If the OECD is worried, we should be too

Maurie Mulheron

Are you sitting down? This news might shock you but most government education policy is written without a teacher in sight. Worse, once implemented, the change is never evaluated (let alone disposed of) but instead left in place like an abandoned toxic chemical silently harming schools for years afterwards.

So, if the profession is rarely consulted, from where do these policies and ideas come? (That would require a book or two, and one worth reading is the recently published A Chronicle of Echoes by an American teacher, Mercedes Schneider, and available from the Federation library.)

For instance, we have all heard that the answer to improving learning outcomes has nothing to do with funding. This idea is used to justify why the Gonski model should be scuttled. Is it just a coincidence that we often hear conservative politicians repeat this?

“There appears to be no strong or systematic relationship between school expenditures and student performance,” argued Eric Hanushek, an economist unencumbered by any school teaching experience.

Hanushek is a senior fellow of Stanford University’s pro-market Hoover Institution, one of the hundreds of right-wing think tanks in the USA supplying arguments for politicians who have declared war on public education.

Hanushek has had a profound influence on education not only in the USA but around the world. For more than 40 years he has been the leading proponent of the “money doesn’t matter” mantra. He advocates that accountability through high-stakes testing as a measure of teacher effectiveness is more important than increased funding or reducing class sizes.

He is regularly trotted out as an “expert witness” for state authorities in court cases where educators and parents have sought to redress disparities and inequalities in schools funding.

Around the globe politicians and conservative commentators have parroted Hanushek’s beliefs, keen to find a justification for the chronic and sustained underfunding of public schools.

“However, with no relationship between spending and achievement, and with public debt rising, school budgets must be reviewed to minimise waste and maximise productivity,” so says Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). The CIS is an influential Australian think tank with shadowy funding sources and with a cheeky name given that it is not a centre, hardly independent and studies very little but instead pumps out predictable right-wing orthodoxies taken from people like Hanushek.

“The relationship between education funding and student outcomes is tenuous,” says John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), another home-grown right-wing think tank with a name intended to give an impression of neutrality. But the IPA is hardly an institute, hates anything public (especially education), with its affairs closely linked to the Liberal Party, having helped form the party and raised funds for it.

Then we have Christopher Pyne, current Federal Minister for Education, former lawyer turned politician, who has also argued, “Money is not the issue in education ... there’s always been an obsession with smaller class sizes — which is what the union is most focused on — smaller class sizes, more teachers.”

For Pyne, “money is not the issue”. (Surprising, given the school he attended in Adelaide, St Ignatius College, annually receives more than $7.3 million from the Federal Government and $1.75 million from the South Australian Government.)

At other times he has said, “It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference,” arguing that the problem is the “way we teach”.

Now this is an interesting choice of the first-person plural, “we”. Just like most of the proponents of the “money doesn’t matter" ideology, Pyne has never taught.

Let us just pause for a moment and reflect on what so many of these politicians, commentators and so-called researchers have in common. They are not teachers. They push an agenda that excludes teachers. Their policies are not based on research and are never subjected to independent evaluation or peer review.

If we look back over the past 30 years of so-called education reform in this country, virtually all education initiatives — from former NSW Education Minister Terry Metherell’s Schools Renewal in NSW, to Kennett’s Schools of the Future in Victoria, to the NSW 47 Schools Pilot and Local Schools, Local Decisions model, to Gillard’s rushed Empowering Local Schools idea, through to Western Australia’s, and later Pyne’s, Independent Public Schools policy — have been devised by non-educators, without any research basis, heavily influenced by orthodox economics from theories promulgated by right-wing think-tanks and implemented by government treasury officials.

Equally alarming is that no significant education change in Australia has been subjected to independent evaluation and research to assess the impact on schools, teachers and students. This is despite the permanent changes to the public school system that have resulted from these changes.

And now the OECD is expressing alarm at the lack of research evidence and the absence of any evaluation of government education policies. The OECD studied 450 so-called education reforms of its 34 member countries, including Australia. Its findings were released recently in the OECD’s Education Policy Outlook 2015. The analysis revealed that “once new policies are adopted, there is little follow-up. Only 10 per cent of the policies considered in [the] dataset have been evaluated for their impact”.

This is extraordinary. Only one in 10 policies ever evaluated. Public school students and their teachers in this state and around Australia have been subjected to a sustained period of radical experimentation that has never been genuinely evaluated. Conversely, what has sustained our public education systems are not the policy changes but the sheer ingenuity, goodwill and intelligence of teachers — the only constant throughout this period.

Indeed, the only significant education reform in Australia that has a strong research base with built-in accountability and evaluation mechanisms is the Gonski funding model. And yet this is the very initiative that conservatives would seek to destroy.