Friday, December 9, 2016

Gaming the school system

Two ways to improve school performance

MySchool is the major source of information on "school performance" in Australia.

The fastest, cheapest and easiest way to improve any school is to have more high-performing  students with low needs, and fewer low-performing, high-needs students.

The professional alternative is to improve the school's teaching, curriculum, facilities,... in order to improve the performance and reduce the needs of existing students. This latter approach is much more expensive, slower and is limited by the potential and circumstances of the existing students, engagement of families, aspirations...

Why take the easy option?

It makes sense for the schools that can choose their students to take the first option because of its speed, economy (little or no cost), simplicity, and effectiveness.

But there are additional reasons too.
  1. All schools want to be "good" schools
  2. School are under pressure to approve in MySchool (and similar) rankings
  3. Other schools are doing it
  4. It will be good for the students we select
  5. There is a long history of the practice
  6. It will enhance the school's "performance" and image
  7. The school will have fewer problems, challenges, and incidents
  8. The school will have a stronger focus on learning and achievement 
  9. Existing students are likely to benefit
  10. Parents want their children to go to a "good" (successful) school
  11. Parents want their children to have "good" classmates
  12. Parents want to associate with the right class of parents
  13. Principals want to be able to attract and select the right class of staff
  14. Being a staff member at a "good" school can help one's career
  15. ...

Parents do it too !!

It is not unusual for parents to give grandma's address are the home address in order to overcome a zoning restriction that would prevent their child being enrolled in their preferred state school.

Similarly, parents may profess a religious belief that they don't hold in order to achieve enrolment for their child in their preferred non-state school. This probably works better as a two-player game where the school does not actually practice its claimed religious beliefs. For example, the school may not "Suffer the little children to come..." resulting in some other school having to suffer the children they have rejected.

Colateral damage

Unfortunately, this approach results in some collateral damage. Schools that use this approach are, in effect, increasing the demands and challenges faced by the schools that enrol the "ones they reject" (John West style). 

At a system level, this means that advantage and disadvantage are being concentrated in different schools. This outcome can be easily explained away because the total number of schools means that there is an advantaged-disadvantaged spectrum of schools and disadvantage can be explained away by other contributing factors such as aspiration, poverty, levels of education in the community...

However, the collateral damage is not much of a problem for the school doing the rejecting because it tends to occur at times of transition; the rejected students are dispersed across numerous schools, and families who are rejected are unlikely to make an issue of it so that avoid any associated embarrassment.

To help in this process schools can also provide positive face-saving explanations for declining an enrolment application, such as "Unfortunately the year group is full" or 
(sadly) "We think your son would be much better off at school X.  It has a wonderful record of dealing with needs like his".

Gaming the system

Gaming occurs when one party uses what is permitted in a system to achieve an unfair advantage over others, or at a cost to others, in the system. 

Some schools are permitted to select their students. Other schools are not permitted or not able. 

A school that use their ability to select students to avoid the responsibility and cost of educating a student and thus pass it on to another are gaming the system. This is especially true when the strategy enhances the image of the rejecting school and makes it more difficult for the receiving school to gain recognition for what it achieves.

This phenomenon is the major contributing factor to Australia's Two Speed School System.  The fact it is widely entrenched in all sectors of the school system will make it very difficult address. Failure to do so is likely to further increase the cost of schooling and the continual decline of student outcomes.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It is the system!!

The way Australia's school system works is the problem!!

Most claims about the problem with Australia's school system are wrong, at least in part. The fundamental problem is not "poor performing" schools, funding, the quality of teachers, curriculum, lack of aspiration...  It is the way the system works.

Similar per capita funding for all schools together with different rules for different schools is driving our school system backwards while increasing costs and producing poorer outcomes.

