Australia/September 11, 2023/By: Philip Roberts/Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
The focus on standardised tests and cash incentives for teachers has not produced better outcomes for regional students, so why do we keep doing it?
If the common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, then education policymakers must be insane.
The recent New South Wales auditor general’s report on progress to reduce rural-urban inequities in education highlighted the persistent achievement gap, the significant staffing shortages and the difficulties in access to services to support student health and wellbeing. It could be a repeat of any progress report of the past 50 years.
The equity challenges facing rural schools have been noted since the advent of universal primary education in the late 1800s. The frequency and level of alarm has increased since the seminal 1973 report by Prof Peter Karmel on schools in Australia. Since then, notable reports have reinforced these challenges, including a Commonwealth Schools Commission report (1988), a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry (2000) and a federal independent review (2018).
We’ve also had the two Gonski reviews and related policy reform, changes that, as the Productivity Commission noted in a report earlier this year, unfortunately have not reduced inequities in outcomes.
Instead, inequity seems to have increased. Strangely, Australia seems to have observed these policy failures and doubled down on failed approaches and a narrowing of the measures of success. Rather than upskilling teachers or engaging in more complex forms of assessment that modern technology affords, we instead see increasing reference to explicit instruction, preprepared lesson materials and evidence-based practices, where what counts as evidence is increasingly narrow.
Take Naplan, a central tenet of the reforms of the last two decades. As a policy tool, Naplan ignores that test questions always contain implied cultural baggage. If you’ve grown up on a farm or a small regional town, your everyday experience is different to a child from the city. Recent research conducted by University of NSW’s Economics of Education Knowledge Hub shows that simple changes to the cultural contexts of examples in Naplan – such as changing a reading text to refer to the Parkes “dish” rather than a lighthouse or using Aboriginal tools in place of other symbols on a treasure map – reduced the rural-urban gap in achievement by 33% and the Indigenous student gap by 50%. Other research examining HSC mathematics and English found that rural students achieved lower grades even when accounting for their social background, showing the gap was geographical not just economic.
Before the Gonski reforms, Australia had specific programs that helped teachers make their teaching material more relevant to rural students. These were removed for a more explicit one-size-fits-all model. We know that students learn by first connecting new concepts to their experience, but under the current model the opportunity to do this is actively removed. When teachers’ work is reduced to dishing out pre-prescribed materials and focused on narrow measures, it is no wonder that we have a staffing shortage. We are actively de-professionalising the very people we need to turn things around.
Rather than enhance the professionalism of teachers, governments have reverted to the tried and tested incentives of cash to attract staff. This is no longer working, if it ever really did. Hundreds of rural schools are experiencing ongoing staff shortages and students are milling around playgrounds rather than classrooms. Increasing cash bonuses, rental subsidies and transfer rights to teachers cannot overcome the persistent undermining of their professional work. Indeed, the most common sentiment I hear from rural teachers is that they are too busy to teach, to make the curriculum meaningful for their students and to build the very relationships that motivated them to enter the classroom in the first place.
The education system likes to ignore that rural Australia exists as a distinct space with distinct cultures, knowledges and histories. Instead, its focus on standardisation ensures rural students struggle to see themselves or their communities in education. I’m yet to meet a parent whose aspirations for their child’s education is a Naplan or HSC grade, but that is the focus of policymakers.
Student achievement and teacher satisfaction are entwined. Teachers need the skills and freedom to help rural students see themselves in the curriculum, as well as assessment measures that enable students to show what they know while also valuing their culture. This takes policies that value the professional work of teachers.
We could start by recognising that teaching in a rural school is different to teaching in a major city. Students bring different experiences into the classroom, and those classrooms are often multistage classes with high levels of differentiation, and sometimes with students from multiple schools connected via technology. Teachers are also often the only person at the school trained in their particular subject, reducing the opportunities for support and collaboration. And if they are not from a rural community themselves, it can be difficult for teachers to connect the curriculum to their students’ experiences and future employment, such as the application of Stem subjects in AgTech. Teachers also describe the need to understand community dynamics and the bush telegraph to build the relationships that are the foundation of successful teaching in these contexts.
Given that “rusted off” voters, exacerbated by policies that undermine rural communities, are rejecting traditional political parties, it is time to value rural differences in education rather than trying to erase it. Specific teacher training that recognises the differences of working in rural contexts would be a good place to start.
Dr Philip Roberts is an associate professor in curriculum inquiry and rural education at the University of Canberra