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Monday 10 August 2015

Education spending scores "F"

The recent Naplan review results has highlighted the disconnect between education expenditure and educational outcomes. Too often poor outcomes generate simplistic impulses to 'throw money at the problem'. Indeed the reaction to the recent poor results, by many politicians and commentators was to criticise governments for not spending enough.

But after increasing educational spending by some 40% over the last decade with no improvement in outcomes, one is forgiven for refusing such demands and taking a more considered approach.

Indeed this is not a new revelation.  Simply looking at world rankings shows little correlation between spending and outcomes. The table below shows the top 20 countries plus the US ranked by Educational Outcome together with the ranking of their relative expenditure.

Educational Outcomes vs Spending

Country Outcome Rank(1) Expenditure Rank(2)
1. Singapore 1 21
2. Hong Kong 2 18
3. South Korea 3 11
4. Japan (joint) 4 19
4. Taiwan (joint) 5 n/a
6. Finland 6 3
7. Estonia 7 15
8. Switzerland 8 10
9. Netherlands 9 8
10. Canada 10 12
11. Poland 11 14
12. Vietnam 12 9
13. Germany 13 17
14. Australia 14 16
15. Ireland 15 13
16. Belgium 16 2
17. New Zealand 17 1
18. Slovenia 18 4
19. Austria 19 7
20. United Kingdom 20 5
28. United States  28 6

1. Outcome rank from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32608772 and is for Science and Maths skills at age 15
2. Expenditure rank is the relative ranking of the top 20 outcome countries plus US and is based on % GDP spend on education taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_spending_on_education_(%25_of_GDP)

The table shows no apparent correlation between educational expenditure and educational outcome. Indeed the top relative Expenditure country, New Zealand, only achieved a 17th ranking on Outcome. At the same time the lowest country with the lowest relative expenditure, Singapore, achieved the top ranking on Outcome. Yes, this is a relatively simplistic set of figures with many limitations, and I am not concluding that Expenditure has no influence on Outcome.

However it is clear that expenditure is not the single key factor in achieving good educational outcomes. Moreover knee-jerk calls for increased investment are naive. They only serve to deflect focus from doing what is really required, to identify the many factors that can lead to better outcomes and to take progressive actions to achieve this objective.

If expenditure is not the key factor what is?

Educational outcomes are the result of the complex interaction of a wide range of factors. These include, in order of priority, the skills of the student, the support of the parents, the skills of the teachers and the resources available to 'oil' the education process. Greater educational expenditure may attract better teachers or indeed better training for teachers, and can provide more resources but they come to naught with poorly motivated students due to negative parental support or for students with poor underlying skills.

I would suggest there is an even more important factor which has contributed to the clear dominance of Asian nations in the Outcome rankings. It is the value given to education by the society. Societies that respect, encourage and value education generate better educational outcomes for lower investment.

"Aye, there is the rub". We all determine the value and respect we give to education. A society which values film-stars and sportsmen more than engineers or educators, will continue to generate more great sportsmen and popular film-stars and mediocrity elsewhere.

What can we do?
There are many micro actions we can take to improve outcomes especially in regions and sub-groups which are performing particularly poorly. Many of these will require additional resources and increased expenditure, perhaps re-directed from sub-groups where performance is above average.  These are likely over time to raise the poorest performers.

But for all groups, be they above, at or below average, the lowest cost improvement will come from changing our attitudes. While social change is no doubt difficult and takes time, we could re-direct some money to raising the standing of education in our society.

There are many ways that the values of a society can be slowly moulded. The key ingredient is positive feedback. Quite simply provide recognition to those who have contributed to high educational outcomes; - teachers, students and parents.

For example; -
  • Provide better recognition to successful teachers by publicly awarding a medal or certificate and /or paying a bonus to those who generate better outcomes. Could start at the best performing and most improved schools under Naplan.
  • Provide better recognition to best performing students, not just at the HSC level but even earlier. The recent Spelling Bee reality show is an example. I prefer the team approach with schools competing against each other as was the "Its academic" TV show of the 1970s(?). With the current spate of reality shows it could be very successful and run in prime time. 
  • Provide recognition to the parents of high performance students. Recognition could be a certificate or even a driver's licence with a gold star. Their child's results are to some extent the results of their support and encouragement. So make this public. This would no doubt have an influence on all parents! 
  • With all the recognition to our sports stars and movie stars why not recognise those who have used their education to improve our society; our Doctors, Engineers and educators with annual awards.
Most importantly for maximum impact this recognition should be broadcast as widely as possible. Ideally award ceremonies should be televised on free-to-air television at prime time. If the commercial stations don't want it, what is more appropriate than our public broadcaster, our ABC.

These are just a few ideas that came to mind, and I am sure there are many more out there. 

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