The recent “Gonski 2.0” review of Australian education makes pretty depressing reading. If this is the big idea for Australian education then I am concerned. I am particularly worried that it has been backed uncritically by politicians. Apart from a few dissenting conservative voices, we are faced with a programme of reform supported by the incumbent government and, seemingly, the official opposition. Rather than critiquing the vagueness of, and lack of evidence for, the Gonski panel’s plans, Labor appear to be saying that these plans are nothing new and that they thought of them first.
The prize of a knowledge-rich curriculum seems farther away than ever.
If we cannot achieve meaningful reform at a system level, as sadly seems the case, then perhaps the solution is freedom for individual schools or groups of schools to innovate. The charter school movement began in the U.S. in the late 1990s and the academy/free school programme took hold in England in the 2000s. This has allowed enough time to explore some of the effects.
It is a mistake to assume that simply changing the regulation of schools will fix the system. In fact, it is a misunderstanding of the intention of such reforms. The logic of creating multiple school types is that some will be less effective and some will be more effective, allowing the system as a whole to learn from the relative successes. Schools like Michaela Community School and School 21 in London are building models of education that are significantly different to each other and to most schools in the English school system. Michaela champions strong discipline and the explicit teaching of a knowledge-rich curriculum whereas School 21 prizes oracy and project-based learning. Both provide models of practices for other schools to consider, select from or reject.
The KIPP charter school programme in the U.S. may provide even more substantial evidence for us to draw upon. KIPP schools are often oversubscribed and take students on a lottery basis. This allows researchers to run genuine randomised controlled trials comparing students who are accepted into KIPP with those who are not; students who should not systematically vary in terms of any other trait. This evidence suggests that KIPP schools have a positive effect although, by the very nature of the research, we can only really say this about those KIPP schools that are oversubscribed.
I would not necessarily wish to replicate every aspect of the KIPP programme in every school – I am doubtful about character education, for instance – but that is hardly the point. The policy allowing for the formation of charter schools also allows for the generation of this kind of evidence. Over time, it could and should make the whole system smarter. I am sure many of us think we know what the best schools would look like but this is a way of actually testing out those ideas.
You might argue that we shouldn’t be experimenting on children. This is a valid point to raise and, in the past, I have argued that we need to focus on system level reform based upon the available evidence. But we are simply not doing that and we seem further away from it than ever. Some innovative schools may indeed fail their students – we have seen this with studio schools in England – but I suspect there would be a net positive effect of such a policy. Although very different, I don’t think that anyone would describe either Michaela or School 21 as a disaster, such is the power of being given the freedom to build something that you believe in.
Yet here we are in Australia. Charter schools in the U.S. have received a lot of support from moderate Democrats. The academy programme in England was introduced by a centre-left Labour government. Despite a few faltering steps towards greater autonomy, nobody in Australian politics, left or right, seems to be actively pursuing a serious charter school / free school policy here. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to learn from these other school systems, at some point, down the track, in the future, once we have messed about with personalised learning for a few years.