The present Australian system works like this...
  1. Government funding for schools increases each year
  2. Increases and indexation favour non-state schools (1) resulting in
  3. Per capita govt funding is now similar for all schools (2) which means
  4. Per capita govt funding is similar for state and non-state schools (3) but...
  5. Some schools select which students to enrol - no mutual obligation for government funding received
  6. Advantaged schools attract students, eg, reputation, scholarships... (2, 3, 4)
  7. Some schools select capable, low needs (low cost) students (5,6)
  8. Advantage becomes more concentrated particularly in non-state schools (7)
  9. Students in advantaged schools do well - teachers have a small range of needs to meet  (8)
  10. Higher SES schools "out-perform" lower SES schools (9)
  11. Non-state schools "out-perform" state schools (9, 10)
  12. Disadvantage becomes more concentrated in lower SES (state) schools (5 -11)
  13. Students in disadvantaged schools do worse - teachers to meet have a wider range of needs (12) 
  14. Overall outcomes decline (9 - 13)
  15. Costs continue to increase as a result of indexation
  16. Demands for additional funding for disadvantage increase, eg, Gonski (12 - 14)
  17. Costs rise to "fix" the system and improve outcomes (12 -16)
  18.  Go to 1. above
  • The system separates and entrenches advantage and disadvantage
  • The system is undermining itself by generating "two speeds" of schooling
  • The cost of the system will continue to rise
  • Results will continue to decline
  • Effective counter-measures (interventions) will become un-affordable
    How to fix the system
        Change the rules* connecting government funding and student enrolment so that schools can no longer advantage themselves at the expense of other schools.

    *  See Australia's Two Speed School System

    Tuesday, December 6, 2016

    Schools and frogs

    Why "Schools and frogs"?

     If you place a frog in cool water it will probably sit there. If you place a frog in hot water it will jump out. The metaphor of the boiled frog suggests that if you heat the cool water very slowly the frog will sit there until it is dead.

    Until recently, I had always thought government per capita funding for non-state schools was only a fraction of per capita government funding for state schools.

    So I was shocked recently to discover that per capita government funding for non-state schools is now very similar to the funding for state schools. And because of different indexation rates for the school sectors,  non-state schools will soon be getting more government funding than state schools. (more...)

    How did this happen?

    Like the temperature of the water in the pot, total  per capita government funding for non-state schools has been slowly increasing over the last few decades.

    The increases have been masked by numerous factors
    • numerous changes over a long period of time have all been small, well-intentioned good ideas ("slowly warming the water")
    • government funding for schools is reported in terms of percentages or total amounts per sector rather than per capita making comparisons difficult
    • historically, non-state schools have always received significantly less total and per capita government funding
    • both state and federal governments are involved in school funding and report separately
    • annual increases in funding have been small ("slowly warming the water")
    • historically, some non-state schools have been in urgent need of support, especially small catholic schools
    • having students attend non-state schools was a saving to government (but this is no longer the case)
    • the rationale that all students are entitled to the educational benefits of taxes paid by their parents
    • no-one within the system has been monitoring the cumulative changes to the way the system works (or doesn't work)
    • ... and so on

    What happens at the tipping point?

    We have now reached the tipping point. Per capita government funding for all schools is now similar and different indexation rates mean that, from now on, most non-state schools will receive more per capita government funding than state-schools. Who could ever have imagined such a thing?

    This will further
    Ultimately, it could mean the decline and death of many state-schools and an unaffordable school system. World-wide there is interest in privatising schools as if they can be managed using a market approach. 

    So is this another market-based solution?

    Genuine market solutions are based on client choice and should result in falling prices and improved quality, but none of these apply in Australia's system of schooling.

    Students have no choice. By law they are required to attend a school and the school is chosen by others.

    Parent choice is very limited.  Government zoning policies usually mean that many parents can choose any state-school they like, provided it is the local one (remember the Model T?). 

    The idea that parents can choose a non-state school for their children is largely an illusion. Parents can apply but the choice to enrol a student belongs exclusively to the school. In fact, this is often entrenched in legislation.

    The cost of schooling to both parents and government is increasing rapidly

    Price of schooling  = cost to parents (fees, on-costs) + cost to government
    • The cost to parents is considerably higher in non-state schools while the cost to government is now similar. There are no offsets involved except some tax deductions for parents which is an additional cost to government
    • The movement of students to non-state schools results in increased enrolments which incurs the cost of additional facilities often involving increased costs to both parents and government
    Quality is not improving. Educational outcomes have flat-lined and rankings are dropping. 

