Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (draft submission)

This is my 3300 word draft for the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. Any feedback/criticism is warmly welcomed. The final submission is due by the 2nd November.

Summary

What should educational success for Australian students and schools look like? One of the themes listed – defining and measuring success in education – is particularly pertinent when considered in relation to the terms of reference.  If the goal is to “improve student outcomes and Australia’s national performance, as measured by national and international assessments of student achievement” it will be very difficult to also “improve the preparedness of school leavers to succeed in employment, further training or higher education”.  This sums up the paradox, or bind, Australian parents, educators and more importantly students find themselves experiencing in the Australian education system. The limited and limiting nature of standardised testing and other narrow notions of success is a major issue in developing a contemporary education system that prepares students for their future.
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There are significant barriers to implementing improvements when the rules and legislation that governs what schools can do is so restrictive, inimicable and antithetical to innovation and progress. For example, legislated, mandatory grading of students from A-E in NSW does not reflect research nor does the continuation of heritage systems, like pen and paper exams, which certainly no longer reflect what students need to improve their preparedness for the future.
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What can we do to improve and how can we support ongoing improvement over time? In summary:
1. Focus on funding equitably in an effort to genuinely realise the goals of the Melbourne Declaration (2008)
2. Fund Public Education to make it attractive to all Australians and strengthen this fundamental organ of democratic, civil society
3. Fund quality research into what should replace pen and paper exams ie. digital portfolios from K-12 to measure student competencies
4.  Cease competition between schools and the public reporting, via the MySchool website, of NAPLAN data which was never designed for this purpose
5. Decrease managerialism at all levels of education in Australia
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“What did you have to sacrifice about my child’s education to raise those scores?”
                                                                                                                                             Alfie Kohn
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Students should have the knowledge, skills and opportunity to lead happy, healthy and productive lives as citizens in a sophisticated, technology-rich, globally-connected and democratic society. The measurement of this ‘educational success’ should not pervert the ideals of education so clearly enunciated in the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008). Unfortunately, it is clear that current policies do not “provide all students with access to high-quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on gender, language, sexual orientation, pregnancy, culture, ethnicity, religion, health or disability, socioeconomic background or geographic location.”
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Educational success cannot be measured in isolation from the civil society that our institutions serve. Since late last century, outcomes-based models of education instituted in Australia have not led to improved educational or societal outcomes for young people who increasingly are not able to access full-time jobs, home-ownership or the free education enjoyed by the current prime minister and state premiers. The funding policies that have been embedded since 1996 resulted in a shift from ‘public to private’ that has led to our diverse multicultural society being segregated along ethnic, religious and socio-economic lines. This has been well documented by Dr Christine Ho, Chris Bonnor, Trevor Cobbold and Dr Marion Maddox (see bibliography). There is much evidence that our focus has moved away from funding an egalitarian system, where educational opportunity is evenly distributed, to one where privilege is enshrined.
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Research by the Lowy Institute has consistently revealed that younger Australians have lost faith in democracy.  Education has been commodified and this is a great danger to our democratic institutions. In the scramble to enshrine market-based reform, some of the most basic functions of schooling – to provide hope, equity and opportunity in a democratic state – are being neglected.  Citizens may be consumers but not all aspects of life should be left to the market. Education should not be a commodity in a properly functioning democratic state; it is a right. Younger Australians are just reflecting lived experience that Australian democracy is becoming less democratic as the influence of the market and those who control it becomes more omnipresent in the educational sphere too. There is no longer ‘a fair go’ for every kid, in every postcode. There never was but government policy is exacerbating the divide.
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Australian students have not been well-served over the last two decades by the political, bureaucratic and administrative processes that have delivered funding arrangements and new syllabuses but little effective change nor equity and opportunity for our young people. André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University London and Mats Alvesson, Professor of Business Administration at Lund University accurately describe the managerialism established for little educational improvement:
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“Our thesis in this book is that many organisations are caught in the stupidity paradox: they employ smart people who end up doing stupid things. This can produce good results in the short term, but can pave the way to disaster in the longer term.”
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“Less time and resources are allocated to teaching and learning than to image-polishing exercises as schools become machines for persuading others that children are getting a good education, rather than institutions for educating children. Instead of focusing on the actual work process, educators spend most of their time on ceremonial activities. They develop plans, set up meetings, write reports, develop policy statements, prepare presentations and all the other things a ‘proper’ school is supposed to do. The years roll by without any logical reconsideration of how all this actually helps educate children or improve the society it serves.”
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“Those supposed to benefit from all this box-ticking often end up suffering, but this happens below the radar: superficial scrutiny focuses on structures, routines and procedures. Are they there? Are they followed? Yes, fine. Do they lead to something good or bad or nothing at all? Well, it is hard to say. So who cares?”
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“There are many whose sole job it is to create plans, rules and procedures, and even more who spend their working life ensuring that these are followed. Other employees find that ever-larger chunks of their days are taken up with following rules and procedures.”
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“Many bureaucracies are characterised by obsessive and often irrational rule-following. In these kinds of cultures, openness, freedom or creativity is viewed as a sign of disorder.”
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Crass, authoritarian and market-based managerialism has taken root and the “McDonaldisation” of school is almost complete as this unhealthy paradigm results in conformist, non-creative thinking by politicians and bureaucrats who parrot the importance of data-driven decisions without actually making them. The whole concept of (inappropriate) measurement is deeply problematic in the educational institutions that serve civil society and the individual. Anyone interested in the future, or recent past, for Australian educational reform should be acquainted with Campbell’s Law:
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“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”     Donald T. Campbell
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The misuse of NAPLAN data and the establishment of league tables in newspapers as a result of the MySchool website further segregates Australians and encourages a misplaced competition. The international evidence collected via PISA has similar challenges as a reliable measure of anything. Even the most cursory acquaintance with the politics of Australian education reveals crass, simplistic pronouncements by politicians and then the whole cycle starts again:
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“The 2016 results show reading scores have increased by 0.4 per cent since 2013, writing scores have declined by 0.2 per cent and numeracy scores have risen by 1.26 per cent. Over the same time period, federal school funding has increased by 23.7 per cent.”   Federal Minister for Education, 2016
“…the Premier’s Priority is to increase the proportion of NSW students in the top two NAPLAN bands for reading and numeracy by 8% by 2019.”    Bump It Up Strategy – Fact Sheet   
