Over the past two decades, Australian governments have committed exorbitant energy and resources to transform our nation’s schools.
The driving force behind many reforms has been a narrative of panic and failure, often centred on the steady decline of Australian students on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
When federal education minister Alan Tudge announced yet another review of teacher education in May, he followed a predictable reform script. Australian students, he said, have “dropped behind” on global PISA rankings, are “being significantly outcompeted” and this will have grave consequences for the nation’s “long-term productivity and competitiveness”.
Tudge set a target to return Australia to the top education nations globally by 2030, and argued more national reforms are needed to make this happen. He was mirroring a long line of similar goals and proclamations from federal ministers who have argued we must pursue common national reforms based on evidence about “what works”.
The problem is, these grand attempts to revolutionise schools are not working.
Not only has Australia gone into a rapid free fall on PISA but multiple other measures of performance have stagnated or gone backwards. Roughly one in five young people in Australia do not complete year 12, intolerable gaps in outcomes persist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and the race for high ATARs (and entry to elite universities) is dominated by young people from the wealthiest backgrounds.
Australia is replicating a deeply inequitable and underperforming system.
This begs a crucial question: if “what works” doesn’t actually work, then what should we be doing differently? In my new book, The Quest for Revolution in Australian Schooling Policy, I outline multiple ways we could re-imagine schooling reform.
What’s the problem with doing “what works”?
All over the world, governments and policy makers are seeking to align schooling policies to evidence that tells us “what works”.
Underpinning this reform movement is a seductive allure of order, which assumes positive outcomes will flow from standardising diverse schooling systems around common practices that are apparently “proven to work”.
This logic has informed every major schooling reform since the late 2000s, from the introduction of standardised literacy and numeracy testing (NAPLAN) to the creation of an Australian Curriculum based on common achievement standards.
To a casual observer it might seem logical we should aspire to be the world’s best and develop standards based on “the evidence” to achieve that. Yet there are multiple reasons why doing “what works” often doesn’t work at all.
The primary issue with this approach is that while there might be some evidence to tell us a reform works “somewhere”, proponents often take this to mean it will work everywhere.
This can produce a range of adverse impacts. For one, privileging evidence that can apparently be applied across the board can devalue local and context-specific knowledge and evidence.
While it might be broadly useful to consider what “high impact teaching strategies” look like, we should never assume such evidence can be equally applied in all schools.
After all, what works best in a remote public school in Broome is highly unlikely to be the same as what works best in an elite private school in Darlinghurst.
Without critical and nuanced engagement with evidence claims, such lists and toolkits can act as powerful disincentives for the profession to generate and share locally-produced evidence. This, in turn, can lead to an erasure of evidence that does not align with dominant knowledge.
At its worst, when evidence is determined through top-down government intervention and based on global knowledge curated by leading think tanks, education businesses and organisations like the OECD, educators are relegated to being mere “implementers” of ideas from elsewhere.
At work here is an arrogance of design and a privileging of the perspectives of remote designers over that of professionals with deep knowledge of the local spaces in which they work.
What is a better way forward?
Australian schooling policy is being put together backwards.
My book outlines ways to reverse the reform script. Let me briefly mention three.
First, Australia needs to stop listening to the loud voices of education gurus and members of the global “consultocracy” who claim to have “the answer”.
Instead, we should invest energy and resources to inspire local networks of evidence creation and knowledge sharing. This organic and bottom-up approach puts faith in the profession to experiment, solve problems and collaborate to create solutions in context.
This is not an argument against experts and expertise but is a call for re-framing how we understand these terms.
Australia has fallen into a pattern where the experts and expertise that shape reforms are no longer in schools. This needs to be urgently re-balanced.
Second, we need to move beyond industrial modes of thinking that liken the work of educators to those of factory workers on a production line.
Rather than investing millions in reforms that tie educators to lockstep standards and lists of strategies, we need to recognise that schools are complex and diverse social ecologies and the work of educators is non-routine based and always evolving.
So, while it can be useful to have some external evidence and standards to inform practices, its relevance to practical and local knowledge is only partial at best.
We only really know evidence works when we see it work in specific classrooms, and what works in one class won’t work in all classes.
Third, we need to move beyond the damaging assumption that sameness and commonality across systems and schools is the path to improvement.
Grand designs to revolutionise and homogenise practices are not the panacea.
Rather than approaching education reform as technicians seeking to make “the machine” work better, perhaps we should think and act more like gardeners, seeking to build the ecosystems needed for diverse things to grow and flourish.