Why copy US university system? It’s the world’s worst

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Australia has one of the highest equity, best performing Tertiary education systems in the world.  Now the government wants to toss that model in the bin and copy a system which is comprehensively failing to deliver benefits for its students, employers or taxpayers.  Please tell me we aren’t about to destroy our higher education system because our Education Minister really, really likes Americans.

Just like taxpayers in every developed country, Australian taxpayers help fund higher education with direct payments to Universities and low interest loans to students.  We do that because the benefits to the country in having highly educated people generally outweigh the costs.  And in Australia we get especially good value for money.  We are one of only 5 OECD countries where public benefits (higher taxes and reduced welfare) are higher than the costs to the taxpayer.

When it comes to taxpayer contributions to higher education, Australia is the the 7th cheapest country in the OECD (just ahead of Columbia, the US, Japan, the UK, Korea and Chile). Here taxpayer funds cover just 45.6% of the cost of Tertiary education, way below the OECD average of 69.2%.

We may be cheap but our higher educators are kicking some pretty serious goals when it comes to the outcomes that matter.  Our graduates have the 5th best literacy proficiency in the OECD (on par with the best in the world, Japan, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden).  We’re only 12th best in numeracy, but that is still well above the average for the OECD.

Even when it comes to research, our bargain basement Universities are up with the big spenders. We are second only to Sweden in the percentage of GDP devoted to University R&D.   And we are spending proportionately three times as much as our neighbours in the cheap seats, Chile.

We manage all of that with one of the most accessible and equitable university sectors on the planet.  Here, 17% of school leavers entering Higher Education are from the lowest quartile of the population. And that rate has been steadily climbing, up from 15.7% in 2006.  In the US, the trend is very much in the opposite direction, dropping from 12% in 1970 to just 7% now.

We have a cheap-as-chips, high performing tertiary education system, but now the government wants to make us even cheaper by shaving a fifth ($1.7 billion a year) off the taxpayer contribution.  The only way to do that and still have a higher education system is to ask the students to contribute even more.

If the funding cuts were the only changes being proposed then we would justifiably fret about whether taxpayers really would get monkeys if we pay (less) peanuts.  Yes, it would cost the individual more to get the education they want and yes, that may impact on the number of people likely to want to do the things Australia needed them to do. And yes that may result in lower tax collections, more debt and more welfare.

But none of it would be immediately catastrophic.  And any damage could be easily reversed if it started to look ugly.  If only the same could be said for the other little change the Minister for Education wants to make.

As a bit of a sweetener for the G8 (Group of Eight largest universities in the country), the Education Minister has decided to allow tertiary institutions to charge whatever they like and the government will still pick up its part of the bill.  And it’s worked. Instead of G8 Vice-Chancellors baying for the Minister’s blood over the huge cuts, they are thinking of electing him Pope (or something).

The Minister has done this because he wants our University system to be market driven just like the US.  He feels that is the only way to get our Universities in the top 100 in the world (as determined by just about everything but the quality of the students they produce).  And if that’s the goal then copying the US is probably as good a way as any of doing it.  It’s just a pity it will destroy Australia’s high equity, high student outcome, tertiary education system in the process.

Just like the privatised US Health system the privatised US higher education system is a case study in market failure.  Even though US citizens and taxpayers spend more on universities than any other country, the US comes in 15th out of 34 OECD countries when it comes to educational attainment.

It is a system divided into outrageously expensive premium universities (which is the prize our G8 are eyeing off) and a large swath of cheap back to basics institutions.  Neither the expensive few, nor the rest, produce desirable outcomes for the student population.

American college graduate academic performance is abysmal and sliding fast.  An Australian graduate is almost twice as likely to get a job as their US counterpart. But it will personally cost the US graduate 4 times as much and the US taxpayer 50% more.

This is what happens when you destroy equity in an education system.  Do we really want to copy that?

First published in The Courier Mail

Image courtesy of patpitchaya at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Uniforms a weapon in the school marketing wars

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School uniforms increase equity and decrease bullying. But school choice is leading to significant upscaling of uniform costs at exactly the same time as the government removes financial assistance aimed at defraying those costs. The result will be sharply less access to our education system for those who depend on it the most.

