So Andrew Penfold shows his true colours and why I am not surprised.

According to The Australian, Andrew Penfold has broken ranks with all the other members of the PM’s Indigenous Council to support the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

So what can we make of this?  Is Penfold brave – standing up to un-thought-through conventional wisdom? Or is he ignorant and dangerously misinformed?

My take is that he is ignorant.  His world is a privileged sheltered space and his experience of how racism affects Indigenous people is informed – or not informed –  by his sheltered context.

Now I am not a scholar of human rights, the RDA and the debate around free speech and I accept that there may be areas of the RDA that could benefit from a careful review. 

For example, Sara Joseph who is an expert has argued here that the outlawing of talk that offends or insults may tip the balance between free speech and race discrimination too far.  But in saying this she also stresses that this is a view that has not been formed based on personal experience of being subjected to racially offensive language.  She also argues that the courts have never taken a stringent position in interpreting this provision, so the driver to change it is not really there (note: it was not the provision that Bolt contravened).

But there are real problems with the current exposure draft and Sara Joseph’s article is a nice summary of the problems, and worth a careful read.

However, it is clear to me that Penfold has not read Joseph’s article or Waleed Aly’s very damming piece

So how did this upper middle class business man who was educated at elite private schools earn a place on the PM’s Indigenous Council, and an AO to boot, just this year.

Andrew Penfold is widely known as the man who established the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) and its associated Indigenous Scholarship to elite private schools scheme.  He is well known because the media has been saturated by feel good stories about individual Indigenous children who have been rescued from a remote backwater and who are now destined for greatness. Penfold himself has authored many of these stories.

Now I am not that concerned about a successful business man setting up a charity that funds poor traditionally living Indigenous kids to attend Australia’s most elite schools, although I do have concerns about it.

My concerns are as follows:

Firstly, this is the venture that has earned Penfold a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council.  Now we have been told that this Council will have a big influence on Indigenous policy development and program implementation in Australia.  What Penfold has established is, in policy terms, a minor add-on program.  It hardly qualifies him as an expert in policy directions that are designed to overcome disadvantage not for the clever few raked from the rubble, but for all Indigenous people.  His willingness to split with the Council so early in the piece over something that his background makes him uniquely unqualified to speak about, relative to other Council members, confirms my concerns about his suitability for this role

Secondly, his work and his project concern me because he has convinced the Australian Government to donate $20 million to his fund with absolutely no strings attached.  I am presuming that these funds have come out of the very small program dollars currently allocated to Indigenous education. 

When a program secures Government funding it must be accountable to a different set of requirements. What should our Government be asking about this feel good work?

I wrote about Andrew Penfold and his feel good but suspect work to ‘save’ Indigenous children one by one here. I don’t plan to repeat all the arguments about why this is a problem here because this article is much more about why I question Andrew Penfold’s suitability for a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council table.

So here it is.  Andrew Penfold has justified why the Australian Government should fund his program as follows

We agree that governments must invest in improving education results for all Indigenous students in all schools, but the evidence is unambiguous – for decades billions of dollars a year has been spent by state and federal governments on Indigenous programs that their own departments and officials have described as ‘disappointing at best and appalling at worst’ and making no difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. So if the rhetoric about evidence-based policy means anything, it’s critical that AIEF’s proven, scalable and sustainable model continues to be supported.

There you have it.  While Governments should be prioritizing investments that improve the outcomes for Indigenous students across the board, history tells us that this is a waste of money because it hasn’t worked.  So my solution is to have the Government invest in improving educational outcomes for the few and forget about the rest.  And as for the claim that his program is scalable – well – the limitations are rather obvious.

This is a chilling piece of logic.

Basically, if you are indigenous and living in a remote community, welcome to the lottery – if you win a scholarship and are flown away to an elite school, you will learn to read and can expect to live a rich rewarding life, but if you don’t, good luck. This feels like a future dystopia in a speculative fiction novel.

It is the Government’s responsibility to govern for all Australians. No Government can justify diverting the small amount of funds dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Australia’s most seriously disadvantaged students to fund a lucky win-the-lottery ticket to a privileged life – a rags to riches scenario for a few.

