School Autonomy – It’s a System Thing!

“Letting a thousand flowers bloom does not guarantee a garden full of flowers”  Diane Ravitch.

I started my teaching career in 1974 in the heady days of the new ACT Schools Authority. During my Dip Ed year I became part of a group of parents, community members, teachers, and teacher trainees, that developed a successful community based campaign to set up a School-without-walls (SWOW) in the ACT designed for those students who did not thrive in the dominant school model.  In making our case we quoted the Hughes Report, A design for the governance and organisation of education in the Australian Capital Territory: Report of the Assessment Panel on the A.C.T. Education Authority, because this report said that the new ACT system should lead to genuine diversity of education offerings driven by the goal to cater for all students without exception.

SWOW had its successes and disappointments.  In the early years there were many students who attended SWOW and thrived – it catered for them exceptionally well.  But it also became a convenient solution for principals struggling to deal with difficult, disruptive and disengaged students.  It ended up with a bifurcated population of students who needed very different things.  Eventually the needs of the system to place difficult students won out over the vision of the teachers and the other students.  Eventually SWOW was absorbed back into the mainstream system.

I tell this story for two reasons.  Firstly to say that not all school based autonomy initiatives are the same. The vision of the ACT school authority was informed by tremendous optimism about what could be achieved in a small system through high expectations on teachers and genuine school community partnerships. It was a bottom-up empowerment movement with a focus on school based curriculum development and student assessment, school community partnership and openness to innovation in order to cater effectively for all comers, without exception

The Federal Government’s “Empowering local schools Initiative  (ELSI) may use some of the words of this earlier optimistic model but it is a very different animal.  It is being imposed on states through financial bribery no state can afford to pass up. It also includes autonomy in matters of school staffing – a path the ACT considered but did not take.  Moreover, the climate is not one of hope and optimism about what schools could achieve if given opportunities for new ways of working.

Secondly, the SWOW story shows that many well-intentioned initiatives can be blind to some of the unintended consequences of a decision.  In our enthusiasm about the idea of SWOW, we failed to consider how it would work and operate as part of a system of schools.

This tendency to think of schools as individual entities serving consumers has intensified since 1973.  It is now the taken for granted framework through which school policy is considered.  The dominant school reform movement in the US, UK and Australia assumes that schools are isolated, stand alone units and teachers isolated stand alone entities within them.  They – individual schools and individual teachers – have sole responsibility to improve learning outcomes through the school management decisions.

Under this model the role of government, is to adjust the drivers of improvement – through accountability frameworks and metrics, incentives set at school and teacher levels, and resourcing policies – human and otherwise.  Thus we have MySchool with its assumptions that accountability resides entirely with individual schools.

But of course, schools are not isolated units.  They are profoundly influenced, not just by the resourcing and support they receive systemically, and not just by the school community that they serve, but also by the operations of other schools around them.

The Gonski Report has underscored this final point. It documents how the choice polices of the last 15 years have radically altered the demographic character of Government schools and how this works to their detriment.

In this paper I argue that the Commonwealth’s ELSI has been packaged as being all about individual schools.  Indeed the concept of school autonomy as a key plank of school improvement and the arguments for it are based on assumptions that only makes sense in this light.

I also argue that the only responsible way to look at our education policies and practice is through a lens that sees education as a system – as an interconnected collection of parts and pieces that function well, only if each of the parts and pieces work in such a way that its operation supports the positive functioning of all the other parts and pieces[1].  When the school autonomy concept is examined from a system perspective the issues and problems because very clear.

Autonomy – its foundational assumptions

1.  The ELSI treats all schools as though they are isolated and hermetically sealed units – identikit isolated units at that. 

A major component of the funding for this program will go directly to the participating school – an amount of between $40- 50,000 for each and every school to use to prepare themselves for school autonomy.

It is hard to imagine what a high SES independent school will to do with $50,000 that has any relevance to school autonomy.  They already hire and fire their own staff, manage their own very significant capital works program and decide how their teacher profile and subject offering can best be aligned with the desires of their school community.  And speaking of school community, they can already choose who will be part of their school community and how big they will grow – both things that are, and will remain, out of scope for most Government schools.

