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HTAA Conference opening address: Closing the Achievement Gap

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 3, 2011


Closing the Achievement Gap: will the national education agenda be a help or a hindrance?

Prof Alan Reid, University of South Australia

NB These are notes taken at the History Teachers Association conference, and they are done ‘on the run’ so they may not fully represent what was said. If I had made any errors please contact me ASAP and I will correct them.

Equity: increasing national influence over education which has been the province of the states. Reid supports the principle, but has some concerns re equity.
Equity = dominant theme in national agenda, revival of its importance, talk of closing the achievement gap and used to make judgements about education programs.
Reid thinks most programs are counter productive because processes are superficial and lacking in education research – won’t achieve the rhetoric.

History of education and equity in Australia –

1870- 1960s
concept of equity weak – schools established for working class children, basic, elementary schooling for the purposes of social control.  Secondary education was for middle and upper class children who’d be leaders – over the century access broadened via an emerging ideology that had a liberal, meritocratic agenda – people could succeed if they had the ability, interest and capacity for hard work. But it didn’t take account of child’s background so it tended to replicate existing patterns.  Most children still left at 14 or went to tech.  Exceptions ‘proved’ that this system ‘worked’. 
1960s – early 1990s
Post-war demand for better opportunity – age of compulsion rose to 15,  economy needed more skilled workers, need for more mass education, finishing secondary education

became the norm, and 70s and 80s states funded eg disadvantaged schools program to redress unequal outcomes.  Realisation that equity was not just an individual concern, also collective and social – wanting all children to contribute.  Recognise of barriers e.g. from particular barriers which needed to be removed, curriculum and resource barriers.  Research showed that tackling inequity was more complex than first thought.  Strategies – funding policies, curriculum reforms, teaching strategies to broaden away from favouring certain cultural groups. Not a golden age, some inroads made and recognise that sustainable long  term change would be difficult.

1990s – 2007
Education as a key factor in economic reform.  Economic purposes of education strengthened with ideological twist: market ; talk of equity waned: a positional good for individuals not a social good, choice and competition.

2007 -present (Rudd/ Gillard)
– equity returns to centre stage – goal lifting retention rates to 90% , lifting participation for disadvantaged groups, improving outcomes for Aboriginal children etc.  Equity has a visible presence in rhetoric, but there’s no clear meaning of what equity means, so equity is shaped by 3 dominant ideologies:
1. preparation for workforce
2. schools operate best when they compete against each other in an  education market
3. Best way to achieve quality is via transparent accountability to enable consumer choice and strategies to motivate teachers.

PISA and NAPLAN are used to assess progress. These enable assertions about gaps, but not in effective strategies to change anything.  Only simplistic policy solutions, which don’t and won’t work.

Reid’s analysis:
1. Policy simplification
2. Policy borrowing
3. Policy catch-up

1.  Policy simplification
Tanner shows how policy is being dumbed down in Australia – in education this is true too. e.g.
* Causes of problems rarely explored with frequent leaps from problem to solution. e.g. research about quality teaching has leapt into focus as the sole factor instead of looking at other matters such as child background and it sets up false expectations and is doomed to failure.  Any criticism is met with response that you don’t care about quality teaching.
* language of certainty: ‘it’s the right thing to do’.  NAPLAN raised as ‘real and true’ sole arbiter of truth, more nuanced data excluded as soft.
* strident over-claiming about its benefits – first draft of national curriculum said it was a world class curriculum, claiming world status. Politicians chest thumping about standardised testing showing improvement = result of policies they’ve put in place.
* Professional educations not trusted, often blamed and rarely consulted.
* Increasing trust of people with no expertise in education, non-experts in education gaining a hold in policy circles.  e.g. business people, lawyers, journalists, etc. Bill Gates is involved in policy in the US. Here in Australia, Murdoch in 2008despite spending more and more money presented Boyer lectures Golden Age of Freedom, one dedicated to education, an American businessman talking about education during the GFC, in Australia, UK and US, ‘our public education systems are a disgrace’ ‘children learning less and less’ – no evidence given for this, apportioned blame to the public school educators.  His reasons for wanting equity are economic not social justice, 3 strategies needed: set higher standards; holding schools to account, corporations should get involved in schools especially at the lower leaders b/c they know better than anyone else what’s needed to make sure children ‘at least a basic education’.  (Don’t quote this online without checking properly).  Quoted some very amusing and reductive ideas from Murdoch which would be funny if he had no influence. The speech was widely reported and very favourably.  Since then he has outlined plans for the Murdoch corporation to become a major provider of educational materials, and has recently spent big on this agenda. 

