Education Experts Notice the Disintegrating Dyke, and Advocate More Fingers

Yesterday, the Grattan Institute released a report:

Tackling under-achievement: Why Australia should embed high-quality small-group tuition in schools

Great idea. While you’re at it, maybe give each kid their own pony.

GI’s report, which is accompanied by bar graphs and a media release and a video and a podcast and a how-to guide and a free show bag, is based upon NAPLAN and PISA data. The data supposedly demonstrates that “disadvantaged children” start school behind their peers, and subsequently fall way behind. The solution? As declared by the report’s title, GI’s fix is to instigate high-quality small group tuition, for a fifth of students, at an annual cost of a billion dollars. But the cost is ok, because these lucky students “could collectively earn an extra $6 billion over their lifetimes”.

The Grattan Institute’s report has of course been picked up by (and directly fed to) the media, where GI’s release has been dressed up with GI quotes, and with supportive noise from ACER and the Federal education minister. Whether any reporter has read GI’s report, or has taken a moment to reflect upon it, is not so clear.

What to make of this, other than to agree that ponies for everyone would be wonderful. First of all, we should ask if is there a problem, and the answer is, “Well, duh”. Not that GI’s report is so clear or reliable on this point. The report’s definition of “disadvantaged children” – “those whose parents have a lower level of education” – is weirdly narrow (p 8). The claim that these “disadvantaged children … tend to start school well behind their peers” is not specified or backed up by any reference. And, relying upon NAPLAN and PISA for evidence of the further decline (or for anything) is, um, naïve. Nonetheless, the answer is obvious. Of course there is a problem for disadvantaged kids, whatever the nature of the disadvantage, and of course over the years the problem grows for the majority of such kids.

The second question is whether GI’s plan would help. The report spends many pages arguing the merits of their plan, but of course the answer is again obvious: yes, a few thousand more ponies would be wonderful. If you want kids to learn then someone must teach them, and the more teachers and the better the teachers, to then teach smaller groups, the more successful it will be. Good luck finding the huge number of “high-quality” teachers required, but if you can find them and pay for them, then great.

The third question is whether GI’s plan is worth the money. We’ll leave Fermi fans to try to make sense of GI’s figures, which seem to us a little odd, but we’re not intrinsically against spending a small or large fortune on a new army of teachers.

The final question is whether the Grattan Institute’s analysis and plan makes proper sense, and the answer is, “Not even close”. The entire framing of the report, the basic idea of their plan, is completely nuts.

Let’s begin with the “disadvantaged children”, and let’s take GI’s NAPLAN data and analysis at face value. The report informs us that

students in Year 3 whose parents did not finish school are two-years-and-five-months behind students whose parents have a university degree.

Two and a half years by Year 3. We came across a very similar statistic a few months ago, when report authors ignored the elephant truth in the exact same manner. It is not so much that the disadvantaged kids are learning less, than that they are learning essentially nothing. Sure, it’s four years of schooling, and more than a few of the uni-household kids will be “ahead” of ACARA’s (woeful) standard. But the truth is there, and the truth raises an obvious question, of how much any kids are learning in school.

To continue, the GI report notes that, according to PISA,

about two in five Australian students do not meet the Australian national proficiency standard in reading and mathematics by the time they are 15.

Again, let’s take GI’s quoting of the data at face value. Then, GI’s one-in-five-kids billion dollar scheme is intended to reach only half of these underperforming students. Terrific.

It is simply absurd to attempt to address systemic educational underachievement by spooning good stuff on top, rather than by acknowledging and fixing the glaring flaws in the system. The Grattan Institute report says nothing about regular classroom teaching, which makes the report utterly ridiculous, and utterly pointless.

Teaching is done by teachers. It is labour-intensive and it is thus intrinsically expensive. For teaching to be done well, it must be performed by properly qualified and committed and unharried teachers, working to a solid and coherent curriculum, with appropriate and sound resources, and teaching to a properly attentive classroom. None if this is standard, or even common, in Australian classrooms. Which means billions of dollars, and billions of hours, are being pissed away, and will continue to be pissed away, while the Grattan Institute is campaigning for another billion to reach half of the students they purportedly want to reach, and a fifth of the students they should be wanting to reach.