    Unlike Finland and Singapore, Australia's two speed schooling is increasing the concentrations of advantage and disadvantage. The net result is poorer overall outcomes.  At state and national levels the "top" performance of the advantaged cannot compensate for the "poor" performance of the disadvantaged. 

    Will the frogs respond?

    The impact of funding arrangements for Australia's schools has heated up and getting hotter.

    Key questions:

    • Are the  decision makers aware of what is happening? And why? (see It is the system!!)
    • Will they "jump out of the present arrangements" and find ways to resource Australia's schools for better outcomes? 

    Monday, December 5, 2016

    Australia's school vouchers

    Q: Does Australia have school vouchers?

    YES  !!

    The current school funding arrangements are in effect a hidden voucher system. Most schools receive similar per capita government funding for each enrolled student. By enrolling a student the school attracts the funding. The student is his or her own voucher.

    Q: Can these vouchers be used at any school?

    Maybe.  Conditions apply!!

    For most state school students the vouchers are only accepted by local schools because of zoning policies. Coincidentally this also drives up real estate values in areas with "good state schools" - check out real estate advertising.
    Typically vouchers will be accepted by catholic and "independent" schools provided that student performs satisfactorily, has low needs and is, with his or her family, socially acceptable.

    Q: Do school vouchers allow parents to choose schools?


    Parents can choose the local state school (not really a choice) or ask a non-state school to enrol their child. 

    In the latter situation it is the school that chooses. And these school generally prefer high performing, low needs (low cost) students from families with considerable material and social capital. 

    What this means is that there is significant inequality in the ability use the voucher system. And that that it favours more successful students and affluent families.

    Scholarships and vouchers

    In some ways a scholarship is like a voucher - it appears someone else is paying for the cost of tuition. But in Australia's schools they already are!! Levels of government are similar in most schools. See Unlevel Playing Field (Bonnor and Shepherd)

    Q: Who pays for scholarships?

    Governments, Parents  and other schools!!

    In most instances scholarships are quite already funded by the government. That is, the  level of government funding received by the school offering the scholarship covers the actual cost of having the student in the school. The school gets the credit, the government meets the cost.

    Most scholarships are offered by non-state schools and they are usually about increasing enrolments and enhancing the image of the school.

    Non-state schools frequently offer "half-scholarships" in which the family pays a part of the school fees. This is likely to result in the school making a useful profit on the scholarships it is has "given". 

    But it is not only the government and parents who pay for scholarships. When high performing, low cost state school students move to non-state schools it disadvantages state schools they leave by increasing the concentration of need and disadvantage, and by decreasing social capital available to the school and its community.

    Saturday, November 12, 2016

    The two speed sport of schooling

    The Aims of Schooling

    To maximise the performance of each player, in order to
       (a) increase the success and well-being of each player
       (b) increase the success of the nation

    The Rules of Schooling

    1. Everyone at certain ages is required to join a club and play the sport regularly

    2. All clubs play in a single competition

    3. All clubs ensure all their players take part in the competition

    4. Clubs are ranked on player performance using each player's "fantasy team" points (aka NAPLAN results)

    5. Club rankings are published regularly on the MyClub website and analysed in the media

    6. Using public funds, the governing body is equalising its grants to all clubs

    7. There are two types of club which play under different rules imposed by the governing body

    Type A clubs: Participate in the Draft and no Salary Cap
    • Select their players from those who apply for membership
    • Can decline any membership application without explanation
    • Can provide incentives to attract the high performing players 
    • Have good-to-excellent training facilities, transport, coaching and support staff...
    • Can de-list players who are injured or under performing
    • Set their own fees for player memberships
    • Can charge for added services
    • May require players to provide much their own equipment...
    • Can list players from anywhere, including imports
    Type B clubs: Excluded from the Draft and fixed Salary Cap
    • Must list all players who apply for membership regardless of their condition, ability, interest, ...
    • Can only decline to list a player under exceptional circumstances
    • May or may not have adequate facilities, transport, coaching and support staff...
    • Are only able to de-list players under extreme circumstances
    • [Can only list players from the surrounding area]


    1. What other sports use "one competition - two sets of rules"? (7. above)
    2. Is the governing body making proper use of public funds? (6.)
    3. Is the governing body improving the sport or some clubs?
    4. How well is the sport achieving its aims?
    5. What changes to the rules would improve the sport?
    More background information on Australia's Two Speed Schooling System

    Wednesday, October 26, 2016

    Understanding variation

    Managing schools is unnecessarily complex
    Increasingly schools are expected to be all things to all people. And this involves being able to deal with serious major challenges, many of which have their source well outside of the school and are beyond the capacity of the school to (re)solve.

