Quality teaching would be easier to achieve than better teachers

Opinion Article

2013 July, 6

It is clear Australia failed to turn its considerably increased investments in schools over the past decade into internationally competitive results. As Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott contemplate schools policy, they should keep four points front of mind. 

First, Australia is not a unitary system but a federation of eight systems. This plain but invariably ignored point is well-made by Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute. Commonwealth-initiated reforms must work within this reality. 

Second, the stagnation of Australian schooling included the Howard years. Repetition of old mindsets and policy convictions from the last time in office will not yield reform for an Abbott government. 

Third, even when the Howard government correctly identified the need to fix the teaching of reading through the national reading inquiry in 2005, no effective implementation strategy was found and little progress has been made in the eight years since. We were clear on what was needed, but we could not make it happen. 

Fourth, the seminal reports by McKinsey & Company in 2007 and 2010 set out the clearest blueprint on how school system reforms succeeded around the world. However, reform will require a less ideologically combative and more professional capital development approach than is the predilection of national governments. Teachers have to carry the reforms, we get nowhere without them. 

It is possible to conceive an optimal commonwealth-propelled -- rather than commonwealthdictated -- school reform approach. Many of the elements -- such as improving teacher quality -- already form part of existing policy agendas.

However, the consensus on teacher quality does not mean there is clarity on what it means and how it might be achieved. There is a difference between teacher quality and teaching quality, the noun and the verb. The quality teacher may be characterised by higher intellectual aptitude, higher university entry standards and better initial teacher training. Quality teaching may be characterised by superior instructional pedagogy and curriculums. 

Two lessons to take from understanding the subtle distinction between quality teacher and quality teaching: First, teachers of average aptitude delivering superior instruction can make up for being average by delivering quality teaching. Second, it will take less time to get average teachers to deliver better pedagogy that it will take to lift the mean aptitude of the profession, including higher university entry standards and initial teacher training. Tectonic shifts in better teaching can be effected in two terms of a reform-minded government, whereas lifting teachers is a longer and more fraught aim. 

McKinsey's 2007 report says the world's best-performing systems get three simple things right. They get the right teachers in place, they get them to deliver effective instruction, and they make sure every student in the system benefits from that instruction. 

These three elements are so disarmingly straightforward, their profundity and centrality to the school reform debate is often obscured. It's all about what goes on in the classroom. And what needs to go on is effective instruction. 

It is true high quality teachers -- by definition -- deliver effective instruction. But if there is one thing that distinguishes this argument from the usual way teacher quality is discussed, it is that ordinary and average teachers can deliver effective instruction if they have the right training and programs that integrate properly designed curriculums with proven pedagogical practices. 

These reform journeys can take place without waiting for the entire teacher force in these schools to become more like Finland's. Better teachers can be the result of better teaching. Rather than better teaching waiting for better teachers. 

Let me now unpack four principles that arise in education policy debates and propose how they might best be understood. 

The first is choice. Liberals hold choice as not only a parental right, but a driver of quality school provision. Upholding the place of independent schools as part of our schools systems is probably the strongest policy conviction of the Coalition. Labor more keenly champions public schooling.

The second is excellence. Both sides claim they wish for excellence in schooling. Liberals, however, suspect their opponents are not serious because of their levelling tendencies. 

But the case of Finland, the one indisputably excellent system in the world, is said to have been achieved by pursuing equity, the third principle. 

Excellence was the by-product of their determination to give every student in the country the opportunity to receive the best education government could provide. 

Each country has its own political, historical and cultural distinctions, so not all policy lessons are applicable across countries. However, Finland's excellence-through-equity approach cannot be easily dismissed by liberal conservatives in Australia. 

If you send your child to any school in Finland, you can be confident they will receive a quality education. Almost all Finnish schools are public schools and there is no school choice. 

Contrary to assumptions that Finland's policies were driven by typical Scandinavian social democrats, it has been governments of the conservative right that pursued equity. 

In Australia it is Labor that proclaims the equity principle while the Coalition is more circumspect. 

Which brings us to the fourth principle of autonomy. Liberals believe granting public schools greater autonomy is key to school reform. Giving principals powers over hiring and firing, budgets and devolving governance to school boards and so on, are consistent with liberal philosophy that abjures large bureaucracies in favour of devolution. 

This is partly right and partly wrong. It is right in relation to good and great schools. It is wrong in relation to poor and fair schools that still need to make the journey to good. 

Failing schools require prescriptive interventions to become good, and good schools require increased autonomy to become great. This is plain from McKinsey's 2010 framework, where levels of autonomy depend on what stage of the reform journey a schools system -- or an individual school -- is at. 

To give failing schools autonomy is folly, because it will merely continue to license failure. 

Instead the proper concept is earned or staged autonomy.

So, Coalition assumptions about blanket autonomy for disadvantaged schools are wrong-headed.

Labor, in turn, has been wrong-headed on teacher autonomy.

Quality teaching would be easier to achieve than better teachers