This post is the second in my ongoing exploration of the second Gonski Report. The first post is Through Growth to Achievement #Gonski Review 2.0
The ever insightful Dean Ashenden presents his analysis in Inside Story: An end to the industrial model of schooling? Ashenden writes that while the latest Gonski report points a way to the future of school reform, it has not broken with its disastrous past.
The panel was constrained by four realities. It was asked to “focus on practical measures that work,” an approach that, it turns out, it didn’t really agree with. Second, what no doubt looks to the minister to be a perfectly reasonable effort to ensure value for money may look to others like a velvet glove around Canberra’s financial fist. A third difficulty is that the report had to come up with an approach that could and would be implemented faithfully by each of Australia’s twenty-plus very different school jurisdictions. And, finally, the review was required to focus on school and classroom practice when most of the problems, including problems in practice, have their origins elsewhere.
In sum, the panel was asked to resolve two deep and ancient schisms in Australian schooling — the conflict between “conservative” and “progressive” educational approaches, and the conflict between the federal government and the states — while pinning down the notoriously elusive relationship between school funding, educational practice and academic outcomes — and to do it all with one hand tied behind its back, in eight or nine months.
According to Ashenden “The problem, or the most substantial single problem in Australian schooling anyway, is the massive redistribution of the population across schools and school systems, a continuing increase in the concentration of “advantaged” students in their schools and “disadvantaged” students in theirs, and a shrinking proportion of schools with socially mixed enrolments” and the report does nothing to seriously address this issue. Ashenden also details the limits of the educational governance in Australia, noting that:
The problem is compounded by the Rudd and Gillard’s consolidation of a “national approach.” The key areas of strategic policy formation and accountability, as well as some aspects of resource allocation and curriculum, have all been ceded to national agencies and processes, leaving the states and non-government systems as not much more than retail outlets. Looked at from the other direction, the national “system” has no authority over the many matters still in the hands of the states and systems.
Perhaps worst of all, the “national approach” herds every system into a single reform strategy. When it fails, all fail, and there is no alternative to learn from. Of course systems should collaborate, but at their own initiative and in varying combinations, not in a lock-step march to the “national” drumbeat.
Thus, no matter what the report recommends the political realities, structures and governance shaping education in Australia make the task of meaningful reform difficult.
Chris Bonnor, also writing for Inside Story, asks Has Gonski stepped outside the square? He also discusses the difficulty of truly changing the way that schooling is done, by taking a more micro look and highlighting how hard it is to change the low established grammar of schooling.
After I retired I visited a number of innovative schools and always walked away not only with admiration for the energy of school leaders and teachers, but also with a greater awareness of the institutional, cultural and micro-political constraints on what they wanted to do. As a part-consequence, the innovations, just like mine, tended to be added to what was considered the main work of schools rather than changing how we do schooling itself.
Without detailing the reforms that the report calls for Bonnor explores how difficult it is to truly be innovative:
Maybe the real question is whether game-changing innovation can take hold if schools still look decades old. Lock-step student progression; siloed learning driven by externally created curriculum; exquisitely designed and imposed assessment hoops through which students must jump on command — it could well be that these features of schooling are blocking the innovation we need.
Bonnor’s questions certainly reflect my experience as a researcher. In research that I’m doing with colleagues we are using high-end virtual reality in classrooms in low SES schools. We are co-researching with teachers to embed VR (in safe and ethical ways) into the curriculum so that the learning helps students meet required outcomes and is not a technological distraction from content that they need to learn. The students are keen, the teachers enthusiastic but it is still a very difficult process. Some of the biggest constraints are around the space (building design which lacks flexibility), timetabling and the curriculum. It’s hard to find a space that allows students the freedom of movement needed to properly use the equipment. The timetable structure doesn’t allow for large blocks of time that would be optimal for experiences such as this. And the content-heavy curriculum limits the time that students can devote to ‘play’, to getting to know the gear and its affordances prior to focusing on the assessment outcomes.
Bonnor discusses a number of factors which make reform difficult, and he highlights the growing issue of educational segregation which the Gonski Report seems to have sidestepped. He concludes with a plea:
We have reformed schools for decades, pitched them into competition and tested them to the hilt — while slicing and dicing the student population to suit the preferences of some. Improving the capacity of all schools to reach and inspire all students must be seen as the priority. We need not only to rethink what goes on inside classrooms but also be prepared to redesign how learning takes place across the school. Engaging all students is a serious equity challenge, equal to the ongoing need for resource equity highlighted by the first Gonski review six years ago.
Everyone even remotely involved in school innovation has a stake in what happens after Gonski reports. Our students have the highest stake of all. School leaders and their peak groups especially need to remember what happened after the first Gonski review, how an opportunity to create a far more even playing field for all students was substantially lost. We can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.
Bronwyn Hinz is cautiously enthusiastic about the nature of the reforms endorsed by the report, blogging:
I was particularly enthused to see learning growth over time, personalised learning, and student agency plus additional time and evidence-based tools to support teachers and principals in their vital work as educators and instructional leaders at the centre of the report.
Of course, many of the key recommendations put forward are already happening in schools around Australia, including schools I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. (Check out Templestowe College, Rooty Hill High School and Marlborough Primary). But such approaches are not systematically supported or encouraged by current policy, accountability and regulatory frameworks, nor are they made easy for already over-stretched schools or teachers.
One of the biggest obstacles – recognised in this report – is the absence of timely, fine-grain and useable data at classroom level on teaching impact, and of tools to put such insights into practice in a way that is tailored to individuals and their different contexts. Such data is in many ways the missing link, connecting teaching with learning in real time.
While the items that Bronwyn is pleased to see, done well, could potentially be powerful tools for the improvement of Australian schooling, discussion of evidence-based tools and data brings me back to previous observations that we don’t yet have the research infrastructure for a truly credible, independent National Evidence Base for educational policy. As for ‘data’, the vested interests that are ready to offer products for the collection, storage and analysis for schools’ data is a topic for another day.