Can a combination of top-down and bottom-up pressure fix Australian education?
Yesterday, I recorded a podcast with Glenn Savage, an expert in Australian education policy. Savage is deeply sceptical - perhaps more so than me - about the potential for top-down pressure to improve the Australian education system, although he does recognise that improvement is needed.
Savage has a point. Perhaps the archetypal top-down attempt to improve an education system was America’s No child Left Behind policy of the 2000s. The No Child Left Behind Act was many things, but a success is not generally considered to be one of them.
One criticism you could level at No Child Left Behind was that it amounted to a series of incentives (and disincentives) to reach educational goals, but provided no guidance on how to meet these goals. It could be argued that the policy took a stance that teachers and schools knew what to do and simply needed motivating to do it.
So, an alternative top-down approach could involve the dissemination of evidence on what works best in schools. Savage is equally critical of these efforts. Again, he has a point. For a start, the currency of ‘what works’ has been devalued. In Victoria, the state government has produced a set of High Impact Teaching Strategies which you would think would represent the best available evidence of effectiveness. And yet they include both explicit teaching, for which there is a wealth of correlational and experimental evidence, alongside differentiation, whose greatest proponents are even forced to concede a lack of supporting evidence. Add to this the OECD, a multinational NGO that has the self-confidence to offer advice to school systems and yet the evidence it collects has a habit of proving its own pronouncements wrong.
If the ‘what works’ agenda adopted by a top-down reform really was what worked, then maybe the story would be different. Apart from a few tentative signs of improvement in England, this remains a hypothesis. However, it is a hypothesis that Alan Tudge, Australia’s federal education minister, seems to be intent on testing.
If you have heard of Tudge at all, it is probably in the context of the ‘history wars’ he is fighting, prompted by the latest draft of the Australian Curriculum. Tudge is a conservative and he doesn’t much like a version of history crafted by the overwhelmingly left-leaning educational establishment. This is not a surprise. Unfortunately, we don’t have adequate mechanisms for resolving these differences and alighting on a curriculum that satisfies nobody in its entirety, and so we have a periodic ritual of shouting from all sides.
However, of more interest to me are his comments on other aspects of the curriculum and on teacher training. Tudge has fought plans to reimagine the maths curriculum as a fashionable nonsense that promotes the ineffective teaching method of learning through problem-solving and he has fought efforts to push back key content. He now seems intent on using his $760 million of leverage over Australian universities to insist they teach evidence-based practices on their teacher training courses.
Could this make a difference?
With Savage’s words still echoing in my ears, it’s easy to be doubtful. However, couple Tudge’s campaign with the kind of ground-up approach that Savage endorses, and we might be onto something. To Tudge’s pressure from above, we can add the sharing of evidence-based ideas between teachers, facilitated by social media, bypassing the academics and bureaucrats who see it as their job to tell us what to do and who, as a result, stand in the way of our professionalisation.
A pincer movement, if you will.