To say that the Government should walk away from its responsibilities for overcoming Indigenous disadvantage for all Indigenous Australians and invest in a privileged lucky few is an outrage, and must be challenged. It should not be applauded or honoured with positions on influential councils, generous untied Government funds, or Australia Day Honours.

But this is the sort of logic that comes from looking at all issues, not in structural terms but in individualistic terms.  Andrew Penfold is on the record as saying that he developed his Indigenous scholarships program because he was given an opportunity to go to an elite boarding school and it was the making of him.  He does not appear to have considered that his unique experience is not universally applicable with the same results.

Perhaps this makes some sense of his position on the RDA amendments.  Andrew Penfold has not been at the raw end of racial discrimination and racial vilification, so his consideration of these matters is based on his limited individual experience. It is just a philosophical issue to him.  It is to Sarah Joseph too, but even she, an expert in these matters, has been honest enough to acknowledge that not having the personal experience of racial discrimination is a possible limitation to her understanding of these sensitive and complex matters.

I do hope some judicious behind-the-scenes conversation at Council meetings with Andrew Penfold will extent his world view, but I am not optimistic.

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Is opting out of testing just selfish individualism?

In a recent article about American culture and the opt out society Alan Greenblatt described the growing and successful movement to encourage parents to refuse to allow their child to participate in national standardised testing as selfish individualism.  It might be driven by a parents individual interest, he argues, but it is selfish and against collective interests:

 It’s probably true that the time spent on testing isn’t going to be particularly beneficial to the kids, but it’s very beneficial to the system,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “If you have enough people opt out of these tests, then you have removed some important information that could make our schools better.

I find this amusing because the whole corporate reform movement, for which testing is the centerpiece, is built on the neoliberal belief that the best solution to everything – prisons, health, education etc – is to turn everything into a market and allow competition and individual choice to drive better value.

In fact this was the prime motivation described by Kevin Rudd when he first announced the ‘school transparency agenda’ on the 21 August 2008 at the National Press Club. The speech has mysteriously disappeared but I am quite clear that Kevin Rudd said something along the following lines

“If parents are unhappy with their local school because of the information in MySchool, and decide to transfer their child to another better performing school, then that is exactly what should happen.  This is how schools will improve, through parents voting with their feet.”

Now nobody who works in a struggling school thinks this is the way schools improve. Australia has run an aggressive market choice model of school funding for nearly 2 decades now and all we have to show for it is a highly class segregated schooling system and high levels of inequality.

So let me reassure parents who are concerned about our high stakes NAPLAN testing regime.  Opting out of having your child participate in these tests is much more of a community act than deciding to send your child to an elite school.

New Year Resolutions for Public Education Supporters

I have avoided reading ‘the 13 best’ or ‘the 10 most X of Y’ lists which seem to be quite the thing at this time of the year.

But today Lyndsay Connors sent me a link to this blog by John Kuhntz which included a list of the 5 most important things public educators in the US must do to maintain and build the push back which is building momentum across many US states.

We are not at this same point in the education politics cycle but our issues are no less critical.  Unless we build momentum on the implementation of needs based funding across schools we are in danger of losing out on this once in a life-time opportunity to achieve this long held principle.

At the same time there are ominous signs that after much tossing and wriggling and saying very little of substance, Education Minister Christopher Pyne is finally developing his own education policy agenda.  It will almost certainly not be evidence based, or conducive to building quality or equity.

We know already some of its focus areas and dimensions:

  • Make more schools like autonomous non-Government schools because they are the gold standard and competition breeds perfection.
  • Get rid of NAPLAN reporting but increase testing and its stakes by using it to evaluate and reward or punish teachers,
  • Roll back the national curriculum and reinstitute the curriculum us baby boomers remember so well because we had to memorise it
  • Promote direct Instruction for the poor, the Indigenous and all the ‘other peoples children’

There is a lot at stake here so I think we need to resolve to get active in 2014 more than ever.  Kuhntz’s list is a pretty good starting point for us.   So here it is

1. Be active online, in the papers, and in your state capital. This is highly relevant to Australia. One derivative poorly referenced paper from a well funded or even self-styled ‘pretend’ Institute and the media saturation reverberates for days.  They have the in with media and many have the funds to run high profile seminars and launches.