    If there was a sound understanding of variation in schools, governments, school systems and schools may well make much better responses to the challenges involved.

    Sources of variation (Deming)
    In any system there is always variation
    • some from the system itself ("common cause")
    • some from outside the system ("special cause")
    • some variation is easily managed and/or tolerable
    • other variation is problematic (often described as "a problem")
    A well developed stable system (e.g., a well managed school with the right students) has minimal common cause variation and manages the variation it creates easily and well usually through continuous improvement.

    The level of 
    variation produced in a system increases during periods of change. Therefore it is better to improve the system than to change it (if possible). Continuous change just tends to make things worse over time.

    The impact of special cause variation 
    Variation from outside the system is likely to be unpredictable and beyond the capacity of the system to immediately manage and resolve: special responses are needed.

    In reality much of the work in many schools deals with special cause variations. Examples include the flow-on effects of disabilities, family breakdown, domestic violence, neglect, mental illness, economic downturns, poverty, crime, abuse and trauma, drug and alcohol issues... none of which are produced by the School. 

    With few exceptions most special cause variation impacts negatively on standard measures of student performance. Responding to these negative impacts means
    • containing problematic situations
    • repairing the harm done (as much as possible)
    • reducing the likelihood of the problem recurring
    This list is a fairly accurate description of much of what many schools and their staff members actually do on a day to day basis, often in quite innovative and heroic ways. 

    Student selection and "school performance"
    Some schools are able minimise special cause variation by attracting and selecting students who bring with them minimal special cause variation. Students whose exceptional performance can be highlighted to reflect positively on the school are also likely to be attracted with scholarships and selected. Many individual musical performances at Speech Nights fall into this category.

    At the same time, schools that are unable to select students must attempt to deal with the special cause variation associated with their students. The more severe the negative impact of this special cause variation the more likely the school will be described as "under-performing". Current standard measures of "school performance focus" on common cause elements and ignore the school's achievements in relation to special causes.

    Failure to properly understand variation
    In summary, when whole systems fail to understand and manage for special cause variation the result is ill-informed system management, policies gaps and gross injustice to those whose efforts and achievements are not recognised and actively discredited. 
    Unfortunately this accurately describes the current situation in which most of the world's children are being educated.

    Thursday, June 23, 2016

    How to fix a broken system

    I came across this profound TED Talk this morning. Highly recommended.

    It would be easy to dismiss the talk as "Interesting, but of little value to us.. our system is already doing so much better than theirs".

    Improvement Process
    On the other hand I think it has profound lessons for us, especially how they implemented their improvements 
    1. Be clear about what was really happening here and now*
    2. Establish a specific shared goal
    3. Identify the current issues (constraints) in relation to the goal
    4. Create your own solutions (address the constraints)
    5. Change the system from a hierarchy to a network  
    If only we all did the same!!!

    Everyone's job
    Incidentally the strategy fits nicely with the "job description" that applied to everyone at Riverside: staff, students, parents, visitors...
    • Know what is happening
    • Work with others to improve what is happening
    • Make it easier for the next person to do well
    And finally, the Talk, and the above notes are consistent with the application of Complexity Theory. Perhaps without knowing it Seema and her team actually treated their education system as a complex adaptive system rather than as a simple linear (top-down) system.

    [* Not trying to work back from some remote idealised future "reality"]

    Wednesday, June 22, 2016

    Education - a complex endeavour

    This is the third in a series on systems approaches to education.

    Complex adaptive systems
    Education is best understood as a complex adaptive system: schools, teaching and learning are all
    • emergent
    • non-linear (Law of Tanobway applies: "There ain't no one best way!!")
    • self organising
    • co-evolving with their environments
    • nested within other systems
    As a result it is not possible to accurately predict the outcomes, especially in the longer term. This is true for all complex systems (e.g., the weather). Nor is it easy to replicate outcomes because "best practices" are situated and not readily transferred. 

