I will always be in favour of spending more money on education. I believe that a better educated population will not only make us materially richer, it will make us culturally richer, with the one buttressing the other. Yet I will admit that it can be a frustrating lever for politicians to pull. Not only does it take 13 years to educate a child from the start of primary to the end of high school, a lot of the interventions that we could put our money into don’t actually work. Far from being a neoliberal conspiracy, I believe that the current focus on standardised tests is the fault of an education system that has consistently failed to deliver. In this context, politicians have looked for better ways to hold us to account. They are no longer content to trust and wait. And you can understand their point.
With one of the clear dividing lines in the forthcoming Australian election being over education funding, I thought it would be a good time to give my own idiosyncratic overview of the options. These might have broader relevance but I am specifically commenting upon Australia.
Good money after bad
There are lots of sexy and flawed initiatives that you can throw money at. They probably don’t cost all that much in the larger context of the entire school system, but they do divert energy and erode trust. Anything that is based more in a philosophy than empirical results, or that draws on science that is two or three times removed from the actual proposals (e.g. neuroscience shows parts of the brain lighting up therefore we should teach writing in a particular way) should be looked upon with suspicion.
The most obvious initiatives of this kind are exhortations to more inquiry learning in order to somehow improve uptake of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. This is clearly a latter day appearance of John Dewey’s ideas about experiential learning. There’s no real evidence that this works and efforts should probably focus more on the quality of STEM teachers (more later). I think it represents a misunderstanding of cause and effect in academic motivation and there is some evidence to support my view.
Yet there are more obscure examples. I was intrigued to read about a Queensland initiative known as “productive pedagogies” that stemmed from the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS). The simple-minded politician might think that this approach derived from successful practices uncovered by the QSRLS research but it seems like the research team already had a model in mind – based on Fred Newmann’s work on ‘authentic’ pedagogies – which they then went looking for. When you examine these ‘productive pedagogies’, they have a familiar philosophical stance, replete with ‘higher order thinking’ and ‘connection to the world beyond the classroom.’
What is a politician to do when empirical research elides into philosophy so quickly that it’s hard to notice?
Then we have technology. It is of enormous appeal to politicians because it is tangible. I remember when interactive whiteboards were introduced in the UK. They were essentially projectors that cost 10x as much as they should have done. And then we have the roll-outs of one-to-one iPads or whatever. We’ve tried the throw-a-lot-of-tech-at-it approach since at least I was at school and there is no compelling evidence that it improves outcomes in any way.
In terms of expense, the biggest failure of education spending is arguably attempts to reduce class size. John Hattie made much of this in his 2009 book, ‘Visible Learning,’ although there have been those who dispute the findings. I am not sure that reducing class sizes really is pointless if all else stays the same. But there’s the rub. In order to keep everything else the same you need to recruit more teachers of the same quality or greater than the ones you already have. This is an unlikely prospect, especially if you try to do it quickly. Most of the time, you’re probably better off with one large class with an effective teacher than two classes, one of which gets the less effective, inexperienced teacher.
Splash the cash
So where should we place our money? For a start, I don’t think you can do much in a school with severe behaviour problems, no matter what model of teaching you use or how many engaging bits of tech you purchase. An ad hoc investment in school counselors might be helpful but what if it was part of the introduction of an evidence-based approach such as the snappily titled, Schoolwide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support (SWPBIS)? Much of the SWPBIS program is relatively inexpensive to implement and is centred around a consistent approach across a whole school.
Phonics training for primary teachers would also be a good investment. We know that systematic synthetic phonics is effective so government could fund training, costs of covering absent staff and a nice lunch. This would have some pull to it. Couple this with the right training provider and the push of the potential introduction of a phonics check and we could be on to a winner.
Reducing teacher contact hours in favour of more planning time would move us closer to the kind of practices that have seen success in places like Shanghai. You could even make this relatively cost-neutral if you simultaneously increased class sizes, but that’s going to be a tough sell for the politicians. Reduced contact would have the additional impact of making teachers less frazzled which could help with retention and possibly recruitment as the word gets out. But I admit that this is speculative.
I don’t think teachers need massive pay packets. As Dan Pink suggests, you need to pay us enough to take the issue off the table. It’s probably more of a problem in big, expensive cities and in the U.S. where it seems as if teachers are chronically underpaid. At some point, differential pay for teachers of different subjects might need to be tackled. Most people with the capability of being effective STEM teachers could probably get a job in another field that is either less stressful, pays more or is both of those things. Paying all teachers more to attract and retain a greater number of these STEM candidates does seem a little inefficient although there are strong moral grounds for doing so.
There is also a strong case for investing in school buildings, particularly where they have fallen into decay.
There are a plethora of potential initiatives that we could spend our money on so are there any broad principles that we can outline to pick the good from the bad?
I don’t think it’s enough to find evidence that an intervention works. As John Hattie has famously pointed out – and this is especially true of often badly controlled education trials – everything works. Even large RCTs can be misleading when they pit an intervention like Reading Recovery against potentially doing nothing at all. Wouldn’t we expect any additional time spend on reading to improve students’ results? What we really need to know are which interventions are the most effective.
Even then I am mindful of the idea that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. If it is not clear how an intervention might work in theory then I think we need to hold it to a pretty high standard of evidence.
For instance, ‘cognitive acceleration‘ in middle school science has been shown by its originators to produce the most amazing results that persist over time and transfer across subjects. However, it is based in part on Piaget’s stage theories and these are not widely recognised as a good model by psychologists. This is why the results of the current UK EEF study will be of such interest. Until then, policy makers are probably best to stick to interventions with clearly understood mechanisms of action.