Monday, May 17, 2010

Australia’s Education Revolution

Kevin Donnelly’s Australia’s Education Revolution is a collection of previously published newspaper articles loosely organised around the theme of the approach of the Rudd Opposition, and subsequent Rudd Government, to education (mostly schooling) matters.

The Australian Constitution gives no legislative power to the Commonwealth government over education. The Commonwealth role in education outside the Territories is entirely a result of the power of the purse. But since State and Territory governments (not to mention various educational institutions from universities on down) have long since decided that they prefer to spend money they do not suffer the burden of having raised, that is a very considerable power indeed.

There is an advantage in the Commonwealth having no constitutional responsibility: it does not run educational institutions directly, so does suffer the egregious conflict of interest that afflicts State and Territory governments of regulating schools most of which they run themselves.

Funding yes: provision, not so much
The case for government funding of schooling is very strong. First, there is the argument from opportunity: that children should not be bound in their opportunities to acquire basic skills and knowledge by the capacity or willingness of their parents to pay for their schooling. Then there is the argument from common benefit: we all gain from having a literate and numerate fellow citizenry. The former appeals to our sense of fairness, the second to our (mutual) benefit.

While much rhetoric invokes the former justification, we can be confident that the latter has been the historically more powerful reason for government funding of schools: notably the creation of better workers (and soldiers). The hope such funding invokes that the schooling of one’s own children can be, in part, paid for by others is justified by said others receiving significant indirect benefit from being able to anticipate a certain basic level of literacy and numeracy among those we interact with. Indeed, this justification has been extended to all other manner of allegedly beneficial skills and understandings that schools are claimed to be able to usefully inculcate in the students placed in their care.

But just because a powerful case can be made for the government funding of schooling, it does not follow that such schooling should be provided by government, that government should run schools. On the contrary, if our concern is with the quality of the acquisition of skills and knowledge, there are powerful arguments against governments running schools.

The first is the obvious conflict of interest involved in having the regulator also be the (main) provider of the service being regulated. If the head of a football club announced that they had a great idea: the club Board should take over the football code, set the rules, appoint the umpires and administer the entire sporting code; people would wonder what he had been smoking. This is obviously a completely daft way to run a football, or indeed any sporting, code. The conflict of interest is massive and obvious.

Yet, that is precisely how most children are schooled: in schools governed by the politicians and bureaucrats who themselves are responsible for regulating schools. We apparently are expected to take it on trust that they do a good job of regulating themselves, honest. (It is revealing that, in the US, charter schools appear to do best in jurisdictions with strong regulatory oversight [via].)

Given the much higher growth in student numbers in private rather than government schools in Australia, clearly many parents do not trust said regulating-providers to do a good enough job, and for very good reason. The notion that the magic of elections somehow makes the patent, endless, conflict of interest go away is, indeed, nonsense. Neither Ministers for Education, nor their public servants, are magical. That governments are periodically elected may ameliorate the conflict of interest somewhat, but it most emphatically does not abolish it. That many parents clearly expect more congruence for what they want for their children with what private, as distinct from government, schools provide—and are willing to pay a premium for the difference—itself indicates what a weak reed electing a government to preside over such a powerful and pervasive conflict of interest is.

Australia’s shameful history of failure to provide clear, public indicators of student (and thus school) performance in literacy and numeracy comparable in skills achieved from year to year is, in itself, a manifestation of the conflict of interest in the regulator also being the main provider. A regulator seriously concerned with quality of schooling would ensure such things existed as a matter of course.

