Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Weeding out low expectations in state schools

Story from today's Age

Some years ago I was invited to speak at a government school in an affluent Melbourne suburb. The school conformed to the sad archetype: underwhelming results, an image problem centred around ill-disciplined students and complacent teachers, snubbed by the wealthier families who opted for private alternatives further afield.

What sticks in my memory is a casual remark by the principal. She explained that she had invited some students from an elite private school to hear my talk. She said she did this kind of thing every so often to expose her students to their striving peers in prestigious schools. Her attitude made me uncomfortable. She seemed to regard it as a given that her school couldn't instil excellence, that her students were less driven and that she needed to import private school kids as role models in the hope some of their ambition would magically rub off.

Let's see an education minister with the guts to both spruik and shake-up public education.

Now some people have a zealous faith in private schools, and it has surprisingly little to do with the perceived quality of education on offer. Such people will unselfconsciously say "we're buying our kids a peer group," a statement that conjures an image of suited midgets exchanging business cards in the playground, and one that reinforces the adage that money can't buy class. Yet even for people less invested in training their offspring to social climb – even for people disinclined to fork out up to half the average wage on the vague promise of future wealth for their kids – there's a niggling anxiety about enrolling in all but the top government schools. The anxiety is about encountering the kind of attitude expressed by the principal in my anecdote. Parents worry that too many government schools see themselves as an option of last resort and, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, conduct themselves accordingly.

I'm talking about a problem of mindset in some government schools. But there is a related problem of school funding. There is also the problem that most of the education commentators talking about the problem of mindset do so to deflect attention from the problem of funding. These commentators contend that aspiration is the key to educational excellence, never mind state-of-the-art science labs or the wherewithal to fly in educational gurus from overseas to impart the latest pedagogical fad to teachers. Many critiques about public education seek to legitimise the gross inequity that sees taxpayer dollars go to the nation's wealthiest schools.

Still, we can be mindful of political agendas in the education debate, while conceding that money alone can't fix a mindset that's comfortable with mediocrity. How such a mindset can be eradicated is starkly illustrated in Maxine McKew's book Class Act, which profiles some dysfunctional schools that turned themselves around.

When the principal of one such school, Charles La Trobe College in Melbourne's north, took over, she found teachers who dealt with struggling students by setting less homework, offering "softer" subjects and even dumbing down their classroom vocabulary. McKew identifies this aiming low as a default response in the education system, though the solution calls for the precise opposite — boosting the intellectual rigour of what students are taught. Charles La Trobe's new principle put the school on a smarter path.

At St Albans Secondary, another school that's been transformed into a beacon of excellence, students themselves had previously complained about teachers turning up late to class and failing to enforce homework assignments.

Last year's OECD Education At a Glance report, which compares educational outcomes among developed nations, reveals that Australia is one of nine countries in which private school students spend at least an hour and a half more each week on homework than students at public schools. We're entitled to an explanation about the discrepancy. As the OECD report warns, inclusive societies need education systems that support meritocracy and social mobility because "inequality represents a long-term threat to growth."

Various state governments have tackled the problem of mediocrity in the education system with some success; setting up mentoring programs for principals, deploying high-performing principals in low-performing schools, closing failing schools and re-opening them with a new ethos. And as Class Act makes clear, there's no shortage of student aspiration at schools such as St Albans. One student whose home doubled as a restaurant took to studying in the car to escape the noise. Another lived in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, a garment pieceworker; the student had to help her mother in the mornings and evenings, but still completed her homework at midnight. She came dux of the school in 2010 and was admitted to medicine at Monash University. Now there's a peer group worth its weight in gold. 

If the Andrews Government is serious about making Victoria the "education state" it needs to redouble the effort to weed out the low expectations, which McKew and others have identified, and to tell the public it's doing so. Why not set the tone with an advertising campaign that celebrates inspirational teachers in the government sector? Think notable Australians, some from humble backgrounds, reminiscing about the teacher who dared them to work hard and dream big.

I've raised this idea before ( probably 20 years ago!) when I was the small school rep on the North- South Grampians network and again when I was on the small schools advisory group and was told it was not affordable. I suggested it be done at a local level and that we promote the diversity of our state system. When a conservative government was in power I was told that the Minister was responsible for ALL schools and shouldn't be seen to be using tax payers money to promote one sector over another!) 

Sure, the Opposition will complain it is political advertising posing as a community awareness campaign, but even if they're right, there's a longer-term benefit at stake. Let's see an education minister with the guts to both spruik and shake-up public education; success, after all, depends on this dual-track approach because the more middle-class parents move to government schools, the greater the pressure for higher outcomes in those schools. Let's see a government that's game to confront the relentless propaganda of the private school lobby, with all its linguistic spin; its "educators" rather than "teachers", its "early learning centres" instead of kindergartens.

Let's hear more from outstanding educators in government schools so that the default setting can be lifted to excellence, inspiring our students and fostering the public's faith in the system.

Julie Szego is an Age columnist, author and freelance journalist.

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