The idea that each systemic Catholic and Government school will require $40-50,000 sounds less wasteful but when we look at how schools in the trials of school autonomy decided to use their funds, it too starts to look odd.  Trawling through the news reports looking for good news stories about the NSW and ACT school autonomy trials I found that these were the sorts of things that principals claimed they were able to do through school autonomy

–        employ an additional year 3 teacher

–        implement a speech pathology screening

–        introduce a boys mentoring program

–        develop a professional learning partnership program for new teachers

–        changing school start times

–         installing solar panels

–        set up a partnership with a local university

–        employ an attendance coordinator

This list is depressing. To undertake these activities the only things schools should require is additional needs based and flexible funding.

And of course what can be bought in a metro area would cost at least twice as much in a remote community.  Even the cleaning contract would cost twice as much, let alone any initiatives that might result in more teachers, for this will require the building of a house. The fact that there was no consideration of the differential costs of services in remote and non-remote contexts suggests that this money has not been seen as critical or essential and is not really part of the main game.

I am left wondering if this funding is “a spoonful of sugar”.

If this money was really to be used to support moving from a centralized system to a devolved one, it would have been attached to the things that most needed to change to support a devolved system – teacher recruitment and placement systems, better data about teachers, negotiations to better align teacher pay and career structures with teaching standards, improved teacher and principal performance management and development systems and so on.   It would not have been indiscriminately, and thinly spread, across all schools commencing the scheme regardless of circumstances

2. ELSI assumes the individual school experience and the systemic experience are the same – with a staged implementation starting with a small number of sites and building to all schools by 2018. 

The assumption behind a trial is that if it works on a few locations then it will be scalable to all schools, as long as context factors are considered.

According to Ann Dreyfus[2] there are a number of serious concerns emerging about the implementation of the Independent Public Schools (IPS) model in Western Australia. Many of these relate to the impact on the non-participating schools.  This is an impact that will increase as the program is ramped up. She reports that the problems are not just because IPS schools can refuse teachers and transfer teachers out who then need to be placed elsewhere. It appears to be more insidious that that because with such a high profile ‘ pilot’ there is strong pressure to ‘ make it work’ and this has meant cherry picking out the highest performing teachers across the board so that it can be seen that IPS produce better student learning.

If I was a principal I would do whatever it takes to be included in the empowering local schools initiative early in the piece, even if I hated the idea, because as more and more schools are freed up to hire and ‘fire’ (really to move on) the backwash of this is going to have a pretty unpleasant impact on the non autonomous schools

During the NSW preliminary pilot stage when there were only 47 schools involved in the trial, the impact of their decisions on the rest of the state would not have been noticeable.  But there would still have been an impact.  The NSW public school profiled on the ABC 4 Corners program  (Revolution in the Classroom) claimed that they used this trial to change their entire senior team.

Yet principals in government schools are not CEOs – they are not employers.  The language that is used might fool us into thinking otherwise.  These senior members of the faculty were not fired, they were moved on but are still system employees.  So where did they go? What was the impact on them as professionals? What is the impact on the schools where they ended up?  I hope that these questions are in scope for the trial evaluation.

3. ELSI sets up a model where schools are no longer part of a collaborative system or region but for all intent in competition with one another

 The message of school autonomy to principals is “we have now taken all of that bureaucratic burden off you.  There are no more excuses.  If you can’t make your school deliver the goods its all on your head.”

 This can only decrease collaboration, except on non-strategic matters such as sharing a cleaning contract and can only increase competition.  And this competition is on an uneven playing field.  As Chris Bonnor[3] rightly warns

 The bigger danger is that we risk losing many equity safeguards. If every school chooses its own teachers, the best will gravitate to those with the more valued location, easier-to-teach students and money…

 Unless closely monitored, many autonomous public schools will also gain greater control over enrolments. The better-placed schools will join their private counterparts in applying enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

While pitching principal against principal and turning them into pseudo small business managers is problematic, the idea of a system being able to run efficiently when all the parts of the system are working against each other creates all sorts of unnecessary problems.

