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More education funding is no guarantee of better schools

Analysis

Education funding will be a hot topic when the new Federal Parliament finally takes shape, but Richard Blandy argues that budget cuts are unlikely to reduce the quality of education our children receive.

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We live in a time when reductions in government spending – and increases in taxes – will have to be made if our children and grandchildren are not to face much bigger funding cuts and tax hikes when lenders cease being willing to roll over (let alone increase) government debt at its present low interest rates.

Kicking the fiscal can down the road, which was the preferred approach by every party in the latest federal election, shows a preference for the current population to live better at the expense of our descendants, who will live worse as a result of our unwillingness to bring government budgets into better balance and start reducing debt now.

Big-ticket items in commonwealth and state budgets must come under heavy pressure when the inevitable spending cuts begin, because it is impossible to prune budgets severely while leaving major expenditure items untouched.

Health, pensions and/or education cannot escape the scythe, in due course, whatever the eventual result from Saturday’s election.

It may seem unthinkable that government spending on education be substantially reduced. But just how bad would the effects be on the quality of the education that our young will receive?

Many of my readers will have watched Revolution School (ABC2, Tuesdays, 8.30pm). If not, I recommend you catch up with it on ABC iView. It is about the turnaround in student outcomes at Kambrya College in Berwick, an outer south-eastern suburb of Melbourne.

When principal Michael Muscat took over in 2008, the school was chaotic and its academic results were very poor. Now, within seven years, Kambrya has become one of the most improved schools in Victoria in terms of Year 12 results. And not because of any preferential expenditure increase compared with other Victorian schools.

Kambrya has achieved its turnaround simply by working with the University of Melbourne to implement better teacher training and classroom practices.

Professor John Hattie, director of Melbourne University’s Education Research Institute, says improving the quality of feedback students receive and ensuring positive teacher-student interaction leads to the best outcomes. Class size, homework and public or private schooling are not nearly so important as the quality of individual teachers, Professor Hattie says.

Schools don’t make much difference – it’s the teachers. When I look at Kambrya’s achievements, the major message we should take home is that relentless focus on the quality of teaching can truly make a difference to the lives of students and that can happen in any school in the nation.

We have known this for a long time but have been side-tracked by vested political interests into supposing that spending more money on schools means the quality of teaching will rise as well. It hasn’t and it doesn’t.

An early, comprehensive study of this conundrum in terms of schooling outcomes was undertaken by Professor Eric Hanushek, of the University of Rochester, and was published in the authoritative Journal of Economic Literature in 1986.

Professor Hanushek focused on what he called “the Puzzle” about schooling in the post-World War II period, when the constantly rising costs and quality of the inputs of schools appeared to be unmatched by improvement in the performance of students.

He concluded that schools differed dramatically in quality, but not because of the rudimentary factors that many researchers (and policy makers) have looked to for explanation. For example, differences in quality do not seem to reflect variations in expenditure, class sizes or other commonly measured attributes of schools and teachers, Instead, they appear to result from differences in teacher skills.

To reiterate, the effectiveness of teaching is not related to the usual measures of school quality, teacher qualifications, pupil/teacher ratios and spending per student. It is related to the presence in schools of teachers who do a good job of teaching. Surprise, surprise.

The educational policy upshot is that spending cuts, which result in an increase in class sizes and reductions in spending per student, cannot be expected to do discernible harm to overall student performance.

Schools, in general, do not seem to go about systematically getting the best student performance that they can, which is why Kambrya College’s focus on good teaching is so path-breaking.

There are good teachers, of course, throughout the school system, and principals, students and parents know who they are. Parents try very hard to get their children into Mr Brown’s and Mrs Smith’s classes, because they know that they will learn a lot more than if they wind up in Miss X’s or Mr Y’s class.

Good schools possess large numbers of very good teachers, as well as an ethos (as at Kambrya) supportive of their values, methods and goals.

The decisions parents make on the basis on the quality of particular teachers and schools are well-based. Such decisions are certainly likely to be better based than student allocations made by the South Australian Education Department on the basis of zoning, quotas and other bureaucratic criteria, which have nothing to do with the quality of the education that children receive.

The conclusion follows that it is pointless to throw more money at schools in the belief that this will somehow improve educational outcomes – especially for poorly-performing students for whom improved educational outcomes are critical – until the schools adopt processes more closely directed at improving student performance.

A cut in government spending that induced schools to try to improve the teaching going on in them (in order to be rewarded later in terms of increased funding, for example) would actually improve our education system, not worsen it.

Improving the processes of education implies a decentralisation of decision-making to the schools themselves to the level of principals, teachers, parents and students.  This is the level where relevant information is accessible, where principals should be allowed to make (and should be responsible for) hiring decisions, where the use of incentive pay to reward good teachers makes sense, and where the use of voucher funding to reward good schools that reflect parents’ preferences also makes sense.

This is the direction that a system of government independent schools could be expected to evolve towards. The present system hamstrings the efforts of individual schools, individual teachers, parents and neighbourhoods to create the better educational services that people want for themselves.

Our schools would perform much better if our education bureaucracy in Flinders St had to sell its services to the schools (whose budgets would rise to permit them to buy wanted services, like advice from Melbourne University) in competition with other service providers.

Good education is about the quality of human interactions in schools. If we want better education for our children, we should introduce systems that offer more opportunity and incentive for high-quality interactions in each classroom.

As luck would have it, as I was writing this article The Economist magazine came out with a cover story titled “How to make a good teacher”. Its first sentences were: “Forget smart uniforms and small classes. The secret to stellar grades and thriving students is teachers. One American study found that in a single year of teaching, the top 10 per cent of teachers impart three times as much learning to their pupils as the worst 10 per cent do.”

What the economics of education shows is that the critical issue is to have more people in classrooms like my outstanding Grade 3 teacher, Ted Gare at Victor Harbor Primary in 1947. My school report from that time, compiled by Mr Gare and Mr Gent, the headmaster, shows that there were 51 students in that class  but I do not remember it as crowded.

Ted must have worked incredibly hard. I still have exercise books that he corrected in red ink, filled with elephant stamps and encouraging messages. We all loved and respected him, and rightly so because he taught us so wonderfully well. I will never forget him.

A cut in the education budget is very unlikely to worsen the education that our children receive provided we focus on getting better teaching in bigger classes. Instead of wasting money on COLAs (Covered Outside Learning Areas), we should be listening to Michael Muscat at Kambrya, freeing up our schools from bureaucratic control, and hiring a lot more Ted (and Trina) Gare clones.

Richard Blandy is an Adjunct Professor of Economics in the Business School at the University of South Australia and a weekly contributor to InDaily.

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