- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
- Let's teach maths and science
- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
- Early childhood education & care
- Teachers and Teaching
Fixing disadvantage in education
Education is a hard policy area for governments to get right. Raewyn Connell discusses how and why they get it wrong, and ways it can be fixed.
Education is a hard policy area for governments to get right. They want to. It’s a popular topic with voters: opinion polls show ‘education’ near the top of the issues list every election. Education is also a big-budget item, coming second after health.
Not surprisingly, politicians want visible programs, and quick fixes abound. The education scene overflows with them: early reading schemes, pedagogies for boys, e-learning, phonetics schemes, discipline plans, performance pay for teachers, and lots more. They range from genuine innovations to nutty obsessions, with a good deal of profit-making thrown in.
But education systems are large, complex institutions with large workforces, impacted by every major interest group in the country. Significant changes in education systems are measured in decades, and their effects may only be detected years later when students are adults. How do you fit that into a three-year electoral cycle? It’s an exceptional politician who can think far enough ahead to be on the timescale for real educational reform, and persuade a cabinet, a party, and the media to think the same way.
Australian education policy is at this kind of point now. We had an ‘education revolution’ announced without detail; how will the detail be filled in? There is concern about underperformance on internationally standardised tests, so we are heading for some kind of performance boost. There is concern about incoherence between state-based systems, so we are heading for a national curriculum and national standards. And there is concern about the underperformance of disadvantaged social groups, especially Aboriginal children, so we are heading for some kind of social inclusion agenda.
The concept of ‘underperformance’ is important here. It implies that all is well, educationally, with those who are ‘performing’ to the standards. Implicitly, the system is fine—all that is needed is to bring the laggards up to scratch.
There is a classic bad answer to this problem. We can always improve the test scores of a group of children by teaching-to-the-test—narrowing the curriculum to the topics being tested, giving the pupils lots of practice on tests, and focusing teachers’ energies on performance as measured by these tests.
That is, essentially, what high-fee private schools and selective state schools do at upper-secondary level. Combined with the supportive and well-resourced family backgrounds of the groups they draw from, the strategy means that these schools appear year after year as the top schools in statewide rankings.
Comprehensive schools aren’t able to follow that strategy so easily, but can try: by imposing more discipline, increasing time on (academic) task, ramping up competition, and above all, getting rid of disruptive, hard-to-teach students. That way, an aggressive principal can move an individual school up the league table. If you do that systemwide, system test averages might be improved. But have you improved education? For most children, you have probably made it worse, and for children from the least privileged groups, you have certainly made it worse.
There is also a new bad answer to the problem of educational underperformance: performance pay for teachers. Pay top teachers a lot more, and (possibly) pay all teachers according to the performance increments they achieve for their students.
There are many wrong assumptions in this solution: for instance, that teachers operate as individuals. Most of teachers’ work is collaborative and institutionally framed. A good department, a good school staff, and good institutional backing are important in making a good teacher, and are especially important in making good educational experiences for the kids. Setting teachers against each other by setting up a competition for performance pay could be utterly destructive.
In any case, good teachers, as understood by colleagues and principals, are not those who are particularly motivated by dollars. They are those with a dedication to teaching as a profession, and to the needs of their students. Further, performance pay has been trialled. It was introduced in the 19th century and was called ‘payment by results’. It was measured by test outcomes; and every school system in the country abandoned it.
To get beyond the bad answers, we need to look again at that basic image of ‘underperformance’. Educational sociologists have been studying the relation between social position and educational outcomes for 50 years. One of the basic findings is that the effects of social inequality are not confined to the bottom 10 or 15 per cent, but extend across the social scale.
This often shows up in the statistics as a gradient of outcomes against a measure of socioeconomic status. In some investigations, it is the top 10 or 15 per cent (the most privileged group) that shows a break in the curve. It is clear that the mechanisms of educational disadvantage have to do with the working of the whole education system, not with poverty in itself. Kids in poverty get the worst consequences of a broader pattern of advantage and disadvantage.
This is consistent with the findings of economic research into poverty. In countries like Australia there is not a fixed population in poverty, as defined by a poverty-line measure. There is turnover as workingclass families or groups suffer unemployment, regional decline, accident or illness. There is no distinct ‘culture of poverty’.
It also makes sense in the light of history: modern education systems were born segregated. They were intentionally divided, by social class, by race, by gender, and by physical ability; and the social hierarchies were embedded in curricula as well as facilities. There have been long struggles to break down the institutional segregation, with some successes, especially admitting women to universities and creating comprehensive high schools. But privilege has constantly found new ways to reassert itself. This process goes on in our day—in government subsidies to elite private schools, in the self-selection of the ‘G8’ universities, in the new emphasis on competition between schools.
A crucial fact is that the curriculum has never been democratised. There have been attempts, but broadly, the school and university curriculum in Australia remains rooted in the culture of the privileged, and continues to be assessed by methods that filter out most of the un-privileged from the upper levels of the education system. It remains true that the strongest predictors of academic outcomes within the dominant curriculum are the socioeconomic and educational backgrounds of the families from which students come.
In this situation, the policies to reform Australian education can easily become self-contradictory. Policies that introduce national testing in the name of auditable ‘standards’ will have the effect of entrenching the privilege of the social groups for whom the current curriculum was designed. A national curriculum, if it becomes prescriptive and especially if it is tied to testing, will narrow educational offerings and make the inclusion of working-class and non-English-speaking migrant communities more difficult. Tightly targeted ‘inclusion’ programs will miss the system-wide dynamics that are the main source of inequalities in education.
So what can be done? It’s necessary to think and act on a scale commensurate with the problem.
- Rethinking the curriculum to make it work for the full range of social groups in the education system. It’s the principle I call ‘curricular justice’. It means building curriculum from the cultures and around the needs of groups of students who are currently marginalised, including Aboriginal students—a process already under way; also including immigrant students for whom the process is not well advanced, and rural students. Thinking curriculum also means thinking assessment. We need to move forward from primitive monocultural abstracted tests. Alternatives already exist.
- Designing initiatives to make full use of teachers’ creativity and collective skills. Teaching is a daily process of improvisation. Teachers’ capacity to judge the needs of students, to tailor curriculum to their needs, to cooperate with each other in developing materials and methods, are of the essence in making education systems work well. Reforms should be designed to support and increase this capacity, not abrade it.
- Focusing resources where they are most needed. When you factor in selective drop-out, and the higher cost of advanced levels of education, far more money is spent on the education of middle-class students than on the education of workingclass students. Government subsidies to elite private schools are the most scandalous part of wider funding inequalities. I doubt that curricular justice can be achieved without greater economic justice in the sector.
- Renovating technical and vocational education. After primary schooling, this is the area where there is most chance of immediate gains in social inclusiveness, and changed relationships between marginalised communities and formal education systems. This could be the driver of wider educational change.
- Developing schools as community resources. Public schools can serve local communities in multiple ways—as cultural centres, as adult education centres, as social centres, as points of contact or delivery for other public services. The more a school or group of schools is embedded in local society, the more resources it will have and the more pupils will feel familiarity and ownership.
There is no short-term solution to inequalities in education. But I would argue that work along these lines has the best chance of shifting the system in the long term in democratic directions.
Raewyn Connell, author of Schools and Social Justice, is university professor in the University of Sydney.
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