At the recent 2nd international summit on education that took place in March 2012 in the Shanghai  – a high performing PISA country – reported that they did learn important things from looking at the education system in New York City (NYC) [4] .  They took the idea of schools tracking their student learning progress using data but rejected the set up that turned schools into units competing with each other.

Instead they set accountability (low stakes) at the local school level but placed their most able principals across a group of schools in a region with the responsibility of ensuring that ALL of the schools did well.  These super-principals prioritized teacher capability development and would also move staff around to ensure that all schools improved on a comparable basis.

4.  ELSI assumes that systems (regions or larger) are incapable of making wise decisions in the interests of equity and quality in student learning, but principals with their school board or councils can and will.

Now this is an interesting assumption even when thinking about schools at the level of the individual school, but it becomes even more problematic when looked at systemically.

To explain this I will look at the challenges as though I am the principal of a school that has just being given local powers over staffing and a flexible funding envelope. How should I invest these funds to bring about the greatest return on investment for my school?

The first thing that I would notice is the constraints, because the vast bulk of my budget is already committed to teacher salaries.

Do I invest in my current medium performing teachers who are paid at the top of the pay scale or do I move them on and replace them with novice teachers who I can pay less and put on a contract for maximum flexibility.  This would give me more money to play with, but this less experienced group would require more support and development.  How much will I invest in them and at what point will I say, it is cheaper to move on than to improve anyone who struggles.

Next I will need to do some strategic thinking.  The aim of this new game is to manage within my budget and still be able to demonstrate student improvement – either through NAPLAN results or retention to year 12 (because they are the only student learning targets we measure).

Do I go all out to achieve improved results for student learning – lifting those just under the NAPLAN baseline and stretching those at the top?  Do I go all out for attracting ‘desired new enrolments’ to my school.  Or am I going to take the harder path of investing these funds into making the student learning experience the best it can be, and ignore the accountability drivers.

These are three very different investment plans:

  • If going for the first strategy I might invest in such things as, literacy specialists, early intervention or remediation programs, more time spent training for tests, better assessment diagnostics, school entry screening programs, student after school coaching or a university partnership program
  • If competing for a ‘ better school enrolment profile” I might be better off going for reduced class size in critical years because parents think this is s important,   might still invest in test training because NAPLAN is part of marketing but I might also invest in a speciality arts or music program to attract the right sort of family.  This might require a trade off in say the ESL investments’
  • Ideally of course I would ignore these imperatives and focus on making my school the best that it could be – I would invest significantly but judicially in my staff by investing in better team collaborative planning, performance management, peer observation and support, or even the structuring of regular ongoing instructional observation

In reality principals might use a mixed model approach, where they push out some long serving staff bring in high performing senior staff that that they select from other schools and take in numbers of novice staff on contract.  They can try and both appeal to potential ‘desirable enrolments’ but balance this with a focus on their more vulnerable students.  But this will be a high wire act requiring strong and discerning leadership. And it will involve continual tension because, in spite of the rhetoric, what parents look for in a school is not always the best or only driver of school improvement.  Taking time to develop a shared vision and culture of mutual accountability, building a strong and stable senior team, investing in developing teacher learning through high quality feedback are not quick fixes, or sexy or very visible to the parent community.

Now the critical question here is, even if principals can use the opportunities provided by school autonomy to improve student learning outcome data associated with their school, will this contribute to an overall positive effect systemically?  Or will it just lead to a musical chairs where competition for the best students and the best teachers creates more churn and more demoralised and untenured staff and less overall high quality investments in teacher capability development of the kind that impacts on classroom practice.

This highlights the problems of holding up the independent school as the model of a high performing school suitable for all schools.  An individual school can mix and match their staff.  They can draw from a large external pool of teachers – they can cherry pick the best and/or develop young teachers of promise.  But when all systemic schools are set up to behave similarly the game changes.  They are all trying to improve their teacher quality profile by competing with each other and drawing on the same pool of teachers. It is hard to see how this will lift the quality of teachers across the whole pool.

