stuff that’s happening in our schools in Australia, where principals, school leaders and teachers work collectively to understand their impact they’re having on all their students. They share their evidence of that impact, they can test that impact, they’re constantly asking about that, they’re going in and helping each other find ways to improve it, they share their students, they share their understanding of their students. Some stunning examples out there, and that’s what I’d like to see more of.
The problem with that, is it costs money. Because they’re not necessarily in front of the kids all the time. How you can bring more expertise in when teachers have kids in their class they’re struggling with? How can you bring expertise in to help them work with those kids - kids who need second and third chance? We need expertise to deal with that.
Certainly any kid that cannot read or do basic number by about age 8 should have had that treatment before they get into the upper primary school years – it’s almost too late to fix it then. Those things all cost a lot of money.
If we do see a change of Government after September 7, one thing that might be on the drawing board if you like, would be a better spread across the country of independent public schools and I know that you’ve looked at this area. What’s your view on that?
Well, the premise of independent public schools is to try and make schools attractive places for students to come to; for parents to send their children to. To make them competitive with the private schools – otherwise why are they independent schools. And to obviously try and give principals more autonomy to try and increase the quality of teaching and learning.
In the many instances, both in Australia and around the world where these kinds of programs have been put in place, like charter schools, like the independent public schools, they’ve had virtually no impact on any of those criteria. Yes, principals think it’s going better. But in terms of actual evidence of the differences, it’s very tough to see and I think it’s quite frankly again another distraction.
We think if we have these kinds of symbols it’s going to make a difference to what happens in the classrooms. They’re the same teachers as what we had before they became independent public schools. They’re doing the same stuff. That’s not good or bad, and certainly many of the schools that opt-in to those kinds of schemes usually are doing reasonably well to start with. But that’s not the answer for the total system.
Let’s talk about teacher training because that’s another interesting area where various State Governments, particularly New South Wales actually is out in front on this. Where do you think the debate is likely to head over the next couple of years on this issue, in terms of who we train, how we train and for what ends.
I think those will become the big issues but I think that’s where the problem is. Again it’s another distractive debate, talking about who gets into teacher education. How we go about training them. And certainly if you look at the many thousands of teacher training institutions across the Western world, one of the most common elements is they’re all different. There is no such thing as a core.
But everybody passionately believes in those places that they’re doing the right thing. We don’t have hardly any evidence of the impact of teacher education.
Which is remarkable in itself isn’t it?
Dramatic stuff. And in terms of where I’d like to see it go is pressure on the teacher education institutions to demonstrate their impact. We demand that of schools. Why aren’t we demanding it off the teacher education? We want to see the impact their graduates are having on students, two or three years out. We want to see what kind of value is added from as the students come in, to go out.
Let’s not have an over-obsessed conversation about whether the ATARs are right, whether they’re getting in too low or too high – not that those aren’t important. Let’s not talk about whether they’ve got so many minutes doing this or so many minutes doing that or how are they going out in the schools. Let’s get the conversation in terms of what is the impact and what evidence do you have, and let us judge that.
I’m a great fan that we should be training our teachers. I’m not a fan of getting rid of them. But I’m afraid that’s where it’s going if we keep talking about all those peripheral things. Like England, for example, it’s not said to schools – you can train teachers and we’re closing teacher education institutions around England. The way I see the evidence – that’s not better or worse than the current system, but it’s a distraction again.
Now you did talk before John about the variability of teachers in schools and there is this huge variability in terms of who gets into teaching, and that’s in terms of the ATAR scores. So you wouldn’t favour some kind of tightening up in that regard?
Oh, absolutely and I think that the work we’re doing at Melbourne at the moment on TeacherSeelctor where we’re giving students a whole range of assessments – a toolbox of assessments before they come in. And one of things we’re finding – not surprisingly – is that those who are higher on ability are also higher on relationships, better on communications, have better relationships with kids – all the things we want. So if we choose on ATAR or achievement or literacy or numeracy we are going to get kind of the right kids. Now, it would be nice to choose on a battery and not just those ones and hope and I think we should be doing that.
One of the things I certainly note is that if you look at the successful programs in teacher education – those that have evidence they’re having an impact, you have to be pretty bright to be able to do them. You have to be pretty hungry to be able to do them. And one of the things I worry about in teacher education institutes is that those students aren’t hungry to succeed in the classroom. They are once they get out there, but whilst they’re in the college they’re not. And to have that kind of hunger, to have that kind of investment, you need to be pretty bright to do it.
So yes, I do think there is a problem there. But it isn’t the main game. The main game is worrying about the impact of teacher education. And I think there’d be no surprise that those who demand the highest students would be the ones with the most impact. Finland’s shown that, Hong Kong’s shown that. Every other country that’s up there has shown that.
Well John, thank you for that. I’ve learnt a lot more in this discussion that I have from listening to either side politics because, as I say, they’ve been reasonably silent on this issues, certainly in the debating forums. But we’ll see what happens September 7. But I agree with you, I think there’s some very energising activity going on in schools and by committed policy makers and indeed by people in the universities, so good times ahead.
Thank you very much. Thanks John.
With special thanks to Catriona May.