Monday, March 6, 2017

Responding to problems

"Problems" are everywhere
Things could always be better. The world is not always how we would like it to be. It could be fairer, more efficient, more effective, cheaper, nicer, easier, more ethical...

Sometimes problems come and go like the weather. They may dissipate of their own accord. Or they may grow bigger and more serious and need to be addressed in three ways
  • Contain the problematic situation
  • Repair any harm done 
  • Reduce the likelihood of the problem recurring
The challenges of responding
Quite often we need to work with others to solve problems, and this brings its own challenges. How others see the problem and what level of response they are trying to contribute can make a big difference. Consider the following

The "Ostrich"
  • Unaware of the problem
  • Deny the existence of the problem
  • Hope it is someone's problem
  • Hope someone else will fix it
The "Expert"
  • Describe the problem with examples and anecdotes
  • Guess the causes and solutions
"Ain't it Awful"
  • Complain, Blame and Protest
  • Demand the problem be fixed 
  • Demand a particular "fix" -  can make things worse
"Bob the Builder"    
  • Understand how the system works to create the problem
  • Work with others to ("fix")  improve the system
Check it out
  1. Think of problem that is significant to you
  2. What is your current level of response?
  3. What difference will your response make?
  4. How does this compare this with the responses of others involved?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Thinking about schooling

Direct, unfiltered experience of the universe is overwhelming so we need to filter and reduce our experience to something simpler than its reality. Education is no exception.

How we think about something shapes our understanding of it and our approach to dealing with it. Metaphors can be useful in encapsulating a wide range of ideas, arrangements and activities in a few words. They can make it easier to cope with large scale experiences and to share complex ideas.

At the same time, there are several dangers involved in this approach, including
  • much of our thinking based metaphors is unconscious and erroneous
  • we tend to disregard or overlook the aspects of reality that don't fit our chosen metaphor/paradigm
  • we tend to believe aspects of our metaphor/paradigm are valid, even though in reality they are not

Schooling as "engineering" is not a useful metaphor

Engineering is based on the natural laws that apply to phenomena in which cause and effect are consistent over time, place and object. Unfortunately, no such natural laws can be applied to schooling. In education, cause and effect are not consistent over time, place and person. People are not objects in an engineering sense. 

Schooling as "medicine" is not a useful metaphor

There is a sense in which some aspects of schooling can be thought of as "treatments". However, we do not "hospitalise and treat" whole groups of people uniformly on a daily basis simply based on their age.

The hope for "linearity"

Things are much easier to deal with if they can be dealt with as if they are closed linear systems. 
  • Input => Process => Output
The natural laws on which engineering is based enable us to deal with most physical phenomena as linear systems. In addition, best practices can be readily established, readily duplicated, transferred and scaled.

To a lesser extent, medicine can adopt a similar approach, using surgery, antibiotics and other therapies at the individual level dependent on the starting conditions (the health and well-being of the individual).

Transferring and scaling practices

Education is more like medicine than engineering because the starting conditions (hopes, needs, abilities.. of the student/patient.) are unique to the individual learner, and successful practices can be duplicated and transferred from one situation to other closely matching situations. 

This is not an indication that we can adopt a linear systems approach to schooling. In retrospect, we may be able to identify the steps that led to successful learning by a student but this is not the same as identifying the steps that will lead to successful learning for all students. 

Educational practices do not transfer or scale anywhere near as well as engineering practices.  "Evidence-based practices" are practices that, on the available evidence, have wide, but not universal usefulness if used in the right context in a timely manner. There are no silver bullets!! 

Mandating certain practices is an overly optimistic approach and disruptive.  Mandated practices will be a service to some students, a disservice to others and compromise the professional judgement of teachers. 

Schooling as its own metaphor

Engineering and medicine are their own metaphors. But what about schooling? Historically schools were developed to prepare young people for working in the industrial age. Are schools factories? Most retain many of characteristic of factories.

Does the required attendance of students give schools some of the characteristics of prisons? Governments remove children from the care of their families on a daily basis in order to attend school.

Interventions in schooling

School improvement is often successful but not long lived. Many improvements are dissipated by the next external intervention or change of school leadership. This is because the school is continually constructed and reconstructed in the everyday conversations of those involved.

The represents a wicked problem for governments because their interventions are based on a linear systems view that supports their belief that the required responses to the interventions are readily transferable and scale. But successful educational pratices are complex (emergent, involve self-organisation, situated...) and so do not scale in the way governments hope.

That is,
  • Education is complex, not linear
  • Its processes are individual, situated and emergent so do not transfer easily nor scale
  • Mandated school improvements are disruptive and not a good fit for most schools
  • Successful school improvement initiatives are generally short-lived - they are disrupted by the next initiative

Monday, February 6, 2017

Australia's Two Speed School System

Structural inequalities in schooling

There are several structural inequalities impacting Australian schools. 

Unfortunately the issue of funding tends to dominate the discussion. Focused on in isolation, this tends to polarise schools into groups such as state and non-state. 

This will intensify as we approach the possible end of Gonski funding and awareness that the difference in government funding for state and non-state schools is diminishing and could well be reversed in the next few years.

Structural inequality begins at enrolment

In terms of enrolment there are two types of schools and they treat both parents and students very differently thus generating and compounding Australia's Two Speed School System.
  • Selective schools can choose whether to enrol (or exclude) any student with little, or no, justification required. Enrolment is a school choice
  • Non-selective schools can only reject an application for enrolment under exceptional circumstances. Enrolment is a parent choice (unless there is some over-riding policy such as zoning)
Before non-state schools received substantial government funding this was not really an issue. Enrolment in a selective school was a commercial arrangement between the parent and the school. 

The early justifications for government funding of non-state schools were that 
  • the parents at the schools were taxpayers and their children should benefit
  • supporting non-state schools was a cost saving strategy for government
As the difference has diminished these claims need to be reviewed. Most of the parents of children refused enrolment by a school are also tax payers and their children should also benefit. Should that be the school's choice?

Government cost savings decrease as the school funding gap between schools diminishes. If a school uses selective enrolments to grow the school the costs to government can increase markedly to provide the additional facilities required.

Now that all schools receive substantial government funding there is a need for terms and conditions around
  • Parent choice 
  • Mutual obligation between government and schools
  • Common benchmarks for rejecting an enrolment application
  • Gaming the system
  • Means and needs testing of schools
  • Double dipping
  • "Leaners and Lifters"

Enrolment and making provision for students

Selective schools enrol students who match the school's provision and community.

Non-selective schools enrol the majority of students whose parents apply and make the best provision they can given the demands they face and their capacity.

School improvement models - better schools start with fewer problems?

Non-selective schools

Selective Schools

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.