More dollars don’t make sense

Glenn Fahey

14 February 2020 | ideas@theCentre

Australia’s four million school students may now be back in class, but it seems policymakers remain unschooled on education policy directions. 

The new school year comes on the back of December’s disappointing results from the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — which showed Australian students’ performance has dropped not only in relative terms to other countries, but also in absolute terms. 

At the same time, new Productivity Commission figures released last week show taxpayer funding is higher than it’s ever been — and it’s even increasing faster than ever. 

Still, the silence on education policy from federal parliament’s first sitting weeks of the year is deafening. 

It appears policymakers see business as usual as the apparent fix to the ailing school system. However, spending more over again, and expecting a different outcome, must surely be the definition of policy insanity.

To achieve an improvement in student outcomes demands a change in performance culture throughout the system, root and branch. That’s because everywhere in education policy, performance has lamentably become a dirty word. 

In the way of improvements are vested interests that’ve been crippling policymaking for years, particularly in terms of assessment, competition and performance management — much to the disservice of students, parents, taxpayers, and even teachers.

For students, performance can be revived with a high-expectations environment that welcomes, rather than fears, testing — much like exists in the cleverest countries in the world. Straightforward as it sounds, research shows that simply setting high expectations actually leads to higher achievement.

When it comes to schools, genuine competitive pressure about performance makes them accountable and provides assurance to parents and taxpayers. The jury is in that parents do value the transparency that comes with tools like the MySchool website. And OECD research is clear that school systems with more accountability do better.

Teachers suffer, too, from the anti-performance crusade. That’s because their performance is never consistently, independently or objectively assessed once they’re at the chalkface. This denies them the benefits of further development from the basic performance management practices enjoyed in just about any other Australian workplace. Principals have their hands are tied, meaning they can’t reward top performing teachers, and also can’t do much about those who don’t meet the bar. 

If teachers aren’t working in an environment requiring, encouraging and helping them to meet high standards, is it any wonder that students don’t perform?

Before another $60 billion of public investment in schooling is made this year, policymakers would do well to shake up the approach to funding. 

Yes, money matters when it comes to student outcomes — but only when it’s used to incentivise performance for teachers and schools. That requires a wholesale shift in funding from inputs to outcomes.

When it comes to spending the education dollar, it makes policy sense to reward rather than shirk performance. 

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