Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Education Revolution? Pull the Other One.

It's going to be interesting to see how Kevin Rudd's "education revolution" progresses over the next couple of years. My prediction is that there isn't going to be any education revolution.

Granted, a lot of parents might get tax rebates on the price of lap-tops that they have bought to further their children's education - an initiative no more misguided than One Laptop Per Child's efforts to provide a free lap-top for every child in the world, and no less effectual in improving their educational prospects. There will be a lot of sound and fury about educational standards - from the Liberals we'll once again hear about the malign legacy of the Maoist long-march through our educational institutions, Kevin Donnelly and others will get on their high horses about the importance of the literary canon and we'll all have a lot of ideological fun raising a thoroughly discordant racket on our own trumpets, while we try to manage the tricky feat of pushing our own barrows at the same time.

In the end there will be a few marginal changes to the education systems of the individual states and territories, the brouhaha will end and we'll all find something else to have equally pointless arguments about. Finally, in at least a decade, the Coalition, or whatever effectual opposition replaces it, will sweep the ALP out of office State by State, and perhaps Federally too. One of its major campaign promises will be to do something once and for all to get the appalling state of our education system sorted. Then we'll have the whole futile debate again, because that's the way we do things in this country.

All of this kerfuffle will be quite beside the point because the outcome of the debate and hence the direction of the "education revolution" has already been determined. Not by any secret conspiracy of the Socialist Left of the ALP, or some coterie of cultural conservatives who have the ear of Kevin Rudd, but by the language which is habitually used when we debate the subject of education and our habit of surrendering education debates to institutional and economic interests. So that what's hyped as revolution turns out a mere tinkering around the edges of the status quo.

I haven't been following Andrew Leigh's writing avidly enough to know whether he's an "education revolutionary", but the evidence of his latest AFR article suggests not. So, in fairness to Andrew, it's worth noting that most of the preceding four paragraphs were written a couple of months ago; they've been sitting around the hard-drive since then, while I waited for either the inspiration to develop the ideas further or a convenient excuse to wheel them out. Nonetheless, his article follows roughly the same rhetorical course that leads from revolutionary hype to bathetic tinkering.

Andrew suggests that the way to make progress on the issue of education funding, is to agree to four basic principles. The first is a motherhood declaration that you'd have a hard time arguing against:

First, the wellbeing of children is more important than anyone else. Teachers and school administrators matter, but the top priority of education policies is to help kids, not adults.

Even teachers and school administrators would have to agree with that one, wouldn't they? Parents - for whom teachers and school administrators are often the natural enemy when it comes to arguments over their kids' education would be especially inclined to agree. Of course Leigh here is constrained by the limitations of the op-ed format - a full catalogue of all the adults whose interests, and perceived interests, need to be discounted in order to focus on the wellbeing of children might well exhaust his word limit. They include politicians and political lobbyists, business proprietors and managers, corporate stockholders, progressive educational theorists, regressive educational theorists and, in some notable instances, parents. On examination, the entire adult community consists of people who are, on occasion, apt to confuse their own professional and personal interests with those of children - theirs, or more usually someone else's - so there's little point in singling out any one social or professional group on that score - be they teachers and educationists or economists.

Andrew's second principle is formally independent of the first but it's a nice rhetorical follow-through:

Second, we should not penalise parents for spending more on their children’s education. To the extent that education has ‘positive externalities’ (higher productivity, more social capital, better civic engagement), we should encourage it. There is a real difference between a policy that says ‘the richer you are, the less the government should give your child’ and one that says ‘the more you spend on your child’s education, the less the government should give you’. The former targets resources to those who need them most, while the latter operates like an education expenditure tax.

This argument is nonsense. How, for example, would an economist suggest that we encourage parents to spend money on their childrens' education? The obvious answer, is a tax rebate on educational expenditures, such as private school fees. How do we avoid directing money to the children of the rich for services that the rich have demonstrated they will pay for themselves anyway - such as the positional good of a privately funded education at one of those elite private schools? By withholding government funding from those services. The proposal here is that instead of funding private education directly, through subsidies to schools, governments sling the money to parents and achieve the same result indirectly. The real difference, in terms that matter to economists? Zero per cent of bugger all.

Third, schools should be judged on outputs, not just inputs. At present, the federal government allocates billions of dollars to private schools, but asks little in return. Taxpayers who fund these schools have a right to demand that they provide empirical data such as test scores, dropout rates, or parental satisfaction surveys.

Excuse me, but what was that first principle again? "First, the wellbeing of children is more important than anyone else." Before we give the taxpayer the right to demand data such as test scores, dropout rates and the results of parental satisfaction surveys, perhaps we should establish that these measures accurately reflect schools' capacity to care for and foster the wellbeing of the child.

Fourth, funding should be transparent. Parents should know precisely how much government funding they bring to their child’s school.

I've got nothing agains transparency in the funding of education but once again, we've lost track of that first principle.

In fact, at no stage in Leigh's article has he examined that issue of the "wellbeing of children". Instead, it's been used a springboard for Leigh to launch into an argument on how education should be funded, not on how schools are to achieve the difficult task of educating children.

And that's why there ain't going to be an education revolution any time soon. Because until we're prepared to tackle that question, looking at what education kids need to prepare themselves for life, and not just a guaranteed place of standing in the labour market and the status hierarchy, a lifetime of usefulness to the nation and the economy, we'll continue to miss the point.

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