We need teachers in large numbers and we need them reliably every day of every term.  Threatening teacher tenure will devastate teacher retention and destroy teacher moral and professional standing without building quality. Teachers are highly skilled but not highly paid relative to other like professions.  Given the size of this workforce, tenure is the trade-off and we should tread carefully around any initiatives that threaten it.


[1] Definition provided by Marc Tucker, on borrowing bets practices and even better policies, Ed Week, 19 March 2012 http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/top_performers/2012/03/on_borrowing_best_practices_and_even_better_policies.html?cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS2

[2] Ann Dreyfus, “All’s NOT Quiet on the Western Front” Education Review, March 2012

[3] From “Will local autonomy improve public schools?”, National Times, 17 March 2012 http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/the-question/will-local–autonomy–improve–public-schools-20120316-1vae6.html

[4] Marc Tucker,  op cit

“The Lorax” and critical literacy

I have just stumbled upon the Rethinking Schools Blog-site and read an article by Bill Bigelow called Rethinking The Lorax[1]Unlike most of the twitter feeds on this topic, his article does not focus solely on the shoddy, cynical and hypocritical marketing partnerships designed to coincide with the release of the film.

He points out that the book itself  is not without its problems:

The book reduces the causes of environmental ruin to individual greed, which does not help children think clearly about the roots of today’s ecological crises. This narrow single-greedy-bad-guy focus does not help readers think about the much scarier prospect of an entire society organized around the quest for profit. And the chief environmental exploiter, the Once-ler, hires all his brothers, uncles, and aunts as workers, which makes it appear that the interests of workers and owners are identical, and that they are all inherently part of the problem. Again, this is not a helpful message for children. Instead of allowing his Swomee-Swans and the Bar-ba-loots to fight for themselves and for their environment, the only opposition comes from the Lorax—who advocates for, but actually disempowers other creatures by sending them off. Finally, in the end, the Once-ler repents, suggesting that there is hope for today’s rapacious Once-lers of the world—if only we can make them see the light.

This reading of the book gave me pause because I did not read all this into the book at all.  This may be because I was reading this book in the early 80s to my quite young children at the height of the ‘Save the Franklin Campaign’ (Tasmania).  For me it was an easy entre into a discussion of this issue and my biggest concern was that I might be brainwashing them.

Reading this article has prompted me to think about going to this movie when it gets here and to ponder how complex understandings of why we are in such a perilous state re the environment can best be introduced to vulnerable and enquiring young minds.

Clearly, whatever ones take on the adequacy of the message underpinning ‘The Lorax’, it makes for a great teaching resource for children at all levels


[1] http://rethinkingschoolsblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/rethinking-the-lorax/

Responding to Gonski: The Commonwealth must take a lead in cleaning up its toxic waste

In an article in the SMH today, Steve Bartos[1] takes a swipe at all of us impatient to get commitment to implementing the education reform recommendations of the Gonski Review of School funding saying that:

One of the striking features of the immediate coverage was the number of people who demanded action by the Commonwealth. Some of those who were loudest in calling for rapid implementation – including education unions and various schools spokespeople – ought to know better.

 Schools are not a Commonwealth responsibility under the Australian constitution. Commonwealth involvement in schools is relatively recent, and for most our history it did not exist. The Commonwealth started to take a role – in a much smaller way than at present – when the Whitlam Labor government decided to provide a form of financial aid to some non-government schools. For two-thirds of Australia’s history, public schools were run and funded by states and territories and private schools funded by parents, churches or other private bodies.

However, it is not as simple as this, because, as we all know, this problem has come about because of the deliberate and significant funding policies of the Commonwealth, particularly during the Howard years, and the impact this has had on the education landscape in Australia.  Bartos acknowledges the toxic nature of federal takeovers but seems to believe that they can just walk away from the toxic waste they have created. The fact that ‘they’ were different makes no difference to this principle.  if it did Rudd’s apology would not have made sense.

The extensive expansion in non-government schools and their high levels of Government support from the Commonwealth has created a problem of such significance that the only possible, politically-workable, solutions demand a huge injection of new funds into the system.

