Transcending our limitations

Reforming school education
Carmen Lawrence

In 2009, the OECD noted that the link between student background and educational achievement is more marked in Australia than in other high-performing countries: on average, differences in students’ backgrounds accounted for some 55 per cent of performance differences between schools, but the figure for Australia is around 68 per cent. While we do better than the US and the UK, we are not doing as well as many otherwise comparable countries such as Canada and Finland in minimising the effects of social background.

Five of the six countries that outranked Australia in the OECD’s 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are those with higher equity in their school systems. It’s worth noting that one of the reasons for the recent drop in our international ranking – and poorer results in domestic tests – appears to be that performance at the top end has fallen, too.

A recent study by education researcher Ming Ming Chiu of the performance of 15-year-olds from 41 countries forcefully demonstrates this point. Students scored higher on various achievement tests not only when they had access to more resources (money and qualified teachers) but also when there was a more equal distribution and less of what Chiu called “privileged student bias”. There were diminishing marginal returns; extra money spent on the already well off produced less improvement overall than the same money delivered to those with little. An extra dollar to a poor school makes a big difference.

In Australia, almost 80 per cent of students from the lowest quarter of socioeconomic disadvantage attend government schools. The drift of students and resources from government to non-government schools has accelerated here in the last decade or so and further concentrated wealthier students in the private sector. As a result, there are more schools with very high proportions of students from disad¬vantaged backgrounds – mainly in the government system – and more with high concentrations of the most advantaged – mainly in private schools. An education system that siphons off the children of wealthier and better educated parents weakens both the energy and the funding base for the government system. Resources that might be used to provide for improved facilities and teacher support in existing schools are diverted into setting up new school places. In one country town in Western Australia, the local government high school lost ground dramatically after four private schools were opened; the most disadvantaged children were left behind with fewer teachers per student than in the new private schools. The total cost of education in the community skyrocketed, without any aggregate improvement in children’s scores on routine tests.

As state governments are largely responsible for government schools and the Commonwealth for independent and Catholic schools, such decisions are often made without reference to the cumulative impact on all schools. Without decrying parents’ individual decisions about their own children, it seems inevitable that the more those who have the means exit the public system and send their children to private schools, the more likely it is that the public education system will be seen as a residual one for those parents who cannot afford to ‘choose’ private education for their children, especially since a lot of the recent drift has been in the less well-off suburbs of Australia.

Due to the pattern of drift to private education, striking gaps have emerged between public schools with high and low socio-economic profiles; children in the poorest schools are effectively two years behind those in wealthier suburbs. Despite the fact government schools actually perform as well as private schools when initial disadvantage is taken into account, knowledge of these gaps gives further impetus to parents’ anxieties about government schools.

Just how important education is for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and how schools can compensate for limited means at home is vividly illustrated by sociology professor Karl Alexander’s work in the US. Over five years, he tracked the academic progress of primary school age children from different social backgrounds. The first-graders from the wealthiest homes started with modest advantages in knowledge and ability over those from the poorest; by the end of the fifth grade, this gap had more than doubled. In probing the reasons for this expanding gap, Alexander meas¬ured the dif¬fer¬ence between the stu¬dents’ test scores at the be¬gin¬ning and the end of the school year to see how much they had learned at school. He then calculated the difference between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next to see how much they learned over the summer holidays. The poorest children actually “out-learned” the wealthiest children during term time and were only slightly behind the middle group. But after the holidays, wealthier children’s scores jumped and the poorest children’s dropped. It seems that, in the US public school system at least, much of the advantage wealthier students have stems from the ex¬periences they have when they are not in school – the excursions to the countryside, the visits to libraries, museums and science exhibitions. A system that provides more money to schools catering for poorer students can try to compensate for this difference, offering some of the enriching experiences taken for granted by the better off. It makes sense to front-end load the schools who deal with the most disadvantaged; instead, the reverse has happened in Australia.

