Education needs much more than a Gonski

My fourth theme for the next election is education, but I don’t want at all to get into the Gonski stuff. That has become a money matter, and money is not the basis of the problem. But how our Prime Minister could treble the offer to Western Australia, in finding another $600 million to tempt that State’s Premier, just staggers me. Where is that money to come from? Oh, a larger deficit. Of course. Just add a few months to the time when we get back to a balanced budget.

I’ve written about the Gonski report and the Government’s response to it before, most recently here, and I’m in favour of spending more money on education. But the argy-bargy that is going on quite misses the point. To say it again, money is not the problem: at the core is our attitudes to education, and these attitudes reinforce the status quo. Gonski’s focus on ‘disadvantage’ was correct up to a point, but throwing money at disadvantage doesn’t necessarily fix it. I wrote about that the other day. Lyndon Johnson thought he could end poverty by throwing money at it.

Virtually all of our kids go to school. But in any school, even the ones where the greatest amount of money is spent, some kids do better than others, and some never really find out what they can do. Its not because they’re disadvantaged in money terms: the price their parents have made for their education is stupendous. In the worst schools some kids do triumphantly, and not necessarily because their parents spent money on them. The assumption we can change everything by evening things out, so that all schools are equally funded (which could never be the case, but let’s just assume it), is not founded in anything other than pious hope.

And the notion that the Commonwealth can do everything that is needed from its own offices puts the cart before the horse. It’s bad enough having decisions made in the head offices of the State and Territory Education Departments. The only thing loopier would be the proposal that we need the United Nations to tell us what to do from New York. Somebody has probably suggested it, on the grounds of fairness or equity.

The place where all the improvement can happen is the classroom. Every student benefits at once through having a superb teacher. I contributed a few years ago to a book about teachers edited by Robert Macklin called My Favourite Teacher, whose pages tell, again and again, of the transformative effect that great teachers have on kids. My favourite teacher taught mathematics, and I owe her a lot. She loved her subject and she loved us all, in a calm and disinterested way. The whole class improved its maths, in leaps and bounds, and we were very sorry when the end of the year came, and she did not accompany us into the higher school.

My proposal for spending money on education has several parts to it:

* pay teachers a great deal more;

* put a lot of money into the on-the-job development of teachers;

* make it hard to become a teacher, by insisting that they have a number of significant competencies, like decent mathematics, the ability to read music and play an instrument, a real understanding of how learning happens, and a liking for children (OK, that’s not a competency — but if you don’t have it, you shouldn’t be teaching them);

* support the classroom teachers with auxiliary staff who assist the teacher and the class; and

* use standardised tests only as a diagnostic tool.

What I would be after is the lowest possible drop-out rate, and the highest possible graduation rate, with young graduates from high school confident in their ability to tackle new problems, and knowledgeable about their own strengths and weaknesses. If you want to hear a superb teacher explain why this approach will work, go and listen to Sir Ken Robinson at his most recent TED lecture.

What’s against this approach? Us. Those who like it the way it is. Those who want their own children to come top, and want toughness and discipline in the classroom,  and rewards for success in competition. Those who think that anyone can teach (‘those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’). All those who think they themselves should be paid more. All those who think that teachers have a cushy job with all those holidays. Those who know what schools should be like because they went to one umpty years ago. The sheer inertia of our large ‘systems’ of education. The impossibility of starting with a clean page. All the schools, classrooms, teachers and kids that were there today, and will be there again tomorrow.

Maybe throwing money at education will help somehow. Maybe a national curriculum will help. Maybe reducing disadvantage will help. None of these goals is a silly one. But they seem to me to be at the side of things. If you want education to work, you need to start with the best teachers you can have, who are able to ensure the best learning that is possible for the children in their care. Why not start small, with some demonstration sites? It wouldn’t cost a lot, and if it works, as I’m sure it would, it will grow through imitation.

And it would be a lot cheaper …





Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • pjb253 says:

    In accordance with Popper’s concept of “piecemeal social engineering”.

  • pjb253 says:

    After a bit more thought and with no checking of facts: …

    Education doesn’t seem to be a core federal responsibility so would there be more diversity and small scale demonstrations if it were left to the states?
    The federal education bureaucracy could then be privatised as their high quality curricula, testing methods and standards would surely be in demand in the education free market.

    Are the state education departments necessary? Many families are able to arrange for their children’s education without recourse to the state systems.
    A free, quality education for all children is a tenet of western civilisation. Sweden apparently has a system of “education vouchers” for all children which need not be redeemed at a state school. Maybe this is a demonstration worth examining? Perhaps the privatisation of the state departments could then be considered.

    I recently attended a lecture by Bill McKibben at the Australian National University to a packed hall of cheering students, that was mostly emotive and almost devoid of any rational argument. If this is the result of our present education system then we are in dire trouble.

    Gonski would seem to be a classic case of visionary, large scale, monopolistic social “reform” whose eventual failures litter the road to Hell. Bring on “piecemeal social engineering”.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    pjb: another phrase for same thing is ‘incrementalism’. The smaller the steps we make the less likely it is that we will have to retrace them.That doesn’t mean doing nothing. But it does mean avoiding the broad brush. Visions are good things to have, but the right way to achieve them is by making one small step at a time.

  • Robert says:

    Many thanks, Don

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