We need to be active in blogs, media comments, social media, letters to the editor, and article writing and sharing.  We need to make our views and the strength of our presence known whenever there are elections, community consultations or other forms of political engagement.

We need to anticipate new developments and get ahead of the game preparing considered responses.

And even though it is tiring and seems pointless we also need to respond to the pop phrases and concepts that are based on very little of substance but all too often pass uncontested and start to sound obvious and factual.  ‘More money wont help’, ‘teacher quality is all that matters’ small class sizes are a waste of our dollar’ ‘public schools are failing’ and so on– how many times do we hear this sort of nonsense and just shrug.

2. Be active locally. I must admit I had not considered this issue and our school board politics is vastly different. However the move to Independent public schools will mean that there may be a risk that special interest groups of parents or others will decide to exercise and undue influence on local schools.  Schools could be vulnerable to being captured by special interest groups who may also see it in their interest to push out other groups of students and parents.

3. Embrace your expertise. One of the exciting developments in the US is the establishment of networks of practicing teachers who are voicing their concerns and sharing their ‘ expert’ and important grounded perspectives on education.  Organisations like the Network for Public Education and The Educators Room put teachers and principals at the centre.

This happens to some extent in Australia with the twitter handle @edutweetoz and through principals and professional networks.  We could benefit from hearing more from teachers about what it means to struggle in poorly resourced high need schools, how they juggle the competing demands of quality learning and test preparedness, and so on.  As Kuhntz reminds us “If educators are to have an impact, they must have a voice. If they are to have a voice, they must be willing to take the microphone from people who feel they are entitled to hold it. And the same goes for students. Teachers need to embrace the student voice movement. Democracy comes from the people most affected by policy–it isn’t done to them–and in education, that’s the students.”

4. Join others. Relatedly, if you are serious about protecting the promise of public education, you have little choice but to join others in holding back the tide of corporate reform. There is diversity in the pro-public education camp. If you are progressive, there is a place for you. If you are conservative, there is a place for you. If you support or oppose the Common Core, there is a place for you. Some organizations and individuals standing together differ on their opinions about well-regulated charter schools. Some differ in their opinions about how much standardized testing is appropriate. Those of us on the front lines of defending the promise of public education are not a monolith. What binds us together is our shared desire to prevent the devaluing of public education via reckless rhetoric and demeaning and unfair policies.

This is really a call for more public education campaigners from all walks of life to stop watching from the margins, or being lone rangers and to get active in the organisations you associate with or find and organization to join.  It could be a parent lobby group, a professional association, the Union, a specific purpose coalition, a relevant not for profit or your work.

5. Be great. The best defense of the public education system is a strong public education system. Yes, it feels to many of us that we are being sabotaged and set up to fail. Yes, many of us have a hard time doubting that the point of all the testing is to prove that we stink. But be that as it may, we have the opportunity day after day to go into our classrooms and our administrative offices and invest ourselves in activities that make a difference in children’s lives. When we do our jobs well, we win the support of our communities and our parents and students. And, to butcher-phrase an Abraham Lincoln quote often used by the incomparable Jamie Vollmer, “if public opinion is with us, we can’t lose; if it against us, we can’t win.” Public opinion starts in your classroom or office. There are obstacles–especially in America’s poorest communities–that often seem impossible for teachers to overcome. But we must give our all and do our very best. We must show the world that we aren’t afraid of accountability and that, in fact, we embrace something far greater: responsibility. (H/T Pasi Sahlberg).

 

So does anyone want to add to or amend this list?

 

 

If Independent Government Schools are the answer: what is the question?

Pyne believes that introducing Independent public schools across Australia will bring significant benefits to these schools and their communities.

Yesterday The Conversation published its fact checker that concluded that the claims to increased productivity and efficiency as well as increased student outcomes have no basis in evidence.

While I agree with this, I think this was a cautious assessment that drew its areas for consideration too narrowly. In this post I focus on some of the more concerning aspects about the IPS system that were not considered by the fact checker.

