PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: Over the last few weeks we have had a lot of debate about the quality of teacher education courses, with both the NSW government and the federal government announcing policies to address standards. It is fair to say that there is bipartisan concern about how our future teachers are being trained. I suggest that we should be equally concerned with the quality of the research undertaken at our education faculties.
We are spending billions on education research, but it is not having the impact it should. Worse, our education faculties are failing to be engines for ideas at a time when school outcomes have dropped despite a huge increase in public funds for school education.
These are strong statements to make, but I believe that they are reasonable conclusions to draw from the Australian Research Council’s latest report card, as well as from other indicators.
The ARC’s Excellence in research for Australia report released earlier this year ranked education second-bottom of the 23 research categories listed—one ranking higher than it was in the 2010 report. It found that half of the research conducted was below world standard. Within the education category, the research on education systems was particularly poor with 60 per cent of the research below world standard.
This is a problem for two reasons.
First, it is a waste of public money if education research is not of a high standard and is not having impact. Over the last decade $1.7 billion has been spent on education research. It is a sector that has been growing steadily each and every year and now employs almost 3,000 people. If the ARC’s report is indicative of the decade, then we can say that nearly a billion dollars has been spent on below standard work. What would an extra billion dollars have achieved in, say, biotechnology, a research field that is universally at or above world standard?
Second, the education faculties are not having an impact at a time when high quality, evidence-based research is desperately needed.
Australia is one of the only countries in the world where school education standards have dropped not only in absolute terms but also relative to other countries over the last decade. This is despite a 44 per cent increase in real public funding over this time. Over this same decade, education research funding has increased from about $79 million to $283 million. Either our schools and policy makers have adopted all this research and the research has been wrong or the research has not been relevant—or it has simply been ignored. A combination may be likely.
Certainly, when we examine who the government relies upon for policy advice, we find that Australian education academics are in the minority. I examined the footnotes of the major school policy reports commissioned by federal governments over the last five years, including those which have guided the work of the Gonski review. Australian education academics make up only 31 per cent of the citations. International academics, private organisations such as McKinsey and ACER, think tanks like the Grattan Institute, and others made up the majority.
An assessment of who contributes to the public policy debate through the print media also finds that education academics are missing, with the exception of half a dozen prominent ones. Unions and think tanks dominate. When I consider some of the main policy questions for our education system, we have few answers forthcoming from academia.
For example, how do our school education standards compare with those of our Asian neighbours? Why are they doing so well on less funding? Which teacher performance review systems in the world are most effective and could inform our practice here? How do we make teaching more attractive to the best and brightest again? Are smaller classes the best use of government money? The unions are still pressing for this, but where are the contrary views? These are billion-dollar public policy decisions. Their impact is profound, both on our economic performance and on our ability to give every individual the best opportunity to succeed.
Of course, there is truly outstanding research conducted in some of our universities. Professor John Hattie’s work, for example, is referred to as ‘the bible’ by many school principals. There are others.
The system itself is creating this problem. It began with the Dawkins reforms in the mid-1980s which forced the Colleges of Advanced Education to become faculties of universities. This caused research, rather than teaching, to dominate. People get employed to be education academics even if they have no experience in the classroom.
The problem is then exacerbated by the intense pressure on academics to publish—getting cited in some obscure journal is rewarded more than a teacher having an impact in the classroom.
We need to change this system and put schools and government policy more at the centre. A council of school principals should guide the research priorities, not the editors of journals. Academics should be rewarded for their influence on government policy. The people who teach the next generation of our teachers should be high-performing teachers themselves, much the same as medical professors are frequently practitioners.
We need a shake-up of our education faculties. How we train our future teachers is of vital importance but so is the quality of research being conducted. The Australian taxpayers and university students cannot be expected to continue to increase the education research funding year upon year unless we have confidence that the big questions are answered and that the research is world class.