The twin propositions that ‘more education is better’ and ‘the more people who are educated the better’ appear uncontentious. However, how ‘better’ is defined is crucial. When you ask people why they think education is important, most, including educators and a lot of parents, point immediately to its personal, instrumental value in ensuring a high-paid and rewarding job. After all, that’s been the predominant public story for decades now. And such thinking is almost certainly partly responsible for the push for greater ‘choice’ in education and the shift by the children of the well off into the private system. Such thinking appears to inform the contemporary discussion about economic growth and productivity; education, especially ‘skills-based’ education, is seen as a panacea.

The contribution of education to individual creativity, health and wellbeing or to wider social objectives like reducing prejudice and improving our democracy might be tossed in as an afterthought. And, God forbid we should even hint at woolly ideas like the sheer glorious excitement of learning, the delight of mastery, of bright curiosity satisfied and of play. Even when these more expansive, less readily measured effects of a good education are mentioned, they are often a cover for a tight focus on test results and school exit performance, a mandatory nod on the school website or in the glossy prospectus, but not a real test of worth. There was a time when it was not considered naive to talk about education in expansive terms; there was a time when teachers were generally revered and the idea that learning could be ‘for its own sake’ was not considered quaintly old-fashioned. Of course, education was particularly valued because it offered the less well off a path to improvement, but such improvement was not thought to be limited to the material; what my parents wanted, at least, was for me and my brother and sisters to experience and know more about the world than they did and to transcend what they saw as the intellectual limitations of a country upbringing.

There are many educators and parents who believe that the way we now think about education and measure achievement dismally fails to capture all the facets of young people’s lives. The fear is that the restricted focus on vocational preparation and testing may result in young people being denied opportunities for genuine intellectual discovery and creativity. Correspondingly, the nation may be starved of the ingenuity and problem-solving needed to respond to pressing social and economic dilemmas.

As behavioural economist Dan Ariely, one of the authors of a recent evaluation of a decade of test-based education in the US by the American National Academy of Sciences, warned:

The mission of teaching, and its evaluation, is incredibly intricate and complex. In addition to being able to read, write, and do some math and science, we want students to be knowledgeable, broad-minded, creative, lifelong learners. On top of that, we can all readily agree that education is a long-term process that sometimes takes many years to come to fruition. … Now, imagine that in this very complex system we introduce a measurement of just one, relatively simple, criterion: the success of students on standardized tests. And say, on top of that, we make this particular measurement the focal point of all evaluation and compensation. Under such conditions we should expect teachers to overemphasize the activity that is being measured and neglect all other aspects of teaching, and we have evidence … that this has been the case … teachers teach to the test, which helps the results for that test go up but leaves all other areas of education and instruction … to fall by the wayside.

This echoes the worries that some have expressed about Austalia’s mandatory NAPLAN testing. If we’re not attentive (especially if the rewards to students and teachers all flow from test success), these measures become proxies for educational worth. It’s a bit like using GDP growth as a proxy for our standard of living. Still, it’s all we’ve got, and these numbers may just give us some clues about how we can do better for all our children.

A look around the globe shows that the US does not have a lot to offer us, despite the hype surrounding the government-sponsored visit in 2008 of Joel Klein, the then chancellor of New York schools. Now an adviser to Rupert Murdoch, he achieved guru status for his promotion of a test-based model of schooling, which has now been comprehensively canned. However, the global fetish for educational league tables did produce a boom in international visits to Finland, a country whose policies are far more worthy of inspection. In 2009, over 100 foreign delegations and governments visited Helsinki, apparently hoping to ferret out the secret of the Finns’ success in international tests and transport it to their own schools. Finnish students have reliably scored in the top two or three nations in reading, maths and science in the developed world’s exams for 15-year olds, according to PISA results. What visitors learn about the Finnish system, however, often challenges the very foundations of their educational practice, not least because of the Finns’ strong emphasis on ensuring that those who are having problems in learning, for whatever reason, are not left behind.

