This was the short message that Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung added to the School motto when she joined staff in 2010: ‘Think you can. Work hard. Get smart. Be kind.’ Fun was a great addendum.
As the world mourns, grieves, tries to comprehend, pushes for legislative change, school communities should also reflect on the sacrifice of six American colleagues who died protecting their junior charges. If that is not the ultimate in duty of care I don’t know what is.
It’s also appropriate to consider the immense trust that parents place on teachers, and the worthwhile, more-important-than-salary, fundamental intrinsic value of an educator’s role. I cannot imagine what I would have done in such a situation. And I am extremely thankful that in Australia it is unlikely that any teacher will be confronted with such a horrendous scenario: Protect your students and put your own life at risk. In loco parentis deserves commensurate recognition, which is not exactly forthcoming these days in many OECD countries.
I find it incomprehensible that law-makers in the US put their own re-election ahead of others’ right to live. By pandering to the all-powerful National Rifle Association, politicians of all political persuasion are guilty of the most blatant act of greedy self-preservation it is possible to imagine. The complete opposite in fact to the personal attributes shown by the Newtown Elementary School teachers, who earn a meagre fraction of their Capitol Hill counterparts.
And the irony is that, in Australia as in the US, it is the latter who decide the working conditions -safety, facilities, pay – of the former.
Shame on you, feeble, pathetic and weak politicians, for not investing in some of your most selfless and influential constituents.
A recent article in The Age outlined the growing use of Twitter and other social media platforms for educational benefit.
Aside from exploring the novelty and obvious value of these online tools in connecting students with issues and counterparts across the globe, the article also highlighted some of the roadblocks to technology use such as the debate over Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies and mitigating against the threat of cyber bullying.
Teachers should use whatever available tools they can in order to engage and enthuse their students to explore new ideas and develop critical thinking, research and other skills. As with any tool – axe, pen, phone – social media performs a valid task when used effectively, which doesn’t necessarily mean for what it was originally intended (as anyone who has ever stopped writing in order to clear out some ear wax will testify…!).
Twitter (Facebook, YouTube etc.) can be used effectively with enormous educational benefit to achieve specific outcomes – communication skills, debate, creative writing – but specific guidelines must be put in place and it is essential that boundaries are retained between students’ and teachers’ personal use of these media and that conducted out of class time. The formation of class pages on Facebook as opposed to teachers friending students (or vice versa) being a prime example.
We have written before about the Flipped Classroom and are strong advocates for effective use of modern technology to improve educational outcomes for students and teachers alike. We look forward to continued debate on this topic and would be keen to hear how you use social media to good effect in your classroom.
Today the Australia Education Bill – the legislation following on from the Gonski review into school funding – was introduced into parliament.
In September this year, the government responded to the review and promised legislation that would set up a new funding framework and enshrine the government’s goal of having Australia in the top five schooling systems in the world by 2025.
This bill does just that and links funding to benchmarks and measuring educational performance. But these measures are not aimed at enriching the lives of Australians or enhancing equity; instead they focus on the economic imperatives of competition, productivity and prosperity.
This legislation is about competing with other countries, not improving on our own terms – and this is where it falls down.
While Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said the bill is about providing a “quality education for every Australian child”, it’s unlikely to get us there. And in fact, we’re at risk of copying the mistakes made in other education systems.
Learning the lesson
Australia has been privileged this year to host two of the most outstanding education thinkers of our time – Dr Pasi Sahlberg Director General, Ministry for Education, Finland and American Professor of Education Michael Apple. Both were scheduled to talk with education department officials and – both had to reschedule discussions due to the “unpalatable” nature of their messages.
But the warning from them, and the example set by their two very different countries is clear. We should be cautious about the experiments underway in some education systems and take a closer look at what Sahlberg calls the GERM – the global educational reform movement.
This movement favours increased competition, spurious school choice, use of data from standardised tests to determine teacher pay and funding, more curriculum prescription, and stronger bureaucratic oversight through so-called accountability measures. Measures that are at the core of the Australian Education bill.
At the moment, these ideas are like an epidemic, infecting education systems. It travels with its neo-liberal advocates, an unquestioning media and politicians who are all too prepared to use education as a political football.
Australia too, is infected. With the publication of NAPLAN data and the league tables made possible in MySchool, our schools have indeed become ill, our teachers and students don’t feel well, and the net result is the exact opposite of the intended improvement. These measures mean our children end up learning less, not more.
Change for the worse
This Australian Education Act 2012 serves to only further reinforce this movement and its ill-effects on our school education by legislating for the first time in our history that all schools, whether they are public or private, will receive public funds.
The legislation states that the funds are dependent on improving the performance of schools and school students and developing benchmarks. These performance benchmarks would then notionally foster “increased transparency in relation to schools, assessing and improving school performance;
gathering and sharing evidence about the most effective methods of improving the performance of schools and school students”.
The Bill suggests that all this will be accomplished through an emphasis on quality teaching and quality learning, empowered school leadership, transparency and accountability and meeting student need.
The implication is Australia does not have quality teaching and learning; that it has a disempowered leadership, lacks transparency or accountability and is not meeting the needs of students.
But this is, by and large, untrue. And the problems that are there are unlikely to be fixed by performance pay raises, achievement scores, and standardised national testing.
There is robust evidence that these do not make curriculum better, prevent school drop outs, or enhance student achievement – in fact, it is exactly the opposite.
In her speech to Parliament Julia Gillard stated that “we now have clear evidence about how disadvantage holds many students back” and repeated a fallacy that teachers are the biggest factor in student performance.
Once again the blame is being shifted downwards – shifting responsibility to those who can have little or no impact on the lives of students and families in their care.
In fact all the evidence shows that the greatest variable in student performance is the socio-economic status of their parents.