This inherent conflict of interest in the provider also being the regulator is central to the general problems of public provision. If, for example, one wants to understand the notorious problems of government schooling in, for example, the United Kingdom, identifying why British Leyland was a failure is, in fact, very useful. There has been a general retreat around the globe from government-run production for very good reasons. Reasons that do not magically fail to apply to schooling.
Problematic pedagogy
But education is often treated as something that somehow more general patterns do not apply to. Australia’s Education Revolution is arranged in four chapters, with an introduction, conclusion plus a preface by Colin Black, former headmaster of Camberwell Grammar School. This preface has some very trenchant things to say about the effect progressivists have had on schooling:
It is a sad irony that the legacy of the social democratic/progressive consensus is that for so many children born into the lower echelons of society, the state school as a vehicle for social mobility and intellectual development has been rendered impotent (p.4).
An effect that the conspicuously compassionate shield their children as they:
… send their own children to independent schools or to schools open to them only because of their privileged knowledge of how the system works or because they can afford to buy a house in a favoured area (p.4).
A process that reached its peak in the elite schools for the children of top cadres in Leninist countries. There is a vast difference from living in a Leninist tyranny compared to a liberal capitalist democracy, but rather less difference in the patterns of thought and behaviour of progressivist apparatchiks. Western societies have their own nomenklatura.

There has also been much activity marked by ideological intensity but of rather less (indeed often negative) social benefit, with teachers bearing the brunt:
… the education class’s obsession with change and innovation, the insistent revising and re-revising of curricula, the plethora of critiques of current pedagogical practice, the addictive quest for new and arcane terminology, the eagerness to leap upon the latest bandwagon which so often turns out to be tumbrel. Little wonder is it that teachers are exhausted and perplexed by all they are asked to do. The loss of deference in our society and authority in our schools means that they are among the few people who actually go to work in the morning with a sense of dread, dread of what some child may say or do to them in the course of the day (p.5).
One’s sympathy for teachers is somewhat ameliorated by the reality that, individually and collectively, through their education unions, they are prime defenders and (in employment protections) beneficiaries of structures which produce these outcomes. In few fields is the virtue of incoherence more marked than education, where the need to be protect one’s individual and collective status as a “good person”, requires acquiescing to all sorts of disastrous notions whose patent effects progressive theory operates to deny, obfusticate or ignore. But the more general patterns of “ostentatious virtue” are largely hegemonic among teachers: as, indeed, is the pedagogy of “ostentatious virtue”.

After a brief Introduction setting the scene, the first chapter is a collection of pieces on how the Rudd-led ALP won the education “wars”. The burden of these pieces is that surface rhetoric did not match underlying policy realities. Chapter 2, Australian Education: Dumbed down and politically correct is rather longer. It starts with a statement of the battlelines as being between:
… a liberal/humanist view of education based on the disinterested pursuit of truth and those committed to overthrowing the status quo and turning students into politically correct, new age warriors (p.40).
With Wayne Sawyer, President of the NSW Teacher’s Association and Chair of the NSW Board of Studies English Curriculum Committee, providing much grist for Donnelly’s mill in his statements treating the election of the Howard Government has a sign of a failure of education (Pp41ff). The notion that the purpose of government-run education is the inculcation of “correct” belief (pdf) on conspicuous display.

But if that is the real reason for government run schools (and why religious bodies are the next largest provider of schooling) then the question who captures the structures of belief dissemination. Donnelly is clear on who has:
Has education in Australia been captured by the left? Evidenced by students being made to deconstruct the classics in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, Australian history being taught from a black armband view and geography being redefined in terms of peace studies, deep environmentalism and multiculturalism, the answer is ‘yes’ (p.67).
He identifies Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu as important thinkers in this process.

Chapter 3, English lite, is a series of pieces attacking modern relativism and defending the notion of literature as a vehicle of quality and enlightenment. Donnelly approvingly quotes Christopher Lasch from The Culture of Narcissism on those argue literature is not for all:
In the name of egalitarianism, they preserve the most insidious form of elitism, which in one guise or another holds the masses incapable ofr intellectual exertion (p.85).
The experience of decades of ostentatious egalitarianism in public schooling, notably in the US (via) and the UK, is that it undermines (both via) rather than encourages social mobility. Australia does better in terms of educational mobility, but it has a much larger and more broadly-based private school sector than either the US or the US.

