Australia’s failed quest to revolutionise schools
Glenn C. Savage
Over the past two decades, Australian governments have committed exorbitant energy and resources to transform our nation’s schools.
From the education revolution reforms of the late 2000s to the current National School Reform Agreement, successive governments have sought to create a new order in Australian schools by introducing a vast array of national policies in areas such as curriculum, assessment, funding and teacher education.
The driving force behind many reforms has been a narrative of panic and failure, often centred on the steady decline of Australian students on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
As the story goes, our students are framed as failing relative to global competitors, which is seen as a risk to national productivity. To tackle this, we are told we must aspire to be the world’s best and will only rise up the ladder if we pursue consistent national reforms based on evidence about “what works”
This predictable reform script was exactly what federal education minister Alan Tudge offered when he announced yet another review of Australian teacher education in May. Australian students, he said, have "dropped behind" on global PISA rankings, are "being significantly outcompeted", and this will have grave consequences for the nation's "long-term productivity and competitiveness".
Tudge set a target to return Australia to the top education nations globally by 2030, and argued more national reforms are needed to make this happen, mirroring a long line of similar goals and proclamations from federal ministers. In 2012, for example, then federal education minister Julia Gillard set the lofty goal of raising Australia to the "top five" in global PISA rankings by 2025, using the goal to justify major national reforms and spending increases via the Gonski school funding reforms.
The problem is, these grand attempts to revolutionise schools are not working.
Not only has Australia gone into a rapid free fall on PISA but multiple other measures of performance have stagnated or gone backwards. Roughly one in five young people in Australia do not complete year 12, intolerable gaps in outcomes persist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and the race for high ATARs (and entry to elite universities) is dominated by young people from the wealthiest backgrounds.
Australia is replicating a deeply inequitable and underperforming system.
This begs a crucial question: if “what works” doesn’t actually work, then what should we be doing differently? In my new book, The Quest for Revolution in Australian Schooling Policy, I outline multiple ways we could re-imagine schooling reform.
What’s the problem with doing “what works”?
All over the world, governments and policy makers are seeking to align schooling policies to evidence that tells us “what works” to improve outcomes. Underpinning this reform movement is a seductive allure of order, which assumes positive outcomes will flow from standardising diverse schooling systems around common practices that are apparently “proven to work”. This logic has informed every major schooling reform since the late 2000s, from the introduction of standardised literacy and numeracy testing (NAPLAN) to the creation of an Australian Curriculum based on common achievement standards.
To a casual observer it might seem logical we should aspire to be the world’s best and develop standards based on “the evidence” to achieve that. Yet there are multiple reasons why doing “what works” often doesn’t work at all. The primary issue with this approach is that while there might be some evidence to tell us a reform works “somewhere”, proponents often take this to mean it will work everywhere. This can produce a range of adverse impacts. For one, privileging evidence and standards that can apparently be applied across the board can devalue local and context-specific knowledge and evidence.
As anthropologist James C. Scott argues, standards-based reforms privilege episteme (scientific and so-called ‘universal knowledge’) and techne (technical knowledge) at the expense of phronesis or métis (practical and local knowledge). At best, where practical and local knowledge is encouraged, it is for its ability to work effectively with authorised scientific and technical knowledge (i.e., to demonstrate one’s alignment with the standards).
This represents a contemporary crisis for professional knowledge broadly similar to what philosopher Donald Schön argued, back in 1983, when he wrote that forms of technical rationality were beginning to dominate contextualised forms of ‘reflection in action’ within professions.
While it might be broadly useful to consider what “high impact teaching strategies” look like, we should never assume such evidence can be equally applied in all schools. After all, what works best in a remote public school in Broome is highly unlikely to be the same as what works best in an elite private school in Darlinghurst.
Without critical and nuanced engagement with evidence claims, such lists and toolkits can act as powerful disincentives for the profession to generate and share locally-produced evidence. This, in turn, can lead to an erasure of evidence that does not align with dominant knowledge.
