The Education Dilemma

Many of us are appalled by the seemingly inexorable deterioration of Australia’s educational outcomes relative to other nations. Despite the fact that in recent decades our funding of education has greatly increased, our children are leaving school worse equipped than they ever have to make a positive contribution to our society and to help us compete on the international scene. We are being constantly reminded that many countries, particularly in Asia, are achieving far better outcomes at much reduced levels of spending on education.

Inevitably, the skills of the populace impact on our productivity and consequently our standard of living. It is therefore imperative that we seek to improve our educational outcomes.

Now that we have a double-dissolution election announced, with a campaign already under way, it is not surprising that education will become part of the platform for the major political parties. Already Labor is trumpeting its commitment to major funding increases along with the Gonski recommendations. The Government is refusing to commit to the funding in the latter years. Labor, untruthfully, calls this a reduction in education spending. In fact the Government is committed to increasing educational funding but not to the extent of the Labor party.

But the question we should be logically asking is, what effect will the increased spending bring?

In the last decade school funding has doubled and yet our literacy and numeracy outcomes are falling relative to many other countries. Albert Einstein reputedly said. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results.” (Most scholars believe this is a misattribution and that Einstein is most likely not the source of this aphorism. Interestingly it has been variously attributed to other such notables as Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.)

Nevertheless it is true that we shouldn’t expect improved educational outcomes by merely increasing funding. Much of the increased funding for decades has gone on reducing class sizes even though there is little correlation between reduced class size and improved student learning.(Mind you it has helped swell the numbers of members in the Teacher’s Unions who, unsurprisingly, along with Labor Education Ministers have been the chief proponents of this strategy!)

Admittedly in their original form the Gonski proposals were designed to target areas of student needs and social disadvantage. The Gonski proposals have now been strongly politicised and in recent days Bill Shorten has been touring regional areas (concentrating on marginal seats of course) peddling the monetary bonanzas that Labor’s commitment to Gonski will bring to local schools. This despite the fact that the funding will actually go to the states who will make the final decision on how the funds are apportioned. No doubt the states will also maximise their political advantage such that the final distributions and the purpose to which they are allocated might look considerably different from what Gonski intended!

What we do know from comparative studies on educational outcomes around the world is that perhaps the key determinant of good student outcomes is the quality of the teachers. If we are determined to improve our educational outcomes, that is an area for concentrated attention. But of course any real attempt to do this will be resisted by the Teacher’s Unions. Rewarding teachers for superior performance, or dismissing them for poor performance, is unlikely to be tolerated by the unions.

If we are to improve the quality of our teachers we need to lift the standing of the profession. This entails paying more for the most competent and raising the bar with respect to the requirements for entry into the profession. In my student days, teaching was often a last resort when you couldn’t get into the university course you really wanted to study. In today’s demanding education environment we can’t afford to populate the ranks of our teachers with those who are not dedicated to the profession.

It seems to me that teaching is now a far more difficult profession than ever it was. It is therefore of the utmost importance that candidates for teaching be very capable and very motivated.

One of the complicating factors which I have mentioned in previous essays is that it seems that many parents have now “outsourced” their parenting responsibilities. This is reflected in the appalling behaviour some students bring to their schools. If you talk to teachers, which I have done consistently over the last forty years or more, most would concede that the biggest impediment in classrooms to productive learning outcomes, is poor student behaviour. Indeed I would go so far as to say our most effective teachers have the best behavioural management strategies. Now this is of course, very unfair to many teachers who might well have good educational skills but are unable to exercise them in a chaotic classroom. So, as I argued in a previous essay on responsible parenting, perhaps investing in improved parenting skills might lead also to better educational outcomes (as well as many other societal benefits). And indeed there is a great injustice being played out here, the poorly behaved, badly-parented children, not only compromise their own educational opportunities but all the other students in the class as well.

Then of course, the other burden imposed on teachers is the ever expanding curriculum which prevents them from focussing on the subjects that have traditionally been the mainstay of education. This reinforces my theme above about outsourcing parenting. Surely the material we have been hearing about embedded in the “Safe Schools” agenda should properly be the province of parents. And there are many other intrusions into the curriculum that should be rightly left to parental guidance. At a time when industry is warning us our children don’t have sufficient proficiency in the core STEM subjects, more and more curriculum time is being devoted to promoting left-wing social agendas.

Labor has suffered some criticism this week for exaggerating the productivity benefits of education. They misquoted an OECD report on research in this area. Now, despite this exaggeration of the short term productivity benefits of education, it is hard to deny that our standard of living is closely tied to good educational outcomes. It is imperative, therefore, that we do better at educating our children.

My main concern regarding Labor’s education policy is twofold, viz:

  • We don’t have the capacity to pay for it, and
  • I am unconvinced it will significantly improve our educational outcomes.

So I can only reiterate what I have said previously.

Let us do what we can to elevate the status of teaching as a profession. Now this requires more than just paying teachers more (although higher salaries will help). Let us ensure teachers maintain high professional standards, are competent and motivated. We need not only our children to respect their teachers but for teachers to be held in high regard by society at large. We need teachers who are not only skilled but who are motivated to make a difference.

But let’s not leave it all to the teachers. There should be increased expectations of parents as well. Parents need to understand the primary role they have in teaching their children appropriate behaviour. They need to also understand that much education happens outside the classroom and they have a role to play there as well.

6 Replies to “The Education Dilemma”

  1. Hi
    Money can’t buy you education but it sure helps .. a competing salary in the Labour market, a warm dry or cool school room and resources.
    I’d like to bring to your attention Kawerau High school .. one of the worst performing high schools in NZ .. in a depressed rural area in east Bay of Plenty. A $15M new shool , a new Headmistress who hand picked her staff and turned the school around in a few years . How.
    1/. The community was being her and the parents.
    2/. Only had teachers with right attitude and expectations .
    3/. Tough love, little bookwork and even less set homework.

    A link to the video on Seven Sharp a local TV news magazine program

  2. Thanks, Esther. In your interesting, if somewhat protracted response, you provide a great example of effective schooling.

    Just another reason for me to threaten to emigrate to New Zealand if our election goes awry.

    I must say also Esther I have been impressed by the way you have educated your boys in your own difficult circumstances. I suppose because of their early years in Australia they can even say “fish and chips” properly!

    I trust things are well with you!

Comments are closed.