By ELENA DOUGLAS
This article was originally published in The Australian newspaper.
Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. After more than a decade of serious decline in our educational standards, David Gonski and a team of experts have finally been asked to identify how Australia can turn around student performance. Their work needs to be the manifesto for the revolution we have been waiting for.
The Turnbull government has legislated $23 billion in school funding, but there is no prospect these funds will deliver commensurate outcomes for students without radical and urgent changes to classroom method and culture.
Australia’s performance is in decline against our own standards and in comparison with world peers. National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy results released this week show a decline in writing skills nationwide.
According to the latest Program for International Student Assessment data (2015), since 2000 Australian students have lost the equivalent of 10 months of schooling in literacy.
Since 2003, maths has declined the equivalent of a whole year.
Since 2006, scientific literacy has declined by the equivalent of seven months of schooling, with most of the decline occurring in the past three years.
When the OECD released its report on low-performing students last year it revealed that half of Australia’s secondary school students failed to meet the minimum international standard in maths, reading or science at age 15.
For more than a generation, we have let teaching practice drift far from the evidence base about what works for children and young people. In primary education, for example, most teachers have not been taught how to teach children to read using an evidence-based method that includes knowledge of how the brain develops in the early years and how we acquire language. Phonemic awareness and direct instruction have proved to be essential.
Early years investment is critical. A bad start in foundational language skills has its most detrimental effects on the learning outcomes of disadvantaged students.
Work done by the Perth-based Fogarty Foundation’s EDvance program shows that in the bottom quartile of economic advantage, 70 per cent of 11-year-olds (Year 7 students) read at Year 5 level or below and more than 30 per cent read at Year 3 level or below.
This flows on. Teenagers from poor families are five times likelier than their wealthier classmates to perform poorly at school.
The Gonski 2.0 brief is to arrest these declines not by building thousands of new school halls or putting computers on every desk or rejigging how the funding is calculated, but by identifying exactly how the educational performance of our students can be improved relative to international peers in terms of the preparedness for employment, training or higher education of all cohorts including the disadvantaged, the vulnerable and the academically advanced.
The brief extends to providing advice on the governance, transparency, measurement and accountability required to ensure the investment is effective.
One gift that Gonski 2.0 could give all our children is literacy. What if the Gonski report designed a system to achieve the bold goal of every child reading fluently by age eight? As part of this, we would need a national education scorecard for “learning gain” so that as a community we can judge the return on our investment. We need a simple number with underlying rigour that is reported and discussed in the national conversation in the same way as interest rates or the consumer price index.
Bravery is necessary. Think of a school as a flotilla of classrooms. Think of a system as a flotilla of schools. Think of education as a flotilla of systems — states and territories, state, Catholic and independent.
The task of reform is to improve the methods used in each of these classrooms, in every one of these schools, in all of these systems. It can be done.
As we saw in the impressive ABC television series Revolution School, in which University of Melbourne laureate professor John Hattie applied his visible learning approach to an outer-suburban school in Melbourne with dramatic results, there are proven ways to turn around a school with poor results, low morale and low expectations. The first signs of improvement — reading fluency for example — can be visible within weeks.
We have the technology. Teachers have the will. So let’s help them do it.
Global research consistently shows teaching is the greatest in-school influence on student achievement.
We can’t control the world outside the school but we can change what happens in class. And what’s true at the school level is true for education systems.
There is a craft to school improvement — it’s part art and part science. My company, Knowledge Society, has undertaken research that draws on the work of experts in this domain: Hattie, director of his university’s Melbourne Education Research Institute; Michael Fullan, former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; Andy Hargreaves, Thomas More Brennan chair at Boston College; Lyn Sharratt from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto; and Robert Marzano, co-founder and chief academic officer of Marzano Research in Colorado.
Based on the work of these experts and the OECD, we have distilled the research into eight design principles that Gonski needs to incorporate.
Classroom teachers must understand their power to effect change
Hattie argues that the mindset teachers bring to their work is critical. His mind frames for effective teachers include: my fundamental task as a teacher is to evaluate the effect of my teaching on students’ learning and achievement; the success and failure of my students’ learning is about what I do or don’t do; I want to talk more about learning than teaching.
We need to change the norm around teacher collaboration. Most classrooms are isolated — one teacher and a bunch of students. For best results, schools should move to open-door policies: you watch, coach and problem-solve with me, and I will watch, coach and problem-solve with you.
It’s about the students, not the teachers and leaders
The axiom in education is “students at the centre”. We can never lose sight of our duty to educate the whole child, in all their dimensions. It means student voice and choice in classrooms, in lesson design, in how schools run. It means more personalised learning based on what will engage each student.