I served my time at primary school in a selection of government schools in Western Queensland in the 1970s. It was the dawn of “school choice”. The federal government was yet to dabble in funding private education so almost everybody went to either their local public or their local Catholic. And there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two (except the government schools tended to have more money).

We all wore pretty much the same uniform. Cotton button-up shirts for the boys and checked dresses for the girls, khaki for the public kids and blue for the Catholics. The only distinguishing feature was a school badge which was usually pinned to the collar. It was a simple, cheap uniform that could be bought from any supermarket.

Roll forward four decades and much has changed. We have many more choices about where we send our kids to school. This marketisation of schooling (school choice) is increasingly driving schools to see the school uniform as a branding exercise. And it’s not just the swanky independent schools giving their uniforms a zhoosh. Increasingly public schools, especially those which become “independent” are using their uniforms as a weapon in the marketing wars against each other and their private competitors.

Blazers, ties, cotton shirts and formal school dresses are starting to be part of the required “kit” and all of it is intentionally different to anything you can pick up at Kmart. This inevitably and significantly increases the costs of those uniforms.

Suddenly uniforms are no longer a way of keeping us, well, uniform. We are no longer on an even playing field. There are those who can afford the gear and those who can’t. And those who  can’t, frequently choose not to attend school at all. As Julia Gillard once said (as part of announcing subsidies for school uniforms) “having a uniform helps undercut the kind of unhealthy competition we can see at schools to have the latest, most expensive, fashionable gear”.

Most Australian state governments maintain schemes aimed at defraying the costs of education incidentals (such as uniforms) for those who need it most. In Victoria, the scheme is called the Education Maintenance Allowance. It pays up to $300 per child a year to help with education costs. In 2014 the allowance was paid to a quarter of the state’s schoolchildren (more than 208,000 kids). Next year it will be paid to nobody because the state government has killed the allowance. In 2016, the Feds will join the party by cancelling the Schoolkids Bonus, a similar scheme worth up to $842 per student a year.

In place of its allowance the Victorian Government has implemented a scheme of increased funding for schools in disadvantaged areas but the disbursement of the money is entirely at the discretion of the school principal. It turns an administrative entitlement into a degrading demonstration of need at the school gate (not to mention competition for that terrific new professional development course, the principal had their eye on). Worse than that, it will completely exclude disadvantaged children who happen to attend schools in more advantaged areas. There will be no replacement for the Schoolkids Bonus.

The OECD has closely examined the relationship between the equity of a country’s education system and its performance, and decided: “The evidence is conclusive: equity in education pays off. The highest performing education systems across OECD countries are those that combine high quality and equity.

When the OECD ranked the equity of the various education systems in 2007, Australia came in just a little below average (lagging behind Italy and Switzerland but ahead of France, the United States and the United Kingdom). And as the OECD suggests might happen, that result seemed to predict our plummeting academic ranking. Each new round of international testing tells us we are falling further and further behind.

You don’t need to have won the Nobel Prize in economics to calculate that, at a time when parents need more help than ever with uniform costs, pulling the economic rug from under them is likely to have dire consequences for many families. And the destruction in equity that will follow, will have even more disastrous consequences for the performance of all of our children, uniformly.

First published in The Age

Fat school fees no guarantee for top results

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Monday, 29 September, 2014, 5:44pm
Karen Pittar life@scmp.com

Australian lawyer and businessman David Gillespie grew up in Brisbane and was educated at one of the city’s top private schools. But as he and his wife were mulling over where to send their six children, the “eye-watering sums” involved at elite institutions prompted them to consider alternatives.

It also led Gillespie to examine what it was that made a school, and an education system, effective. The result is Free Schools (Pan Macmillan), a book that challenges many widely held beliefs about quality education, especially in Australia.

“I wanted to find the answer to the question: if I spent millions of dollars on education, was that money well spent?” he asks. “Would it guarantee a better result for my children?”

