It’s been really interesting to read the recent contributions from Ross Gittins, Fairfax economics editor, to the discussions on Australian schools.
Here he was in April bemoaning social stratification as the driver of the decline in local schools and again in May making the case for a reform of school funding to improve educational for disadvantaged students. In July he was reminding us of the importance of a strong education system to the nation’s economy, making the case that accountability comes with additional funding and that teachers have for too long resisted this demand.
It’s terrific that someone can look at the schooling debate from a different viewpoint and of course Gittins is right in identifying the economic benefits of a strong education system. His observations attracted attention of course, particularly those comments about teachers resisting accountability. Unfortunately he compounded his issues with this comment on twitter:
I hope he regrets this comment. I doubt he meant it literally but even if it was intended to suggest that teachers refuse to be held accountable by parents he’s dead wrong. We don’t need the growing trend of teachers bashing to be fed by comments like this.
Teachers don’t mind being accountable for those things that are within their control. There seems to be an assumption, not just from Gittins in this case but from many politicians, commentators and researchers, that Australia’s stagnating educational performance is the fault of teachers. Where’s the evidence for that? Sure there’s variation in teaching quality, just as there was 15 years ago when Australia’s performance on international tests was riding high. Why not concentrate attention on what has changed during that time?
There are broader forces at work, starting with government education policy and funding (an economist would understand, surely?), society’s expectations and so on. Teachers long ago lost control of the direction of schooling. They control their own practice (to an extent) but are buffeted by shifting government policy, top down educational reform (how’s that gone?) and the other issues Gittins recognises such as social stratification of schools. I’d suggest that’s a good starting point – we’ve spent additional billions shifting high SES kids into non government schools for zero effect. Our top kids are coasting, public schools (mostly) are left to deal with the rest and are struggling to do so. Witness the emerging need for special settings away from school sites to re-engage students who cannot cope or be supported in mainstream schooling. And, as Gittins correctly identifies, state governments have compounded this by increasing the number of select entry schools within the public system.
It’s not an easy problem to fix but we should start by acknowledging that the last 15 years has been a policy mess and stop blaming teachers for things beyond their control. Perhaps we actually need to think about giving principals and teachers more control over schools. There’s a novel idea.