    In complex systems (such as education) knowledge, actions (practices) and arrangements have be continually constructed and reconstructed.

    Teaching is largely about discovering and applying what is helpful to the students as they endeavour to learn. That is, teaching is more about the provision of scaffolding that nurtures the emergence of learning. And this works best when teachers and learners work together to customise the student's learning. Notions of "R&D"  are more useful than notions of education as "production". Schools work better as purposeful communities than as "factories".

    Improving education
    Top-down initiatives can work well in linear systems. However, improving complex adaptive systems such as education is best done by nurturing the emergence of desirable developments. This can be done by
    • introducing attractors (activities, purposes, tools, opportunities...)
    • enabling people to be self organising 
    • basing action and interaction on a small number of simple rules
    • learning from small safe-fail experiments - efforts that will not do any significant damage if they fail. 
    Learning from success
    Learning from successful experiments needs to be done cautiously.  To conclude from a successful experiment that the method can be widely applied is to make the error of retrospective coherence. Being able to give an account of why/how something was achieved does not mean that it can be readily replicated. 

    Complex adaptive systems are subject to the starting conditions. In education these including history, culture, environment... Engineering best practices can be readily transferred - with natural physical phenomena cause and effect are consistent over place and time. The same cannot be said for teaching and learning - cause and effect are not universally consistent and may be distant from each other in place and time.

    Evidence-based practices
    Unfortunately many top-down initiatives are based on mandating the use of evidence-based practices, as if they work like engineering practices. The notion of "evidence-based practices" is usually flawed by retrospective coherence, and frequently leads to the injustice of "They did it, why can't you?"  Education has a history strewn with examples of initiatives that failed despite their origins being based on prior successful examples.

    Tuesday, June 21, 2016

    Schools and systems thinking

    As a follow up on yesterday's post it may be helpful to clarify two major notions of systems.

    1. Linear systems:   input=>process=>output
    The most common notion of a system is one in which input is processed to create an output.
    These  systems are often described as linear and can be as simple as a light circuit:
    - the input of electricity flowing through the circuit causes the globe to output light. The process  may involve  the heating of a filament the activation of some other source of light.  
    Combining such systems, and building in feedback loops, can create quite complicated devices such as airliners, computers etc.  In linear systems, cause and effect are consistent over place and time such that outputs can be replicated. That is, outputs are predictable.

    2. Complex adaptive systems: emergent, self organising...
    Complex adaptive systems are the second major type of system. The outputs emerge from the interaction of the elements within the system and the interaction of the system with its environment. While patterns may emerge overtime outputs cannot be predicted accurately, especially over the long term.  Weather,  social systems and ecosystems are common examples of complex adaptive systems.

    As social entities, schools are complex adaptive systems. However they can often be treated,  at least in part,  AS IF, they were linear systems. To do so is reasonable under certain conditions, namely that the patterns of interaction involved a stable.  Hence Deming's advice to  “first stabilize the system”  before trying to improve it.

    Complex adaptive systems are vulnerable to disruption but may also be highly resilient as a result of their capacity to be self organising and their wide range of possible responses.  (see Requisite Variety).

    Systems thinking and its limitations
    Systems thinking as it applies to linear systems, offers a range of very useful approaches and tools for school improvement.  However it  is critical to understand the limitations of systems thinking and the assumptions made being in its application to specific circumstances.

    A systems models is a kind of map of the system and it is important to remember that "A map is not the territory".

    Monday, June 20, 2016

    Schooling - symptoms and causes

    Creating a linear view

    When faced with something challenging and complex, our natural inclination is to treat it as if it was linear. And under certain conditions this can be useful. The danger is that we may begin to confuse our "linear models" reality. 

    Schooling is a complex endeavour - one that is often complicated and uncertain, especially in relation to the processes, participants and the contexts in which it occurs.

     Consider the following simple linear model of schooling:

    The model is a reasonable summary of the commonly held view of how the school system works. Because of its general nature the model "works" despite the variations that that may apply. For example, government policy and funding varies considerably from school to school and government to government.