Claims of improved student outcomes – treatment of the research

But first a brief comments on the claims that were considered.  The fact checker, in looking at overseas evidence of schooling set ups that have similarities to IP schools, looked at Charter schools in the US.   It drew from the 2013 CREDO Charter Schools study of the comparative student learning effects of Charter Schools.  This report concluded that there were some comparative learning outcomes improvements but that they were non-significant in nature.  Most media headlines reported in terms of Charters are performing slightly better than public schools

What I find interesting about this is how this non-significant difference is treated.   The Great Lakes Centre for Research recent Review of the CRDEO study makes this point

 The most important results of the study…are differences of 0.01 or 0.02 standard deviation units, and even the largest effect size reported are on the order of 0.07 standard deviations. 

Hanushek has described an effect size of 0.20 standard deviation for Tennessee’s class size reform as ‘relatively small’ considering the nature of the intervention.

So there you have it – an effect size that is tiny- very tiny – is hailed as a small improvement justifying this large scale reform.  However it is much smaller that the effect size attributed to smaller class sizes by Hanushek, who led the campaign to oppose class sizes because, the effect size is too small.

The logic behind autonomous schools

To go beyond the fact checker scope it is necessary to dig behind the claims.  Pyne is arguing that Australia has invested strongly into non-Government education and it is working well for Australia.  He notes that we are unusual in our high levels of investment in non-government schools relative to other OECD countries – so we must see it as a public good.

He is asking the reader to assume that non-Government school enrolments skyrocketed over the years of the Howard regime just because it was a great idea – totally demand driven. But I won’t chase down this particular rabbit hole here.

So, says Pyne, we have these great institutions that work well, so lets get a piece of this into the public education system.  This implies without any evidence that the public system is not working so well.

So what he is borrowing from the non-Government system?  Is it the great facilities, or the ability to enrol students as they see fit, or their ability to charge fees or their superior levels of per pupil funding.  No – because non-Government schools can only selectively enrol students and charge fees because there are government schools that must then pick up all the non selected students, and provide a free education

What he is picking up, is the stand-alone school concept, minus the generous funding – a school with a bucket of money to do its business, responsible to a board and able to make all its own decisions. This will, he argues, be more efficient, will encourage bold new thinking and innovation, and will give the community much more say over spending priorities.

It is interesting to note that in the negotiations over Gonski the non-Government sectors successfully argued for additional systemic funding to better support their stand alone idealised schools. Maybe, just maybe, stand-alone models are not all they claim to be.

The previous WA Education Minister, Barnett justified the WA model of IP schools in terms of increasing competition and variety because maintaining all schools as equal was undesirable as it breeds mediocrity.

So to follow the logic pathway, IP schools will deliver better student outcomes, more productivity and efficiency because ‘stand alone schools’ will make all their own decisions about how they use their bucket of funds.  This will make them more competitive, they will spend the same amount of money more wisely and they will be more innovative.

So lets look at these claims

IP Schools will be more innovative

A WA press article recently profiled an IP school in WA that opted to become a marine biology school.  Fabulous example!  This school has reported that student engagement is high and that they have a big enrollment waiting list.  Students in its enrollment district have an automatic right of entry but students outside this district will have to move house or hope for an enrollment win.

However, NSW, arguably the most centralist state when it comes to its schooling has schools that specialize in agriculture, in performing arts, in technology, in sports, in languages.  There are schools with Opportunity Classes and the Board of Studies has a year 12 syllabus in Marine Studies.  Victoria has Government schools that offer Steiner programs, ACT has the Cooperative school and a bilingual French-Australian K-12 IB school.  There are networks of schools that adopt innovative approaches such as the Big Picture schools, IB schools, UN schools, Stronger Smarter school leaders and Dare to Lead schools. These are just a few examples I know about.  We don’t NEED IP schools to develop innovative schools within the government system.

Lyndsay Connors, argues that when she was involved with the National Schools Network – an initiative of the Hawke-Keating government intended to free schools from bureaucratic and union rules, the new and innovative practices that schools adopted, that she witnessed, were all ones that they could have done without special freedom.

