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No easy cure for 'cost disease' in Australian schools


Productivity Commission Schools WorkforceThe prospect of applying the economists' notion of 'productivity' to schooling was more inspiriting than the resulting Productivity Commission Schools Workforce report  (released on Friday) has proven to be.

One problem for the report is that it has been shaded by three other big reports of recent months, Gonski's review of funding, an excellent study by the Nous group commissioned by Gonski, and a report by the Grattan Institute that compares schools' performance with that of our Asian neighbours. Most of what the Commission has to say has already been said or implied by one or other of these three, usually in a more compelling way.

And that is the Commission's second problem. It is the opposite of trenchant. Even Sir Humphrey would be hard pressed to discern from this report that the productivity of Australian schooling has been falling for decades — that is, spending keeps rising much faster than student attainments — and no-one knows what to do about it.

The problem was detected almost half a century ago by the American economist William Baumol, who pointed out that teachers' salaries rise not because teachers are becoming more productive but because their employers are forced to compete in the labour market with industries in which workers are becoming more productive.

This 'cost disease' as Baumol called it, is widespread in the 'human services', but is compounded in schooling by the near-halving since the 1960s of class sizes, chiefly via industrial agreements.

This had the unintended effect of locking into place a way of grouping students and teachers still taken for granted when the 'class size' strategy was constructed. One of many possible ways of combining the 'factors of production' — time, effort, skill and space — became the only way.

The careful reader of Schools Workforce will find evidence to most of these points, but cast in such circumlocution, and so threaded among myriad minor observations and concerns, as to be neutered.

Perhaps the Commission was too anxious to avoid offence to its client COAG. Or perhaps it shrank from stating too plainly a 'disease' for which it can suggest only palliatives such as more pay for hard-to-staff positions, more training 'practicums', more local 'flexibility' in staffing mixes and industrial agreements, and so on.

We can wonder whether the ramshackle machinery of schooling is capable of implementing these and other suggestions, but the real issue is of scope and depth. The Commission has begun from a misconception. It has assumed the 350,000-odd teachers and other employees of school systems constitute the 'workforce' of schooling. They represent, in fact, only about 10 per cent of it. Most of the workforce is comprised of students.

This is not a rhetorical point. Students are the only people in schools who can produce learning. As in any other workplace, what and how much they produce depends on the supervisor, of course, but also on how work is organised, controlled, sequenced, evaluated and rewarded.

In the recent flurry of reporting on schools only Grattan, an otherwise dubious document, really grasps that this is where the productivity problem needs to be tackled. Grattan notes that several high-performing Asian systems have opted for very large classes but low teacher contact hours because that provides the time teachers need to do the planning, preparation, review and peer mentoring so essential to more productive classrooms.

We should be looking hard at such 'trade-offs', Grattan rightly concludes.

Here as elsewhere it is possible to find in the Commission's report discreet expressions of concern over poor returns to the class-size reduction strategy as well as support for experimentation with other student-teacher groupings. But this kind of thing has been talked around inside the schooling industry for some time now.

The pity is that an outsider, with a rare chance to call a spade a spade, has preferred instead to talk about a resource worthy of investigation for possible application to at least some horticultural tasks. 


Dean Ashenden

Dean Ashenden was co-founder of the Good Universities Guides and the Good Schools Guides, and has been an adviser or consultant on education policy to state and federal governments and agencies. 

Topic tags: Deab Ashenden, education, Gonski, Productivity Commission, Schools Workforce



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Existing comments

Interesting observations. The scandinavian countries have been successful educators yet we rarely attend to their practises. Early childhood results have been extremely positive with very high literacy rates for many years. We need to look at best practice and try to inculcate those ideas into our system My experience with two generations of family education is that the present system fails to suit many of our students

GAJ | 07 May 2012  

"Students are the only people in schools who can produce learning". As in many fields, what produces productivity is motivation. This can be external, such as interest and encouragement from parents, or from inner desire from the student. Preferably both. In sporting circles some young children are measured and assessed as to what particular sport they seem endowed to succeed in, and they are encouraged to enter programs that maximize their potential. Many students are discouraged if they fail to see the relevance of what they are required to study, particularly if it requires effort.Perhaps this needs more attention, particulary in our Affluent Society, where children grow up expecting everything on a plate.

