I, like many, eagerly awaited the Prime Minister’s response to the Gonski recommendations at the National Press Club earlier this week with a degree of certainty that a new funding model for Australian schools would be announced.
But when the Prime Minister made no announcement about the funding model, the quantum of funds and the processes to support and introduce it, we were all left scratching our heads.
All schools need to forward plan. This planning requires funding certainty. Instead of steering a clear path ahead backed up by detailed funding measures, the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday only seemed to stir a pot of growing frustration. In the absence of providing any details, the void is mostly filled with questions. I can only hope that clarity around funding levels comes soon.
I was also concerned by the issues the Prime Minister raised and her call for us to join her ‘national crusade’. In one sense, her speech was very Whitlam-esque; forward looking and spoken with passion, filled with case studies and imagery to tug at even the hardest of hearts. While a good crusade always rallies the troops and builds momentum, it is a call to the wrong thing.
The simple assertion of the need ‘to improve schools’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; nor do the simplistic international examples that reduce the complexities involved to a ‘race to the top’. The literature and the practice are clear on this matter.
Professor Anthony Welch made the point in an article in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald that a narrow focus on improving Australia’s rank on international league tables avoids real and persistent problems in education. He says if the government places too much emphasis on test results, we’ll have teachers teaching to the test, children learning but not understanding and a widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.
This narrow focus does nothing to raise the overall standard of learning and teaching in Australia.
The proposed scheme to hold schools to account based on a new school improvement plan that is checked and published demeans the work already going on in schools and the good work that our teachers currently do.
We know that the most effective way to improve student learning and thus improve schooling is to invest in good teachers and leaders. I recently came across The Irreplaceables, a report from the US addressing the ‘good teacher retention crisis’. It struck me that the term ‘irreplaceable’ is a great way to think about good teachers, and highlighted how we need to support them by building their capacity and providing ongoing feedback. The report found that top teachers who were provided with a mix of feedback and development, recognition, leadership opportunities and access to professional learning resources planned to remain at their schools longer than those who didn’t.
Building teacher capacity is the way forward. Why is the government focused on implementing a policy aimed at measuring teacher capacity rather than building it?
Good teachers make the difference. Building teacher capacity is how we will improve student learning in Australia.