The history of Finnish education is instructive. Some 40 years ago the Finns affected a revolution in their approach to schooling in an attempt to stimulate economic recovery after decades of war and conflict. At that time their education system was fragmented and, by all accounts, something of a lottery. As a result of several decades of targeted reform, the Finnish school system is now a unitary one and all schools are publicly funded. Primary and secondary schooling are combined and local schools cater for each child from the time they enter school until they are 16, after which they attend a senior school. This means that staff can get to know students well and are able to better tailor programs to their needs; students largely avoid the potentially disruptive effects of shifting from one school to another.

While there is a good deal of local autonomy, the schools’ programs are guided by broad national goals and schools draw from a pool of teachers who have been selected from the top 10 per cent of the nation’s graduates and are required to complete a master’s degree in education. There is tough competition for entry into teaching because it is such a prestigious career in Finland. Once employed, teachers spend fewer hours at school and less time in classrooms than teachers in most comparable developed countries. The extra time is spent on curriculum development, exploring new teaching techniques and assessing their students’ progress – Finnish teachers are treated as competent professionals.

Children do not begin formal schooling until they are seven and there is no stream¬ing by ability. In virtually every classroom, an additional teacher is provided to help those who are struggling and nearly 30 per cent of children get some kind of special help during their schooling. Classes are conducted in a relaxed and informal atmosphere. There are no compulsory standardised tests, like Australia’s NAPLAN, apart from one exam at the end of the senior year in high school, and there are no rankings or formal comparisons between students and schools.

Despite their success in the league tables, Finnish teachers, unlike their visitors, are not much interested in the PISA results. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” Pasi Sahlberg, a former maths and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, said recently. Finnish educators apparently have some difficulty understanding the fetish for standardised tests – the bar graphs and coloured charts. “It’s nonsense,” said another of the teachers interviewed, “we know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”

It’s hard to imagine any Australian education minister or official daring to endorse such a seditious statement. Instead, we’ve headed down the low road constructed by our American cousins – highly competitive, test-based teacher and school assessment – despite these policies having failed comprehensively in the US, where overall performance and equity are far worse than in Australia.

Although it’s not possible to identify precisely the elements of the education system responsible for producing Finland’s impressive results, it is clear that Finnish children can expect a high-quality education no matter what their circumstances (which are taken into account in the allocation of funds) and it’s clear that their educational programs are less regimented and test-oriented than ours. As well as performing well in aggregate, the differences between the weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world and are much less strongly associated with the socioeconomic background of parents than in Australia. Some critics (mainly American) of the Finnish system have argued that the relative homogeneity of Finnish society makes their education task much easier. There may be some truth in this, but as a result of recent increases in immigration from non-Nordic countries, particularly in Africa and South-East Asia, there are now schools where many nationalities and language groups are mixed and these too achieve good results, often by the creative use of extra funds provided to assist those students who need more help.

While some of its virtues may be exaggerated, there is much to be gleaned from the Finnish experience, rather than looking to systems such as those in the US and the UK, which are conspicuously failing the least well off. In the past, our inclusive public school system helped reduce inequality; now education appears to be reinforcing privilege and making it even harder for the kids of poorer Australians. The effects of income inequality are being amplified by our education policies, particularly the allocation of funding. Yet schools can redress disadvantage, if given the resources and support to do so.

The entire nation’s wellbeing is compromised when young people are not able to participate fully in education, or when their schooling is narrow and unsatisfying. For the individual, the costs of a poor education are enormous. For the nation, the costs of a divided society are even greater.


Carmen Lawrence is Winthrop Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australian and former Premier of Western Australia and former minister in the Keating Government. She was a member of the panel for the review of school funding established by the Australian government in recognition of the underperformance of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The six-member panel chaired by David Gonski presented its final report -- known as the 'Gonski review' -- in December 2011.This is the gist of her address to ‘The Productivity Zombie’, a public forum hosted by the Evatt Foundation in association with Sydney Ideas at the Sydney Law School on 24 June 2013, extracted with the author's permission from 'Mind the gap: why inequality in our schools is dangerous', published by The Monthly in July 2012.