Robert Liddy | 07 May 2012  

Dean perceptively goes almost to the heart of the matter when he notes that "only students can produce learning", and that teachers are more supervisors and helpers. One further piece of the jig-saw should also be mentioned: parents. There are enough studies to show that "social capital", that "climate of educational support that some families nurture better than others" is also a hugely direct contributor to success in learning. In the discussions about "how many times to weigh the pig to improve its weight" (NAPLAN), we read of the significance of "postcode" as an indicator of socio-economic advantage. In its own way, a postcode is a rough guide to available social capital. For years now many enlightened educators have sought ways to marshall better, the resources of good family environments in the pursuit of assisting learning. In some homes this is a given, in others it is not, and the difference matters greatly in the learning game. Home-schools partnerships may sound like a tired and trite phrase, but the relationship, in productivity terms is overlooked at one's peril. I wonder whether our Asian neighbours, the Grattan Institute and the Productivity Comission have seriously investigated this aspect of the "cost disease" remedy. In Covey's terms, we may have the ladder placed against the wrong wall!!

Garry | 07 May 2012  

Perhaps the measures are wrong! Excellence is not only achieved through academic performance and indeed, the stronger the emphasis on academic outcomes, the less room there is to nourish and nurture and appreciate the talents of a huge section of the school population. We give a lot of talk to the loss of trade skills, but there are only a few centres where students can study them at depth; we are constantly reducing the emphasis on the Arts in both the curriculum and funding. Perhaps if we started with the needs of the students and not the needs of business, we would then be taking part in education (from 'educare' or is that too old-fashioned an idea)rather than schooling.

Sophia | 07 May 2012  

When schools were originally set up as factories to produce fodder for industry, I guess it was inevitable that the economists would be involved and their unproven and distorted world views would actually end up influencing what schools should be doing. This piece simply assumes that this is a reasonable thing and should continue. It does not even define what is meant by "productivity" in schools. Schools should be doing more than providing students who can "perform" on meaningless tests which is the emphasis in many Asian systems. I work in Asia and see it constantly around me - rote learning, drilling, memorisation for the sake of the test - it's appalling. There's a lot of discussion in China about how its schooling system is destroying the capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship because of its emphasis on test results. Google Jiang Xueqin for an insight into this. Any schools that ignore the test driven curriculum and work on students' creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are good schools. The rest are not. If there is a malaise in the Australian system, maybe it's because of this emphasis on economics rather than education. The system has been poorly advised through a view of education as a means of production, not an investment. By the way, Dean, when you are average, it's very easy to show improvement. When you are close to the top, it's much harder.

ErikH | 07 May 2012  

Most teachers do their planning and preparation at home!

Bev Smith | 07 May 2012  

The National Reports on Schooling in Australia show that real spending per student increased by 24.7 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2008-09. The real increase in GDP per head of 24.4 per cent over the ten years from 1998-99 to 2008-09 suggests that a per capita education expenditure increase of 24.7 per cent over nine of those years is not much more than economic growth over a similar period. In other words, a country has to increase spending as the economy grows just to maintain education standards. Had Australia not increased education spending by that 24.7 per cent and had that lack of increase fallen totally on teacher salaries, the top teacher’s salary in Victoria would now be $67,407 and the beginning teacher’s salary would now be $45,697, neither one high enough to attract able people to teaching or keep them there. 1999-2000 marks the first year of a government that set about re-investing in education to reverse the cuts made by the previous Victorian government. I have prepared a paper, Implementing Gonski, but I don’t have a think tank so hardly anyone will ever get to read it and gibberish will continue to spread in the press.

Chris Curtis | 07 May 2012  

Erikh did not notice the necessarily terse definition of 'productivity' used - the relationship between spending and student attainments. Both sides of the equation can be defined in many ways, but it would be difficult to find a combination of definitions that would show the productivity of Australian schools as other than declining. A second point: there is no relationship between using the analytical concept of 'productivity' (on the one hand) and preferred teaching/learning style (on the other). I agree with Erikh that the approach so widely used in Asian schools is neither desirable nor feasible in Australian schools. My own view is that productivity in Australian schools could be improved by moving further away from a pedagogy derived from the factory and the chapel, and further toward classrooms that look more like workshops and studios.

