Padraic P. McGuinness, “More teachers won’t solve the problems in our schools,” The Weekend Australian, October 13-14, 1990, p. 2.

How can we improve our education system and our schools? Everyone seems to have their own theories as to how this can be done, but few rely on any real evidence.

Yet there is now a very great body of research in the United States and England, both of which have educational systems and problems very similar to our own, which points the way quite clearly to what will and what will not improve schools. This was brought together recently in a book published by the Brookings Institution, a US think-tank.

To sort out the various factors which produce differences in the educational attainment of pupils as between schools — and surely attainment is the thing which schools are meant to produce — is a very complicated matter. It involves very detailed and highly complicated statistical work.

However, the evidence now points clearly to the fact that simply spending more money on education does not improve educational attainment.

Pupil-teacher ratios, expenditures per pupil, the age and quality of physical facilities, the number of books in libraries — none of these has any relationship to the outcomes. That is, when teachers’ unions demand smaller classes they are demanding more money from taxpayers which, it is proven, will produce no improvement in education. Simply employing more teachers is a waste of money.

But (as is explained in a review article in the US weekly, The New Republic, October 8), two factors are clearly related to pupil achievement: the mix of gifted and not-so-gifted students within a schools and the “ethos” of the school. And “the ethos or the organisation culture associated with schools that produced better results was an atmosphere that emphasised the importance of learning, a consistent and effective pattern of discipline, the frequent use of praise, classroom sessions that were well planned in advance, and regularly assigned homework”.

So clearly, good teachers are part of the solution. But how to pick good teachers? Again, there is no way of predicting who will be a good teacher. “The number of courses taken, or degrees received was no guide; for the purpose of producing a classroom ethos that was conducive to learning, teachers with a lot of training in education were not better equipped, on the average, than teachers without these credentials.” In other words, much of the staff time and public money spent in acquiring teacher’s certificates or degrees in education is simply wasted. It is, of course, important that a teacher should know something about the subject he or she is teaching.

The authors of the Brookings study found that the resources of schools make no difference to educational achievement. Neither, in the US, does race, as distinct from the socio-economic status of parents —  something outside the control of education policy. What does make a difference is student ability, parental status, and the status of a child’s peers. But when everything else is held constant, it is the organisation of a school which makes the bigger difference. What does this mean?

It means four things. “School standards (having high graduation requirements and a strong emphasis on academic excellence): leadership (having a principal with a strong desire for control and a strong commitment to teaching): teacher quality (having many teachers who were highly rated by their principals and who have a large amount of influence, low rates of absenteeism, and strong feelings of efficacy and harmony with others): and educational practice (having a high proportion of students in academic ‘tracks’, a lot of homework and effective classroom discipline).”

All this might seem fairly obvious, but there are many people in the education business who deny it. However, there is now overwhelming evidence that the criteria of “school ethos” as summarised here constitute the main explanation as to why some schools do well. The theories popular with teachers’ unions have been exploded.

How do we get better schools which meet these criteria? Again, the overwhelming evidence is that the “ethos” is better in schools which have a high degree of independence and are not run by a large education bureaucracy sitting on top of the schools. (This does not mean that there should not be a degree of uniformity in the syllabus and examinations.)

Schools tend to be more effective when they are not controlled by outsiders, whether governments, unions or parents. But that is true only if parents have a great degree of independent control, through the ability to choose which school they wish to send their children to. Effectively, the greater the autonomy of choice exercised by parents, and the more independent of government bureaucracy the schools are, the better the educational outcome for students.

So in looking for ways to improve Australian schools it is clear that we should be looking to give principals very considerable autonomy in managing their schools, including the hiring, promotion and removal of teachers, and the ability to exclude students are not amenable to discipline. Parents should have complete freedom to choose their children’s schools, with free travel to the extent practicable being part of the effective guarantee of this.

Freedom to choose between public, independent and religious schools can be best effected by funding schools according to numbers of pupils attracted. One way of doing this could be by way of some kind of “voucher” scheme, whereby parents could be given control over where public funding of education for each individual pupil goes — with no discrimination against any schools which meets certain basic requirements. It is only if schools are made accountable to parents in this way that the schools’ greater autonomy will produce better results.

So it seems that the major obstacle to improving the performance of schools generally is the insistence that they should be run in the same way with “industry-wide” (in Australia State-wide or nationwide) unions negotiating about wages, conditions, promotions, tenure, and so on with corresponding bureaucracies. What is needed in education is the treatment of each school as an independent “enterprise”, with teaching salaries and conditions, as well as organisation of work, being determined within the school management structure.

Clearly then, the crucial change which needs to take place if the performance of schools in Australia is to improve is to devise means for selecting principals and allowing them to get on with the job, with the sanctions for poor performance being a decline in the pupil numbers at their schools. But they must have power to select and remove their own staff according to effectiveness in teaching as judged by them.

Good teachers should be paid more, of course. It may be that it is misguided to attempt to discriminate between teachers who are satisfactory performers by allotting differential rates of pay except by means of seniority; but since it is not the numbers of teachers in relation to pupils which is important in terms of education outcomes, it would make sense to have fewer teachers paid more, and allow those who are unfitted for the profession to seek employment elsewhere.

A reduction in teacher numbers by say 25 per cent would have no adverse impact on educational achievement, but it would allow the remaining teachers to be paid that much more without strain on the public purse. We need fewer and better teachers.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Where Friedman is a pinko
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Libertarian Alternative
  4. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  5. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  6. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  7. The Itch for Influence
  8. LA safe from religious poverty
  9. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  10. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  11. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  12. Time to sell the ABC
  13. Youth victims of the welfare con
  14. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  15. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  16. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  17. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  18. Let them swim nude
  19. Time to legalise heroin
  20. State-sponsored sports rorts
  21. The blight of the baby-boomers
  22. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  23. We should ban Olympics
  24. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  25. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  26. Will Australia compete?
  27. Canberra's social revolution
  28. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  29. Why not pay for the ABC?
  30. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  31. Sometimes the truth hurts
  32. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  33. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  34. Genocide with kindness
  35. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  36. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  37. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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