She says this was also true of the self-governing schools created within the Victorian public system under the Kennett government. A few principals took the opportunity to create a governing school or board with some financial freedom, such as increasing salaries, but she says other innovations she knew of depended on extra funding.

Connors argues that with the same increase in funding, other schools could have implemented similar reforms, even while operating under a more centralised system.

And of course not all innovations are good innovations.  A school could decide that they could shift funds directed to ESL learners or special needs students to a program that the more influential members of the board might want – a violin program, or an artist in residence.  Having parents on boards does not always lead to decision that are in the best interests of all parents.  Articulate ‘entitled’ parents will always end up with more say.

And finally, lets remember that some of the innovations in Charter schools are very worrying – “no excuses” schools that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, or, schools with built-in churn as they rely almost solely on TFA teachers passing through education, en-route to a high profile future.

Pyne is allocating $70 million to this initiative.  This will give all participating schools about $47,000 as a one off allocation. So all the innovations will have to come from changing the staff profile in some way because that is where the vast bulk of the funds are spent.

 Competition improves schools

Proponents of this view argue that by giving parents the power to choose between schools and the power to influence schools, schools will work harder to earn more student enrollments.  This competition will improve all schools.

It is very clear that in WA, where only some schools are IP schools, this competition has been hard for non-IP schools.  Trevor Cobbold has posted extracts from principals about the effects of the IP arrangements on their work.  They talk about how the IP schools suck up all the highest rated teachers, while they are forced to staff based on redeployees.  And the more high needs the school, the more intense the problem.

Here are some of their comments:

 Basically, the better ranked teachers chose better schools. That is how it goes and that is how we get residualisation within schools. Low SES schools just cannot compete with the leafy greens, and they don’t even have to be leafy greens but good solid communities that support education and their kids in school. There was always a component of this, but IPS has really amplified it.

and

[this is not a low SES school]
Public education was once about equity, about being able to say that a child way up in Wyndham and a child at leafy Wembly Downs will get the same quality of teacher. Creating a privileged set of schools badly damages this concept.

Autonomy and Student Equity

The ACER evaluation of the impact of IP schools in Australia did not ask questions that might have exposed the impact of this set up on student equity.  They did not look at any changes in the enrollment share of IP and non-IP schools by student demographic characteristics, nor did they look at the changes to the staffing profiles of the schools.  In my view this is a pretty big omission – not necessarily of  ACER’s choosing.

This is the big issue with Pyne’s proposal in my view.  Trevor Cobbold makes this point

 Greater demand for IP schools amongst higher income families and increased flexibility of IP schools to select student enrolments is likely to lead to more social segregation between government schools in WA. Inevitably, it will mean increased differences in school results and more inequity. This is after all what a market in education is designed to do.

 Chris Bonner reiterates

But the bigger danger is that we risk losing the equity safeguards which our public school system, with all its claimed faults, currently provides. [Where schools can choose their own teachers] … the best will gravitate to the schools with the more valued location, easier to teach students and money.   ….there are no prizes for guessing which schools and communities will miss out.

 There are other hidden stings. Unless closely monitored, increasingly autonomous public schools will seek and gain greater control over student enrolments. I love them dearly but already there are few rules which get between many of our enterprising school principals and a desirable enrolment. The better placed autonomous public schools will join their private counterparts in applying both overt and covert enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

A blog post by Chris Lubienski about research into schools autonomy and equity in the New Zealand context gives us a glimpse into how enrolment manipulation is likely to happen over time if autonomous schools are introduced across the nation. He found that schools will actively pursuer policies of enrolment segregation if they are given a chance to do so and that autonomy initiatives provide just that sort of opportunity.  His findings are so important I am quoting from him at length:

Previous research has shown that schools in more affluent areas are more likely to be in greater demand, and thus more likely to have enrolment schemes.  The question we asked was whether these self-managing schools were using their autonomy to draw their zones in order to improve or restrict access for disadvantaged students.  To do this, we simply compared the level of affluence in a walkable radius around each school to the level of affluence in the boundaries that the schools themselves had drawn.  Certainly, school zones are not perfects circles, as their creators have to consider traffic patterns, geographic barriers, and the boundaries of competitors.  But, all things being equal, we could expect that deviations in those boundaries from a geometric radius around a school would be more or less equally likely to include or exclude more affluent neighborhoods.  