Dean Ashenden | 07 May 2012  

Long respected Dean's contribution to educational debate. The impediment to improved student outcomes (and in test terms, Australia doesn't do too badly internationally) is usually sheeted home to unions' smaller class size policy. To get the best possible pool of students applying for teaching, there needs to be, among other things, attractive pay and a career structure. As teachers rightly say, a reward system that selects for preferment a few teachers from what is a collective system of teaching is fraught. However, unless the intakes into teacher education courses have changed significantly recently, not all students are equally capable and not all teachers are equally creative, diligent, skilled and literate or numerate. Wouldn't it be great if we had such a demand for teaching that only 10% of applicants got in - as is the case in Finland. While the 1966 Coleman report has been criticized, I think there is no doubt about its conclusion that teacher literacy is strongly related to student achievement. This sounds like blaming the victim but if the entry levels for teaching are very high, inevitable differences among staff won't matter and possibly a system rewarding whole groups of teachers might fly. I'd like to know how the Finns handle this career structure issue.

Bill Hampel | 07 May 2012  

As an ex teacher who left the profession several decades ago, I am intrigued how we address what were the core values of teaching. Teachers do not teach they create environments in which children learn. I did not expect that as an Infants teacher in classes of 45, that I was any more important than the family for life long learning and all the teachers who followed. However under the system then we were allowed to develop child centred learning and adapted it to the needs of the child, not a Naplan test which fits them to an average and labels them regardless of their level of maturity and social circumstances. Having been in business in decades since I know about productivity and it is harder to measure in output when dealing with people's minds and character. Despite what natural talents they have or the system thinks they do not have confidence in learning, curiosity and willingness to try are a great skills to imbue, and trust that they are reinforced at each stage. Some of the most successful people are those for whom early learning was a struggle. They overcame adversity early, but at some stage they had some one or more that appreciated their gifts. Australia has developed because we are by disposition innovators and have a go. Let the light shine on our teachers and their classes to ensure we are still able to have a go and get a fair go - there are some hidden treasures in the back row of any classroom.

Lynne Duncan | 07 May 2012  

People are educated by a community of which the 'school' is a part. The best 'education' happens when parents, students, teachers and the community at large all work towards the same goal. I love the idea of more flexibility in schooling especially the studio idea.

Jorie | 07 May 2012  

I agree with the theme of your essay, Dean! It seems that the Australian education system has failed students for the last twenty odd years; almost half the population is illiterate. I believe that there are two reasons for the current situation: (1) the standard of teaching is poor, and (2) most parents have little input into their kids education. The present day teachers are not skilled at teaching; they are learning facilitators and they rely on the motivation of students. Parents do not have any direct input into their kids education because they both work and do not have the time to assist their kids. Modern day parenting is about providing their kids with a computer and delicating the education to Mr. Google and other electronic gadgets. Modern day education curriculum have also failed students in Australia by not providing a balanced education in philosophy, history, literature, languages and science.

Mark Doyle | 08 May 2012  

Dean Ashenden's superlative expose of the cost disease in Australian schooling unblocks the major obstacle to implementing Gonksi, which relates to finding the $5 billion Gonski recommends as an investment to ensure that productivity targets are met. The notion that teacher salaries are linked with improvements in teacher results – a proposition unsubstantiated by research and which would absorb most of the additional $5 billion that Gonski recommends - would once and for all be put to rest, and generate an alternative quest to improve school choice, enhance access and encourage educational policy-makers to think of productivity in schooling as a complex and felicitous concatenation of several other factors, such as home values, teacher attitude, school climate and pedagogy, instead of the consequence of following a set formula based on the factors of industrial production. The way to start would be to deregulate all schooling by funding all schools equally, with top-ups for those prepared to follow Gonski's major recommendation, which is to prioritise access and school choice through differential funding for the underperforming and the disadvantaged. That Catholic schools have a proud record, mission and responsibility in this regard should have compelling appeal to readers of a Jesuit publication.

Michael Furtado | 21 May 2012