His conclusion was an unequivocal “no”.

“Going in, I had no agenda and no preconceived ideas about what makes an effective school. What I did know was a lot of educational research is hard to understand and seems to be based on hunches – very little of it on hard facts and trials,” Gillespie says.

What surprised him most was that many factors parents assume to be important in schooling mattered very little.

Chief among these assumptions is that high fees equalled a superior education.

Wealthy families dominate in independent or private schools, he says, but “studies have consistently shown when you adjust for the socioeconomic status of children in independent-versus-government systems, both are equally effective. Paying more for education will get you nicer buildings and your child can hang around with kids of ‘his class’, but then we have to assume that’s a good thing?”

Similarly, Gillespie argues smaller classes do not necessarily lead to better learning and higher grades.

He refers to the Australian system as an example, where class sizes 50 years ago were double what they are today. Smaller classes meant increased spending to employ more teachers; yet Australia is slipping in the global education rankings.

“Classes need effective teachers who can manage students and maintain order,” he says. If behaviour is a problem and not well managed, there will still be a problem, whether it’s a class of 12 or 20.

Homework is another contentious area. A 2006 study at Duke University, in North Carolina, showed there was no benefit to assigning homework to primary schoolchildren. Gillespie says recent research suggests there may be significant downsides because it takes up teachers’ time with marking and setting homework.

However, he concedes some studies show that homework is helpful during high school.

Ultimately, Gillespie says an effective school depends on one thing – leadership: of the school and in the classroom.

Every four years the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, releases the results of its Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which evaluates the skills of more than 500,000 15-year-olds in maths, science and reading.

Hong Kong came in the top three for each discipline in the 2012 Pisa report – an impressive ranking out of 65 countries including the US, Britain and Australia.

Gillespie says schools that do well tend to adopt a collegiate approach, where principals and senior teachers still teach some of the time, but spend most time supervising junior teachers in the classroom, making sure they are learning to be better teachers. Senior teachers are not turned into administrators: they are turned into teacher-mentors. “This is what gets results.”

To retain good teachers, you need strong, accountable and involved leadership, he says.

Gillespie suggests parents visit potential schools and also interview the principal.

“What you want is someone who describes their team as professionals who work together to get the best results – that their role as a leader is to help teachers, to mentor them.”

His book also outlines other areas that parents should consider when selecting schools, such as its language and music programmes, communication and behaviour management.

“Look for a school that provides study skills – it’s all about learning to learn,” he says. “It is often assumed children learn by osmosis, but they don’t – they need to be taught the skills to do it effectively. Does the school offer language and music programmes? Consistently, study after study shows, that by just learning a language or a musical instrument – it doesn’t matter how good you are at it – this improves results.”

He says the general behaviour of students is another critical indicator because no one can learn or teach effectively if children are behaving badly.

“A great way to assess this is to look at the uniform. It’s [author] Malcolm Gladwell’s broken windows theory: if kids in a suburb break a window and it isn’t repaired, then they break another and so on – a small misdemeanour turns into a bigger one.

“Uniform policy is the same. You want a school where no deviations are accepted. Even if the school doesn’t have a specific uniform they will still have a dress code; find out before you visit what that is and make sure the children are complying.”

Finally, Gillespie says a successful and productive school is one that communicates with parents.

“An effective school will offer programmes that run parents through what is being taught and how it is taught – ‘these are the concepts and this is how to teach/reinforce it at home’.”

Parents should be active participants in education, he says. Rather than simply applying to elite private schools, parents should be focusing on those that can offer effective leadership.

Like any other organisation, the ethos and work ethic of school filters down from the top.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post.

Addicted to the sweet stuff? Here’s how to cut sugar from your diet

By | Books, Media, Print, Sugar, Sweet Poison | One Comment

Need to get the sugar out of your diet? Read this extract from The Sweet Poison Quit Plan by David Gillespie for tips.

Sugar addiction is such an integral part of our society that we don’t even have a word (like “alcoholic”, “chocaholic” or “workaholic”) to describe people addicted to sugar. “Eaters” are addicted to sugar, but you can eat without sugar. So I’m inventing a new word for sugar addicts: “sugarholics”. Sugarholics today are in the same position that smokers were in the 1950s.