It would be a really big help if the Good Guys weren’t so clueless.

11 Replies to “Education Experts Notice the Disintegrating Dyke, and Advocate More Fingers”

  1. Marty writes: “teaching is done by teachers”.
    True (on some level).

    But “pre-teaching”, and “teaching support” often comes from parents and peers.

    Most such reports suggest a “solution” which takes kids away from their parents. And this ignores the basic problem: parents/families have to be part of any significant improvement. It also routinely proves both too expensive, and managerially undeliverable.

    The responsibility needs to go back where it belongs – and then the State can fill in the gaps.

    Meantime it might help to find some effective way of getting Mums to switch off their phones and *talk* to their child!
    But that would require politicians to tackle the real elephant in the room: the family.

    (We also have our own version of motherhood and apple pie which generated almost zero response – except among the privileged.)

    1. Thanks, Tony. Support teaching is always helpful, but it is a hell of a lot more helpful if there’s something solid to support. In Australia, that is simply not the general case. Given that, GI’s focus is plain nuts.

      Of course you are correct, that it is not just teachers responsible for teaching. I should have worded that better. And yes, in particular, there are huge issues with modern parenting, both in regard to schooling and more generally. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and discussed it endlessly with my brother Dan, who has thought longer and harder and smarterer, and who sees the failure of modern parenting as an absolute disaster. I’m currently in about three minds on the causes and the blames and the consequences, but it is clearly a very big elephant, which needs to be addressed.

      But even given all that, there is no question in my mind that the burden of basic schooling, for the three Rs, is falling much more on the backs of parents (and then, maybe, of tutors) than was the case in previous decades, and much more than makes any sense. The amount of time wasted on trivia in school, particularly primary school, is mad and maddening.

      1. Marty’s point is: (a) disadvantaged students (however they are defined) do indeed lack advantages, and, of course, their education suffers as a result; (b) purported solutions of the type espoused here by the Grattan Institute go out of their way to avoid mentioning the systemic flaws in Australian educational policy, institutions and practice, and are therefore pipedreams (or worse).

        Tony’s point is: (a) effective schooling does not occur in a vacuum, and depends on external conditions, in particular on parents and families functioning as supports and cultivators of the foundational capabilities required for the education of their children; (b) purported solutions that do not address the central role of the family and do not recognise that the cultivation of attentional capacities in children has been gravely undermined by the destruction of attentional capacities in adults (the inability of “Mums to switch off their phones” – and Dads, no doubt, and where this does not just effect the educationally or economically deprived, but, in fact, “all layers of the population”, as Marx and Engels put it with regard to the creeping tendency of proletarianization) are therefore pipedreams (hence “the real elephant in the room: the family”).

        Both points are undoubtedly true. Australian schools are undoubtedly a disaster, for a large number of reasons, with many contributing factors – a particularly egregious case of what is obviously a worldwide phenomenon. It is not just a question of teacher pay, teacher workloads, teacher recruitment policies, the “neoliberal” attack on education, the commodification of schooling and the parental panic and anxiety that has resulted from it, but, as Marty constantly points out, ever-worsening curriculums, ever-stupider educational bureaucracies, the medicalization of attentional and social deficiencies, ever-lower expectations of what and how a child can learn, a continuing loss of any understanding of how to inculcate the desire and the will to learn, “philosophies of education” that falsely oppose autonomy and automatism (the autonomy of a great pianist depends on the acquisition of automatisms by practicing scales, the autonomy of a great mathematician depends on acquiring mathematical automatisms, and so on), or that falsely oppose the oppression of control with the virtue of freedom, and on and on and on.

        And as Tony points out, we undoubtedly also have to affirm that the conditions of successful education are undoubtedly formed prior to school, in the family, and through an understanding that the child’s ability to pay attention (and therefore to concentrate) is nothing natural, and must therefore be cultivated by parents and others who must themselves possess the knowledge of how to pay attention to their child, and pay attention in the right way. But if we can therefore talk about “the failure of modern parenting” as being “an absolute disaster”, it’s of course equally crucial to say that this is not a matter of blaming parents, let alone of making them the scapegoats for all of these failures, because, if parenting has gotten worse, then it can only be a question of some new element that has generated this negative tendency.

