On the unbearable lightness of being Kevin

29 December 2013

Go8 Equity scales

There’s a view abroad in some quarters – you can guess  which –  that improving the performance of our schools, seemingly falling against international benchmarks, is not about injecting more money but about something called “values”.  In an opinion piece earlier this year, the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen seemed to agree with the tag line reading “raising teachers’ classroom skills is far more important than raising money”.  But what’s the key to raising teachers’ classroom skills?  Jensen concluded that it requires
….teachers having mentors, getting proper feedback about their work, being required to do research on education in collaboration with other teachers, under an umbrella of sustained professional learning.

All of which, of course, costs money.  Jensen set out four measures, which add up to $6.1 billion a year (about what has been proposed under the Gonski plan, however it’s called now).

Kevin Donnelly, an expert apparently,  is one of the proponents of the values theme.  In a recent opinion piece on the 2013 Victorian Year 12 results, Donnelly observed that

…the example of (high achieving) students proves that where schools are academically focused, where teachers set high standards and expectations and where parents motivate their children to excel, then it’s possible to succeed.

In another piece he seeks to debunk the “belief embraced by Australia’s education establishment and by champions of the Gonski report is that socioeconomic background determines whether students succeed or underperform. Intelligence and innate ability are ignored….”

Most of the high achieving students that Donnelly lauds, of course, come from private schools and a couple of high performing public schools in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs.  If you follow Donnelly’s reasoning, it follows that teachers at such schools are superior to their counterparts in schools in, say, Melbourne’s western suburbs.  And that the students of such schools are almost universally innately intelligent, while their western suburbs counterparts (one could hardly use the term “peers”) must be obviously almost universally inferior in the cognitive department.

We don’t think the “values” argument stacks up and neither does Kevin Donnelly stack up.

This item was first published in February 2007 on Pluto*.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Most people have an opinion on the quality of education provided to the children of Australia.

After all, just about everyone has been to school themselves and the majority of older people have had children or grandchildren at school.

Kevin Donnelly is no exception, except he’s an “expert”. He’s certainly a prodigious commentator: he’s written a couple of books on the subject and he’s the education commentator of choice in The Australian. You can go here for a fairly comprehensive selection of his commentary.

My problem with Donnelly is that, no matter how much he writes, he’s really only got one story. Australia’s education systems are failing and the remedy is “back to basics” – phonics, rote learning, highly structured and prescriptive teaching and learning.

Now, there are undoubtedly elements of the story which ring true. Nothing is perfect – continuous efforts at improvement are to be applauded, as we learned in Blog # 2 – and from time-to-time, as in all areas of human endeavour, teachers and education policymakers stuff up.

BUT: by and large, Australian schools do pretty well by most Australian kids.




* “I don’t care what they say about you Pluto – for me you’ll always be a planet.”

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