It is entirely proper that the education community looks to the Commonwealth Government, the initiators of this review, to exercise strong and timely leadership on this matter. This could be demonstrated by clearing the COAG agenda to fast track Commonwealth/State discussions on this matter, or by setting up an extraordinary meeting of COAG at an earlier date. And it should also mean not taking an inflexible approach as to where the additional funds should come from.


[1] Steve Bartos, Federal takeovers are toxic, not a tonic, SMH, 6 March, 2012

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/federal-takeovers-are-toxic-not-a-tonic-20120306-1uh82.html

If this data analysis by a New York teacher is based on real data as he claims then it suggests that rating teachers by the VAM scores is no more valid that raning/ rating teachers by their numerology score. perhaps we could campaign for this.

GFBrandenburg's Blog

It all makes sense now.

At first I was a bit surprised that Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee were opposed to publicizing the value-added data from New York City and other cities.

Could they be experiencing twinges of a bad conscience?

No way.

That’s not it. Nor do these educational Deformers think that value-added mysticism is nonsense. They think it’s wonderful and that teachers’ ability to retain their jobs and earn bonuses or warnings should largely depend on it.

The problem, for them, is that they don’t want the public to see for themselves that it’s a complete and utter crock. Nor to see the little man behind the curtain.

I present evidence of the fallacy of depending on “value-added” measurements in yet another graph — this time using what NYCPS says is the actual value-added scores of all of the many thousands of elementary school teachers for whom they have…

View original post 255 more words

We need new architecture to support the development and agile adoption of tools and processes for teacher self-managed career-long professional development in schools

I read a timely article yesterday titled “The Flipped Classroom: Students Assessing Teachers” by Brianna Crowley[1].  It is not about the flipped classroom concept made famous by the Khan Academy it is about another sort of flipped – where students provide feedback to teachers.

It was timely, to me at least, because I have been thinking a lot lately about the lack of ready access to a comprehensive and high quality set of well tested and reviewed smart tools, protocols and processes to support teachers to:

  • Identify their most important professional development needs
  • Affirm their areas of strength for sharing with others
  • Reflect on their practice through focused feedback
  • Work with mentors or coaches on continuous improvement
  • Develop portfolios that demonstrate their knowledge, skills and experience for assessment purposes – whether this is for moving from graduate to proficient or deciding to go for accreditation as a highly accomplished or lead teacher

There are a number of ways in which teachers can, and do, get feedback on their teaching.  Instructional observation, peer to peer coaching, classroom walkthroughs, protocols of student work, learning journals or classroom videos are the most obvious and none of these are yet fully embedded into the regular core practice of schools, although they are becoming more and more utilised.

 But what about students providing feedback to teachers?

Now when I first thought about this I was a bit cynical – thinking that if this practice became commonplace (and high stakes)  it would turn classrooms into a sort of market place as teachers tried to outdo each other in being the most entertaining. But of course it all depends on how the feedback process is designed – what information will be sought, for what purpose will the information be put, and how frequently it is sought.  In this sense the ‘politics’ related to teacher feedback from students is no different from the ‘politics’ surrounding assessment or teacher feedback to students.

This article on the flipped classroom puts it well.

A homemade laminated sign behind my desk announces, “In this classroom, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.” For me, teaching is a fluid interaction of constantly shifting roles. My students and I are engaged in a cycle of mutual learning.

Effective teachers provide concrete feedback throughout the school year. Through formative assessments, students recognize their growth and understand where they can improve.

But what formative feedback do teachers receive? …  A lucky few experience regular peer observations—but most of us are observed only once or twice a year. We have all been encouraged to reflect on our own practice in journals, but it’s probably not a daily routine for most: Who can find the time between urgent activities like meetings, emails, grading, and planning? We rarely prioritize our own learning.

Crowley urges teachers to consider drawing on the experiences and perceptions of students – and to treat them as “experts” about the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom.  She suggests that it does not necessarily have to be a formal survey process – feedback can be embedded in the teaching and learning process with only small adjustments to practice.