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This obsession with measurement not so subtly reinforces some questionable, deep metaphors about the nature of  knowledge, teaching, and learning. Essentially this kind of measurement reinforces the belief that knowledge is some kind of “stuff” that exists independently of the human mind and like all physical “stuff” it has mass which can be measured, broken down and reassembled and moved from place to place. This then makes teaching a delivery system for transferring this “stuff” from one source (a teacher) to another source (an empty space called a learner’s mind). Learning thus becomes the acquisition of this “stuff”.
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The measurement systems teachers are increasingly coerced to follow are underpinned by dubious research and a range of ethical issues. Since the original publication of John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, there have been questions about the statistical methodology underpinning his research and representation of ‘what works best for learning’. By 2014, the year Professor Hattie became the Chair of AITSL, it was clear, even to tertiary statistics students, that serious mathematical errors had been made. There continues to be a steady flow of journal articles contesting Hattie’s ideas. By 2017, concerns about flawed use of statistics and how the politics of education works in Australia sees many practitioners not really needing to read a journal article to know all about “the cult of Hattie” in our schools.
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Hattie continues to rank the “195 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement” without acknowledging the concerns raised by statisticians. Reading the latest paper which derides the methodology makes one ask the question, what has become of critical thinking in Australian education circles? As Pierre-Jérôme Bergeron points out:
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“Unfortunately, in reading Visible Learning and subsequent work by Hattie and his team, anybody who is knowledgeable in statistical analysis is quickly disillusioned. Why? Because data cannot be collected in any which way nor analysed or interpreted in any which way either. Yet, this summarises the New Zealander’s actual methodology. To believe Hattie is to have a blind spot in one’s critical thinking when assessing scientific rigour. To promote his work is to unfortunately fall into the promotion of pseudoscience. Finally, to persist in defending Hattie after becoming aware of the serious critique of his methodology constitutes wilful blindness.”
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This is particularly disturbing when flawed statistical analysis is resulting in advice that there’s little or no impact with reducing class-sizes or democratic pedagogies such as:
giving students control over their learning
problem-based learning
inquiry-based teaching
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Context is everything. That includes the context, throughly discussed by Dr Scott Eacott, that has led to Australian schools looking for scientific, evidence-based solutions to the apparent educational challenges highlight by PISA and NAPLAN. Dylan Wiliam, since at least 2009, has questioned the use of meta-analysis in education. It seems pretty obvious that Hattie’s number-crunching has appealed to politicians and administrators looking to solve what often feels like a manufactured series of education crises. It is worthing quoting the conclusions from a 2009 paper (by Snook, Clark, O’Neill and Openshaw):
(i) Despite his own frequent warnings, politicians may use his work to justify policies which he does not endorse and his research does not sanction;
(ii) Teachers and teacher educators might try to use the findings in a simplistic way and not, as Hattie wants, as a source for “hypotheses for intelligent problem solving”;
(iii) The quantitative research on ‘school effects’ might be presented in isolation from their historical, cultural and social contexts, and their interaction with home and community backgrounds; and
(iv) In concentrating on measureable school effects there may be insufficient discussion about the aims of education and the purposes of schooling without which the studies have little point.
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The reality is that all this research analyses what we have had in the past which is not necessarily what we need in the future.
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The decades of designing managerial documents / syllabuses is not resulting in genuine reform or improved educational outcomes for students and is certainly not what we need in the future. The factory system, where students are “batch-processed by age”, needs to change. Students need genuinely personalised learning and far more opportunity to choose their own learning paths. This faux reform over the last two decades is revealed to be ‘wearing no clothes’ when we look at the continued importance of the Higher School Certificate examinations in NSW ‘celebrating’ there fiftieth anniversary as I type.
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One of the major barriers to creating a world class, innovative education system for 5-18-year-olds is the persistence of heritage systems, like pen and paper exams, that effectively prevent genuine educational reform/progress. It is evidence of limited policy-making nous that the state is compelling students to “regurgitate on paper fast” – as one student expressed it – in order for them to complete their schooling and have a single-number ATAR decide their tertiary fate (which deregulation of the university system has corrupted anyway). Our society does not need citizens who can memorise and write fast but this is where they end-up, in the same summer halls that some of their great-grandparents sat completing the HSC all those years ago.
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As part of the Education for a Changing World Project, the NSW Department of Education commissioned essays from distinguished Australian and international authors to stimulate debate and discussion about Artificial Intelligence (AI), education and 21st century skill needs. The common threads gleaned from these “occasional papers” suggest:
1. Traditional skills (updated for contemporary times) are essential for maintaining civil society. Citizens must be critically multi-literate with a strong sense of context and history. Enlightenment values are essential.
2. Creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, collaboration and communication skills will assume an importance not traditionally emphasised in edu-systems for three reasons: 1) to maintain employability; 2) to provide a citizenry with skills to shape the future; 3) to help with increased leisure-time (the ‘fruits of civilisation’?).
3. The cognitive power needed for an individual to fully participate in society will require a quality education previously reserved for a small elite. Technological knowledge is essential but must be complemented by strong ethical decision-making abilities in a time of rapid social change and civic need.
4. The purpose of education should be focused on creating a fair and just society.
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After reading these sensible, intelligent and perceptive papers one cannot escape the thought that most of the changes mooted have been essential for some time now and are not really made any more urgent by the coming (already here) AI or digital revolutions. They have been urgent for at least two decades and generally similar papers could have been written about the time we were connected to the World Wide Web in schools. It should be noted that at this time we commenced implementing standardised testing and wrote managerial, outcomes-based syllabi rather than focusing on the genuine re-structuring of our schools where children, as Sir Ken Robinson says, are batch-processed by age.
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We have been shuffling digital paper, sorting out the lettering on the electronic filing cabinets and spending an inordinate amount of money getting ready for 1990 for some time now. As Yuval Noah Harari eloquently puts it, “the governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare”. It is also worth quoting Harari on school systems:
“After both factories and government ministries became accustomed to thinking in the language of numbers, schools followed suit. They started to gauge the worth of each student according to his or her average mark, whereas the worth of each teacher and principal was judged according to the school’s overall average. Once bureaucrats adopted this yardstick, reality was transformed. Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough schools soon began focusing on achieving high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.”
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There needs to be a sea-change in the way schools are funded based on need and the principles espoused in both the Melbourne Declaration and the original Gonski reports. Crass measurement, in and of schools, needs to end. Students must have an opportunity to personalise their learning, with the assistance of teachers and technology. They need to learn about our media-saturated world and be critically literate enough to understand and navigate it successfully. Students would have opportunities to learn about and analyse their own personal data and to have a say in how a democratic state uses that data. The wellbeing of each student and the community they live must take precedence over huge expenditure on managerial systems that do not result in anything other than a digital paper chase that keeps everyone busy. The time has come to focus on learning, not obsessively funding measuring that learning and testing kids for dubious purposes.
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Bibliography

