Reducing inequities is a worthy ambition in education policy and practice — but delivering a better and fairer education system doesn’t require revolution; it requires skilling schools for success.
Disappointingly, our schools have struggled to consistently meet the collective aspiration of excellence and equity over recent years. On the excellence front, it’s well documented in standardised testing that outcomes have been largely flat or in decline. And on the equity front, a decade of Gonski school funding has not made any dent in narrowing achievement gaps — and in some cases, inequities have worsened.
This has clearly motivated federal Education Minister Jason Clare’s approach to the policy portfolio.
In setting up the current review of the national school reform agreements (where Canberra and the states agree on shared goals and funding commitments), he has stressed the objective to promote “a better and fairer education system”.
This is a noble goal. Not only are educators especially motivated by a strong sense of social justice and moral purpose, but all Australians also share enthusiasm for a fair go for their children. And in a genuinely free society, education is of a high standard and gives all students — no matter their background — the chance for success.
But unfortunately, there at least three common misconceptions among some of education’s equity advocates that counterproductively undermine this mission.
First, educational inequity is mistakenly viewed as a structural problem, rather than a solvable one. This is because, it’s argued, that in order to fix school inequity, you must first fix society’s inequities. However, this premise is fundamentally wrong, as the causation is the wrong way around. It’s through high quality education that society’s inequities are meaningfully addressed.
Pioneering research shows that, of all the available policy levers, education is the most potent in promoting social mobility. To this end, teachers and schools are the greatest available economic and educational equity lever, not the victims of it.
It’s true that disadvantaged schools and students often face more hurdles than their more well-heeled peers. But, as Centre for Independent Studies research has documented, it’s also the case that many schools and teachers routinely help students overcome the educational odds through consistent commitment to evidence-based and practical solutions.
Second, it’s often claimed that, because school outcomes are unequal, this means education systems currently value the wrong things. The apparent solution, then, is to change what is measured, or don’t measure anything at all.
This the equivalent of blaming the barometer for bad weather. Watering down academic standards or replacing essential literacy and numeracy with broader alternatives is counterproductive and does no favours for disadvantaged students. Not measuring or reporting on school results only masks inequities; it doesn’t redress them.
In adult life and employment, there is no substitute for education in opening doors and unlocking opportunities. This is a feature of the system, not a bug, so undermining students’ academic pursuits will only further entrench inequality. We must do better in raising the expectations and outcomes of students of all backgrounds, not wish away disappointing results.
Third, there can be a belief that because some students start behind, they will inevitably stay behind.
In the retail industry, there’s the maxim that the customer is always right: it’s not acceptable to blame a customer for their expectations and, however challenging they may be, their needs should be met. But, in education, students’ backgrounds and school-entry ability can, at times, be a scapegoat.
This can underestimate the agency of teachers and schools to turn around students’ academic prospects. International research shows that if disadvantaged students receive consecutive years of highly effective teaching, this can entirely eliminate the initial achievement gap with better-off students. The evidence shows that the quality and duration of effective teaching is far more impactful in turning around outcomes than increases in resourcing alone.
It’s also factually wrong that the educational starting line determines the finishing line. While it’s true that some students start school at a disadvantage, it’s in the schooling years that gaps grow. With highly-effective teaching and early intervention, most differences in students’ starting skills can feasibly be overcome.
Unfortunately, too few students catch up once they’ve fallen behind. But it’s not because some form of crude educational determinism prevents them from doing so, it is because school and system approaches to intervention for struggling learners currently needs improvement.
All Australians want more equitable outcomes for students, and policymakers can better tilt the education system to work toward this goal. But this will require backing in best practice in schools and the capacity of teachers to lift outcomes, not resigning to the defeatism inherent in educational equity ideology.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Yan Krukau.