    Cause and effect
    In terms of time and activity the general flow of cause and effect is from left to right. Since most students are children they tend to have little or no responsibility for the effectiveness of the system. This "justifies" the widespread use of of student achievement (effect = learning outcomes) as an measure of school performance as cause.
    Also cause and effect can be remote in both time and place - a cause may not be directly related to a effect (see 5 Whys). For example, the model does not indicate the extent to which government policies and funding enable/constrain the capacity of schools to provide teaching matched to the needs of their students in real-time.

    Too simplistic
    The model is too simplistic in that it does not show any feedback loops nor does it give any indication of strength of flows between its elements. 

    Nor does the model show all key participants many of which play an important role in the effectiveness or otherwise of the system.

    A useful starting point
    The model is quite inadequate to properly explain how schooling happen. On the other hand it does represent the general discourse quite well and hence could be provide a useful starting point for the development of a systems approach to school improvement. And a systems approach is needed to better inform decision making at all levels.
    Caveat:  "All models are wrong but some are useful (George Box)"

    Monday, May 23, 2016

    Gonski and beyond

    Gonski may have a more important modelling role to play in improving the education of all Australian students. Extending the Gonski approach to all schooling could save our schools from current well intentioned but poor top-down decision making.

    Money is vital, but methods translates money into value. And the Gonski "method" is soundly based for education.

    The current general discourse about schools goes something like
    More $ for Education
          -->  "Better" teachers, testing/reporting, required curriculum, mandated practices....
             -->  Better student Outcomes

    This is plausible from a management or production perspective, but it does not reflect any known education theory.

    Schools are not factories!! Education is not a form of production. Students are not products.

    In addition this common top-down approach does not result in the requisite variety of educational provision needed to meet the needs of all students. 

    The value of Gonski

    In contrast, Gonski encourages and supports the development of whatever provision will meet the needs of specific students.

    Some useful theory

    Education is a complex endeavour. Schools are best understood as complex adaptive systemsTo work with and improve complex adaptive systems we need appropriate theory. 
    • People in schools (and elsewhere) are self organising around what attracts their attention
    • Schools are situated and emerge from the interactions of those involved - students, staff, families, communities, departments, governments...
    • Schools co-evolve with their environments (communities, school system....)
    • Successful practices are not as readily transferable as one might assume - they have to be reconstructed 
    The necessary knowledge, actions, and arrangements involved in schools have to be continually constructed (and re-constructed) by those involved, mostly in everyday conversations. Practices from elsewhere have to be reconstructed anew in each school.

    This means that schools not subject to empirical research in an engineering sense.
    • Input --> Process --> Output is not a useful working model for whole school improvement
    A constructivist perspective (Vygotsky)
    • Zone of proximal development
      • Learning expands/extends what a person can know and do
      • At any point in time there is a potential "zone" of learning beyond what person can know and do with "assistance"
      • This developmental zone is specific to each person in place and time
      • At any point in time, it is not feasible for a person to learn beyond their zone of proximal development
    • Scaffolding
      • Provision to support learning ("scaffolding") needs to be matched to the learner's zone of proximal development in place and time (Gonski)
      • Teaching is largely about scaffolding learning
      • Better scaffolding is likley to improve and extend learning
      • Scaffolding can be
        • Cognitive - instruction, direction, coaching and tuition...
        • Physical - texts, tools and equipment, facilities...
        • Chronological - timing, sequencing...
        • Social and emotional - encouragement, motivation, confidence...

    Leadership is situational (Blanchard)
    1. Education involves substantial leadership
    2. Leadership is a combination of direction, coaching, support and delegation 
    3. The appropriate leadership style depends on the learner's Competence and Confidence / Motivation in  relation to the learning task to be addressed in the current context

    Gonski - a model for the future of schools

    Gonski (consciously or otherwise) is consistent with a constructivist approach​ and encourages situated leadership. The initiatives supported by Gonski are situated and emergent.

    If the Gonski approach can be extended to all schooling, it will improve learning outcomes of all students and reduce the need for Gonski as an add-on.

    Caveat: For this extension to occur it will be necessary for governments and senior bureaucrats to recognise that 
    • While they may be in charge they are not in control
    • Education is a complex endeavour
    • Engineering solutions do not apply to the key challenges involved in providing quality schooling for all