The Centre for Independent Studies released a new education report this week - Overcoming the Odds: A study of Australia’s top-performing disadvantaged schools - to a flurry of commentary. This was mostly in response to the CIS’ conclusion that because nine disadvantaged schools achieved great results WITHOUT extra funding, other schools could also “potentially improve significantly, without necessarily requiring more taxpayer funding” and focusing instead on how they spend their time and money. This is obviously important. But this argument risks reducing support for a fair and effective needs-based funding system which is desperately needed here in Australia but only partially implemented. I was one of those asked by the media for my commentary, so here it is.
One thing I liked about this report was the identification of six common themes that contribute to school success - such as teacher collaboration and professional learning, leadership expertise, orderly learning environments (a better description than “discipline” if you ask me), and data-driven teaching practice. In fact, you'll be hard pressed to find serious education researchers disputing these as vital elements.
And it is true that how money is spent in schools and in systems is absolutely critical - indeed that was the whole point of “Gonski 2.0” - what can be done within schools to enhance and sustain learning growth for all students, so that all students make at least a year’s progress each school year.
It's great to see the tremendous work of these nine schools being celebrated and shared. Their teachers, school leaders and students should be applauded,.
But these features can take time to implement and to fine-tune in each school and classroom. And, dare-I-say it, it takes money too.
Money for professional learning for teachers (especially if introducing a new school-wide literacy instruction system), paid time for data analysis and for collaboration, including collaboration with parents, education support staff and allied health professionals that might be working with students and schools to help them achieve. Money to bring in extra specialists, like a numeracy coach or speech pathologist, where that additional need exists. And we know educational needs are more heavily concentrated in socio-economically disadvantaged schools, which in turn are a larger proportion of the public systems. This is why so many academic studies and government reviews have recommended greater funding for schools with greater need.
The CIS is right that yes, any school can do well, any student can be a high achiever, and we should have high expectations for all. But those expectations should be matched with the resources and tailored supports needed to achieve them.
You can't generalise from just nine schools - however exemplary - when Australia has almost 10,000 schools.