Alvesson, Mats and Spicer, André, The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work, Profile Books, 2016
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Bonnor, Chris and Caro, Jane, Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, University of New South Wales Press, 2007
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Cobbold, T. (2017). Social Segregation in Australian Schools is Amongst the Highest in the World. [Blog] Save Our Schools. Available at: http://www.saveourschools.com.au/ [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
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Eacott, Scott, School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neoTaylorism of Hattie, School Leadership & Management, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2017.1327428, 2017
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Harari, Yuval Noah, Homo Deus, Vintage, 2016
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Hattie, J., Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning, London: Routledge, 2012
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Ho, C. (2011). ARPA: ‘My School’ and others: Segregation and white flight. [online] Australianreview.net. Available at: http://www.australianreview.net/digest/2011/05/ho.html [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
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Ho, C. (2015). ARPA: ‘People like us’: School choice, multiculturalism and segregation in Sydney. [online] Australianreview.net. Available at: http://www.australianreview.net/digest/2015/08/ho.html [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
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Ho, C. (2016). Hothoused and hyper-racialised: the ethnic imbalance in our selective schools. The Guardian. [online] Available at: [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/27/hothoused-and-hyper-racialised-the-ethnic-imbalance-in-our-selective-schools] [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].
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Maddox, Marion, Taking God to School: The end of Australia’s egalitarian education?, Allen & Unwin, 2014
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Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (Australia).  (2008).  Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians.  Melbourne :  Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs,  http://nla.gov.au/nla.arc-93985
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Occasional papers – NSW Department of Education. [online] Available at: http://www.dec.nsw.gov.au/about-us/plans-reports-and-statistics/education-for-a-changing-world/occasional-papers [Accessed 21 Oct. 2017].
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OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264273856-en
Bergeron, Pierre-Jérôme; Rivard, Lysanne,  How to Engage in Pseudoscience With Real Data: A Criticism of John Hattie’s Arguments in Visible Learning From the Perspective of a Statistician, McGill Journal of Education / Revue des sciences de l’éducation de McGill, [S.l.], v. 52, n. 1, July 2017. ISSN 1916-0666. Available at: <http://mje.mcgill.ca/article/view/9475/7229>, Date accessed: 22 Aug. 2017.
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Reid, A. (2017). Serious flaws in how PISA measured student behaviour and how Australian media reported the results. [online] EduResearch Matters. Available at: http://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=2455 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
Roggeveen, S. (2017). Lowy poll: Are we losing faith in democracy?. [online] Lowyinstitute.org. Available at: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/are-we-losing-faith-democracy [Accessed 21 Oct. 2017].
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Siebert J. Myburgh, Critique of Peer-reviewed Articles on John Hattie’s Use of Meta-Analysis in Education, Working Papers Series International and Global Issues for Research, No. 2016/3 December 2016. Availability:<http://www.bath.ac.uk/education/documents/working-papers/critique-of-peer-reviewed-articles.pdf> Date accessed: 26 Aug. 2017
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Snook, Ivan; O’Neill, John; Clark, John; O’Neill, Anne-Maree and Openshaw, Roger. Invisible Learnings?: A Commentary on John Hattie’s Book – ‘Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement’ [online]. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1, 2009: 93-106. Availability:<http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=467818990993648;res=IELNZC> ISSN: 0028-8276, Date accessed: 26 Aug. 2017
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4 Comments