First, look at activities already in place and think about whether they can be altered to provide additional information.

For example, after each major project or writing assignment, my students complete a reflection form. They are prompted to think about their process, identify strengths and weaknesses, and create goals for future assignments. Then I add two or three questions that look something like this:

(1) Which activities helped you understand this assignment, and which were less valuable?

(2) What questions do you still have about what we learned or about the feedback I have given you?

(3) With what skills or ideas do you feel that you need more practice?

These questions prompt students to better understand themselves and articulate their learning styles. In providing constructive criticism, students practice higher-order thinking and communications skills. And the process helps all of us take ownership of the learning that occurs in our classroom.

It’s win-win: Students develop metacognition skills, and I gather valuable Intel.

And how should this information be used? 

With professional discernment argues Crowley.

If my students tell me they learn better by working in small groups with peers than independently, do I reconstruct my classroom for collaborative work in every lesson? Probably not. But I do consider how I can incorporate additional structured group work. Each member has a role and each group is accountable for a product. Then I monitor to see whether my students’ level of engagement and understanding increases.

Likewise, if 70 percent of my students claim that work in their textbook did not help them learn, I have a choice: Do I vow not to use the textbook for the rest of the year? Or do I try to use that resource in more relevant and engaging ways?

Embedded in every piece of student data is a professional choice. We must respect students’ perspectives while applying our professional discernment. We can then take risks, change patterns, and ask for feedback again.

There is also a role for well-designed formal survey instruments – especially at key points through the teaching cycle like the end of a semester or a year.

This article is USA based but it is highly relevant for what we are at in Australia. Now that we have an endorsed set of national professional standards for teachers, the development of exciting new tools, processes and instruments needs to be fostered.

Some states have some useful tools as do a number of clever people in the ever-growing education consultation and ICT software development industries.  We need to find a balance point between a heavily regulated state endorsed tool development process, that necessitates going to tender for something – when we may not always know in advance what smart idea could be just around the corner- and an open market that lets a hundred flowers bloom – not all of them fit for purpose.

We need a QA regulator that assesses new processes, tools and instruments and certifies those that have been road tested in a range of schooling contexts, are aligned to the teaching standards framework, are value for money and fit for purpose.  With a strong quality certification framework in place it would then be desirable and possible to encourage all kinds of smart tools and processes from a variety of sources.  After-all until twitter came along, teachers and systems would not have said ‘if only we had a tool that lets children do … . We need to go out to tender to see who can develop this for us”.  Those days of product development are long over but new processes are not yet in place to enable the agile adoption and adaptation of new ideas and processes.

I think this is a big gap in our school education national architecture.  Now some might suggest that this is the role of Education Service Australia (ESA) but I am not so sure.  Can an organisation be both a developer of products and an assessor? No, not in my book.

Others might consider this to be in scope for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) but to my mind this is a very bad idea.  These tools should not be assessed and certified by an organisation that, while engaging the profession, is very much an organisation driven by education employers and their perspectives on teacher quality.

Now don’t misunderstand this as a dig at AITSL.  The fact that AITSL reports to MCEECDYA and has all states and non Government systems represented on the board has been essential to the agreement making process for accreditation standards and processes for teacher education as well as for professional teaching standards.

However if these tools first come on stream as part of the standards assessment process they will be seen as impositions   – as part of quality compliance and appraisal processes.

In my view, as the teaching profession gets accustomed to seeing feedback for continuous learning and self directed improvement as an integral and highly regular element of teaching throughout their career, it is vital that the balance of emphasis leans towards support and development, and not towards underperformance management and external review.

So what we need is an organisation that is willing to fill this gap.  An organisation that says, “We will set up quality assessment and certification processes for tools to support the professional development of teachers throughout their careers”.

We could wait for education ministers (MCEECDYA) to set this up – unlikely I think. Alternatively, we could look at it as an opportunity.  After all, the developers of the Wikipedia have managed to be seen as the arbiters of quality input into the global dynamic encyclopedia of life.  No-one gave them this job.  They just did it well.  And this is a much less ambitious task.  Any takers out there?