Knowledge Society asked teachers and principals to shadow students for a day; through this simple act they realised how disengaged some students had become and made dramatic improvements to the educational experience in their schools. “Students at the centre” means most children achieve their learning goals, and there is case management that responds quickly to those who are falling behind and need intervention.
We need a whole-school and a whole-system approach
This has the greatest effect on the cohesion of a teaching team. Improvements from this factor are double any other. Education systems need to be clear on what good pedagogy looks like. The Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership’s standards are an excellent start: they provide the framework. What’s missing is effective education of existing teachers that involves classroom observation and coaching. Far too much of our education system spend goes on out-of-school professional learning that is impossible to implement. Teacher education is more likely to change practice the closer it is to the classroom.
We need a coherent vision for learning shared by teachers and leaders in schools, and supported by the system as a whole
This is the argument made by Fullan and Sharratt: “When large numbers of people have a deeply understood sense of what needs to be done and see their part in achieving that purpose, coherence emerges and powerful things happen.” The Ontario education system used this approach and thrived. Between 2003 and 2014, elementary (primary) students performing at or above the provincial standard in reading, writing and mathematics increased from 54 per cent to 72 per cent. During the same period high school graduation rates increased from 68 per cent to 84 per cent.
Data should drive decisions
In the world of education the digital revolution is still in its infancy; NAPLAN and MySchool data has been available for less than a decade. The first step is to gather classroom data and use it to improve classroom practice. Data should not be used punitively or in a narrow way; as Sharratt says, “put faces on the data” and use it wisely.
Ultimately, data helps us take what good teachers have always done and apply it across whole systems. Some schools fail to perform data-informed diagnosis of their shortcomings and how they can improve. The role of system leaders is to hold every school in the system to account for the “gain” in a year — the learning growth they achieve for their students — against socioeconomic equivalent schools. There are far too many corners of low ambition for students in our schools in all socioeconomic cohorts.
School leaders need to lead the learning
The role of a principal is not to be a mayor or chief executive of the school but to focus on the delivery of the learning experience that will enable students to reach their potential. This must be their prime leadership mission.
Education systems need to trust the teachers we have, invest in their professional growth
Building “professional capital” is a concept from Fullan and Hargreaves. It means strengthening the capacity of the teacher cohort for effective professional judgment. It is a model that requires teachers to have good knowledge and the right network of supportive relationships with peers, principals and knowledgeable others so they are resourced to make good decisions wherever they are.
It is a much better model for managing staff than compliance or the more transactional approach of incentives and rewards. It is expensive, demeaning and ultimately ineffective to manage professionals using a compliance approach. Teaching is a vocation and evidence shows teachers are more motivated by mastery, efficacy and the light in the eyes of their students than just more money.
Schools must model 21st-century learning for all — students, teachers and leaders
You can’t teach what you don’t have. A first step to introducing the skills, knowledge and mindsets we will all need for the future — critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication — is to move beyond the default hierarchies and rigidities of how we run schools.
Teachers and school leaders need time to master these practices in their work. Then, without losing focus on continuing to strengthen foundational literacy and numeracy, schools keep adding to the range of learning experiences they provide.
The future work of the children in school today will be so diverse and oriented around solving problems we can’t imagine it now. Their future will be one of experimentation and exploration, not fixed frameworks and static knowledge.
The primary driver of living standards that governments can influence is education — human capital formation. At a time when the economy will demand entirely new repertoires of skills and mindsets, basic literacy and numeracy cannot be taken for granted.
The dynamics of our economy are changing. Automation, digitisation and the transition to a knowledge economy mean that the once reliable blue-collar jobs on which so many Australians have raised their families will have disappeared by the time children in school today leave. The fact remains that you can build 21st-century skills only on strong foundations.
This matters for every Australian child. The future wealth of your children and grandchildren is entirely dependent on the educational attainment of every other child in this country. Their level of creativity, intelligence and enterprise is a driver of your child’s prosperity. No matter how well educated and prepared your child is and how much you’ve spent on private education, those who choose to live and work here will be constrained by the success of education systems past.
Gonski right now chairs an Australian bank — ANZ — that is about to launch an agility revolution that involves forming its entire workforce of 50,000 people into “scrums”. ANZ is driven by the need to deliver transformation at a much faster pace through new ways of working, says chief executive Shayne Elliott.
Australian education is in the same boat — the future of our children depends on fast-paced change. Can Gonski chair the revolution in Australian education with as much conviction?