Outcomes before inputs in education

Glenn Fahey

08 February 2020 | The Australian

Each new school year elicits mixed emotions for parents and children, ranging from excitement to anxiety. For policymakers, the new year needs to be greeted with a steely-eyed determination to lift schooling performance for the benefit of the four million Australian students in school, and ultimately for the national good.

That means putting aside the habitual mudslinging, buck-passing and tinkering at the edges by policymakers of both parties and at each level of government. Too often, politics has clouded education policy — perhaps more so than any other major portfolio — much to the disservice of students, families and educators.

The way forward must necessarily start with a candid, sober understanding of what has gone on in the past and be followed by a clear vision for the future. Holding up a mirror to the school system will be confronting but it’s past time for an honest accounting of success and failure.

Any serious introspection will note the inconvenient truth that, everywhere in education policy, performance has become a dirty word — for students, schools and teachers — while productivity and getting education bang for the buck are long gone as policy priorities.

Last year the OECD-run Program for International Student Assessment revealed that Australian students’ test results, particularly in mathematics, have continued to slump considerably. All the while, education ministers across the country have boasted about providing “record funding” to schooling.

It is easy to see that a cabal of vested interests and the same old players hold tight control of policymaking, particularly in relation to assessment, competition and performance management. The losers every time are students, taxpayers and even teachers.

It’s no secret that student assessment isn’t what it used to be, and PISA shows we’re certainly a class below high-performing countries when it comes to setting high expectations at school. There is a national commitment to “learning progressions” — which privilege students making progress rather than achieving to an expected standard.

That means those who start behind the curve are likelier to lag behind their peers and have their career opportunities hindered — since employers will invariably want the best candidate for the job, not the most improved.

There is also a push to do away with end-of-school examinations and exit scores on the basis that testing is simply too stressful and ranking a student’s performance might shatter their fragile confidence. But tests are just that — a test of performance under pressure, much like what happens daily in adult life and work.

National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy reporting remains under constant fire. Its opponents say it’s unfair to measure a school’s performance according to such arbitrary and summative measures as test results in basic literacy and numeracy. State education ministers routinely flirt with the idea of scrapping the tests altogether or hiding the results from the public.

However, watering down competition around performance is no recipe for improvement. Quite the opposite: it licenses an accountability-free protection racket, ripe for slackers.

But it is teachers who may be most let down by an inadequate performance management system. Once in the classroom, staff performance is not assessed consistently, independently or objectively, and principals often feel their hands are tied — both for teachers who exceed expectations and for those who don’t meet the bar. Teachers don’t enjoy the benefits of further development from the basic performance management practices found in just about any other Australian workplace.

There is virtually no nexus between pay and performance for teachers, and wage increases are doled out across the board, thanks to centrally determined pay deals with the unions.

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?

An aspiration for school policy, characterised by an unapologetic and unrelenting drive for higher performance and productivity, should be an obvious imperative, no matter one’s political persuasion. It also means putting to bed the naive assumption that simply spending more will deliver better outcomes. We’ve already tried that, to no avail.

If doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity then repeatedly spending more money on the same thing for the same results makes policymakers look utterly braindead. All the Gonski “needs-based” funding in the world won’t improve education outcomes without a change in performance culture throughout the system, root and branch.

A new vision for school funding should be outcomes-based. Simply dishing out funding based on inputs (the number and demographics of students), rather than outcomes, doesn’t make for a productive education nation.

Market-based incentives can be used to cultivate greater competition, stimulating the drive for better performance and productivity.

Most school funding goes to paying staff. If this pay were performance-based (particularly in terms of student achievement), it could revolutionise the culture within schools. A renewed focus on performance would flow through to students’ attitudes towards learning and assessment. It’s well documented that highly motivated students, with high expectations set for them, are much likelier to do well.

It’s often said that a country’s education system is a predictor of its future economic prosperity, since human capital is key to national productivity. Last month’s national accounts revealed a persistent, long-term slide in Australia’s labour productivity results, spelling bad news for future economic capacity. It’s no coincidence that productivity has collapsed, as the education system has shirked performance for too long.

The new year is as good a time as any to chart a new policy course. At a national level, the interests of the country and its students must finally be put ahead of the unaccountable, vested interests that have been a dead weight on Australian schooling. For the sake of our future productivity and prosperity, education policy in 2020 needs a jolt of market-based reform — accountability with high expectations, competition, and performance management.

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