        Parental attention being destroyed by phone-addiction is undoubtedly a significant aspect of this. So too is the ever-increasing resort of parents to phones and iPads as a pacification technique for young children. So too is the ever-increasing addiction of children and adolescents to screens that follows naturally as a result, and that is exploited by (anti-)social networks to divert even more of their attention and energy to these “platforms”. So too, already, was commercial TV, which for the past seven decades has refined its techniques for capturing such attention and energy, and has done so as television sets made their way from the “hearth” of the home into every room, the consequence being that we already have several generations whose parental abilities have only partially been transmitted to them from their elders. But then, we may as well also say that if those “Mums” are now almost always engaged in paid labour, then this too takes away their time, energy and ability to pay attention and give energy of the kind that Tony is calling for (and pointing this out would be a kind of parallel to what Camille Paglia pointed out with regard to teachers long ago: that smart, attentive women, lacking other options, used to make up a good proportion of the teaching profession, but now, when their options are that much greater, tend far less often to view teaching as a desirable field of employment, which is thus left increasingly to the mediocre and the half-hearted). In short, if the elephant in the room is the family, then it doesn’t take long before this starts to turn into a state room that is filled with a whole bunch of elephants à la A Night at the Opera.

        My point being: (a) education is a very broad thing, involving not just reading, writing and arithmetic, but every form of behaviour, the ability to pay attention, the possibility of developing long-term (in fact, infinite) desires and aims, rather than ever-more-immediate “rewards” (however unrewarding they may be, such as receiving “likes”), and where all of those “higher” forms of “formal” knowledge, cultivated as the disciplines, ultimately depend upon the continuing cultivation of this very broad range of capabilities; (b) purported solutions that do not address this whole series of systemic and systematic causes are ultimately pipedreams. In particular, when thousands of the world’s smartest engineers are employed to find ever more effective means of technologically capturing (and thereby destroying) the attention and desire of children, teachers and parents, no “solution” that avoids addressing this capture and destruction can ever hope to make significant gains.

        On the one hand, this requires a complete overhaul in the understanding and methods of education, which can only come from massively funding high-level research that seriously addresses these questions. On the other hand, in a world where parents and children are facing the disaster zones that are today’s schools, they cannot afford to wait for these long-term solutions, and we can only say that parents and communities have no alternative but to take action in order to form new pathways to successful learning for their children, and to partner with schools in order to demand and make possible local transformations of the conditions of educational life in the schools to which they have no choice but to delegate the educational futures of their children. But the latter strategy cannot hope to make significant inroads unless it is matched by national and international policies designed to curb the technological factors that are the most powerful forces destroying attention, desire, knowledge and education – but where do we see anyone proposing anything resembling a solution to any of that?

    2. With reference to Tony’s comments on parents and families (and the Grattan Institute report)

      The Haringey Reading Project, UK 1979, was a two-year intervention reading program for young primary school children from low-income families. It sought to examine the differences that parental involvement might make in their children’s reading development. Parents (usually themselves of limited literacy skills) were shown ways to encourage reading at home (often for no more than 10 minutes a day). Appropriate reading material was provided and parents given examples of the kinds of support (questions to be asked, for example) that might be offered.

      Dramatic improvements were made. No such improvement was apparent in control groups of children given extra help by teachers in small-group situations.

      These improvements were still evident several years after the program finished.

      With reference to Marty’s comments

      His words: “unharried teachers, working to a solid and coherent curriculum, with appropriate and sound resources”, encapsulate the the essence of all that we are required to do.

  2. “None if this is standard, or even common, in Australian classrooms.”

    Right there, one sentence, summarises so many of the reasons that extra cash will not fix much.

    Well articulated!

  3. I get the impression that there is much more media attention on issues in education than in previous years.

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