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Maxine McKew: still hopin’ for the right education solution

In considering Australian education policy, the Dusty Springfield hit of 1964 — Wishin’ and Hopin’ — comes to mind.

There would hardly be a senior bureaucrat in any of our state education departments who is not familiar with the evidence of high-performing systems. Singapore, Finland and South Korea, among others, all manage to resist the chopping and changing that has become so characteristic of our jurisdictions.

The Finnish experience is particularly instructive. Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a central figure in that country’s educational reform, often points to the fact that while Finland has had around 30 different governments over a four-decade period, the essential principles that have delivered Finnish educational excellence and equity have remained the same. It turns out that policy consistency in education is a key ingredient.

No doubt delegations of Australian educators will continue to troop off to Helsinki in an attempt to catch the Finnish magic. Impressive reports will be written and in some cases delivered and even read by the political elite. After that, it will be back to wishin’ and hopin’ for the kind of intelligent implementation that might deliver us a first-class system.

Instead, so much of our effort and investment is directed towards recommendations that are likely to have minimal impact. The recent report of Dr Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire, commissioned by federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, seems innocuous enough. But what’s likely to change?

Effective Australian schools, either public or independent, already concentrate on doing a few things really well. Importantly, they ignore fads, insist on intellectual rigour, don’t crowd up the curriculum, and have a relentless focus on student growth and improvement.

The problem in Australian schooling is that not enough of our schools operate to this standard, and as education ministers across the country know, this is an issue that pre-dates the introduction of the national curriculum.

[pullquote] “Somewhat oddly, a conservative government in Canberra seems to be looking for centralised solutions, but it’s the states who have to carry the day on the improvement agenda.” [/pullquote]

The compelling issue in Australian education has been staring us in the face for more than 20 years: how we replicate success across what is now a very fragmented system. We know what works, we have a sophisticated understanding of what constitutes effective teaching practice, and the tools and resources for early intervention have never been easier to access.

Somewhat oddly, a conservative government in Canberra seems to be looking for centralised solutions, but it’s the states who have to carry the day on the improvement agenda.

New South Wales is cautiously hopeful about the early results of its Literacy and Numeracy Action Plan. In targeting that state’s poorest public and Catholic schools, K-2 reading levels have improved with 97% of children expected to reach the accepted standard. Interventions have been based on the work of former director-general and Gonski reviewer Dr Ken Boston, who stresses the following: instructional leadership, diagnostic assessment, differentiated teaching, and specific help for children at risk.

Queensland, long a laggard on national performance measures, has for some time now, under different governments, been attempting to put meaning behind its Smart State label. And it has enlisted its top universities — the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology — to make this a reality.

Noteworthy is the way that the education faculty of QUT has extended the success of one of its programs — Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools — into other southern universities. It’s a two-way learning process. Large delegations of Queensland officials and school leaders are now analysing the success strategies of highly effective public schools in both NSW and Victoria.

This is the way a smart system should work — by learning from the best and then adapting for local conditions.

Victoria is at something of a crossroads. It’s long been the incubator for some of the best research in the country. Many of its schools are models of outstanding teaching and leadership, but it’s a patchy story. With a state election pending, much has been said by both major parties about the need for more schools in growth suburbs, but precious little about how to staff them with subject specialists. I’m still wishin’ and hopin’ and waitin’ for the press release that details how things will change for the 40% of lower secondary students now taught maths by non specialists.

We’re blind to the policy approach

When we know that 75% of the fastest growing occupations will require science, technology, engineering or maths skills, our political elite, be it Victoria or elsewhere in the country, seems blind to the public policy initiatives that might turn this around. How many more warnings do we need from former chief scientist Ian Chubb? Too often, when vacancies go begging, particularly in outer suburban or regional high schools, it’s the ill-equipped PE teacher who is called on to teach Year 10 maths.

We should be clear about why we are in this situation. It’s because of the choices we have made. The devaluing of intellectually demanding subjects such as maths has been evident for over 20 years. Yet we remain ambivalent abut the policy planning and investment that might arrest this decline.

The same is true of some of the “deficit teaching” practices identified by Professor Patrick Griffin who until recently headed the University of Melbourne’s Assessment Research Centre. According to Griffin, too many graduate teachers and even mid-career professionals are stuck in remediation mode and hence see language barriers or low SES background as ready explanations for a student’s failure to learn.

An effective system would be one where more of our teachers are trained in the techniques of how to lift student performance, how to challenge young people with ambitious content and how to develop abstract thinking skills. Griffin’s concerns span the ability spectrum, but while he thinks that overall we are doing a better job at helping children at risk, his research concludes that we are failing our best students. As he says in my book Class Act:

“Our best students are not doing well because teachers don’t know how to work with them. All they are doing with the more academically able students is looking after them. They give them more work instead of more complex work. They just keep them busy.”

Pyne’s review into teaching, conducted by the Teaching Ministerial Advisory Group under chair Professor Greg Craven, is due before Christmas and may provide some pointers as to how this issue will be addressed. Pyne’s best move to date has been to appoint the globally renowned researcher Professor John Hattie, now at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, as the new chief of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership. AITSL was established by Julia Gillard when she was education minister and, commendably, Pyne resisted its dismantling. The opportunity is there for Hattie to give the body a higher profile and to turn the AITSL teaching measures into the equivalent of a national gold standard.

The top-down institutional support is critical, but change will come from the day-to-day work in schools where effective leaders understand the key principles involved in whole school improvement — directing resources towards the improvement of teaching skills, boosting the intellectual rigour of subject content, and changing the relationship of students to the learning. Sharing this knowledge across schools, through well-established networks, is the key to a pick-up in overall performance.

National pride dictates a certain determination to be in the top league, but more important is the effort we put into giving young Australians a rich set of life choices. That’s an ambition that’s worth wishin’ for.

Maxine McKew’s book Class Act (RRP $19.99; e-book $9.99) was recently released by MUP.

More at The Mandarin: Bright spots in education: postcodes shouldn’t matter

Author Bio

Maxine McKew

Maxine McKew is an honorary fellow of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and author of Class Act. She was a federal Labor MP and formerly a journalist at the ABC.