You used to be able to smoke any time at work. You didn’t have to stop work and stand alone in the middle of a field. You weren’t vilified for lighting up a cigarette in a restaurant. Quite the opposite; if you didn’t smoke, you were the weirdo. Today, sugarholics rule the roost. Everybody is addicted from birth. Not eating the birthday cake in the tea room marks you out as the weirdo. Make no mistake: the task you are about to undertake will not be easy, but it is not an exercise in willpower.

Despite what everybody tells you, if you are a sugarholic, you do not have a personality defect. You are not a glutton. You are not weak-willed. You are chemically addicted to a substance in the food supply called fructose. And until you treat that addiction as the powerful biochemical force that it is, you will never loosen its grip. There are five steps to breaking your addiction.

There are lots of downsides to sugar addiction and the only upside is that you feel normal when you have a hit. Do you really have cause to feel deprived? No, but willpower diets demand that you feel deprived. They ask you to “go without” and to “give up” a treat. Feeling deprived will simply drive you back into the arms of addiction.

If you want to succeed, you mustn’t feel you are being deprived of anything. You need to take pity on the poor hopeless addicts who are all around you ingesting poison. You need to view any offering of sugar not as a temptation to be overcome, but as an attempt to poison you (perhaps a little extreme, but you get the idea).

So, don’t feel deprived. You are not giving up anything. You are simply stopping a dangerous and harmful addiction. It really is that simple to break an addiction. If you have the right attitude, staying sugar-free becomes a lot easier than you could possibly imagine.

A critical step in breaking your sugar addiction is identifying the habits associated with the addiction. For me, watching TV was a means of relaxation, and it still is. But my sugar addiction had infiltrated that pleasurable experience and made it its own. Sugar had become an integral part of the relaxation process.

The pleasure I gained from watching TV was directly associated, in my mind, with the dopamine hit I got from the sugar. It’s possible to disassociate the two activities, but you won’t do it by abstaining from both using willpower. The trouble with addictions is that they frequently attach themselves to otherwise-pleasurable experiences and it becomes impossible to distinguish the two.

Those habits will really test your resolve because of the strong association, and in some cases the strong peer group pressure (such as at birthday parties, Easter and Christmas) to conform. In many instances, the only rational way to deal with the problem is to avoid the habitual events associated with consuming sugar until you break the addiction.

So, if you are in the habit of relaxing in front of the TV with a chocolate at the end of the day, stop watching TV and find some other way to relax in the evening for the next month. Or you could continue your TV habit but replace the chocolate with nuts, for example.

This step is all about giving you the shopping strategies you need to prevent too much fructose from contaminating your food supply. You are going to need some shelf space for all your fructose-free food, so the first thing you need to do is throw out all the food in your pantry and fridge that is too high in fructose.

Chocolate of any description must be sent to a happier hunting ground. The same goes for anything you picked up in the confectionery aisle at the supermarket. Sweet biscuits are slightly less bad than confectionery. To make your cupboards truly fructosefree, all the sweet biscuits should go in the bin.

The only drinks you should have in your cupboard or fridge are unflavoured water and unflavoured milk. If you prefer your water with bubbles, then by all means have unflavoured mineral water or soda water. Alcoholic drinks are okay for the recovering sugarholic as long as they don’t taste sweet and they are not mixed with other drinks that contain sugar.

You can keep the dry wines, beers and spirits, but you need to toss out the dessert wines, ports, sweet sherries, liqueurs and mixers (unless they are diet mixers). If you see honey or sultanas in the name of a cereal, it’s usually a good idea to check the sugar content carefully. Don’t be fooled by the branding of new ranges of flavoured oat cereals, either. Unlike their unflavoured cousins, they are usually extremely high in sugar.

Walt Disney once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” And that is the point at which we have arrived on our mission to break your sugar addiction. There’s nothing fun about the withdrawal period, but it does end. And once it does, you’ll be completely free from the desire to eat sugar ever again. A plate of bikkies will hold all the attraction of a plate of raw broccoli.

