Keynote Addresses - Quality in School Education: What's worth fighting for?
Ms Heather Le Roy - General Manager, Victoria, The Smith Family
In my address, I will bring The Smith Family's (TSF) perspective to exploring the concept of ‘quality in education' through the lens of our work in schools with disadvantaged families and students. I ask the question: ‘What makes a good school?' I aim to bring fresh eyes to the topic because of the freedom to observe and to know what families really need in relation to teacher/school effort and resources. I will explore what TSF sees as the best way to improve student outcomes - everything is ‘not a measure', it is about relationships. I will discuss how TSF views improvements to the schooling system if the Gonski review findings are implemented, as well as what teachers can do to support a new vision for schooling and their role in influencing school and community culture. I will use particular examples of issues and solutions that TSF has dealt with to illustrate my discussion.
Developing quality in school teaching and learning: Valuing teachers' professional knowledge of practice
Quality is a term that has been used in many ways in the educational literature. The notion of quality has been used to support arguments for the implementation of such things as: teacher standards; teaching competencies; and, accreditation and registration requirements. However, when quality is used as a proxy for such things as compliance or accountability, the importance of teachers' professional knowledge of practice can be diminished, or simply overlooked. Thus, the influence of that knowledge and practice on student learning, which is where quality really matters, can become clouded by attempts to measure, rank and standardize.
For the quality debate to make a real difference in education, a focus on teaching and learning must be at the heart of the endeavour. What teachers know and are able to do, the skills, knowledge and abilities that make a difference in supporting student learning, can sometimes appear to be taken-for-granted within the profession, and sadly, not recognized or sufficiently valued outside the profession.
Understanding what quality in teaching and learning looks like, and how it might be captured and portrayed is then important in creating a more informed debate about what matters in education.
Helping teachers create a vision for their own professional learning by seriously focusing attention on their core business (learning), is one way of supporting a meaningful personal and professional teaching agenda. The construct of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) can therefore offer a pathway to, and catalyst for, ongoing development of pedagogical expertise.
PCK includes "the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations - in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that makes it comprehensible for others" (Shulman, 1986, p. 9). Through PCK, Shulman made clear that the relationship between teaching, learning and subject matter knowledge is a key to representing, portraying and highlighting teachers' specialist knowledge of practice.
By purposefully developing PCK, teachers' can begin to see beyond ‘activities that work' (Appleton, 2002) and to tap into their tacit, but very rich, pedagogical reasoning. In so doing, they become more articulate and knowledgeable about what they are doing, how and why, and make clear for themselves and others what it is that makes a real difference for student learning. As a consequence, quality in teaching and learning is not only evident, but also more highly prized and valued.
Maximising opportunities for all students in the context of the new Australian Curriculum
Ongoing improvement in teaching and learning in ways that maximise opportunities for success for all students is dependent on a range of factors: a well structured, relevant and balanced curriculum; sustainable approaches to teaching improvement; access to high quality resources that engage learners; policy frameworks that foster improvement rather than compliance; and commitment from schools to engage with the parents and communities they serve. The particular challenge for Australia is that we have high within school variances in achievement in comparison with similar countries.
This chapter focuses on the contribution of the curriculum, and the connection between the curriculum and teacher education. It argues that the Australian Curriculum offers a context to prioritise opportunity through its explicit commitment to inclusive education, the emphasises on deep learning and critical thinking, the centrality of teacher decision making, and the discipline themes supported by cross curriculum capabilities from which schools can develop inclusive programs.
However, a strong framework is not enough. Carefully planned and systematic dissemination mechanisms are essential to ensure that the potential of this national initiative is realised. Further, to address differences in access, there is a need to explore approaches to teaching that maximise opportunities. In terms of supporting on-going teaching improvement, some government initiatives are piecemeal and unstructured, and more coherent approaches are required. It is also possible that some within school grouping practices exacerbate differences and reduce opportunities for many students.
The chapter reports on the nature of the inequalities within current educational outcomes, and in particular discusses the effects of stratification and grouping practices on educational opportunities. The chapter also details the processes of teaching improvement through supporting school based collaborative teams with a commitment to sharing planning, practice and assessment routines. A particular challenge is the clash between, on the one hand, government policies designed to foster compliance to particular approaches and standards as well as encouraging competition between teachers and, on the other, collaborative approaches that have been shown to be both feasible and sustainable. The distinction is to focus on improving teaching, not teachers. This distinction is important in moving away from deficit language, policies and practices to improvement oriented approaches that can increase educational opportunities for all students.
(e)quality in a virtuous system
We can judge the virtue of a nation by how well it treats its most vulnerable people. Equally, we can judge the virtue and thus the quality of an education system by how well it educates its most vulnerable students. According to such a judgment, Australia's schooling system is of poor quality. There have been many compelling attempts to rectify this but, systemically, these have failed - political values have always triumphed over educational values, educational privilege has always triumphed over educational poverty, and the most needy students have always lost out in the maelstrom. Those who teach the students who survive on Australia's bottom economic rungs have seldom been properly prepared, respected and rewarded in what is ultimately an unkind system which indirectly steers quality teachers and teaching away from the students and schools that need them most. In such circumstances, there is a great deal at stake and worth fighting for. In this address I will propose a set of reforms that are designed to address some of the issues associated with teacher recruitment, preparation, retention, reward and respect.