NSW Productivity Commission

The White Paper: old, tired and lacking evidence

In the months before the pandemic gripped the world, the NSW Productivity Commission released a presciently titled discussion paper, Kickstarting the Productivity Conversation. Its recently released followup White Paper sets out its plan for rebooting the economy

Lifting school results is part of the plan. The Commission acknowledges  the ‘pandemic has shown how quickly schools, teachers and students can innovate and adapt to new ways of teaching and learning’. These responses were rapid, mostly impressive and sustained. The impact of inequality on learning was also laid bare. 

However, beyond this brief quote, these and other insights generated during these epoch-making times hardly rate a mention in the White Paper. The flickers of optimism in the earlier discussion paper due to improved performance on some measures have been replaced by a very gloomy picture of decline and stagnation. 

To be fair, the task of assessing whether education has become better or worse is extremely difficult at the best of times because education systems are complex, with multiple attributes, institutions and actors. They can be better in some respects and worse in others. For example, they can be better resourced but less efficient and better in terms of overall outcomes but worse in terms of inequalities between students. It also depends on your view of what education should be for and about.

The Productivity Commission’s view is squarely aligned to the economic purposes of education but even within this economic framing, tensions can exist between those who argue for systems that, variously: promote basic skills in English and mathematics and those who promote skills and attributes for networked, flexible and changing labour markets and ‘portfolio’ careers, and so on.

These disputes are not the only reason it is difficult to work out what is going on.

The volume of research in education has expanded rapidly and policy makers are faced with a cacophony of policy-relevant information. While there is widespread agreement about the importance of research and evidence in education, battles have been fought about what kind of evidence matters, and who is considered an expert. It’s sometimes difficult to get past the problem of ‘not being able to see the wood for the trees’ but I believe that it is possible to present a clear and concise view of what’s gone wrong in the past, and what needs to change.

Educational research is incredibly diverse. What’s needed is the assembly of a wide range of research evidence, qualitative and quantitative, and a balanced review and synopsis. What does not help is the misuse and over-claiming that often follows the phrase, ‘research has shown’. Although there are still many unknowns, there are issues where the evidence is clear and which can be agreed upon.

So, what research evidence does the Productivity Commission draw upon? How does it respond to its own claim: ‘if we want to turn things around, we need to keep following the best available evidence? On what basis does it assert: ‘the evidence is that school results will be most affected by teaching quality’?

The chapter in the White Paper dedicated to schooling, Best practice teaching to lift school results, contains close to 80 references including reports by policy and research institutes (about 24); government reports (about 15); commissioned research (about 9), and; reports by organisations such as the OECD (about 6). While some of these references might be considered scholarly, the most trustworthy source of research evidence is derived from peer reviewed journals and some academic books. 

Less than 27% of all references in the White Paper’s chapter on best practice teaching are peer reviewed, and about 38% of these are more than 10 years old. In addition, 19% of the total number of peer reviewed papers draw upon Australian data. To be clear, the Productivity Commission’s chapter on lifting school results in NSW includes a total of four peer reviewed papers that contain data specifically related to the Australian context. 

This collection of references sets a very low benchmark for evidence-based policy advice, and falls well short of the Productivity Commission’s stated aspiration of ‘following the best available evidence’.

Educational researchers are keen to work with policy makers who, like us, want to improve the educational outcomes of young people, respect the commitment and professionalism of teachers, and ensure that public money is well spent. We also share a commitment to evidence-based practice because the quality of decision making is most likely to improve when we make use of trustworthy evidence. 

There are some clear and practical things we could do now to support these shared aspirations.

  • Establish mechanisms for policy makers to draw on a wider range of educational expertise and knowledge. Rather than relying on ‘what works’ research and poorly curated reviews of the academic literature, governments could co-fund broad-based education research institutes, with a mandate and resources to conduct, synthesise and disseminate education research. The national evidence institute is a step in the right direction.
  • Promote teacher and expert research further up the evidence hierarchy. Initial teacher education and professional development could be recast as research-informed processes aimed at developing teachers who have the capacity to conduct research into their own practice, and to utilise educational research to inform their practice. Teachers are not just end-users of research. Research production and consumption should be part of the professional work of teachers, with sufficient time allocated to such tasks.

As we edge towards the post-pandemic epoch, we must leverage this period of rapid and unprecedented change and disruption. Let’s not waste the opportunity to build a new consensus for change and improvement in education that recognises the capacity of teachers and students to innovate, adapt and learn. We are obligated to draw upon the best available evidence to support and resource them. The NSW Government would be well advised to set aside the Productivity Commission’s White Paper, at least as it relates to schools, and start afresh to build a new, broad, and evidence-based consensus for change in education that draws upon the best available evidence.

Debra Hayes is professor of education and equity, and head of the Sydney School of Education and Social Work.  Formerly a secondary science teacher, she researches, writes and teaches about inequality in education. Material in this blog is drawn from her new book with Ruth Lupton titled Great Mistakes in Education Policy: How to avoid them in the Future (Policy Press, 2021)