Monday, May 9, 2011

Squeezing Blood from Stone: productivity in education

Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu says teacher pay rises beyond 2.5% will be linked to increased productivity and major productivity gains. But how is productivity to be measured, or indeed achieved? Larger class sizes? Increased teaching hours? Improved student results? Let’s assume for a moment that better results are directly attributable to the amount of time spent at school, and that progress can be measured by test results.

An international comparison is illuminating. Along with Chinese, South African, Korean and Philippine students, Australian kids have around 200 days of school each year. Only Japanese kids attend more often with a whopping 243 days annually. Kids in the USA (180 days), Canada (194), Sweden (178), France (180) and the United Kingdom (195) all attend school for fewer days than ours.

According to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), days of school appear to be irrelevant when it comes to educational success. In all four assessments of 15 year olds carried out since 2000, across 65 participating nations, Finland has ranked first or second. Last year more than 100 delegations descended on Finland to discover the secret of their success.

Here’s what they found. Finnish students start school at 8 years old. The school year numbers 190 days of 4-7 hours in length. Finnish students have moderate amounts of homework, and no private tuition after school. School is compulsory for nine years and beyond this the retention rate is high. Books for basic education are free, and school meals are provided to ensure students are well nourished. Finland spends around 6% of gross domestic product on free education, Australia spends 4%, and the OECD average is 4.6%. Only a small number of private schools receive government subsidies. Investment in teachers is a high priority with  all Finnish teachers required to have a Masters degree. On average they work almost 3 hours less per week than Australian teachers.

While PISA results from students from some Asian countries are almost as impressive, these are achieved through high student workloads. For its 4-5 weeks additional schooling Japan is only marginally ahead of Australia.

Perhaps when Premier Baillieu talks of ‘major productivity gains’ he is not thinking globally, but nationally. Assuming productivity is to be measured by results, let’s take a look at NAPLAN, the national test given to all students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Last year students in Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT were the top performers in the country, despite the fact spending on Victorian students is more than $1,100 per student below the national average.

Here’s the problem. 'Productivity’ is an economic parameter, measuring efficiency in production, and implying a comparison of input, such as capital invested, wages paid, and number employed, with output. But here’s the thing. Educational value can’t be numerically measured because people don’t inhabit the educational environment on a level playing field. Moreover capacity to thrive academically and socially is influenced by many variables, many of which are beyond a school’s power.

Take a bunch of kids on an excursion by train into the Immigration Museum. A refugee child will have a different response to the child with Asperger’s syndrome, or a child with a mild intellectual disability. The experience for one who has never travelled on public transport contrasts with the one who spends 4 hours a night on computer games, or the artistic child, or the train obsessed child, or the child who only gets 5 hours sleep a night because mum works two jobs. It’s impossible to determine whose learning has been of greater value, because what we learn depends on where we have been.

But it’s not just down to the Premier. In Finland teachers are the most highly respected profession, with medical doctors coming in at second place. Victorians have to decide whether education is a priority or not. Ultimately our kids will be better served by well resourced, motivated and valued teaching staff, than by a workforce that is constantly receiving negative signals that they are not doing well enough and must achieve more with less.

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