There are things I like about the Gonski 2.0 report. I have written, for instance, about the promotion in the report of professional collaboration and learning for teachers and school leaders, and the suggestion that teachers need time to focus on teaching, and school leaders need time to focus on instructional leadership over administration. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has previously said that he hoped Gonski 2.0 would be a unifying basis for a focus on evidence-based classroom practice. There is little detail in the report around evidence-based classroom practice, although there is the recommendation for a “national evidence institute to share best-practice and evidence-based innovations faster and more widely.” I would suggest that the report is not a unifying one around which educators can rally.
What has made me uncomfortable is the deficit perspective it provides on Australian schools, teachers and leaders. For example, the statement that Australia has “an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children” seems a stretch. I know ‘industrial model’ is a favourite term from those wanting to push innovation agendas, but anyone in today’s Australian classrooms, from early learning to late high school, knows that they are hardly factories for unthinking worker bees. In fact, the criticism of Australian education as industrial 20th century factories of mass production sits in opposition to the basis of much of the report on economic imperatives and the need to prepare students for the future of work (or perhaps this is what it means to have a 21st century industrial model of education). The focus on data generation, data tracking and accountabilities, if anything, seems to promote education as more machine than human endeavour.
The report’s deficit narrative about education is based on the problem it poses: that Australian education has widespread “declining performance” and “performance slippage” as measured by PISA testing. This is the basis on which the report argues that “Australian education has failed a generation of Australian school children by not enabling them to reach their full learning potential.” Wow. As a number of scholars have argued—such as Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski in their excellent book The Global Education Race—while there are things we can learn from PISA, there is much that we cannot, and using PISA to compare education across different countries is often unhelpful and misleading. Singapore is singled out as an exemplar of PISA achievement, despite the fact that its school cultures, curriculum and education practices are at odds with the Gonski 2 report’s suggestions of learning progressions and individualisation of learning.
The report calls many schools “cruising schools” and explains that these are schools that are maintaining average achievement from year to year, but not improving. The rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ and ‘one year’s growth per year of schooling’ (also prominent in the report) has been used by Professor John Hattie for some time. Yet it constructs schools whose academic achievement remains steady but not improving as somehow coasting along (lazily or incompetently seems to be the implication) without progress, according to NAPLAN data. Apart from the fact that NAPLAN itself has been often called into question as a measure of student learning, the report surmises that “the explanation might be that Australian teachers, schools systems and schools are not equipped to identify and effectively support cruising students and schools to improve.” Here the teachers, schools and entire education system are posited as the reason for schools whose achievement appears steady but not improving, when NAPLAN data is used as the measure of achievement.
The report proposes that Australian education needs to do a number of things that I would argue most Australian educators are already doing: continuously improve our practice and service to our students; set high expectations for students, educators and schools; adjust our teaching for the needs of our students; and—my favourite—“maximise each student’s learning growth each year, rather than simply supporting each student to attain the minimum proficiency for the year level.” That last one is one I am sure many teachers read with a double-take, because I don’t know a teacher or a school who sees their job as to ‘simply support each student to attain the minimum proficiency for the year level.’
Teachers around the country already focus on student data, formative assessment and responding to student needs, something the report promotes as ways forward. Tailored teaching is given a fairly broad definition in the report. It “involves adapting the way the curriculum and learning activities are presented and adjusting pedagogy to the different needs of students based on evidence about the most effective interventions, gained from an understanding of individual students’ starting points and their growth in learning.” The report is hazy on the details of what ‘individualised learning’ and ‘personalised learning’ look like, how personalised it is expecting teaching and learning to be, and how this dovetails with preparing students with the knowledge, skills and understandings they need to be ethical, empowered and contributing citizens.
There are places where the report acknowledges work that has been and is being done in Australian education. It additionally provides Australian case studies of what it considers to be good practice, and direct quotes from submissions it received from various stakeholders, showing that it has listened to Australian educators. It has a whole chapter entitled ‘Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators’, but seems to base this on the premise that teachers aren’t currently good enough and need to be improved. It is hard to wade through the Gonski 2 recommendations without feeling like ‘supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators’ isn’t really something in which the review panel believes. On reading the Gonski 2 report, it is hard to move past the distrust of the teaching profession underlying its content and the deficit narrative to which it seems to be contributing. Australia is not Singapore, Shanghai or Canada, all education systems held up as exemplars in the report. Of course we can and should improve Australian education. Of course we should have high expectations of students and educators. Of course we should develop our knowledge of effective teaching, learning and leading. Of course we should continue to develop our engagement with research and evidence. But Australian education is not a factory model of mass education production. It is not a calamitous problem to be solved, a bunch of broken individuals to be fixed, or a commercial opportunity ready to be flooded by corporate solutions. Australian teachers, school leaders and schools deserve trust, respect, support and involvement in policymaking.