An unlikely path to success
The Bill’s claim is that every school student will have the same opportunity to have the best possible education; every school will be funded according to a formula that accounts for the costs of providing a high quality education; every school will be funded in recognition of the characteristics of the school students at that school.
If this were true, then we should expect to see at the very minimum no public funds being made available to the already over-resourced, over-funded elite private schools around the country.
What we can expect unfortunately from this legislation is more competition through bogus school choice – where schools compete against each other, principals compete against each other, teachers compete against each other.
As the Prime Minister states in her speech, “we test the reading, writing and mathematics of our children and publish the results of those tests”.
And if achievement as measured by these standardised test scores do not rise then teachers and principals’ jobs will be on the line.
The task for public schools and their teachers as a result of this legislation will now be to provide evidence that they are now starting to act more like a corporation – and if that is the case, the product will no longer be children’s educational advancement- but only higher test scores.
David Zyngier does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
An article in last weekend’s Age highlighted the plight of education in Australia: Not only is the growth in student enrolments in Independent and Catholic schools far outstripping that of Government schools, but teachers are deserting the public sector for better wages and conditions too. You can read the article here.
This chart demonstrates the relative strength of private school enrolments over the past decade. As you can see, although they have taken a post-GFC hit, the growth in student numbers far exceeds that of government schools. In fact, it is also clear that parents consider Catholic schools to be a far better option than their government counterparts.
The article quotes state government figures showing that whilst the proportion of all teachers in Victoria has remained constant in Catholic schools (20% of all teachers), the independent sector has grown at the expense of the government sector (15 to 18% and 65 6o 62% respectively). This is worrying, but not surprising.
As anyone who has attempted to apply for a government teaching job will know, the process is time-consuming, laborious and shrouded in nuance and mystery. Merely finding out about available jobs is a struggle, as one tries to navigate Victoria’s notoriously user-unfriendly Recruitment Online. Applicants must include a CV (One page? Three pages?), a cover letter (What do I include? How long should it be?) and, worst of all, key selection criteria responses – a full 2,500 word expose on your approach to teaching and learning.
When it comes to submitting your application, the system accepts only one Microsoft Word document, so beware anyone using Apple Pages and good luck with the pdf that ensures that the recipient will view the document as you are sending it! And after all of this, it is not uncommon to learn that there was an incumbent in the position and that you never really stood a chance anyway!
Compare this with seeing a private school job vacancy in the newspaper or on SchoolJobs.com.au. Include a 1-page cover letter and standard CV in any format and click ‘Apply now’. Done. Thanks for your application, which we will evaluate on its merits and get back to you. No secrecy or shenanigans required! Is it any wonder people prefer the latter approach?
Of course, the other issue is that population growth is fuelling a growth in student numbers in each of Australia’s static number of schools. As barriers to entry in education (ie the cost of building and running a new school from scratch) are very high, and, as recent school closures – Mowbray and Acacia Colleges – have shown, schools hard to maintain, the total number of schools in Australia has remained largely constant over the past decade, as has the breakdown between sectors. This is shown in the following graph.
Whilst the proportions are largely unchanged, independent schools have been able to reduce average class sizes and therefore employ progressively more teachers, providing (an impression of) better value for parents. Tuition fees in many independent schools have risen 100% over the past ten years (see the following articles in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald). A summary of school fees for some of Australia’s best-known schools is published here. An decrease in the student:teacher ratio requires an increase in the number of teachers, which, coupled with the disparity between application processes (which make a mockery of transparent merit and equity principles) equates to a vast migration of talented and highly qualified staff from the public sector.
The final point to make concerns salary and working conditions in each sector. Government and Catholic sector teachers have to fight constantly for wage increases: Victorian teachers are currently locked in an extended battle with the State Government for their next agreement period. It is well-known that teachers in private schools can earn up to $20,000 more than their Catholic and government counterparts, although many argue that the time commitment and expectations are higher. Coupled with better ICT infrastructure, more modern teaching environments and materials and state of the art gymnasiums, swimming pools and performing arts complexes, is it any wonder that people’s first preference is to teach in a private school where they can focus on teaching outcomes and will be well rewarded for their efforts?
Flipping the classroom is gaining traction across secondary and tertiary education organisations.
The following video by Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst who has used his talent for social good (!), explains the mechanics and benefits of ‘flipping’ the traditional model of education on its head: Students spend their ‘homework’ time watching YouTube videos of the course content (self-paced learning), which the teacher then consolidates in class time to improve understanding and engagement.
What do you think? Could it work in your classroom?
Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg In Conversation
Much has been made over the past twelve months of Australia’s desire to place higher in the OECD rankings of quality national education systems.
This interview features one of Australia’s leading current educational gurus, John Hattie, talking with one of the world’s leading education gurus, Pasi Sahlberg from Finland.
Key points in our view:
1) In world terms, Australia isn’t doing too badly
2) School autonomy in decision-making, including the provision of professional development, is paramount
3) Equity between schools and systems is a major factor
4) Parent choice in Finland is very limited until Year 10, at which stage students choose between academic or vocational schools
5) In our view, the 5th item sums up best the disparity between the two systems. To quote Pasi Sahlberg directly:
Because many young people when they look at what the primary school teachers do with a high quality academic master degree that they earn in our universities, they see pretty much what the medical doctors, or lawyers or engineers or anybody else with a similar degree are doing, with their autonomy, independence, respect, professional collective nature of work.
And that’s why I think they are going there. Not only because the university degree is kind of a competitive degree but the image of being a primary school teacher is pretty close to how you would describe a medical doctor’s work.
Watch the interview below. What do you think?
By John Hattie, University of Melbourne. John Hattie has received funding from the ARC.