But that is not what we found.  Instead, there is evidence of rampant gerrymandering to exclude children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  In the cases where there is a statistically significant difference in the “deprivation level” of the population in a school’s drawn zone compared to its immediate area, over three-quarters of these self-managing school had drawn a zone that was significantly more affluent than their immediate vicinity. 

Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, more affluent schools are not only drawing boundaries to keep poor kids out, but in their promotional materials are bragging about their success in doing this.  A review of school websites shows that more affluent schools are much more likely to include official information about the number of disadvantaged students they serve. 

While we might find these types of practices to be distasteful for public schools that are funded by taxpayers to serve all students, in some ways, such actions are predictable (if indefensible).  After all, policymakers are creating education markets where schools recognize competitive incentives to shape their enrollments.  It should be no surprise that, given such autonomy and such incentives, they find creative ways to do just that. 

So if on Saturday we have a change of Government, this is what we can look forward to in our schools.  We will have a tiered system of schools, competing on a highly unequal basis and our already highly segregated education system will become even more so.

Ironically one of the best tools for highlighting the issues will be the data from MySchool.  Is this why Pyne thinks the publication of the NAPLAN results is a bad idea?  It sounds crazy but I do wonder.

 

 

School Autonomy and the ‘unwanted student enrolment’

A moving article by Travis Smiley PBS talk show host about the film “Education Under Arrest” depicts what happens to poor and minority students under ‘zero tolerance’ regimes being implemented as part of corporate education reforms in many US states.

It made me think about a problem I have predicting will become more relevant to Australia as we foolishly rush to embrace the ‘independent public schools’ model of WA.  The problem, put simply is this:

If schools are going to be made to compete more and more in the schooling market place this will enhance the ‘choice power’ of all students from desirable well educated ‘stable’ middle class families and reduce the ‘choice power’ of families in less stable, middle class circumstances.  Autonomous schools who want to increase their attractiveness in the market place and are in a position to do so will do what is in their power to attract desirable enrolments and keep at bay those considered less desirable.   One possible ‘ solution’ will be embracing notions such as ‘zero tolerance’.  How will this impact on ‘ ‘unwanted students’?

The film is based on interviews with kids who are victims of this policy.  Smiley’s account of the stories are sad and disturbing.

“We had to shut the cameras down for a moment. The testimony of the two New Orleans sisters, Kenyatta, 15, and Kennisha, 17, was too surreal, too emotional and too raw.

Kenyatta was involved in a fight at school that she didn’t start. Because of “zero tolerance” policies adopted at their high school and many others in America, Kenyatta was handcuffed, arrested and expelled. Kennisha, who tried to break up the fight, was also expelled….

One of every three teens arrested is arrested in school. It’s a punitive system based, in large part, on “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the late 1990s after the shocking school shootings in Columbine; a system that’s built a highway into prison, but barely a sidewalk out.

We took our cameras to Washington State, Louisiana, California and Missouri to meet and speak with those involved with educational and juvenile justice reform. Through their expertise and experiences we get a definitive look at how arresting children in school, sending them to court and then locking them away in jail impacts America’s dropout rate.

We shut the cameras down briefly after Kenyatta, with voice cracking and tears flowing, described her ordeal with a school district’s unyielding policy and her encounter with the juvenile justice system:

“It was completely unfair. I felt all of this was so wrong. ..”

Poverty is important but inequality matters more

9781608193417Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane, 2009) was for a brief moment in time a hot topic- at least in the US and UK.  In Australia it passed without much of a ripple.  This is a pity because its message on education is stark and simple.

The research on which this book is based draws on mainstream longitudinal data from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census.  They correlate economic growth and levels of equity with a wide range of social data.

These data, they argue, tell a powerful, convincing and important story – Inequality is bad, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Wilson and Pickett ‘s evidence shows that for ‘the developed world, the pursuit of economic growth may once have been an important goal that contributed to our wealth and national well being, but this is now longer the case.