If you are going cold turkey, have one last supper of your favourite sugary treat. Get that Mars Bar or that can of Coke. Sit down and consciously enjoy the very last time in your life that you will eat (or drink) sugar. If you can just get past the next few weeks of danger, you will enjoy the health that sugar has sucked from your life to date. Then, all of a sudden, your desire for sugar will vanish. I know it sounds strange, but it just plain goes. Bang! And you will never want the stuff again.

Re-stock and live your life

Once you start the withdrawal, you’ll need to re-stock your now-bare cupboard.

Fruit: Whole fruits do contain fructose (the addictive and harmful half of sugar) – in some cases, very large amounts. But they also contain a fairly large amount of fibre and water.

Vegetables: There is no such thing as a bad vegetable. All vegetables contain some level of fructose, but it is an insignificant amount and is vastly overwhelmed by the fibre content.

Nuts: Like vegetables, there’s no such thing as a bad nut. Some have more fructose than others, but even the worst of them, from a fructose perspective, have huge amounts of fibre.

Meat: Meat does not contain any sugar, so knock yourself out. The only possible word of caution is around some of the fancy marinated meats. The marinade is usually very high in sugar and this type of product should generally be avoided.

Eggs, yoghurt, milk and cream: Only choose the tartest of European and natural yoghurts and avoid flavoured milk or whipped cream that you buy in a can.

Cheese: Cheese will have sugar on the ingredients list, but it is all lactose, so there’s no need for concern.

Bread: All breads contain some sugar. All of the standard unflavoured white breads lie somewhere between 0.5 and four per cent sugar (two per cent fructose). Multigrain and brown (wholemeal and rye) breads are low-sugar and have approximately twice as much fibre.


This is an edited extract from The Sweet Poison Quit Plan by David Gillespie (Viking).
Originally published in Body+Soul

Lifelong love of learning key to great teaching

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ACCORDING to international benchmarks such as the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment tests, Australia’s education system is sliding backwards at a dizzying speed.

And while the research is unequivocal that teaching effectiveness is the primary driver of student performance, blaming teachers for the slide is like blaming an infantryman for the Iraq War. Band-Aids will not suffice. It’s time for open-heart surgery on Australia’s education system. Unfortunately, the Band-Aid brigade is out in force when it comes to “fixing” teacher quality. In Britain, the Conservative government plans to fix teacher quality by continuing to support Teach First. It is a social enterprise that enrols recent graduates from non-teaching courses and puts them through a six-week course before dropping them into a classroom while they complete a two-year education qualification.

The same program runs in Australia and the US, and while there are impressive queues of fabulous graduates waiting to join, the five-year retention rate for qualified teachers is abysmal – so much so that the program has been derided as “teach first, then get a better job”.

The British Labour opposition has a different plan. It wants to relicense teachers every few years. Its manifesto would allow the worst ones to be sacked and the not-so-terrible to receive some training. In the US, the Band-Aid contains a little more carrot and a little less stick. There, Bill Gates is pumping a lazy $US335 million ($384m) into a trial teacher incentive program. One of the trial districts, Hillsborough County (193,000 students and 15,000 teachers) in Florida received $US100m of the pile, and $US60m of that went directly to teachers. With the bonus payments, a fourth-year teacher in Hillsborough could earn as much as someone who’s been in the job for 20 years. The bonuses are based on student outcomes and in-class evaluations of teachers. But now that the trial results are in, they are not encouraging. There seemed to be no statistical relationship between any student improvement and the people identified by the program as effective teachers.

Elsewhere in the US, and most recently in NSW, “raising the bar” is seen as the panacea to ineffective teaching. People have been noticing for some time that it’s getting easier and easier to enrol in an undergraduate teaching degree. Latest results from Queensland, for example, tell us that entry is open to all but the lowest 8 per cent of secondary school leavers, and it isn’t much higher in NSW.

