Improving school performance

Marilyn Harrington, Social Policy

Key issue
More funding, improving teacher quality, greater school autonomy and national testing and reporting are strategies that governments are using to improve school performance.

The achievement of Australian school students

Evidence of declining literacy and numeracy achievements of Australian school students is a major driver of the policy imperative to improve the performance of schools.

An Australian Council for Educational Research report shows an overall decline in the reading and mathematics levels of 15-year-olds since 2000. The growth in the impact of socioeconomic background on student performance is also a major concern, with disadvantaged students more likely to underperform. Further, the period since 2000 has seen Australia surpassed by other countries in international surveys of student attainment.

These developments have occurred at the same time as expenditure on school education has grown significantly and a raft of education reforms and initiatives has been introduced by Australian governments.

More funding, improving teacher quality, greater school autonomy and national testing and reporting are among the suite of reforms that governments have introduced to improve school and student performance. While there is evidence to support these strategies, there is also research that questions their efficacy.

School funding

According to a 2013 Grattan Institute analysis, school education expenditure by all governments grew by 37% ($11.3 billion) in real terms from 2002–03 to 2012–13. Commonwealth budget data show a similar trend—total Australian Government expenditure on Australian schools grew by an estimated 58% in real terms over the same period.

Nevertheless, the Review of Funding for Schooling (the Gonski Review) considered that a significant increase in funding by all governments was required to lift the performance of school students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The additional funding for schooling subsequently negotiated through the National Education Reform Agreement (the NERA) will take effect from 2014. Had the NERA been implemented in full (Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory have not signed), there would have been about $15 billion in additional funding (two-thirds provided by the Australian Government) phased in over a six-year period. The Coalition Government has committed to the same level of funding that is currently in the Commonwealth Budget’s four-year forward estimates period. Whether it will commit to the full quantum of the NERA funding is uncertain.

Improving the quality of teaching

Strategies to improve the quality of teaching are paramount in the school reform agenda. This is not surprising given the widespread consensus, supported by extensive research, that quality of teaching has the most impact on student attainment.

Governments in Australia and overseas are pursuing similar strategies to improve the quality of teaching. These strategies include: raising the standard of entrants to the teaching profession, improving and raising the level of teacher education courses, mentoring beginning teachers, national professional standards for teachers and professional development and performance rewards. There are also programs to attract high-performing graduates and other skilled and experienced professionals to the profession and to attract teachers to work in particular schools.

This focus on improving the quality of teaching, however, is causing some concern about adverse effects on the teaching profession and pedagogy. Australian teaching professor, Stephen Dinham, has warned that solutions promulgated by those ‘who are out of touch with teaching’ are creating ‘panic’ and reinforcing ‘misconceptions’, while providing ‘little guidance or positive substance for the profession’.

School autonomy

School autonomy gives school principals greater control over budgets, staffing and school curricula, but it is contentious.

Victoria has long had a devolved school administration model. Western Australia (WA) and Queensland are also now moving towards greater school autonomy with their independent public schools. The Coalition Government is committed to extending this model nationally.

However, evidence about the benefits of school autonomy is mixed. In his 1997 examination of Victorian schools, Stephen Lamb found that devolution entrenched disadvantage for schools in low socioeconomic areas. The Melbourne Graduate School of Education also discounts increased school autonomy as an effective strategy for improving student outcomes. These findings are supported by a substantial body of international research.

In The Myth of Markets in School Education, Ben Jensen warns that autonomy requires quality leadership. He considers that school leaders are ‘too often’ given autonomy but ‘lack the direction, support and development to lead ... key reforms’.

The initial evaluation of the WA independent schools model is positive. It reports that principals consider the initiative is enhancing school functioning and ‘resource efficiency’. Nevertheless, there are concerns about increased workloads and administrative burdens under the model. It is premature, however, to consider whether student outcomes are improving as a result of increased school autonomy in WA.

National testing and reporting

The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) annual assessments are presented as an important means of ascertaining student progress and the effectiveness of teaching strategies, identifying student needs and reporting student progress. The My School website, which includes NAPLAN results, was developed as a means of providing greater transparency and accountability for school performance.

However, NAPLAN testing and My School have generated much concern about the uses to which NAPLAN data is put, and the negative effects on students and schools. There is Australian and international evidence that shows standardised testing and ‘league’ tables can present a narrow view of school performance. They are also open to misinterpretation, can distort pedagogical practice and can adversely affect student wellbeing.

Evidence presented to two Senate committee inquiries into NAPLAN in 2010 and 2013 bears out these findings, as does research by Greg Thompson from Murdoch University. There are also concerns about NAPLAN data being used to determine the Schooling Resource Standard, which is the basis of the new funding system for schools.

The future

It appears that if school performance is to be improved, then the right mix of reform strategies must be found.

Clues to what this mix might look like are provided by Finnish educator, Pasi Stahlberg, who warns against over-emphasising competition, standardisation, school choice and test-based accountability. Rather, he stresses the importance of ‘collaboration, individualised teaching, equity and … a trust-based, well-educated [teaching] profession’.

Stahlberg also highlights, as did the Gonski Review, that it is the equity of education systems that is of critical importance to school improvement.

Further reading

M Harrington, Funding the National Plan for School Improvement: an explanation, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 26 June 2013.

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