At its worst, when evidence is determined through top-down government intervention and based on global knowledge curated by leading think tanks, education businesses and organisations like the OECD, educators are relegated to being mere “implementers” of ideas from elsewhere. At work here is an arrogance of design and a privileging of the perspectives of remote designers over that of professionals with deep knowledge of the local spaces in which they work.
What is a better way forward?
Australian schooling policy is being put together backwards.
In my book, I consider some ways we might start to reverse the reform script. Let me briefly mention three.
First, Australia needs to stop privileging the loud voices of education gurus and members of the global “consultocracy” who claim to have “the answer”. Frankly, I think teachers and school leaders are becoming fatigued by the perpetual flood of toolkits, strategies and best-practice checklists promising to transform teaching and learning as we know it.
Instead, we should be investing energy and resources to inspire local networks of evidence creation and knowledge sharing. This organic and bottom-up approach puts faith in the profession to experiment, solve problems and collaborate to create solutions in context. This is not an argument against experts and expertise but is a call for re-framing how we understand these terms. We need to remember that educators can also be experts, working actively in a profession that can generate its own internal forms of valid evidence.
Australia has fallen into a pattern where the experts and expertise that shape reforms are no longer in schools. This needs to be urgently re-balanced.
Second, we need to move beyond industrial modes of thinking that liken the work of educators to those of factory workers on a production line. Rather than investing millions in reforms that tie educators to lockstep standards and lists of strategies, we need to recognise that schools are complex and diverse social ecologies and the work of educators is non-routine based and always evolving.
As researcher Roberts Wears has argued, while there are good arguments for the introduction of standards-based reforms in settings where work is routine-based and there is a high level of ‘reproducibility’ of tasks across settings, standards are generally not well suited to professions that exhibit ‘the characteristics of complex, self-organizing systems’: that is, settings in which practitioners are regularly engaged in ‘making sense of an uncertain and ambiguous jumble of unfolding phenomena’, requiring ‘contextual judgments, explanations and situated actions’.
So, while it can be useful to have some external evidence and standards to inform practices, its relevance to practical and local knowledge is only partial at best. We only really know evidence works when we see it work in specific classrooms, and what works in one class won’t work in all classes. Educators have both a right and responsibility, therefore, to critically question and test the evidence claims and standards presented to them from external sources.
Third, we need to move beyond the damaging assumption that sameness and commonality across systems and schools is the path to improvement. Grand designs to revolutionise and homogenise practices are not the panacea. If they were, then the wide-reaching efforts of policymakers to align Australian schools to shared data, evidence and standards would have seen a radical turnaround in outcomes. But that clearly hasn’t happened.
Rather than approaching education reform as technicians seeking to make “the machine” work better, perhaps we should think and act more like gardeners, seeking to build the ecosystems needed for diverse things to grow and flourish. Indeed, there is a great deal of research into the management of both natural and social systems arguing that the maintenance of diversity, adaptability and decentralisation very often delivers better outcomes when compared to systems that are standardised, monocultural or subject to rigid and centralised control.
In making these arguments, it is not my intention to leave readers with the impression that all attempts to achieve alignment are problematic, in all cases, or that unfettered diversity is an unproblematic and preferable alternative. What I am suggesting is that we should remain highly sceptical of claims by proponents of alignment that suggest the way forward is to overcome differences in perspectives, smooth out anomalous practices, uncritically expand the existing suite standardised policies, and re-orient all practices in line with national evidence repositories. We should be doubtful, therefore, of claims that the end game of reform should be a state of alignment.
After all, as complexity theorist Keith Morrison argues, ‘a butterfly that flies only in a straight line is soon eaten’, and the same holds true for our nation’s schools.
The following is adapted from an article first published in The Conversation on September 21 2021, titled ‘Want to improve our education system? Stop seeking advice from far-off gurus and encourage expertise in schools’
Glenn C. Savage is a policy sociologist with expertise in education reform, federalism, intergovernmental relations and global policy mobilities. He is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Western Australia, where he is Director of the Education Policy, Leadership and Practice Research Group. He currently co-leads an Australian Research Council Discovery grant titled ‘School autonomy and parent engagement in disadvantaged communities’ (2019-2022). His new book is titled 'The Quest for Revolution in Australian Schooling' (Routledge).
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy