December 21st 2013

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Australia's year of the three prime ministers

EDITORIAL: Australia needs to rethink East Timor policy

SOUTH AFRICA: Nelson Mandela: some inconvenient truths

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: A clear and present danger:
Religious liberty and the family in the late-modern age

LIFE ISSUES: Belgium euthanasia experience teaches bitter lessons

VICTORIA: Liberal Party votes to restore GP's conscience rights

SCHOOLS: Extra money not the best way to raise standards

OPINION: The values needed to underpin Australia's economic growth

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: High Court challenge to same-sex 'marriage' in ACT

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Scant media coverage of Parliamentary Prayer Service

CULTURE: The most dangerous idea in human history

TAIWAN: From putrid to clean and green in 30 years

BOOK REVIEW: Not the end of history but the return of history

BOOK REVIEW: A time for militancy

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Extra money not the best way to raise standards

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, December 21, 2013

Despite the rhetoric surrounding the Rudd-Gillard education revolution and the additional millions spent on education during the past six years, there’s no denying too many Australian students are underperforming and that standards are in decline.

Based on last year’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, Australian 15-year-old students are ranked 13th in reading, 19th in mathematics and 17th in science, representing a significant decline compared with the 2009 rankings, where students were placed ninth in reading, 14th in mathematics and 10th in science.

WA businesswoman Gina Rinehart 

Add the fact our Year 4 students are ranked 27 out of 44 countries in the Progress in International Literacy Reading Study, and that most of our universities now have remedial classes in essay writing and algebra, and it’s clear urgent action needs to be taken.

One solution, voiced by Australia’s cultural-left education commissariat and fellow travellers at the ABC and in the Fairfax press, is to argue for more money, on the assumption that increased spending targeted at low socio-economic background students, especially in government schools, will lift standards.

In a comment piece posted on The Conversation website, academics argue the Abbott government must commit to years five and six of the Gonski model, when the lion’s share of funding is to magically appear, on the basis: “We know that increased funding makes a difference to the performance of students and schools.”

Australian Education Union (AEU) deputy federal president Correna Haythorpe also argues for increased investment because declining standards — instead of being caused by ineffective teaching methods and a dumbed-down curriculum — are a result of the Howard government’s socioeconomic status (SES) funding model where, supposedly, “most funding has gone to the wealthiest private schools”.

Ignored, as stated in a commonwealth parliamentary school funding background note dated March 8 this year, is the fact non-government schools are “funded on a needs basis”; wealthier independent schools, for example, receive only 13.7 per cent of the base level of funding that government schools receive from state and commonwealth governments.

Also ignored is one of the principal reasons funding to Catholic and independent schools has increased: because of the substantial increase in enrolments where, across a 10-year period, 2000-10, enrolments in Catholic and independent schools increased by 21 per cent while enrolments in government schools flatlined at 1 per cent.

A Sydney Morning Herald editorial repeated the AEU’s argument when it claimed the SES model “has denied countless children the chance to learn the basics, reach their potential and reverse the nation’s educational decline”. One may be forgiven for thinking that forcing schools to teach reading by the discredited whole-language approach, and imposing ineffective education fads such as “collaborative, negotiated goal-setting” and an assessment system where nobody fails, may have more to do with falling standards.

Increased spending is not the solution to lifting standards and improving outcomes, best illustrated by the fact Catholic schools, compared with government schools, achieve better results with less funding — on average Catholic schools receive $8,286 in state and commonwealth recurrent funding while state schools receive $10,868.

Evidence that Catholic schools and their teachers are especially effective is proven by the fact such schools, compared with government schools and notwithstanding larger classes, have higher retention rates and better success at getting students into tertiary studies.

In addition to looking to education systems in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, what policy-makers, governments and educators should also be focusing on is identifying the characteristics that help explain why Catholic schools, and non-government schools more generally, do so well.

Such analysis is especially needed given the evidence in the Australian Council for Educational Research report on the 2012 PISA results that Catholic and independent school students “performed significantly higher than students in government schools”, even after “student-level socioeconomic background is taken into account”.

After analysing the relationship between the results schools achieve in Australia’s National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and socioeconomic background, researchers from Curtin University draw a similar conclusion. Their paper, published in the Australian Economic Review, states: “The results also indicate that test outcomes vary by school sector, with non-government schools having higher school-average scores, even after differences in schools’ ICSEA are taken into account.” (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage is used by the My School website to measure student home background).

The cultural-left argument that the reason non-government schools achieve stronger outcomes is because their students come from wealthy, privileged communities does not apply to many non-government schools, especially those from the Catholic sector.

As noted by Gary Marks, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, in a paper analysing school sector differences in tertiary entrance, the fact that Catholic students do well cannot be attributed to socioeconomic background, as the profile “of Catholic school students differs little from government school students”.

He also offers reasons in opposition to the argument that money is the solution when he concludes, “Other more credible explanations are higher levels of parental and community involvement with Catholic schools, higher standards of discipline and greater emphasis on academic performance.”

What Marks terms “academic press”, involving school culture and classroom environment, is a significant factor explaining success as measured by academic ability and staying on to Year 12, as shown by a second Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth study.

The researchers state: “The conclusion is that the quality of the school matters and students from low socioeconomic background benefit even more from attending a school of high academic quality.”

While it may be unpalatable to those arguing increased investment is the best way to raise standards, the evidence is that much can be done that doesn’t involve the mythical rivers of gold promised by the Gonski report.

Enforcing a more disciplined classroom environment, having high expectations, teaching a more rigorous and evidence-based curriculum, and engaging parents and community, in addition to being more cost-effective, have been shown to produce stronger outcomes.

Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and has recently been appointed a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He is author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science!(available from News Weekly Books). This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, December 7-8, 2013. 

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