Statistics like that have inspired the NSW O’Farrell government to insist that, from next year, you don’t get to study teaching without at least an 80 per cent score in three HSC subjects (one of which must be English). It’s a big call with an almost complete lack of evidence to support it.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest we need moderately literate teachers, but study after study tells us that beyond that, there is no correlation between a teacher’s marks and their classroom results. Worse than that, it runs the real risk of excluding people who will be effective teachers on the basis of something that is likely to be about as relevant as their favourite colour. Unlike Britain and the US, the countries handing us a solid flogging in international tests (China, South Korea, Singapore and Finland, for example) are not worried about how to produce effective teachers, because they have already solved the problem.

The detail varies from place to place but the end result is the same. Effective teachers are produced by systems that use effective teachers to make more, you guessed it, effective teachers. In these systems, teachers are closely managed and mentored from the moment they darken a classroom doorway.

They are not thrown into a locked class, never to be seen again. They don’t sit down with the principal for a once-a-year box-ticking “performance review” (and then get a pay rise anyway). They are watched by their peers, assessed by more experienced colleagues and work as part of a team based on continuous feedback about the performance of their students. They can also be dismissed if they fail to deliver.

If they measure up, their career advancement is based on their performance (and that of their students), not on the amount of time in the job. And they are required to continue to learn and publish throughout their career. In other words, they are lifelong learners in the art and science of teaching. And they are trained by the best, the highest performers from the generations before them.

To someone who is “doing teaching” (because it’s easy to get into, with a pretty good graduate pay and great holidays), I have just described a nightmare of lifelong assessment. To someone who loves learning and loves teaching, I have just described paradise. Bring it on.

Opinion piece also published in The Australian 28 January 2014

Money can’t guarantee a good education

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SHE would probably have been less shocked had I confessed to selling my children into slavery.

The look of horror (with a tinge of outrage) said a truckload more than the “Oh, are you sure?” she finally managed to squeeze out. Nigella (name changed) is the proud mother of two kids who attended the same (government) preschool as our eldest and had then progressed to the same (government) primary school. At Year 4, she had shipped her children off to the most prestigious private boys’ and girls’ schools money could buy (in Brisbane). So when I announced that my wife Lizzie and I had decided our kids would be going to a government high school, the shock was palpable. “But,” she spluttered, “didn’t you go to Churchie? Surely you could get them in there as a legacy entry?” The idea that anyone might choose to have their kids educated in a public school seemed to be beyond any reasonable contemplation.

If people voting with their feet is any measure, Nigella speaks for the majority. In some Australian urban areas there are now more Year 11 and 12 children in private education than there are in state schools. But is it really the case that paying for education actually gets you a better result? Or that paying even more gets an even better result?

We have six kids, so the kind of eye-watering numbers that the automatic choice of sending them to my alma mater and its sister school implied ($1.3 million, I calculated) meant our kids were going public. I needed to know exactly what the research said about educational outcomes and money. And I really needed to know whether there were any smart choices I could make having decided on public education.

Much like medical research, educational research is arcane, hard to read and even harder to understand. Even worse, most of it appears to be based on hunches and feelings and very little of it on hard facts and actual trials. But once you strip away all the self-interest and the spin there are very clear messages about why some education systems and schools perform better than others.

The research tells us there’s no correlation between how much you pay and the quality of the education your child is likely to receive. Parents desperate to escape a system that refuses to remove (and indeed actively protects) poorly performing teachers are susceptible to the promise of better results if only they can pay for them. The wealthiest families dominate the independent schools, which draw almost half their population from the top quarter of income earners in Australia and 73 per cent of their students from the top half of the income scale. Government school students dominate at the lower end of the economic spectrum; these schools draw 36 per cent of their students from the lowest quarter of Australian incomes. Catholic schools are somewhat more balanced; 57 per cent of their students come from the top half of the income scale.

Non-government schools do have more money than government schools, and in some independent schools that money makes its way into the pockets of better-performing teachers and more administration staff, but more commonly all that extra dosh just ends up in new buildings. Studies have consistently shown that when you adjust for the socioeconomic status of the children in the systems, all three Australian systems are equally effective (or ineffective). Paying more for education will definitely get you nicer buildings and newer computers. And it will definitely allow your child to hang around with more kids of “his class” (assuming that’s a benefit).

