Revolutionising our education through funding?

The data has it: Australia is falling behind. We are losing out in our children’s reading, maths and science scores, being beaten by most of East Asia, Canada and New Zealand — and we don’t like losing to New Zealand! So what are we doing about it? Apparently, commissioning a highly respected corporate director to write a 250-page report on how we can make our system better; well David Gonski came through and the results were released yesterday. Here, in his own words (published in the Fairfax papers), was the thrust of it:

The race is on, and Australia is losing ground.

On average, socio-economically advantaged students are achieving better outcomes than disadvantaged; metropolitan students are achieving better than rural and remote students; and disabled students are falling behind their peers. This is not acceptable in Australia, where we take pride in giving everyone a ”fair go”.

… The funding system that sustains our three school sectors – government, Catholic and independent – is complex, confusing, opaque and inconsistent across states and territories, and obscures educational goals and accountability.

… That’s why the review panel has proposed Australia adopt a Schooling Resource Standard that would have two elements: the amount of per-student investment required to provide a high-quality education, plus loadings targeting disadvantage.

The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that the school funding system has become as bad as it is due to no planning and developing over time for less than ideal motives. However, Gonski’s recommendations are not politically viable at this time.

Politics 1, Gonski and schools 0.

His review was asked to find a way to fix school funding, state and federal, which has grown piecemeal over decades into a Heath Robinson-like contraption – a fundamentally unfair one, a product of temporary fixes and vote-buying.

… Gonski was hamstrung from the start by the requirement that any change produce no losers. Inevitably, it had to recommend that the government spend a lot more on schools to bring the disadvantaged up to the level the privileged attained long ago. Given the tight federal budget and the promise of an early return to surplus, the government cannot contemplate Gonski’s recommended $5 billion-a-year funding boost … So like a child asking for the impossible, Gonski has been told: “We’ll see.”

Sister paper The Age agreed with the Herald, but spent a lot more time congratulating itself for being agreed with by Gonski and stressing the “inequality” in the system and less time on the realpolitik of the reform.

As usual, the most sophisticated analysis came from The Australian, which praised the more “clear and transparent” system that Gonski proposed, but also noted a few other factors:

Reversing educational decline | The Australian.

As with the present system, parents of students in the wealthiest fee-paying schools would continue to carry a heavy burden — funding state schools through their taxes and paying the fees for their own children, who would receive only about 20 to 25 per cent of the “schooling resource standard” in government subsidies under the proposed model. Contrary to the claims of public sector teachers’ unions, non-government schools are excellent value for taxpayers.

Despite the intense interest in the Gonski report and governments’ responses, education authorities should focus on the need for reform in the selection, training, mentoring and career structures of teachers. Such improvements would create a far more significant education revolution than reorganising the funding system.

For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t understand the argument for Government subsidising private education, it’s really quite simple. Say it costs the Government $15k a year to publicly educate a child, it costs $30k at a private school and the parents can only afford to spend $25k. If the Government subsidises the child’s education by $5k, the child will go to the private school — which gives the child a better education and gives the Government $5k more to allocate to public education.

Also, the parents are paying taxes that go to the education system and, without subsidies, receiving no money back — so essentially, they are subsidising the education of other children while being forced to spend even more on their own child’s schooling, which hardly seems fair to them. To see this explained using a barbeque analogy, click here.

The limits of Gonski

I am not actually convinced that Gonski’s suggestions would improve the education system that radically. I will disclaim that I have not read the report, so please correct me if I’m wrong on any point.

The Australian and the Herald both cited the Rudd/Gillard ‘Building Education Revolution’ as a reason why the Gonski review may have trouble getting through Parliament, and with good reason. The BER was a very good example of how throwing money at something doesn’t make the problem go away.

In NSW at least, there are already a lot of different schemes that give extra funding to disadvantaged and Indigenous students and gives teachers incentives to work in them, yet this does not resolve the problem. Yes, these are poorly thought-out and haphazardly implemented, but the point remains. I have personally seen a school with only impoverished Indigenous students that had unbelievable facilities, including $10,000 basketball nets, yet had some of the lowest outcomes and highest drop-out rates in the state.

More important than how much money is given is how the existing money is spent, other factors also affect education. Here are a few other things we may need to think about:

Teacher salaries?

Take this graph (via The Dish):

Ignore the diagonal line through the middle, that is what us mathematicians call a weak correlation and an example of how statistics are poorly used in policy debates. There is clearly something else going on given the number of outliers. In fact, we do very well on this scaled — Finland, Australia, the UK and the USA all spend around the same amount, yet there is a clear difference in outcomes and Australia seems to achieve very high outcomes relative to dollars spent.

Upbringing

This is something that money cannot really change and is, to a large extent, the elephant in the room. As much money as the Government may throw at disadvantaged children, if they are not interested in learning or if they are not given an environment in which they can learn, they will not learn. To give the example, again, of the school referenced above, the parents of those children had no interest in their being educated, meaning they only went to school if they genuinely wanted to be there (not many did). Add to that growing up in a house with no books, that does not have the newspaper delivered every morning and without any kind of informative dinner table discussion (or indeed, without a dinner table) and a few thousand dollars for the school makes little difference.

That is in extreme example, but I still have a point. To back that up with some actual (admittedly American) data, here’s Charles Murray:

The Truth About Income Inequality in America – Charles Murray – Business – The Atlantic.

The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children. Among college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in the math and verbal tests had at least one parent with a college degree. Fifty-six percent of them had a parent with a graduate degree. The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart in large part because their parents are smart.

That brings us to the role of homogamy — interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics … homogamy has increased at both ends of the educational scale — college graduates grew more likely to marry college graduates and high school dropouts grew more likely to marry other high school dropouts. In 1960, just 3 percent of American couples both had a college degree. By 2010, that proportion stood at 25 percent.

… The bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.

That said, there is a counter-argument that a more integrated education system pulls-up the scores of disadvantaged children while not significantly affecting the advantaged. See Andrew Sullivan (again) for a summary and follow the links to see an interesting discussion around this issue. I may look into this more at some point in the future to see how good the data actually is.

Meanwhile, if the key recommendation for fixing Australia’s education system relies on funding redistribution, I am not extremely hopeful. Having had the unfortunate experience of going through HSC in NSW, even in a well-funded school, I can say first hand that there is a lot more to address.

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  1. A lesson from Finland? Something for Gonski to chew over « Major Karnage

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