Improving Education: The failure of the Education debate.

I want to begin this discussion with a somewhat gruesome analogy. Imagine that a patient is brought into a hospital following a nasty car accident. They have a broken leg, with suspected damage o the femoral artery which could cause life-threatening internal bleeding, and a broken arm. In this scenario, imagine if the head of the surgical team walked into the room and demanded that all efforts were focussed on fixing the broken arm. When the patient’s condition worsens due to the lack of treatment for the torn artery, the lead surgeon blames the other doctors for not doing a good enough job on the arm, and later insists that the hospital put all of its time and resources into improving the treatment of broken arms.

Does this sound absurd? I hope so. Yet it is this absurdity which we see played out in public discourse about education on an almost daily basis in Australia, and in other industrialised nations, primarily the U.K. and U.S.A. Here’s how:

The recent PISA results showing that Australian children have declined in their levels of academic achievement have fanned the flames of the public debate about education that has been going on since the recent federal election. If you pay attention to the debate, you will have heard the following arguments made in varying places and forms:

“Class sizes are less important than good teaching”

“The teacher is the most important in-school factor that affects a child’s education”

“We need to improve teacher quality to improve learning outcomes”

Let’s assume, for the moment, that all of those statements are absolutely true.

A common piece of research used to support such claims is the work of John Hattie which suggests that of all factors contributing toward student achievement, the combination of the students’ own behaviours and values account for 50%, while home environment contributes about 10%, then of the remaining 40%, the classroom teacher makes up three-quarters of the variable effect.

Again, while Hattie’s work is often contested, let’s assume for the moment that it is reasonable accurate and that such a distribution of effect sizes is correct and thus justifies the statements above.

It is important to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms and teachers have a significant role to play in that process, so if I agree with these premises put forward in the debate, where does the perceived failure lie?

The failure lies in what is excluded from the debate. If Hattie’s research holds true, then for every improvement or decline in student achievement, teachers only own 30% of the variation, yet the overwhelming majority of public debate focuses classroom teaching practices and industrial ways to deal with teacher performance!

The decline in results may be attributed by a factor of less than one third to the efforts of teachers in the classroom, yet the primary focus for the discussion about addressing improvement is about ‘teacher quality’ (an Orwellian term that needs to be addressed all on its own) without any serious discussion about the majority 60% influence that is a student’s personal values toward education and their home life.

Personally, I think John Hattie’s distinction of a student’s own qualities and their home life is problematic. The research of Hart and Risley (1995) showed the significant impact that the language skills of parents, and the amount of interaction between parent and child at a young age, can have on the cognitive development of a child before the age of three. They found that not only is the child’s language learning affected, but also their IQ, and that one of the key indicators for academic success in a child aged 9 & 10 was the amount of talk they hear from their parents between birth and age 3.

Colunga and Smith (2003) – Linda Smith being one of the pioneers of contemporary theories of human development – identified the relationship between early language learning and the capacity for higher forms of abstract thinking. According to their research, children begin by painstakingly learning individual words and their relationships to objects, before gradually developing the ability to identify generalised traits among objects and develop abstract understandings of the world around them. This initial painstaking single-word-learning process, however, requires regular interaction with an adult caregiver and exposure to a sufficiently broad range of experiences and examples to encourage such abstractions.

Furthermore, Fox, Levitt & Nelson (2010) found correlations between early experience and the development of brain architecture and subsequent cognitive functioning, stating:

The nature of our experiences, particularly during a time-limited period in early development, can profoundly affect the mental framework we use to understand the world around us…. The quality of experiences during such episodes – be they adverse or enhancing – is also of importance in understanding why it may be difficult to restore normal function once development has been interrupted. (Fox, Levitt, & Nelson, 2010, p. 34)

The implications of their research being that the experiences in the first four years have a significant influence on the initial brain architecture which informs, among others things, a child’s capacity for further learning, such as they will encounter upon entering kindergarten and preschool. While current knowledge of human brain plasticity indicates that our brains are capable of change and growth throughout our lives, for children of a young age (3-6) such improvements require deliberate personalised intervention in order to overcome any deficiencies in their early experiences.

These three references do no represent the whole picture of early childhood development and learning, but my point is that in the public debate in education, they are nowhere to be found!