The single advantage that independent schools have over government and Catholic schools is that their staffing policies are not dictated by union-negotiated enterprise agreements. The principal of an independent school has much greater power to remove underperforming staff and hire effective teachers than their colleagues in either the government or Catholic sectors. But a leader is no more likely to employ and develop effective staff if they themselves are incompetent or if their hands are tied by a board (or parents) dictating staffing policies (as often happens). Yes, they may be able to have better staff, but that’s no guarantee that they do.

The short way of saying this is that paying for an education is often unlikely to get you a better academic result than you’d get anyway. What I found during my research is that some things – teachers, principals – count a lot, while other things that most parents worry about – class size, school size, composite classes, fancy buildings – don’t matter at all.

Teachers and leaders matter
Good teachers get good results (significant and measurable gains in the academic performance of their students). Poor teachers achieve exactly the opposite. In one Queensland study, the quality of the teacher was shown to matter to the tune of an astounding full academic year’s worth of learning when you compare the best teachers with the worst.

Researchers involved in The Texas Teacher Quality Study found that teachers at the top of the quality distribution were able to move their students forward one and a half years in just a year, while the worst teachers were only able to move their kids forward half a year. The study also found that experience makes a difference, at least initially. Teachers who are new in the job are much less effective. But after three years, experience doesn’t appear to affect teacher performance at all.

Until recently we haven’t had any comparable research on teacher effectiveness in Australia, but in 2010, Andrew Leigh (formerly a statistician from the Australian National University and now a member of federal parliament) completed a major study of teacher effectiveness using the standardised test scores for 90,000 Queensland students between 2001 and 2004. The results were almost identical to those delivered by the US research. A teacher who’s better than 90 per cent of their peers will achieve in six months what a teacher in the bottom 10 per cent achieves in a full year.

And this doesn’t apply just to primary school. A large study in Chicago showed the effect was, if anything, more pronounced in high school teachers. Good teachers eliminate disadvantage. In comparison to a bad teacher, a good teacher will provide your child with a two-for-one deal: two years of education in a year. If they get two shockers in a row they’re on a path to academic destruction.

It doesn’t matter if the school is mixed or single-sex
I don’t know a parent who doesn’t have a view on whether schools should be single-sex or mixed. The demand for single-sex schooling appears to persist despite a spectacular lack of evidence that it makes the slightest bit of difference for either sex. In 2005, the US Department of Education conducted a systematic review of 2221 studies on single-sex education. They found a performance gap between single- sex schools (and classes) and coeducational schools, but that gap could be explained entirely by the differences in the socioeconomic make-up of the students likely to attend a single-sex school (which in the United States are usually private). When the researchers looked for longer term measures of success, any positive effects of single-sex schooling vanished entirely. Without even adjusting for background, they found no differences in academic performance beyond high school, university graduation rates or the likelihood of undertaking postgraduate study.

Closer to home, the WA Education Department reviewed the inconclusive evidence and decided to find out if it could detect a measurable benefit by trying single-sex classes in its high schools. The pilot program was implemented in five public high schools commencing in 2006, but after three years of trials in Years 8 to 10 classrooms, they found there was “no conclusive evidence in any school to indicate that single gender classrooms supported improved student outcomes”.

Composite classes don’t matter
Multi-age classes mix students of more than one (usually two, but sometimes more) grades in one classroom being taught by one teacher. They’re fairly common in small schools (less than 200 students – just under half of all Australian primary schools) because of uneven distribution of the numbers of children in each grade and the need to stay below the mandated upper limits on class size. Most parents I’ve met think multi-age classes are a good idea if their child is one of the youngest in the class but a bad idea if they’re one of the older kids. The resounding answer from the research community is that it makes not the slightest jot of difference. Not only does multi-grading not have any positive or negative effect on academic performance, it doesn’t change any of the “soft” measures either (like attitude to school, behaviour and so on).

