Over the last twenty or more years, Australia has undergone “revolutionary reform” in Education. This has not been a regular thing, but a haphazard event, convulsing after elections, during financial meltdowns, changing Ministers and sometimes, for no obvious reason at all other than a brain snap some “higher-up” has.
With all these different “reforms”, you might be forgiven for thinking that one of them would have worked. Alas, sorry to inform you, none have brought to fruition all that it has promised. In fact, I might go so far as to say that some of them have had success in some areas, but many others have made no appreciable improvement in student outcomes what-so-ever.
“Why is this so?” Julius Sumner Miller used to ask all the time. Some people, like politicians, the media, the general public look for easy answers. For them it is teachers who are getting it wrong. It is teachers who are not doing their job. This is obvious, we expect better learning outcomes so if they don’t occur, then obviously teachers are not doing their jobs. Is this really accurate though?
What is not considered is the “reform” itself. Inevitably, what happens is something is done, then there is no follow up to it to check the success or otherwise except where it involves large scale funding. When it doesn’t work, another “reform” is introduced and attention shifts to this new “reform”.
The nett effect of this shift in attention is that no-one actually analyses what went wrong, if anything, what went right, if anything? What succeeded, what didn’t? Who benefited most from it?
Some simple guidelines will apply here. Twenty percent of any cohort will do well with any “reform”. These are the students who are resilient or are adaptable or will just try no matter what is given them. For any reforms though, this may not be the same twenty percent every time but the students with those qualities are likely to be more successful anyway.
Also, about twenty percent of teachers will perform better with any “given reform”. This is because for whatever reason, some teachers will thrive with some things but not with others. Some will simply get it and get on with their teaching, many will not so will just be journeymen. Some won’t get anything that is outside their immediate world so no matter what it tossed at them, it won’t work for them, so they don’t fully participate. They will make the appropriate noises, tick the right boxes, but nothing changes for them.
So why is reform so difficult? Why do so many ideas fall by the wayside and student outcomes seem to deteriorate further? I do not think that there is any clear answer but there are several possibilities.
The sheer size of the Education sector is, of itself, a barrier to reform, I suggest. In my State, we have pre-School, Infant School-(Early Years), Primary School, High School. This goes from, essentially, birth to aged five, then five to twelve then twelve to eighteen. Then there is Vocational Schools and Universities. At about 1.3million people in my State, our Education sector is not large, but it still has nearly 800 State and Private Schools, (about 200 Catholic and Independent Schools), with 3 public and two private Universities. There are also several Universities, local and overseas, that offer on-line courses. Each of these levels of education have their own concerns and objectives.
Education is like a cruise liner. So much of it is above the waterline, the bits with all the razz-ma-tazz, but so much of its actual mechanics are hidden under the waterline. The concerns, the objectives of each level of education, the interests, the beliefs of everyone involved, even the fear of stakeholders, all come together and many seek to avoid change. Even strong advocates for change blanch at actually having to make change. So, targeting reform in these circumstances becomes almost impossible.
Another issue may be that every school caters to different socio-economic groups, different cohorts, different attitudes, so “one size fits all” reforms cannot possibly work. Yet, our politicians, media, parents still expect they will, why?
The actual time lag between the introduction of a reform and the potential outcome of that reform can be over a decade. So many factors change significantly in that time span that I suspect the original reform is often lost in the shuffle. A Government changes, in Australian terms, this means State or Federal Governments. Both put money into Education so a change of Government means changes in policies, no bi-partisanship there.
Education Leaders, particularly principals and deputies retire, change jobs as do other school leaders as well as teachers. Consistency in reform implementation is not a major factor for success when considering the time lag for appropriate assessment of the impact of reform.
There is also the factor of external change, how that impacts on Education. Education does not exist is isolation, it is an integral part of our social fabric, central to so much of our wealth and social stability. The problem is that our society is now changing at an incredibly rapid pace with technology driving much of that pace. Education just cannot keep up.
So to finish, the objectives of reform are always vague, the implementations of reforms are never uniform, the evaluations of reforms are always insufficient. Is there any wonder why education reform is so hard?
The real question is if all the above is true, then what can change that will have a uniform impact across all sectors of Education? Dare I say it, Teacher Training I suggest. That before anything else is the real key to successful Education Reform. The issue here is who pays for it? The public purse, obviously.
At a time when Conservatives are shrinking Government to “core functions” and promoting taxation by stealth, i.e. private schools, as one colleague put it, “Good luck with that one buddy.”