Thursday, September 6, 2012

No Detail, All Strategy and an Opportunity Lost on Gonski Reforms

Australian Greens MPs give a Gonski
Australian Greens MPs give a Gonski (Photo credit: Greens MPs)
by Dr Geoffrey Riordan, Dean, Faculty of Education at University of Canberra, The Conversation:

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced the government will introduce some of the recommendations of the Gonski Review, including a new model for funding schools.

Many commentators criticised the announcement for being light on detail. This is unfair. The detail of her political strategy was clear enough.

The Prime Minister said she will personally meet with the heads of the states and territories and “move quickly” with those jurisdictions that want to come on board. In order to gain their support for the new funding model the Commonwealth will presumably put a significant amount of money on the table.

On the question of where the money will come from, again the Prime Minister was clear. The government intends to continue to make “tough budget decisions”. In implementing this strategy we were told that there will be “big controversy, big headlines, big criticism” but this was “the right thing to do, the Labor thing to do.”

But once we look at the policy detail (not the detail of the political strategy), it’s clear the Gillard announcement missed an opportunity for genuine reform on schools funding. The undeniable value of the Gonski Review may be lost.

The tower of PISA

Along with adopting the basic schools funding model Gonski recommended, the Prime Minister announced a new goal for Australian schools - to be in the top five school systems in the world according to the international testing program, PISA. This new benchmark would be enshrined in legislation by the end of the year. This will be an impressive act.

The Commonwealth does not currently employ a single school teacher, it does not operate a school and while we are at it, does not have any jurisdiction over other countries' school systems - something that would be needed to stop any of our competitors in the “education race” rising up the ladder any further.

Nonetheless, Gillard said the goal would be achieved with more money to pay for teachers aides, greater autonomy for schools, annual performance reviews for teachers, annual plans for school improvement, greater information on the My School website and limited entry into teacher education courses to those who are at the top of their class.

But all these strategies are unlikely to get us into what the Prime Minister called the “coveted top five” (if indeed, this is all we really want from Australian education).

The problem as I see it is that the strategies signalled in the speech for addressing the problem of school funding and improving learning outcomes are unlikely to be effective and do not get to the core of effective teaching and learning.

Quite simply, the states and territories need to agree a program of reform. After all, they have responsibility for school education. They are more likely to come on board if they can co-construct the strategy.

And the strategies for improving learning outcomes announced do not get to the core issue of best practice in teaching and learning. Principals and teachers not familiar with the latest research on effective teaching and learning will continue to conflate innovation with effectiveness and technology with pedagogy.

Improved learning outcomes for students require career-long professional learning programs based on reputable research findings.

Single case studies, along the lines of the anecdotes that the Prime Minister included in her speech, and worse, recollections of our own decontextualized experiences as children at school, are of little value to teachers wanting to make a difference.

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