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) ran a study which was extraordinarily detailed and allowed the researchers to answer a burning question most of the previous studies hadn’t: Does it matter if your little pumpkin is in the Year 4 end of a 3-4 or in the Year 3 end? Not a single one of any of the possible combinations (and they had them all) showed any difference at all. The research did reveal, however, that some principals may have a tendency to assign their best and brightest teaching staff to multi-age classes.

Homework doesn’t make a lot of difference
When you’re dragging six kids through the school system you get to attend your fair share of parent meetings. And I reckon I haven’t been to one yet when someone didn’t complain that insufficient homework was being given, followed quickly by someone else complaining that too much was being handed out. Because it’s such a focus for parental angst, there’s no shortage of research on every conceivable aspect of doing schoolwork at home. But the research in favour of homework is far from convincing, and the latest work suggests it’s a complete waste of everybody’s time.

In 2006, Harris Cooper, the director of Duke University’s Program in Education in North Carolina, led a team that analysed the vast majority of the homework studies performed to that point. The studies revealed that there’s no benefit to assigning homework to children in years equivalent to Australian primary schools. Indeed, no study has ever found a benefit to assigning homework to children of that age. There were, however, modest benefits to high school students in that those who did more homework tended to score better on standardised tests. Even the most persuasive studies are only demonstrating a mild effect and then only really in maths.

Try hard to avoid moving
Australia has one of the most highly mobile populations in the Western world. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 30 per cent of residents (from households with children) move at least once every three years. The Queensland Department of Education keeps detailed records on every student and (uniquely in Australia) can track them no matter which school they attend. Their most recent analysis reported that, of the 41,261 students enrolled in Year 7 in 2006, one in five had moved schools two or more times in primary school and one in 20 had moved four or more times (in six years). The researchers concluded that the best thing we can do for our kids is keep them in the same school. The children who obtained the best results were those who hadn’t changed schools at all, and there was a direct relationship between (lack of) performance and the number of moves. In the last three decades there have been more than 40 major studies on the issue. The results have been surprisingly consistent. Every time a child is moved, their education will be set back between three and four months, their reading and maths scores will decline, and they’ll struggle to keep pace with their peer group.

The perfect school
The research tells us what a perfect school should be. It also tells us what it won’t be, or, at the very least, helps us identify all the red herrings hung along the school fence. It might have gorgeous grounds, three Olympic-sized swimming pools, its own personal sports stadium, a single sex, fabulous tertiary entry results, new computers, high fees, very small class sizes, and be very small and have no multi-age classes. But it might have none of those things and still be an extraordinary performer when it comes to delivering the only thing that matters – a high-quality education for your child.

The perfect school will have a highly effective leader who engages the community and teachers, who mentors those teachers and gets the best from them. It will have a teaching culture of continuous learning. Teachers will approach their task not as underpaid, glorified child care but as an opportunity to improve their skills and their students’ outcomes. And the perfect school may do absolutely nothing else. It may accomplish these two things in a caravan on a mining site, in a sandstone building on Sydney Harbour or in any possible location in between. What it looks like and what it costs are very likely to be completely irrelevant.

A truly extraordinary school will provide a music program and it will teach at least one foreign language. It will teach children how to learn rather than just what to learn. It will use technology to ensure students have immediate feedback and teachers have the time to help those who need it most. Homework won’t be a priority but the school will work very hard at keeping parents in the loop. It won’t stream students academically, but it will accelerate the truly gifted and will definitely not rely on whole language as a means of teaching literacy.

In other words, its perfection will be almost completely invisible to all but the participants. Its outcomes will in no way depend on the advantage or disadvantage the children bring through the school gate. All of this is quite easily delivered within the existing budgets for government school education (or less) if the school leader is skilled and motivated. They’re not the majority, but these schools do exist. The trick is to find them.

Edited extract from Free Schools: How to get your kids a great education without spending a fortune, by David Gillespie (Macmillan Australia, $29.99)

First Published in The Australian, 25 January 2014.  Picture: Eddie Safarik Source: News Limited