John Hattie’s article Challenge of focusing education reform in The Australian on 7 June 2011 demonstrates at least a couple of the wicked problems we face in education.
AUSTRALIA ranks high in the world “student achievement in schools” league tables. Over the past decade, however, we are slipping out of the top 10 and the major drop is among those above the average. The sad reality is that we may be closing the “gap” but in the wrong direction. We have tried so many experiments re-structuring schools, we have open learning communities, devolution to local schools, national exams and curricula, and a constant stream of “everyone” proclaiming their answer should be the next great solution. These levers of change have rarely made a difference elsewhere – but they sound easier to proclaim and more of these drop down, drop in solutions will continue to have minimal impact.
I find it depressing that Hattie, who has done much good work on assessment models and classroom observation, is adding to the static and not to intelligent discussion on education in Australia.
Why, if, as Hattie claims, all other countries are trying to abandon ‘test-outcome’ models, does he place any importance on where Australia stands in relation to international test scores? His claim that ‘we may be closing the “gap” but in the wrong direction’ is a cheap, and inaccurate, shot. Australia’s average score in both Reading and Mathematics declined in the 2009 PISA tests while science scores remained steady. If we were closing the gap the average should be rising and the spread diminishing. In fact, scores in Australia continue to be widely spread, closely correlating with socio-economic status, and continuing the differential between indigenous and non-indigenous students’ scores and between country and city students’ scores. Hattie’s proclamation “imagine two students of the same abilities – it does not matter much in Australia which school they go to” is facile. What is behind that little word ‘abilities’? Hard to believe ability is distributed on the basis of socio-economic status or the location of your school. The gap is alive and well.
Having captured his audience, (and ensured he is picked up by the media feeds and rebroadcast throughout the day), with a claim based on the very test scores he goes on to disparage and dismiss, Hattie then joins ‘everyone’ in proclaiming his own formulation of the problem/s and his own solutions.
“The fundamental problems in Australia”, Hattie states,” are twofold – the purpose of schooling and the quality of teaching”. Perhaps The Australian edited out a large chunk of Hattie’s article, which provides us with no clarification of how the purpose of schooling is a fundamental problem. Does he mean we need public discussion about the purpose of schooling? Schooling serves a very public civic and economic purpose as well as personal and social purposes. Or is Hattie referring to the free, compulsory and secular foundation of most states’ provision? I find no clues in the article.
Hattie, is, however, more forthcoming on the second of his fundamental problems, the quality of teaching. His solutions are to:
- have teachers spend less time in front of students and more time investigating, debating and enhancing their impact on students
- find ways to dependably identify and fund an esteemed group of teachers who have consistently high impacts on their students to help drive the profession
- assessment resources that teachers (and students) access that allow them to better know what students can currently do
- involve the home in the co-production of learning gains
- more exciting and effective ways to educate teachers across their teaching life.
How do these differ from the ‘drop down, drop in’ solutions Hattie rejects from others?Hopefully the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education under his direction, will be in the forefront of “more exciting and effective ways to educate teachers across their teaching life” and is already engaged in the process of dependably identifying teachers who have “consistently high impacts” on their students, beginning, we might hope, with those who teach the teachers. Education Services Australia already has a significant set of assessment resources in their Improve product (http://esa.edu.au/search/node/assessment%20resources) which goes quite a long way towards supporting formative assessment and many, many schools would claim to “involve the home in learning gains”.
Hattie’s language is telling. In the context in which he uses it, his term “in front of students” means ‘teaching’. What he wants from teachers is “high impacts”. Instead of being challenged by analysis, intellectual engagement, rigorous argument and an improved delivery model we are being offered a sniper’s commentary based in the jargon and framework of the practices being rejected.
We have to do better than this. Education is integral to our society. It both reflects the society of the present and shapes the society of the future. That means we are all, as educators, immersed in our society’s directions and aspirations. Industrial Age school structures no longer fit with our society.
Educators are privileged to be educated to analyse, critically reflect and to develop. The purpose of education is shaped change. Why would we bother otherwise?
I am hoping, through this blog, to contribute constructively to public thinking about reform in education.