Historically the pursuit of economic growth has benefited humanity by providing better education, health, increased longevity, well-being and happiness.  They also argue that for poor countries today, life expectancy increases rapidly during the early stages of economic development.

However at a certain stage of economic development (middle-income countries) this rate of improvement slows down.

Finally, when countries become wealthy economies, the benefits of narrowly pursuing a growth agenda disappear and getting richer adds nothing further to life expectancy.  At this point, there are ever diminishing social returns to investing in the neoliberal agenda and developed societies have very little to gain in the continued sole pursuit of economic growth.

As countries move along the development continuum, infectious diseases common in the poorest countries gradually cease to be the most important cause of death but they are replaced with the diseases of affluence (cardiovascular disease and cancers). As affluent societies grow richer, there are also long-term increases in significant social problems across the board.

It is important to note that this has nothing to do with total wealth – usually expressed as average per-capita income. The US is still among the world’s wealthiest nations in terms of average income per person, but it has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence that is off the scale.

This is because it is not about wealth, nor is it just about poverty. It is about the levels of inequality that have been created in many economies as a direct result of intense wealth creation and the policies that have supported this path.  The authors contrast the US and the UK with Japan and Scandinavian countries – all wealthy economies but the differences between the income of the top 10% and the bottom 10% are in stark contrast.

Note: The data in the book on Australia suggests that we are closer to the US high inequality profile, but ACT Federal Member Dr Andrew Leigh will be launching his latest book Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, on 1 July 2013 at ANU. For more information click here.

Countries that have lower economic standing but are relatively more equitable will do better on almost everything.  And even though rich people tend, on average, to be healthier and happier than poor people in the same society it is important to note that both richer and poorer will do better in more equitable societies. This is demonstrated through a detailed comparison of nations by levels of inequity and rates of social/economic problems and then by comparing the 50 US states by the same two dimensions. Almost all problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies.  Or to put it another way, there is a very strong tendency for ill health and social problems to occur less frequently in more equal societies.

Inequality is life diminishing, not just for those at the bottom of the heap but right through society.  It increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; and it functions as a driver of consumption that depletes the planet’s resources.

Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality. This makes sense intuitively.  Many baby boomer aged educators will recall the groundbreaking research undertake buy Paul Willis, recounted in his book Learning to Labour, published in the mid eighties.  In rich and disturbing detail, this book provided an up close and personal account of the ways in which young men, with no economic or educational route to achieving high status and earnings, embraced a different form of status – being ‘bad boys; at school, in the gangs and through a hyper masculinity that embraced violence and petty crime. Reading this book was a light bulb moment for me, because it made sense of my growing awareness of the complexity of challenges faced by teachers in high need schools, where these dynamics play out everyday.

Mental health is the stand out example. There have been substantial increases in actual rates of anxiety and depression, and as all teachers know this has been accompanied by increases in behavior problems. There is a strong relationship between mental illness and inequity. They also show that levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries where income differences are the largest and also argue that this is because of the kind of stratification that takes place in association with inequity. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions.

Obesity, which is rapidly increasing throughout the developed world, is a major health crisis. In the past the rich were fat and the poor were thin, but in developed countries these patterns are reversed. Fat is now a class issue. Figures show that levels of obesity tend to be lower in countries where income differences are smaller.

More unequal countries have worse educational attainment. This suggests that there is more to educational equity than overcoming the unequal school readiness starting point of disadvantaged students and a relentless focus on student learning progress.  Differentiated levels of educational attainment are strongly influenced by the kind of communities we create and the sense of possibility and aspiration that exists.  Communities with high levels of trust and social capital and societies with high social mobility are more likely to flourish in more equal economies where governments invest in high quality public services, housing is not highly stratified and schools are not highly segregated by income.

Most policy measures directed to addressing the social determinants of health and educational inequality would have to be rather different if they were to take the thesis of this book into account.

This book provides a convincing critique of any narrow ‘close the educational achievement gap’ agenda. We may be able to marginally reduce gaps in levels of reading at a point in time by a relentless focus, but this book suggests that a belief that education measures alone can bring about greater equality needs to be flipped.  If we want better educational outcomes we also have to work for a more inclusive participatory civil society and greater economic and social equity – through wage fairness, job security, good working conditions, addressing career pathways for people in dead end jobs, retraining support, housing policies that reduce income based residential and educational segregation, food security and so on.

