The Defenders of Privilege in Education Are on the Counter-attack

The Gonski report on school funding is a watershed in education policy in Australia. It has switched the debate from giving priority to school choice and supporting privilege in education to improving results for disadvantaged students and reducing the massive achievement gap in school outcomes between rich and poor. The new funding model promises more for under-resourced schools and disadvantaged students.

This new emphasis on equity in education poses a major threat to the defenders of elitism in education. Their privileged position in education is under challenge. Their counter-attack is under way, led as always by the Murdoch press.

One prong of the counter-attack is the spurious claim that low income or low socio-economic status has minimal or no effect on education outcomes. The Murdoch newspapers regularly wheel out Dr. Kevin Donnelly to peddle this nonsense. Donnelly consistently ignores literally hundreds and hundreds of studies that demonstrate a strong association between SES and student test results. Instead, he resorts to selectively citing only one or two studies in support of his claim that SES background has little impact on student results. Donnelly sees reducing the gap between rich and poor as giving priority to “victim groups” over merit and ability, a lexicon taken directly from the right-wing lunatic fringe in the United States who see education as just another race in which to laud ‘winners’ over ‘losers’.

Another prong of the counter-attack against Gonksi promoted more recently by the Murdoch press is a claim that high achieving students are being neglected by the priority being given to closing the gap between rich and poor. The spear carrier for this claim is Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne, Patrick Griffin.

Professor Griffin says that Australia is too “preoccupied with ‘closing the gap’ between the results of disadvantaged and advantaged students”. He says that the emphasis on improvement at the lower levels and ‘closing the gap’ is denying opportunities for the top students: “our system is not realising the potential of our better students…” because “…students at the top of the distribution are not being given the same kind of intervention and support and teaching strategies as those at the bottom”.

Griffin sees this as a serious problem “because the students at the top of the distribution are the ones with most of the potential for learning.” He says that it is fruitless trying to close the achievement gap: “you can’t really close the achievement gap” because “the top kids should advance at a higher or faster rate than the lower kids because they are more able.” He told a Smarter Schools National Literacy and Numeracy Forum in November 2011 that:

I actually don’t agree with the rhetoric of Closing the Gap. I also think that’s nonsense. Every student should learn and these students at the top here should be learning much faster than those that are struggling at the bottom. So the gap ought to be widening, but every student should be moving along that progression.

Professor Griffin’s claims are based on a report by the Assessment Research Centre at the University of Melbourne on progress in reading comprehension, maths and critical thinking by 36,000 Victorian Year 3 to 10 students tested over six months in March and October 2011. The study makes two main conclusions. First, lower ability students achieved greater learning growth between the two tests than higher ability students. Second, teachers were more likely to provide strategies to develop lower order skills than higher order skills.

The first finding was apparently a shock because it was assumed that students at the top end of the scale are higher-ability students who should be able to improve at a faster rate than those at the lower levels. Griffin stated: “Higher-ability kids should be able to improve at a faster rate than lower-ability kids, but we have the opposite problem.”

While Griffin regards this as a matter of logic, it is flawed logic. Arguably, there is less room for improvement for students already performing at the top of the scale at any given Year level whereas students at the bottom of the scale have much greater scope for improvement. For example, if a student achieved 40 per cent on a well-designed and scaled maths or reading comprehension test the scope for improvement is 60 percentage points whereas a student who achieved 90 per cent has scope to improve by only 10 percentage points. The improvement available to high achieving students is significantly less than for low achieving students. With good teaching, lower achieving students should be able to make more progress and the results of the Griffin study seem to bear this out.

Given this, it is hardly surprising that teachers will have more strategies to improve the results for lower achieving students than for the top students. In any case, the actual data reported in the study do not support its conclusion that teachers focus only on the bottom students. The data show that teachers use just as many strategies to improve the performance of middle ranking students as they do for the students at the bottom in reading comprehension and numeracy.

Several strategies are reported as used for the top students in numeracy, but none for the top students in reading comprehension. Literacy experts say this is not surprising because of the nature of comprehension. At the top level, it is a matter of students applying strategies already learnt to more and more complex texts.

Thus, far from revealing a gap in teaching strategies to improve learning outcomes, the study indicates that teachers are using a range of strategies to improve learning for all students. It is just that the scope for improvement is far greater for the far greater number of students in the ranks of those below the top students.

The study is a storm in a tea cup.

The study’s findings are also contradicted by a report published last year by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in the NSW Department of Education. Using data from the OECD’s 2009 PISA study it found that students from poorer families are less likely to receive several sound teaching methods that have been shown to significantly improve reading literacy performance.

As if this was not enough, Professor Griffin takes his claims further. He asserts that his “disturbing” findings are consistent with national test results: “We have a national problem and we have to do something about it.” In a submission to the Senate Education Committee’s recent inquiry into NAPLAN, Griffin says:

Our results mirror a disturbing trend in Australian PISA data….The evidence of a failure at a national level to realise the learning potential of high-capacity students is becoming overwhelming.

This is factually incorrect. The evidence is that Australia’s highest achieving students are doing very well by international standards.

The average reading score for Australian students at the 95th percentile was statistically similar to the highest score of all 65 countries participating in the 2009 PISA study. Moreover, only Shanghai recorded a statistically significant higher reading score than Australia at the 90th percentile. Thirteen per cent of Australian students were at the top reading levels of the PISA scale. Only Finland, New Zealand, Shanghai and Singapore had greater proportions at these levels.