Chapter 4, Dumbed down standards, begins with an attack on outcomes-based education (OBE) noting that international comparisons show Australian students being outperformed by countries with syllabus approach to curriculum (p.116). Donnelly defines the latter as:
A syllabus approach is one where teachers are given a clear, succinct and manageable road map at the start of the year detailing what is to be taught. There is a syllabus for each year level, teachers are expected to teach, not facilitate, there is regular testing to monitor standards and the focus is on essential learning (p.107).
One of the features of the syllabus approach is that it gives more status and authority to teachers than OBE and allows learning to be built up in clear stages (p.108).

If standards are set, they need to be worth achieving:
With the Australian national literacy and numeracy benchmark tests at years 3, 5 and 7, the bar is set so low and the expectations are so minimal that everyone succeeds (p.109).
But then, who is potentially embarrassed by poor results? The Education departments who are setting the standards for schools they mostly run themselves.

Donnelly points to evidence teachers vary widely in effectiveness and that merit pay systems can work (Pp112-3). Incentives clearly matter, in schooling as in other spheres of life. The trick is to working out what the real incentives are: not the ones that wishful thinking (even if dressed up as theoretical preconceptions) hopes operate.

Donnelly cites scholarly research that centralised examinations lead to higher levels of student achievement. American academic John H. Bishop argues that (in Donnelly's summary of his research, such as this paper and this paper):
… to be successful, that examinations must be discipline based, externally assessed, rank students in terms of multiple levels of achievement and be high stakes in terms of consequences (p.119).
In other words, force accountability through effective incentives.

Donnelly strongly argues that international comparisons provide a basis from which to learn what works and what does not: for example, “student-based learning” is clearly outperformed by more directed systems (Pp122-3). Though testing is not a panacea: it can be done badly or too often (Pp124ff). Once again, working out the actually operating incentives and effects are is crucial.

Donnelly points to the (considerable) evidence that outcomes in schooling do not flow directly from expenditure (Pp128-9). It is a fairly childish form of analysis to think that it does or would, but it is, of course, the perennial claim of defenders of government schooling that the problem is “lack of funding”. Bad incentives create waste and ineffectiveness that ends up looking like inadequate funding but is actually something quite different—something that will neither be changed nor fixed merely by more money. On the contrary, studies suggest that increased spending is largely soaked up in waste and ineffectiveness, with increases in spending going with declines in school productivity (pdf).

Chapter 5, The Way Forward, strongly pushes school choice. Donnelly notes that:
… those associated with the Cultural-left side of politics are strong opponents of freeing up schools and increased parental choice (p.142).
Naturally: since inducing “correct belief” is what they are about in education (and shielding their people and notions from accountability). The argument they typically mount is on grounds of social cohesion (Pp142-3). This is mostly bunk. Private schools integrate at least as well (or better) than government schools. Government schools are at least as stratified by socio-economic status, for example. Moreover, a regulatory body not compromised by also being responsible for schools would, in fact, be in a stronger place to insist on educational standards (such as, for example, in science and civics: to take two areas where religious education can be problematic).

Not that Australia is without its successes: immigrant children in Australia perform as well as native-born children (p.157), which dramatically undermines the “migrant disadvantage” argument for more “social justice” pedagogy in schools.

In his Conclusion, Donnelly draws together his threads to warn of the dangers of increasing “centralised, top down, one-size fits all” approaches, against a utilitarian “improve productivity” notion of education, for a tempered approach to testing to improve accountability an awareness of what happens in schools matters that continuity matters as well as change, that Australia is a highly successful society with a rich cultural heritage that we have an obligation to pass onto our children. That learning has value for its own sake and educational outcomes are improved by empowering parental choice, by allowing diverse students to be taught in diverse ways so that the system itself continues to learn.

Kevin Donnelly is a very informed contributor to the debate over education in Australia. His arguments are often a great deal more “reality-based” than those of his critics. Australia’s Education Revolution is a useful and informative contribution to the fight for better schooling for Australia’s children.


  1. What horrifies me about Canberra's purse strings, is just how unabashed and brazen politicians are when it comes to their designing the school curricular!

  2. Not sure I quite follow that. The national curriculum is a somewhat complex exercise. The history curriculum, for example, actually implicitly acknowledges a lot of conservative criticism of past efforts.