Recently I attended a meeting with Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz, two senior education researchers and US government advisors on education policy. Hosted by the new Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in the NSW Department of Education, this high level briefing provided an opportunity to discuss education policy in relation to worldwide trends and a broader understanding of the current US state of play on the eve of a Presidential election.
For the last few decades Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz have been important contributors to this discussion, advising US policy makers including Presidents Clinton and Obama.
They made the point that the educational agenda over this period has been largely driven by policies to:
- evaluate teachers on a narrow set of criteria to identify and remove the bottom 10 per cent of under-performing teachers
- introduce Charter Schools giving parents greater choice and to harness business capital to help fund schooling
- set narrow educational standards through basic skills testing
Tucker and Schwarz believe this has been a process of reform by attacking the system. Interestingly, the evidence shows that despite a 270% increase in expenditure on education in real terms under the last two presidential administrations, US schools have gone backwards on all indicators.
Clearly this agenda doesn’t work.
When they went looking for what did work, they found high performing countries (including Australia) had policies that were almost opposite to those in the US.
These countries shared similar characteristics which they identified as a:
- strong instructional core, rigorous processes and diversity around assessment of student performance
- robust curriculum framework and related standards identifying what students should be able to know and do
- focus on building teacher capacity
It was refreshing to hear the discussion go beyond the limited comparisons that are so often made in relation to PISA and the usual top four performing systems in the world. Schwartz and Tucker highlighted Ontario, Canada as one of the best examples of a sustainable approach to education policy around these three areas, particularly in their focus on building teacher capacity. They also found evidence within these successful systems of what Richard Elmore calls ‘reciprocity of accountability for capacity’.
‘Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.’ (Elmore, 2002).
For the last 20 years Australia has been responding to the changing world predominantly through the expansion and integration of technology into schooling – the Digital Revolution. What the US experience shows us is that the real drivers of change are not tool driven, but rely on a deeper understanding of the nature of people and how they learn; a worldview that informs learning and teaching; a strong foundation of theory and evidence; and finally an investment in building human capital.
Rather than attacking the system (teachers, curriculum, and so on) or making changes at the fringes, we need to look within the profession to build the capacity of our teachers and leaders for successful education reform.