Increasing opportunity for Australian schools
What is the best way to raise standards, especially amongst disadvantaged groups, and make sure that Australian students are achieving the best academic results?
The question is more than hypothetical, given the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results that show Australian 15 year olds going backwards in reading.
The 2009 results released last week show a 13 point drop compared to Australia’s performance in 2000.
It’s also the case that other international tests like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that our students are consistently beaten by students from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
Based on a deficit view of education and the belief that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are destined to failure, one approach is to argue for more government intervention in education and to pressure governments to redirect funding from so-called privileged non-government schools to disadvantaged state schools.
A good example of this cultural-left view of overcoming disadvantage is a recent article written by a long time critic of Catholic and independent schools Chris Bonnor in which he analyses the PISA 2009 results.
Based on the test’s observation that Australia’s education system is ‘high quality/medium equity’ Bonnor argues that the nation’s schools are guilty of reinforcing disadvantage.
Instead of our education system promoting equality for all, the situation is one where the “achievement gaps between high socio-economic status (SES) and low SES students have increased”.
Bonnor blames this inequality on Australia’s adoption of what he describes as “a lopsided free market of diversity, competition and choice” in education championed by conservatives like Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Howard.
The first thing to note about Bonnor’s argument is that it is dangerous to draw a conclusion or make a generalisation from one piece of evidence.
One swallow does not a summer make and, contrary to what the 2009 test concludes, the 2006 PISA test argues that Australian schools are very successful at providing a ladder of opportunity.
As noted by Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, “Another indicator of our world-class education system is the observation that the relationship between socioeconomic background and student achievement in Australia is weaker that the OECD average.
In the popular jargon, Australia is a ‘high quality/high equity’ country based on our PISA 2006 performance”.
Based on the one PISA test, Bonnor also argues that school competition has not “delivered any significant increases in quality” and that the results show “no significant differences between government, Catholic and independent schools”.
The implication is that parents are wasting their money paying non-government school fees and governments are justified in reducing funding as such schools fail to do any better than government schools in tests like PISA.
Ignored, based on the results of Australia’s literacy and numeracy tests at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 (NAPLAN), year 12 results and tertiary entry is that Catholic and independent schools consistently outperform government schools (with the exception of those that are selective).
Also ignored is the evidence that non-government schools outperform government schools even after adjusting results for students’ socioeconomic background.
In opposition to what non-government school critics like Bonnor argue, socioeconomic background is not the main factor in deciding whether students succeed or fail.
After analysing Australia’s results in a number of international tests two University of Melbourne researchers, Kaye Stacey and Max Stephens, conclude, “While on average students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds in Australia are more likely to achieve at higher performance levels than students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the correlations in Australia, between socioeconomic background and performance have never been particularly strong when compared internationally”.
They go on to say, “This means that socioeconomic background is not a particularly strong predictor of performance at the level of the individual student in Australia with students from both high and low socioeconomic backgrounds achieving across the spectrum of performance”.
The argument that non-government schools perform well, and that such performance is not simply because such schools only enrol privileged students, is also supported by research carried out by the ACER tracking some 13,000 students during their journey from year 9 to year 12.
On analysing the year 12 results achieved by the group of students, the researchers conclude, “Students who attended non-government schools outperformed students from government schools, even after talking into account socioeconomic background and achievement in literacy and numeracy”.
The ACER report goes on to identify a number of factors that are more influential than socioeconomic background in determining whether students achieve strong year 12 results; including, students’ prior academic achievement, having a disciplined and effective classroom environment, employing motivated and well qualified teachers, having high expectations of students and schools reflecting the types of values and beliefs favoured by parents.
It’s no secret that such characteristics, with a few exceptions, are associated with Catholic and independent schools and explain why parents are voting with their feet and flocking to such schools.
It’s also no secret that critics like Bonnor and the Australian Education Union, in addition to pressuring governments to reduce funding, are keen to see non-government schools lose their autonomy and flexibility by restricting their growth and forcing them to become more like state schools.
Such is already happening.
Non-government schools, while exercising a greater degree of autonomy than government schools, have to abide by a raft of state and Commonwealth regulations in areas like financial probity, health and safety, teacher registration and certification and curriculum.
As part of the ALP government’s education revolution, involving a number of National Partnership Agreements and the Schools Assistance Bill 2008, it’s also the case that funding is tied to Catholic and independent schools conforming to government dictates.
In addition to non-government schools having to conform to government regulation and control in areas like testing and curriculum, the federal government has legislated to make it more difficult for schools to expand or for new schools to be built.
It’s also the case that Australia lacks a voucher funding system where the money follows the student to whatever school attended – government or non-government.
Instead of agreeing with Bonnor and his argument that education in Australia has suffered because of school choice, an alternative argument is that any perceived failings are because we have failed to adopt a true market driven system.
Given the fact that Catholic and independent schools outperform government schools, even after adjusting for students’ SES, an argument can also be put that the best way to overcome disadvantage is to properly fund non-government schools and to introduce vouchers or tax credits to allow more parents to embrace school choice.
At the same time, and proven by the fact that non-government schools were able to implement the government’s Building the Education Revolution program more efficiently and cheaply than state schools, it is vital to free government schools from centralised, bureaucratic control and give them the autonomy to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their local communities.
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