With the Gonski reforms expected to be rolled out across Australia in the coming 5 years, it is handy to reflect on what actually are the basic challenges for school reform in Australia. A view of the underlying issues helps one to judge the likely outcomes of the current reforms and others one might think of.
One can see the main learning challenges in Australian schools as related to the quality of what is taught, the quality of who is teaching, and the quality of the school as a whole. Three main issues then come to mind:
- The curriculum is often too influenced by political concerns and of low quality.
- Teachers are relatively low paid, and have seen their relative wages drop over many decades, leading to the newer cohorts of teachers to be less good as the old ones.
- Failing schools are kept going rather than replaced, effectively leading to whole neighbourhoods being bereft of good educational opportunities.
On top of this, the sector has governance issues, like a large education bureaucracy both inside schools and outside of them, but since we are here ultimately interested in the transmission of knowledge, let us focus on the problems at the coal-face and talk about the governance issues when they arise.
Now, on point 1, I am optimistic about the role of the National Curriculum that was recently introduced. It will make it visible what the educational problems are in parts of the country, most likely will lead to a set curriculum and thus a set textbook and teaching aids for all subjects, and should hence significantly raise the bottom of the education distribution (though I don’t think it will matter for the top). Whilst one cannot really see this dynamic yet on the ground, in which schools and states are just getting used to the idea of a national curriculum, one can argue that other countries that have a national curriculum have indeed gone the way of raising the floor (NZ in particular). Given the competitive mindset of the Australians and the fact that you now get frequent international comparisons, I do expect the political pressures to accumulate to use the national curriculum to improve what is taught and how it is taught. In short, I think the signs are good in terms of addressing problem number 1.
Point 2 is a very tricky one because of the fact that we have a large stock of teachers who accept the current wages and hence would not change their behaviour if you increased their wages. This means education authorities, school principals, and ministers have a strong incentive not to raise teacher wages except for the new entrants. However, if you would cheat the stock of existing teachers and only increase wages for the new teachers, you quite understandably run into opposition from the union on equity grounds. Similarly, having schools compete for teachers by letting the good schools offer better teachers higher salaries needs active competition and would probably only happen if the private schools expand and become more academically focused (rather than focused on local networks or particular religions). In short, the pressures from within the sector don’t look like leading to higher teacher pay at all, even though it is well-recognised that better teachers are the main thing that leads to improved education.
Whilst the federal government could explicitly raise teacher wages, the current reforms do exactly the opposite: to partially fund the Gonski reforms, the government is discontinuing the current policies of paying some teachers extra, and the policies under which principals can reward good teachers (and many commentators seem not to realise that the main benefit of paying teachers more is that you attract better people into the profession). In exchange for this effective lowering of teacher pay, it seems likely that it is the already overly large education bureaucracies that will get discretion over how to spend more money, and only non-economists could believe that they are going to spend most of the money on improving education by attracting better teachers into the profession by means of higher wages, rather than to predominantly use the money to hire more and better paid bureaucrats. Indeed, even if the local education bureaucracies were far-sighted and truly interested in teaching outcomes, it makes no sense for them to individually increase teacher pay because aspiring teachers do not know where they will work and hence base their entry decision on the average pay in the whole sector, implying that it needs a central push to increase teacher pay across the board. Given that Gonski seems to imply local authorities get discretion, we are talking about a clear missed opportunity in terms of teacher pay.
The third problem is the trickiest of all and has bedeviled most education reforms and flummoxed many economists too.
The essential problem with failing schools is twofold: their initial failure leads to lock-in effects such that they become hopeless in nearly all dimensions (teaching, parents, pupils), whilst there are enormous political transaction costs in actually closing down a school. Let me expand on both.
Schools can fail for many reasons, just as a marriage can go sour for many reasons. Schools might have a particularly bad principal, have particular drug-prone and aggressive students, might suffer from parents who see the dominant culture as something to be actively resisted, have open warfare between clubs of teachers, etc.