  1. Paula Madigan:

    Well said, Darcy. Love the comment near the end re in inordinate amount of money being spent getting prepared for 1990. So true! We are past that “future” and must radically change our approach if our current and future students are to receive the education they deserve (and narrow standardised testing isn’t part of it).

  2. I admire your commitment to writing such a detailed submission, Darcy. While the issue of funding would need a seismic event to shift policy for the duopoly that our government is and probably will always be, the other issues you mention are very achievable by educational bureaucracies that are future focused (sorry for using that hackneyed term). Recognition that the end point of leaving secondary education isn’t just about a uni place is key to that. Replacing pen and paper exams as indicators of learning with portfolios that can be added to over an entire lifespan (not just at school) is such an obvious small achievable step. The thought processes required for that sort of change already exist and flourish in schools – the islands of change run by early adopters and educational futurists will always continue to be islands until the system owners give permission to make it accepted practice. Unfortunately the system owners don’t have the courage to make it official. I hope this review actually does something to move things forward, and not continue to look back.

  3. Debbie Wood:

    Thank you Darcy for taking the time to research and write an informative and thought provoking article. I’m not sure that govts will ever keep up with funding recommendations but we seem to be stuck following other unsuccessful education models and flawed research when planning for our future needs. I recognised the ‘managerialism’ style because it has dominated the changes in education over my 35 years to date in teaching, ticking boxes irritates me beyond belief!!! The Hattie research created a divide at my school as the senior exec treated his work as gospel and heaven help anyone who questioned it or suggested alternatives, people were crucified. Until the access to technology and resources is addressed then I doubt we will see the end of pen and paper but I support the use of electronic profiles and portfolios. Individualised learning seems achievable if we get rid of the wasteful testing and reporting, NAPLAN was always a mistake. Why aren’t we looking at education stsems that are socially successful and promote acceptance, individual difference and equity??

  4. Rebecca Mahon:

    Thank you Darcy. Well written and well said. The frustration of parents/ educators and students grows apace as we continue to prepare our young people for a world that no longer exists.

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