April 26th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Too terrible to contemplate

EDITORIAL: Torch relay highlights Beijing's human rights record

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Could Costello unite demoralised Liberals?

MANUFACTURING: Car-making could be our flagship industry

NEW ZEALAND: NZ Kiwibank now has 600,000 customers

WATER: Federal water policy will add to world food shortage

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Reaping the whirlwind of financial deregulation

PROFILE: Other side of Australia's next Governor-General

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Life is a cabaret / Nepal / Bitter fruits / Russia and China / Swan song? / The skaters' waltz / Rice / Ingrid Betancourt

ASIA: Middle power status for Australia: mind over rhetoric

AFRICA: World stands by as Mugabe inflicts terror in Zimbabwe

FAMILY LAW: Paternity fraud punishes the blameless

SCHOOLS: What must be done to lift standards?

INTERNET FILTERING: Porn industry opposes Conroy's ISP-filter plan

OPINION: Economic policy should serve national interest

BOOKS: LIBERAL FASCISM: The secret history of the American left, from Mussolini to the politics of meaning

BOOKS: EMBRYO: A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen

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What must be done to lift standards?

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, April 26, 2008
Throwing more money at under-performing schools will not necessarily improve educational outcomes, says Kevin Donnelly.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard suggests that the key to overcoming the disadvantage experienced by many government school students is to have a more equitable system of funding, based on the current socio-economic status (SES) formula used for non-government schools. This is smart politics on her part.

Around Australia, teachers are agitating for more pay, and ALP state governments are being portrayed as miserly and out of touch — especially given the research that proves that committed and well-resourced teachers are the key to educational success.

Leading up to last year's election it was also obvious that the ALP at the federal level had copied much of the Howard Government's education agenda — including A to E reports, a back-to-basics approach to curriculum and, worst of all, according to the Australian Education Union, guaranteeing the existing much-criticised SES formula employed to fund non-government schools.

What better way to nullify as issues teacher pay and funding to non-government schools than to promise to give more money to so-called disadvantaged government schools? Witness how the usual suspects, including teacher unions, principals' groups and parent associations, are lining up to laud the initiative.

Arguing, on the grounds of equity and social inclusion, that needy students deserve additional funding is not new. Remember the Whitlam Government's disadvantaged schools program in which individual schools could apply for additional funding based on criteria including the number of students who were working-class, migrant or indigenous.

The only problem is that the Whitlam program, after some years and millions of dollars invested, failed to show evidence that standards had improved. Working on the assumption that increased investment leads to better results might promote a sense of self-righteousness, but it is bad public policy.

Evidenced by the OECD's Education at a Glance 2007 and McKinsey's How the world's best-performing school systems come out on top, the reality is that there is little, if any, relationship between investing more and superior learning outcomes. Those countries that consistently outperform Australia in mathematics and science tests spend less on education as a percentage of GDP.

Also ignored is research carried out by Germany's Ludgar Woessmann who concludes, on analysing the characteristics of those education systems that achieve the best results in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests, that "an increase in the amount of resources used does not generally lead to an increase in educational performance".

Unlike Australia — where our education system suffers from provider-capture, represented by the stultifying influence of teacher unions and educational bureaucrats — the best performing education systems, according to Woessmann, are characterised by school autonomy, a strong non-government school sector, and a situation where teacher unions have minimal control.

As illustrated by a series of essays in the current edition of the US quarterly City Journal (Vol.18, No.1, Winter 2008), it is also the case that there are more cost-efficient and effective ways to improve standards, especially amongst the disadvantaged, represented by such innovations as charter schools and school vouchers.

One of them is school choice, represented by vouchers that give parents the financial ability to choose between government and non-government schools as the money follows the child. However, as Sol Stern, an educational columnist based in New York, warns, this on its own is not a panacea for educational inequality. Equally important is the quality of the curriculum and teacher effectiveness. Stern writes:

"It is clear that the school choice movement has been very good for the disadvantaged. Public and privately-funded voucher programs have liberated hundreds of thousands of poor minority children from failing public schools."

Stern's argument that disadvantaged groups, such as African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and disabled students, have benefited from school choice and increased competition between government and non-government schools is also taken up in another City Journal paper written by Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Based on evaluations of the school choice movement in Milwaukee, Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Texas, Greene concludes: "In addition to evidence about the competitive effects of voucher programs... competition from charter schools improves the academic performance of nearby traditional public schools."

Much like Australia's non-government schools, charter schools, when compared to state-controlled schools, have a degree of autonomy and flexibility in terms of hiring, firing and rewarding staff, as well as the freedom to shape a curriculum that best suits the needs and aspirations of the school's local community.

Reflecting debates led by The Australian newspaper about the importance of an academically sound and rigorous curriculum, based on the established disciplines of knowledge, two contributors to the City Journal debate, E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, argue that just as important as charter schools and vouchers is the quality of the curriculum.

Diane Ravitch, author of Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (2000) and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003), argues that relying on market forces to strengthen education and raise standards is not enough.

Based on research identifying the characteristics of those education systems achieving the best results in international tests, Ravitch concludes, "Curriculum and instruction are the sine qua non of school reform, and we will have a far more successful school system if we devote our energies to improving them."

One only needs to think of the prevalence of Australia's outcomes-based approach to curriculum, where competencies such as being future-orientated replace traditional subjects, and where teachers no longer teach; they act as guides by the side, to understand how school choice can be undermined by a state-mandated, dumbed-down curriculum.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's talk about an education revolution suggests that the Federal Government will break with old divisions between the left and the right associated with misplaced assumptions about the causes of educational disadvantage.

Ms Gillard's suggestion that the SES funding formula should be extended to government schools, on the assumption that increased investment will overcome educational inequality, while attractive to the ALP's traditional supporters amongst the teacher unions and professional associations, shows that there is a widening gap between the government's rhetoric and reality.

— Kevin Donnelly, author of Dumbing Down (available for $24.95) from News Weekly Books, has recently returned from New York where he met with Sol Stern and Diane Ravitch.

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