Can Victoria truly become the 'education state'?

Professor John Hattie

Tuesday 15 September 2015

There is much to worry about when politicians declare that Victoria is to become the "Education State." Will this declaration lead to more political distractions, trendy slogans and appeasements to parents instead of making a difference in classrooms?  We have already seen investment in many such distractors in this state, such as school uniforms, camps and breakfasts.

While I recently wrote a paper about the Politics of Distraction that identified these factors that are highly promoted by politicians but lead to little or no impact, I wrote another which paved the way forward. The Politics of Collaborative Expertise identified how we must work together towards commonly agreed criteria of success and respect the expertise of the teachers and school leaders that then leads to success. But how does this latest political announcement stack-up?

The big ticks

This week's Education State policy announcement by the Victorian Deputy Premier and Education Minister James Merlino got a big tick for its "working together" opening and outline of how networks of schools will develop plans and monitor the effective implementation of school improvement initiatives. The Education State: Schools policy vision document goes on to set ambitious targets to take account of the "whole child" (tick), which are conditional on principals sharing their data and talking openly about their successes and challenges in an atmosphere of trust and support (tick).

Furthermore the government plans to expand the current process of identifying schools with low achievement and low progress so that they need to work with improvement leaders. Lastly nine good targets for the state to attain were outlined, although three targets would have been more focused and exciting.

While there are some good ticks here, I would have added:

  1. Increased parental confidence in the government school system
  2. That all children must read and write by age 8 (as most who cannot hardly ever catch up);
  3. An increase in the number of students who complete high school. The best predictor of health, wealth, and happiness in adult life is not achievement at school, but rather the number of years of schooling. As such making schools inviting places for all students to attend is pivotal to Victoria's success.

Most exciting is the announcement of an online assessment portal "that will help teachers efficiently track students' progress against the new curriculum". This is most exciting as NAPLAN and most current assessment methods focus on the current state of achievement and not what really matters – whether every Victorian student gains at least a year's growth for a year's input.

I have long argued that our current success is overly reliant on measures of achievement, which have led Australia's very high numbers of cruising schools where students have high achievement on entry but low value add over time. We need to move the debate to the magnitude of the yearly' growth in achievement.

I look forward to seeing this new assessment portal, which must avoid being another NAPLAN online or data management system, to become a real tool that helps schools to know their impact.

How to avoid failure

My excitement is tempered by worry that just one failure among many improvements could unbalance the whole effort to succeed.  So often, unreasonable targets are set that do not take into account past trends.  For example the literacy and numeracy hour policy in the United Kingdom was deemed a failure when it did not reach achieve 80% of students at reading level, but climbed from the low 50% to a remarkable 76%.

The government and school system should be judged on significant progress towards the target. If the targets are wrong, the government may discover a cynical public at the next election who will not be mollified by failure.

Victoria is known to have excellent education policies but poor implementation – is the Andrews Labor Government's Education State policy going to be different?  Well, there is good focus on a few major targets which surely should limit the distractions. There are also mentions of evidence-based practice, and a high priority on esteeming expertise.

I do hope this means that Victoria will finally join most of Australia and adopt the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) highly accomplished and lead teacher model.  Ultimately the Education State policy's success will depend on a few transparent targets that are grounded in the reality of changes over the past five to 10 years and also esteem for those in the system who truly make the difference to student learning and leave no student behind.

While money does necessarily roll for those in need, I hope this does not lead to more labelling of students to ensure a piece of this pie. The money also flows for primary math and science specialists (but not reading) and for those who drop out rather than for enhancing ways to engage students till the end of Year 12.

A condition of the resources is a closer attention to collaborating across schools and using evidence-based initiatives.  It is clear to me that this new policy direction by the Andrews Labor Government can leads to the Politics of Collaboration.

We have an opportunity to make the slogan "Victoria: The Education State" a reality, but we must join together as a sector, and a community, to make it happen.  It may well be the best chance we have as a profession to shape the direction, the priorities, and make it happen for the students in our state.

Professor John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

This opinion piece was originally published in Education Review.