If we accept Hattie’s research as justifying the claim that teaching practice trumps class sizes as a factor in educational achievement, then we also have to take a long had look at the factors that actually hold the majority of the responsibility for determining the academic success of failure of each individual student. Especially in a debate about why our standards of academic achievement are slipping.

So to return to the analogy of our poor patient, in the debate on Education, public and government focus seems entirely focused on the ‘broken arm’ and are ignoring the potentially life threatening torn artery. And while some may balk at the idea of comparing teaching practices to a broken arm because of the negative associations, I feel comfortable with the analogy, because in a discussion about why achievement is slipping, you’re not going to fix anything by refusing to acknowledge potential problems in all parts of the system. But again, the failure of the debate in Australia is that no one is talking about the big picture, only on a fraction of the picture, but are making that part responsible for the success or failure of the whole.

This failure of debate is significant, especially as in the past few years Australian state governments have made large scale industrial changes to their education systems based on the idea of improving educational standards. I personally support the recent agreement between the NSW Govt. and the NSW Teachers’ Federation to move to a system of salary progression based on standards of professional practice. I believe that teachers should be held accountable for their practice, and I especially support this model because student results, of which teachers arguably own only 30%, do not appear as a deciding factor. However in states like Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, their governments are making rapid changes towards more student-results based methods of teacher evaluation, without any single indication of the need to investigate and improve the conditions around early childhood learning and, at the risk of being controversial, parenting, that lay the foundation for a child’s capacity to learn once they enter the school system.

If we accept Hart and Risley’s findings indicating that academic success of a ten year old is shaped by language development between from birth to 3, then consider the absurdity of the Victorian government’s suggestion of using the NAPLAN literacy results as a factor for determining the salary of year 5 teachers.

We need to, as a society, take a big picture look at all of the factors at play in education, and not exclude any sector of society for the sake of focusing solely on what teachers are doing in their classroom, and perhaps most importantly, we need to demand greater government involvement in expanding the scope of the public debate. A hard task, given how many state governments in Australia, and now the federal government, seem to be actively working to narrow the field of debate even further.

The common response to this line of reasoning is often something like “it’s not the government’s job to tell me how to raise my child” or “changing public opinion isn’t the role of the government”, to which I say bullshit.

Engineering of public opinion and influencing childrearing practices is something that the government does every single day. When it comes to government intervention in adult-infant interaction, we are all accepting of laws preventing people from smoking in cars with babies, because we collectively acknowledge the health risks of second-hand smoke. While there is debate, we generally accept laws preventing parents from smacking children, because we acknowledge the ease with which ‘smacking’ can quickly turn into ‘violent abuse’, and we acknowledge the long term damaging effects of such behaviour. We accept laws on standardised baby seats in cars for the protection of children, and while there is debate we also accept laws such as mandatory helmets when riding a bike, or knee-pads when skateboarding.

The difference between all of these examples and the concept of adult-infant interaction is that in the examples above we collectively acknowledge the dangers posed by the prohibited behaviours. What we need to introduce into the public debate about education is a recognition that education is a collective responsibility, not an us/them between parents and teachers, but acknowledge that adults involved in child rearing play arguably the most crucial role in ensuring a child’s academic success later in life.

But how to do it? Many people might argue that its too big, or not something a government can achieve. Well, In the spirit of advice offered in the early career teacher episode of the TER Podcast, I come not just with a problem, but a solution.

We need to start with a positive public awareness campaign. In the style of “Click Clack, Front and Back” and “Slip, Slop, Slap and Wrap”, an advertising campaign that encourages positive behaviours in adult-infant interaction is a good place to start. Roadside billboards that ask “Have you read to your child today?” or “What did you teach to your child today?” might be a good way to start the conversation. Such ads would be supported by a centralised source of information like a website on the importance of early language interactions, not to lecture or condescend, but to assist parents and caregivers who may not be confident in their involvement in rearing children. This won’t solve the problem, but it would be a good start, and it would begin to address the failure that is the dangerously narrow focus on teaching in the public debate on education.