Policy borrowing
Risky to import from other countries with a different culture.  Education Revolution borrows from New York. In 2002 Joel Klein lawyer and businessman was appointed in charge of education system – they had to change the rules b/c he had no background in education.  he used to lifting the gap rhetoric, and designed an education program to improve it i.e. he set up

  • the use of standardised test results,
  • awarding schools public grades with consequences, i.e. the school got grants if A, principals removed or school closed down if graded E or F
  • Bonuses to principals and schools for rewards
  • Charter schools offering ‘choice’
  • Promoted the ‘Teach for America’ program – recruitment of top graduates from other areas, gave them 6 weeks teacher training and then put them into disadvantaged schools.

Two years later Klein claimed great improvement, though there were vociferous protests from communities when disadvantaged schools closed.  Julia Gillard was education minister at this time and invited him here, and she had no doubt about his effectiveness, claiming his ideas to be ‘morally compelling and intellectually convincing’.  So our ‘Education Revolution’ resembles Klein’s agenda:

  • My School 1 & 2
  • Performance bonuses for schools with improved NAPLAN
  • Performance bonuses for teachers and principals
  • Autonomous schools (like Charter schools)
  • Teach for Australia

What’s wrong with this?  Apart from the fact that we have different circumstances, and different contexts, there are these problems:

1. If we’re going to borrow, borrow from successful countries. Assuming international PISA tests have validity, US was ranked 29th and Australia 15th in Maths results, and Australia 9th and17th US in reading results.  We should have borrowed from Canada or Finland who are ranked higher than us not below us.
2. It ignores research from US and UK which shows the failures of these ‘accountability’ regimes. They narrow the curriculum, and they get phony results because schools exclude students, teach from the test, they cheat etc. There are NO improved outcomes overall.   Performance bonuses show they don’t work, and they diminish teacher collegiality as well. 
3. We should investigate in depth the claims made by people like Klein before transplanting the policy. In 2009 84% of schools were A rated – apparently huge advances, and Klein was riding high then.  The US mayor used these results to bolster his re-election, and Gillard became enamoured of this approach. But claims subsequently surfaced that the tests were getting easier, and teachers could prepare the students because the test didn’t change from year to year, and the benchmark was being lowered.  When a new test was introduced due to public pressure, (a national test) – results plummeted.  Over half the schools failed English, worse for black and Latino students.  This revealed the agenda as sham, and NY parents protested about exaggerated results because it denied help to children.  The equity gap as wide as ever it was…

These results were replicated in other US states which adopted the regime too. Klein quickly resigned and went elsewhere, i.e. to Murdoch’s education division.  

But this is the regime that Gillard wants to impose.  *sigh*

3. Policy catch-up (policy ‘Spakfiller’)
As problems emerge from implementing AC Phases 1 & 2, curriculum writers have to paper over the cracks,  handicapped by previous policy statements that were made. 

The National curriculum began with just 4 subjects and had no sense about the other subjects, no coherent ideas about them and then they were gradually added in phases 1 & 2. (ACARA says this was always intended because of the Melbourne Declaration).  But the subjects not in The Big 4 can only pick up the scraps so the lack of an overall curriculum design is problematic.

The Implementation timetables had to be altered anyway because the original timetable was unrealistic – so they could have actually redesigned the whole curriculum while they had time.  Conceptually opportunities have been lost.  Catch up work still needs to be done to patch the gaps, for example:. 
1. Assessment and reporting: the nature of achievement standards not thought out well, there’s no common approach within subjects or between them.  Some are just summaries of content.
2. General capabilities – were supposed to be so important e.g. creativity: but naming and defining them has not been done well so individual writers had to do the best they could.  Catch up now being done, but there’s still no conceptualisation about what they are.
3. Approaches to equity and curriculum – no statement about principles to be followed, ACARA is currently advertising for people to give advice about that.
4. Interdisciplinary work – should/could have provided triggers or signals for this to be done, again catch up being done.

The curriculum has a narrow, emaciated, individualised view of equity: it’s counterproductive to achieving equity- public test results and holding individual schools to account won’t change anything.  It’s a complex area, and it’s galling that instant non experts are destroying the hard won gains over the years. 

Our curriculum should 

  • Be based on a developed and articulated view of equality
  • Be thorough and systematic and recognise complexities
  • Be based on research
  • Not reinforce inequities
  • Trust the profession
  • Be wary of hyper inflated claims

Thanks to the History Teachers Association of South Australia for hosting a great conference!

PS I will tidy these notes up a bit when I get home and it’s not costing me  a mint to be online.

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