OECD Study Shows that School Autonomy is no Silver Bullet

The Gillard Government’s claim that giving schools greater responsibility for budgets and hiring teachers will improve student achievement is repudiated by the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). An OECD report analysing cross-country results from PISA 2009 shows that schools which have control over budgets and the hiring and firing of teachers do not achieve better results.

However, the report does show that education systems in which schools which have greater control over curriculum and student assessment do achieve better results. This finding raises a question as to whether the introduction of the national curriculum in Australia could preclude possible gains from greater school autonomy in curriculum and assessment.

The new findings on school autonomy and student achievement are contained in a report published by the OECD titled PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV). It was published as part of the 2009 PISA study.

The study reports results from two types of analysis of school autonomy in hiring teachers and for school budgets and of school autonomy in curriculum and assessment.

One set of results is for cross-country correlation analysis of school autonomy in resource allocation and of curriculum and assessment and education outcomes in reading. The other set of results are for the education systems of individual countries and are obtained from multi-level regression analysis in which a variety of school characteristics are considered jointly to establish their relationship with student performance. Both analyses take account of differences in the socio-economic background of students and schools.

The cross-country correlation analysis found that education systems that provide schools with greater autonomy in selecting teachers and for school budgets do not achieve higher results in reading. It concluded emphatically that “…greater responsibility in managing resources appears to be unrelated to a school system’s overall student performance” [p.41] and that “…school autonomy in resource allocation is not related to performance at the system level” [Note 7, p. 86].

Further cross-country analysis shows that there is a positive relationship between school autonomy in resource allocation and student performance in school systems where individual school results are published. However, the difference in results between school systems that publish school results and those that do not is very small, amounting to less than 6 points on the PISA reading scale (one year’s learning is equivalent to about 35 points on the PISA scale).

In school systems in the OECD where school results are not published, a student who attends a school with greater autonomy in allocating resources than the average OECD school tends to perform 3.2 points lower in reading than a student attending a school with an average level of autonomy. In contrast, in a school system where results are published for all schools, a student who attends a school with above-average autonomy scores 2.6 points higher in reading than a student attending a school with an average level of autonomy [p.42]. The margin of error on these score differences is not reported.

The study also shows that in the vast majority of countries participating in PISA there is no statistically significant difference between student achievement in schools with a high degree of responsibility for hiring teachers and for school budgets and in schools with lower autonomy in these areas [Table IV.2.4c, p. 169].

In only four countries (Chile, Greece, Korea and Peru) out of 64 do schools with greater autonomy in allocating resources also achieve higher scores in reading after accounting for the socio-economic background of students and schools and for other factors related to school autonomy and competition between schools. In contrast, schools which have greater autonomy in allocating resources show lower scores in five countries.

The national study on Australia’s PISA results reports a very small positive correlation between school autonomy in allocating resources and student performance [Challenges for Australia’s Education: Results from PISA 2009, Table 7.31, p. 274]. However, the multi-level regression analysis in the OECD study shows no causal relationship between the two [Table IV.2.4c, p. 169]. That is, greater school autonomy in hiring teachers and for school budgets does not lead to higher student achievement in Australia.

In contrast to the lack of impact of school autonomy in resource allocation on student achievement across education systems, autonomy in curriculum and assessment has a positive effect.

Cross-country analysis of PISA suggests that the prevalence of schools’ autonomy to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments relates positively to the performance of school systems, even after accounting for national income. School systems that provide schools with greater discretion in deciding student-assessment policies, the courses offered, the course content and the textbooks used are also school systems that perform at higher levels in reading. [p. 41]

However, the study found that within the large majority of OECD and other participating countries there was no statistically significant difference between student achievement in schools with a high degree of autonomy in curriculum and assessment decisions and in schools with lower autonomy [Table IV.2.4c, p. 169]. This is also the case for Australia.

There are significant differences in only some countries. For example, after accounting for the socio-economic background of students and schools, and for other factors related to school autonomy and school competition, schools in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Dubai that have more autonomy in defining their curricula and assessment practices also show higher performance. In contrast, schools in seven participating countries that have higher levels of autonomy regarding curricular decisions show lower reading scores when compared with schools with lower autonomy.

While some aspects of local autonomy for schools can have a positive effect on student achievement, it explains very little of the variation in student performance between schools.

School governance factors incorporating local autonomy, competition between schools and the presence of private schools account for only one per cent of the variation in student performance between schools across all OECD countries [Figure IV.2.5, p. 45; Table IV.2.4a, p. 167]. Most of the weak relationship between performance differences and differences in the governance of schools is related to differences in socio-economic background among schools.

In Australia, these school governance factors account for less than one percentage point of the variation in student performance between schools which is 29 per cent of the total variation in student performance. The large part of this variation between schools is accounted for by students’ and schools’ socio-economic background.

All this indicates that the Government’s policy to expand school responsibilities for hiring and dismissing teachers and for school budgets is entirely misplaced. Once again, it is adopting a policy which, at best, will have little to no effect on student outcomes.

The new policy initiative reflects the Government’s priority to deepen the market in education rather than improve equity in education outcomes. It will serve to break up the public education system and destroy its foundation principle that schools take “all comers”, whatever their background and means.

Autonomous schools will be able to pick and choose their students. It will lead to greater social segregation in schooling. It is a recipe for greater inequity in education. This will be Julia Gillard’s legacy in education.

Trevor Cobbold

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