I wish to make it absolutely clear that I am in no way attempting to disavow the teaching profession of its responsibilities to students or the community, but it’s time to expand the public debate. We, as a society, need to shift away from the narrow focus on teaching practice as being solely responsible for educational growth or decline. We need to take a look at the bigger picture and act appropriately to make the education of our collective children a higher priority than political and economic agendas. If we don’t then it’s possible that we might end up with the most skilled and capable teachers in the world, but the patients that are our students may well still bleed to death on the table.


Colunga, E., & Smith, L. (2003). The emergence of abstract ideas; evidence from networks and babies. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 358., 1205-1214.

Fox, S. E., Levitt, P., & Nelson, C. A. (2010). How the Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Influence the Dveelopment of Brain Architecture. Child Development, Jan/Feb 2010, Vol 81, No. 1, 28-40.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American CHildren. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.



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7 responses to “Improving Education: The failure of the Education debate.

  1. greg maybury

    Hello Cameron,

    I looked very hard to find some holes in your argument about the ‘other factors’ that are all too often neglected in the education reform debate, but alas, could not find any. Whilst I agree that teachers and principals need to be accountable for the outcomes their schools achieve, one of the variable factors that rarely gets mentioned is parenting. Exhibit A in this respect of course is student behaviour, and the same goes for student disengagement, which we will label Exhibit B. Both of course come under the rubric of the “values” that kids bring to the classroom that you highlighted in your post.

    As one on-line commentator said this week in the wake of the release of the latest OECD report card: “the disclosure [from OECD] on Australian educational standards underlines the obvious: student behaviour. Until we attack the issue of who runs the classroom, standards will continue to fall…..Teachers are silent on this because they fear that speaking out could mark them as failures. To accept failure as common in the classroom with principals throwing their arms in the air as if to say they are powerless is an abrogation of their job. Teachers need leadership from principals and backup from departments of education.” *

    I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. The effective management of student behaviour accounts for up to 50-60% of teachers’ time, and this can even be with genuine parental and school support. I defy anyone to argue coherently that student behaviour (and to a lesser degree, student disengagement) have not been the biggest single factors that have contributed to the failure of educational service delivery and of course the inevitable decline in educational outcomes over the past 20+ years.

    I will go even one step further. Until and unless schools and principals stand up to be counted on holding their parents to account for the behaviour their kids, they are putting at serious risk all those kids who do want to learn and who are prepped to behave in a manageable fashion. And of course the educational jurisdictions themselves have to back up the schools, with the Unions also taking a more proactive, productive role. But they won’t of course. They all seem to have bigger fish to fry. Unless they are dragged kicking and screaming to the point, they will continue to find other reasons to explain the failings and shortcomings of the system, and other people to blame, and the debate will keep going around in circles.

    An interesting anecdote to underscore the above is apposite here. Earlier this year, after being asked to publicly comment on the increasingly unruly, violent behaviour of pre-schoolers (no less), the Director-General of the WA Department of Education Ms Sharyn O’Neill lamely suggested that “parents need to take more responsibility” for their kids’ behaviour at schools.

    Now this earth shattering insight upon the part of the WA DG might have had some import had she backed up her assertions with some conviction. The reality is that the WA DoE sees the problem – if it sees it at all as being a systemic problem – as not being significant enough to warrant a whole-of-system approach to dealing with it.

    Until this changes, nothing else will!

    Greg Maybury

    * Kevin Arthurson, Drysdale, Vic

  2. A problematic aspect of all of this is obviously in relation to who are debating and why are they doing so. While the business of government should be good government, it is undoubtedly the case that too much focus of a democratic government is either on ‘staying in’ or ‘gaining’ government.

    It is difficult for a governing body to appear to criticise their shareholders.

    While I agree, and everything you write is important, valid and significant, I am (perhaps cynically) concerned with the fact that too much of the discussion on education has been about politics, rather than education itself.

    • But if the success of education depends on all stakeholders taking a collective and collaborative responsibility for educational outcomes, and the politics of the day are politics of division between two of the major stakeholders, namely families and schools, then how do you address educational issues WITHOUT first focusing on the broken politics that make the best standard of education possible?

  3. Pingback: Blackboard Jungle or Blackboard Bungle? You Decide – Part Three |

  4. Pingback: Blackboard Jungle or Blackboard Bungle? You Decide – Part Three |

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