As Turnbull and Birmingham and other desperate government members scramble to try to nullify the education debate at the next election it seems the data they're using to attack state schools and state school teachers is very flimsy.
From today's Guardian by Lenore Taylor
Education experts have accused the Turnbull government of using “incredibly flimsy evidence” to support its claim that more schools funding does not deliver better student results and have demanded the release of data to properly test the crucial assertion.
Schools funding is emerging as a central election battleground, with Labor pledging $4.5bn to pay for the extra money promised for the final two years of the “Gonski” education plan from 2018 and writing to every public school attacking the government’s policy.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has declined to offer any extra money and has argued that more funding has not delivered improved educational outcomes and that teacher quality is far more important.
Over the weekend his education minister, Simon Birmingham, released an “analysis” of 375 schools that had improved in their Naplan results, which the minister said showed some of those schools had also seen their funding decline and therefore there was no correlation between funding and school results. Birmingham reportedly said the analysis of the results from these schools – representing about 4% of all schools – proved that the Gonski reforms had been a failure.
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But education experts contacted by Guardian Australia described that analysis as “incredibly flimsy” and “simplistic” and called for the public release of the underlying data to test the impact of consistent extra funding on disadvantaged schools – which was the key point of the Gonski plan for needs-based funding to stop struggling schools and students from falling further behind.
According to the government analysis, 46% of public schools that showed the biggest improvement in literacy and numeracy had also received a funding cut in real terms.
The schools education program director at the Grattan Institute, Peter Goss, said “the analysis the minister has released is incredibly flimsy given the importance of the underlying question” and described the link between student performance and funding as “vexed and complex”.
“Looking at a small number of schools and at changes to funding and changes to results across just one year really doesn’t tell us anything without a lot more information,” Goss said.
“This is such an important claim and national policy should really be based on solid evidence. At the minimum that means analysis that has been publicly tested and verified.”
Goss called on the government to release the three to five years of funding and Naplan data for the 375 schools, because it took that long for improvements in teaching practice to show up.
Jim McMorrow, an honorary associate professor of education at the University of Sydney, said it was “not possible to judge the integrity or accuracy of the minister’s claims without his making available publicly the full set of data underpinning the analysis” and added that “simplistic analyses and the misuse of statistics, whether or not by design, can do real damage to the most needy students”.
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McMorrow said the minister’s conclusions ignored the possibility that Naplan improvements at the schools were due to “a cumulative effect of past investment (e.g. a school may have benefited from a fixed-term program, such as the former government’s National Schools Partnerships, which were terminated in 2013-14). Any negative effects of the cessation of such funding would not be immediately apparent”.
He said the analysis also provided no information about the overall level of funding but only about the change in funding from year to year.
“The minister’s argument focuses on funding changes – increases or cuts – without any reference to the level of funding,” McMorrow said. “The more fundamental question is whether or not the schools in question have been operating at or near the standard of resources appropriate according to the Gonski formula for the students it enrols. For example, if a school operating well above the Gonski standard has improved Naplan scores despite a cut in its per student resources, it is in a quite different position from a school that has had a funding increase but is still operating well below the Gonski standard.”
And a former principal and fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, Chris Bonnor, said he didn’t think “a clear pattern of anything” could be determined in just one year.
“Under the circumstances I would be shocked if there was a clear correlation,” Bonnor said. “My guess is that these 129 ... are schools with more advantaged students. These are the schools which would be expected to lose a bit of money under needs-based funding.”
All the experts said additional money made the most difference in disadvantaged schools, where they said it could work wonders, which was also the focus of the Gonski recommendations. They agreed extra money did not always make a difference in advantaged schools.
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“It is true that just spending more doesn’t necessarily improve results but there is much evidence that, when money is spent well to improve teacher practice in struggling schools, it can make a huge difference,” Goss said.
“At the moment it is hard to tell where or how the Gonski money is being spent but there are encouraging signs. For example, in NSW’s Early Action For Success plan, that the Gonski money is being spent in the right places and in the right way and is making a big difference.”
The Labor party is attacking the government over its refusal to fund the final two years on Gonski and over Turnbull’s short-lived suggestion that the states could take full responsibility for funding public schools if they were given a share of income tax revenue and the ability to increase it if they needed to.
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said this amounted to the “Liberal party washing their hands of public education in Australia”.
Apparently stung by the Labor attack, Birmingham has accused Labor of telling “lies” about schools funding with a “dishonest smear campaign”.
He said the government’s failure to fund the final two years of increased spending under Gonski, as promised by the previous Labor government, was not a “cut” because the money had not been budgeted for.
And he said the government was “not abandoning schools or public education and has never proposed doing so”.
“We are putting a record $69.4bn into schools and only ever proposed an alternative means to allow states to grow this by even more, if they wished (which all but WA rejected),” Birmingham said. “This funding will continue to grow year on year into the future and builds on the growth of commonwealth funding per student for public schools in real terms by 66.1% over the past 10 years.”
He said the real difference was not whether schools funding would continue to grow but who had a schools funding plan that was “credible and paid for”.
The government has said it will discuss any additional schools funding with the states after the election campaign.
The Australian Education Union has begun a television advertising campaign calling on Turnbull to fund Gonski in 2018 and 2019.