It also affirms the central importance of implementing school funding reforms currently on the table but suggests that this should be a start, and not an end.

Its important that the new funding arrangements will give greater scope for high need schools to provide much needed wrap around services, remedial support, greater subject choice, enrichment and early intervention to address the immediate learning and social emotional needs of their students.  However, if the funding reforms do not do anything to change the Government funding share across the different systems, then public schools, no matter how hard they work and how good they are, will not attract back to them, any of the parents who have opted out.

This means that, just as the US might have a level of violence that is off the scale in international terms, Australia will continue to have a level of educational segregation that is also off the scale.  If Gonski Reforms are agreed to, and I desperately hope they are, we will have made a start on addressing school funding poverty, but the relative levels of school inequality and the high levels of education segregation will remain until we have a government that is willing to stand up to the power of the non Government school lobby, for whom ‘market share’ of students is key.

Please Julia Gillard Don’t let Bill Gates Undermine the Work of AITSL

Sub Title:  We must not sacrifice teacher self-reflection and ‘safe’ learning to the god of performativity

In an article on this blog a few weeks ago I warned about the important difference between the  work that the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is doing to develop high quality and useful tools to support teacher initiated professional learning, development, peer mentoring and coaching  and what Bill Gates would like to do with such tools.

Bill Gates met with the PM yesterday and will be watched by millions on QandA tonight.  If he talks about  his TEDX message about the value of videos of teachers in classrooms, student feedback instruments, portfolios of teachers work, walkthroughs or other tools for ‘measuring’  or ‘ judging’ teacher performance for rewards or for compulsory performance review processes,  think about what he is actually saying.

He is saying that the best way to improve teacher quality and drive improved teacher performance is to test it/ assess it/ judge it/ weigh it.   Does this ring any bells?

Now I ask everyone to think about this sort of policy approach from the point of view of a newish teacher.  Would  you improve more in a system a) that encourages a pro-active  teacher initiated approach to professional development with high levels of peer collaboration, opportunities for self reflection and peer discussion on problems and areas for development using the latest high quality support tools,  or b) in a system that used all these same tools to measure you  – where every measurement was recorded in a performance grading process?.  Would you be enthusiastic about using video of your teaching or a student feedback survey on your semester project in order to reflect and hone your professional craft if you knew it could then be taken and used for formal performance assessment process which go into your records for all time?

Its a no brainer.  If you want to built the professional knowledge and skills of teachers then work with them, support them, give them a ‘safe place’ where development needs can be acknowledged along with high quality frameworks to support this.

There will always be a small proportion who will not rise to the challenge – who are probably in the wrong profession but lets not design a performance improvement framework around ‘weeding out the bad’.  This lowest common denominator approach sabotages the very goals of improvement.  The best way to manage this problem is to focus on school leadership.

Tony Mackay  Chair of AITSL wrote about this here, rather more tactfully and only recently

Australia is not a basket case in school reform. We have achieved something no other nation has so comprehensively managed: Australia is one of the first countries in the world to have a national set of professional standards to improve teaching in schools.

 Others have tried to develop national standards and failed. We have done it, getting the education sector – federal, state and territory governments, universities, non-government schools, employer groups and unions – to reach agreement on an end-to-end system for teacher quality.

 No other country possesses an exactly equivalent body to AITSL. Every few weeks the institute receives inquiries from overseas governments and education authorities wanting to know how Australia managed to get agreement on national standards from so many disparate groups involved in schooling. They have come from as far afield as the New York City school system, the Canadian province of British Columbia, Scotland, the Middle East and elsewhere.

 So how did AITSL achieve what has eluded our overseas colleagues? We …. learnt from [others] mistakes. …

Mandated standards will never work unless you get school systems and teachers on board to make them work. So we listened to teachers and school leaders. We set up a comprehensive national network of advisory groups, public seminars, forums and focus groups. We involved 6000 teachers and school principals in helping us shape the standards.

Undermine this at your peril.