The current political wisdom in education — or at least, the ‘wisdom’ of the Left — seems to be that you can’t improve school results without spending more money. A lot more money, in fact. At the very least, the $23.5 billion of taxpayer money under Gonski 2.0, and there are bound to be demands for even more when that’s evaporated.
But they are overlooking strategies schools could make to improve student outcomes significantly, with minimal — if any — extra cost to the taxpayer.
Before anybody tosses up the old saw that ‘you get what you pay for’ it would be useful to understand that in many aspects of Australian school education, we are paying a lot and getting… well, not much at all. This is largely because the law of economics known as the ‘low-hanging fruit principle’ is being ignored in education. The principle holds that earlier periods of fruit-picking are most productive because pickers can get fruit from the tree’s lowest branches, but later productivity shrinks because they need to climb higher in order to get the remaining fruit.
When it comes to recent school spending, Australia has been simultaneously employing more fruit-pickers, getting them to start by picking the highest-hanging fruit — and subsequently discovering it’s either unripe or rotten — while ignoring the ripe choices on the lowest branches.
If we actually look at the evidence for what works and what doesn’t (trigger warning for post-modernists: some school investments get objectively better results than others), there are several cost-effective strategies that would have a considerable impact on Australia’s school results.
For example, teachers should be given fewer classes and more time outside the classroom, and their professional development training should have a greater focus on controlling classroom behaviour rather than ‘understanding the impact of neo-liberalism on education’.
Recently released OECD data reveals Australian teachers on average teach for an hour more per day than those in the high-achieving countries. If given fewer classes and more time outside the classroom, teachers can prepare and review lessons better, collaborate more with colleagues, and improve their teaching. This strategy need not be expensive, as the resultant need for more teachers could be largely offset by increasing class sizes (anathema to some teacher unions).
Evidence shows that smaller classes don’t necessarily lead to better results. Some countries — such as Japan and Singapore — get much better school results than Australia but also have much larger average class sizes.
There is a considerable body of research on class sizes, and it overwhelmingly indicates class size reduction has only minimal — and inconsistent — effects on student achievement.
Ultimately, high-quality teaching is far more important than the number of students in a class. This isn’t surprising: didn’t we all learn more at school from those larger classes with great teachers rather than those smaller classes with mediocre — or even inept — teachers?
The latest international data also indicates Australian classroom misbehaviour is relatively high compared to the top-performing countries, which is concerning because students misbehaving in class have significant negative effects on achievement — both their own and fellow students’.
The poor classroom control is partly caused by Australian teacher education degrees not consistently providing the skills needed in classroom management.
Instead, when I did my teaching degree a few years ago, budding teachers learnt all about ‘21st century learning’, ‘Safe Schools’, ‘Aboriginal awareness’, and the ‘social and political contexts of education’ — mostly just code for Abbott-bashing. While this might be very interesting (or dead boring if you’re not a neo-Trotskyist), alas it isn’t the epitome of useful training when you’re faced with a classroom full of Year 8 students erupting in a sugar-fuelled frenzy.
Schools can make up for this crucial skills gap in teacher education by focusing on training teachers in effective classroom management. This wouldn’t need to cost any more, as teachers already frequently undertake professional training, and the vital evidence-based classroom management techniques could be prioritised over the less important training cited above.
In fact, evidence is scarce across a wide range of current teacher training. Australia’s education professional development providers are not actually obliged to ensure the content they deliver is evidence-based, except in NSW and the ACT. This results in the utterly illogical situation where teachers must periodically attend professional learning as part of the national teaching standards, but there are no requirements that what they learn be actually based on evidence. It’s the equivalent of giving Junior his pocket money without caring if he simply feeds the notes and coins to the family pet.
States and territories should have more consistent and transparent standards for teacher professional learning providers, so the high cost of ongoing teacher development generates a greater return.
Another area where teaching degrees are letting down new teachers is in the area of early reading instruction. Phonics — teaching students how to read by linking sounds to letters, so they can sound out written words — is a necessary part of effective reading instruction, but is not practised consistently in Australian schools. New teaching graduates are often unprepared to teach phonics. Essentially, they are not equipped to teach young children to read properly.
Primary schools should invest in reading instruction training to fill the knowledge gap from teaching degrees. Again, this would not necessarily cost more money if it was done instead of other professional learning for which there is no evidence of benefit — to either teachers or students.
The temptation with the extra $23.5 billion in Gonski 2.0 funding over the next 10 years for schools is that they will look for expensive and ineffective strategies, but the money already in the system could clearly be better spent.
In education, as in other areas, we must overcome the modus operandi of government, which Sir Humphrey Appleby accurately described as ‘pitch for as much as you think you can get away with and then decide what to spend it on.’
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