Only six countries had a statistically significant higher average mathematics score than Australia for students at the 95th percentile and only five countries had a higher score at the 90th percentile. Sixteen per cent of Australian students were at the top mathematics levels and 15 countries had a larger proportion of students at these levels than Australia.

The average science score for Australian students at the 95th percentile was statistically similar to the highest score of all countries while only Shanghai and Singapore had a statistically significant higher score at the 90th percentile. Fifteen per cent of Australian students were at the top science levels and only six out of 64 countries had a greater proportion of students at these levels than Australia.

There is a similar picture for students at the 75th percentile. Only three countries had a statistically significant higher test score for reading than Australia, eight countries had a higher mathematics score and only four had a higher science score.

It is true, as Griffin says, that average test scores for Australia’s top achieving students have fallen over the past decade. However, this is not due to any particular neglect of these students because there has been a decline across all levels of achievement and it indicates a broader challenge that is not restricted to the top students. Scores for students at the top levels have actually shown some recovery since 2006 that was not seen at lower levels of achievement.

The average reading score for students at the 90th percentile fell by 18 points on the PISA scale between 2000 and 2009 (a fall of only three per cent). However, there was a similar fall for students at the 75th percentile and smaller falls at the 25th and 10th percentiles although these latter declines were not statistically significant. Scores at the 75th and 90th percentiles (and at the 95th percentile) increased between 2006 and 2009 while those at the 25th and 10th percentiles continued to decline.

The average mathematics score for students at the 90th percentile fell by 11 points (less than two per cent) between 2003 and 2009, but similar declines also occurred at the 75th, 25th and 10th percentiles. However, scores at the 75th and 90th percentiles stopped falling between 2006 and 2009 while the scores at the other lower levels continued to decline.

All this suggests that something else is going on rather than national neglect of our top achieving students. Overall, Professor Griffin’s claims are without foundation.

What is not in question is the lack of progress in reducing the huge gap in achievement between the top and bottom students, which is strongly associated with student background. There is a major problem in Australian education, but it does not relate to top students – it is the massive inequity in education outcomes that has been highlighted by the Gonski report and other studies.

The PISA 2009 study shows the extent of the gaps between the top and bottom achieving students. For example, in reading there was a gap of 254 points between students at the 10th and 90th percentile levels, which is equivalent to over seven years of learning. The gap is even larger between the 5th and 95th percentiles while the gap between the 25th and 90th percentiles was 188 points, which amounts to over five years of learning.

The findings of Professor Griffin’s study relating to the improvement in test scores for low achieving students are also not reflected in national test data over time. The PISA results show that test scores for the bottom students have not improved over the last decade and there has been no significant change in the achievement gaps between the top and bottom students. Certainly, the slight recovery that occurred for the top students between 2006 and 2009 was not replicated for the bottom students.

The NAPLAN results also contradict Professor Griffin’s claim. Between 2008 and 2012 the average results of students whose parents did not complete Year 12 fell in Year 3 numeracy, Year 7 reading and numeracy and in Year 9 reading and numeracy. The only increases were in Year 3 reading and Year 5 reading and numeracy.

In the light of this data, it can only be concluded that the growth in achievement for lower performing students recorded in the Griffin study simply reflects normal growth during a school year and this does not impact on the achievement gap measured from year to year.

The false charge that Australia’s top achieving students are being neglected only serves to deflect attention from the main challenge facing Australian education of reducing the learning gap between rich and poor. Numerous research studies show that low achievement is strongly associated with disadvantaged family backgrounds. This was conclusively demonstrated in research studies commissioned for the Gonski inquiry into school funding and in the final report of the inquiry.

Given Griffin’s expectations that higher achieving students should progress more rapidly than lower achieving students, there is some irony in the fact that the NAPLAN results do show that high SES students improve by much more throughout their school years than low SES students. For example, the gaps between high and low SES students in reading and numeracy at each Year level tested increased between 2008 and 2012. Rather than supporting Griffin’s claims of neglect of higher achieving students this strengthens the case for allocating more resources to improve school outcomes for low SES students.

Gonski panel member, Ken Boston, says that in Australia “socioeconomic disadvantage has a greater adverse effect on educational achievement than in any other comparable OECD country.” Moreover, this “steep social gradient and the continuing decline in our national educational performance are related, and both are the product of our flawed funding model.”

This is the nub of the issue. The Gonski funding model rejects utterly the sector-based approach of the past 40 years. It focuses on the evidence-based needs of disadvantaged students and schools regardless of the sector to which they belong. It responds to the needs of schools that must do the heavy lifting and not to the demands and historic expectations of private school associations.

This threatens the education privileges of the wealthy. While they will retain their present funding, future funding increases will be prioritised to the less well-off. Already, high SES government schools achieve similar results to high SES private schools, but with half the funding of elite schools. With more funding being funnelled to disadvantaged students, the privileged position of private schools will be challenged even more.

The defence of education privilege led by the Murdoch press has failed on both counts. There is no substantial evidence to support the case that high achieving students are being ignored and that SES background has little to no impact on student achievement.

On the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence to support the new approach to school funding to improve the results of various groups of disadvantaged students. The gap between rich and poor is large and is not declining. It constitutes a major social injustice that is cruelling the life chances of many students. It also an economic issue because low school outcomes for large numbers of students reduces potential economic prosperity and living standards.

Governments should not be diverted by the false and self-serving claims of the Murdoch press and the privileged class whose interests it represents. The Gonski funding model must be implemented nationally. It will provide continuing support for high achieving students but it also provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to reduce disadvantage in education and reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was first published in the Spring issue of Dissent.

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