Like a failing marriage, once a school starts to fail, the problems tend to get worse and worse. Good teachers will leave a failing school and try their luck elsewhere. Good pupils will leave to go to other schools. Active parents will similarly take their children elsewhere. So over time, a failing school gets stuck with the most demoralised and least skilled teachers, the most disruptive and dumb pupils, the least interested and least active parents, and a run-down building to boot.
Now, economists know exactly what should happen in such a case: you basically want the whole school to be disbanded. You don’t merely want new management, because new management would still inherit the disruptive culture amongst students and parents. Similarly, a small influx of better pupils or parents wouldnt help much either. No, what you want is for all the teachers, parents and pupils to have to find a better school elsewhere, cap in hand. That’s what happens in a market: what is efficient and productive survives, what is not disbands such that the individual elements can become part of successful entities elsewhere.
Why do you want to destroy the old school rather than reform it? Basically because you want to force the disruptive parents and the dispirited teachers to enter a different culture in which they are the small minority: you want the disruptive kid to go to a school where the disruptive behaviour is not merely frowned upon by teachers, but actively discouraged by the peers in the class. You want the dispirited teacher to go to a school where the other teachers are optimistic and things are run well, so that that teacher rediscovers the good parts about teaching. Etc. Effectively, you want teachers, parents, and pupils to get away from cultural lock-in effects (called peer spill-overs in the jargon of this literature).
Now, here is the rub: destroying an existing school comes with huge initial transaction costs. You force individuals to go to schools further away (a big no-no in policy land, particularly when pertaining to Aboriginal kids); you are stuck with a large expensive property unsuited for anything else; and you would have to pay out redundancy packages for the teachers and actively find places for the pupils.
It should be clear that this disruption is politically very unappealing and a nightmare administratively. So the local politicians and education bureaucrats would usually prefer to have the next generation of local children get no decent education than go through the pain of this disruption. This selfishness on the part of politicians and bureaucrats, by the way, is normal since it is the usual tradeoff between visible short-run pain versus uncertain long-term benefit. It is exactly the same when it comes to bankruptcy of large corporations: politicians don’t want to be seen to be responsible for those forms of short-run pain either.
Now, it is in this realm that the Gonski reforms will succeed or fail. The headline promise is that funding will follow students (a voucher system), which in principle means that good schools can outbid bad schools, that new schools can come in, and that bad schools can thus go bankrupt, to be replaced (potentially in the same location some time later) by good schools.
Will this really happen though, and in particular, will local education authorities allow bad schools to disappear and be displaced by (Christian) private schools or more successful public schools, as many commentators seem to hope? I have my doubts: I find it hard to imagine that local politicians and bureaucrats will not actively sabotage or try to undo any existential threat to bad schools. They simply have too much to lose politically not to engage in ‘emergency loans’, ‘visitation committees’, ‘additional resources’, etc.
I find the following quote by the teacher union ominous as to what will really happen with the Gonski reforms: ‘‘What Gonski proposed to do is not pay teachers but instead direct resources into schools to allow students who are disadvantaged, by a whole range of circumstances, to get better outcomes for education’’. My my, that sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? The unions clearly don’t think the additional resources will go either to improve teacher pay nor to the disbanding of failing schools. They seem to hope it goes into the bottomless sink of administrators ‘helping’ failing schools.
In this respect, the post-Gonski environment will probably offer a lot of scope for fudge and for rewarding failing schools rather than killing them off. For instance, local education authorities can then easily discover a whole set of mental learning difficulties amongst the pupils of a failing school, thus allowing them to send in an army of monitors who will set ‘performance criteria’. Similarly, they can engage in the ‘let us try new management’ trick, thus ensuring not much changes in the medium run. In short, I fear that the potentially positive aspects of the Gonski reforms are easily sabotaged and that we will end up with more education administrators.
My hope is that the National Curriculum will break the political dead-lock over failing schools: that open league tables will start to make it so clear which schools are really bad, that education authorities will bite the bullet and truly let some schools go under, replaced by better ones. But I am not holding my breath on this.
In the short run however, the resources for Gonski seem partially to come from reducing teacher pay (via the axing of bonuses), which is a clear turn for the worse in terms of attracting good new teachers. Australian education just got a little dumber again.