This week’s New South Wales budget delivered some good news for education. The government promised 4,600 extra public school teachers, more than 600,000 free TAFE and VET courses, additional funds for building and refurbishing schools, and an allowance for an extra 100 school counsellors or psychologists.
But the government’s commitment came with a caveat. Schools will need to justify these, and future budgetary allocations and spending, through explanations for their need and by delivering quantifiable outcomes.
At first glance, this may appear fair. After all, as NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet pointed out:
… parents want to know that every dollar we spend will improve their kids’ education.
However, experience (and research) tell us this simple method of aligning funding with targeted outcomes – essentially providing funding not based on need but on results – can have some unintended consequences. These can be detrimental to the quality of education and particularly affect the most marginalised students.
Funding for outcomes
In plain terms, it seeks to integrate what it considers previously “unconnected” planning, budgeting and reporting into a coherent framework of performance management – a situation in which government spending can be justified via measurable outcomes.
According to the NSW government’s budget website, in outcome budgeting:
… it is not just the finances that matter, but how success will be tracked and how citizens will be kept informed throughout delivery. It ensures ongoing focus on value for money, not just during planning but through implementation.
The government has indicated a broad commitment to outcome budgeting across all areas of concern. But the treasurer said education was the first department of concern and will set the stage for the others. As the budget statement notes:
Every cluster in the NSW Government will be following the Department of Education with outcome-focused plans that provide a clear roadmap to delivering results.
Applying outcome budgeting to an area as complex as education is fraught with danger. Arguably, what the NSW government is proposing is a further intensification of the audit culture (think NAPLAN, My School) that has plagued Australian schools for much of the last decade.
Rather than improved academic outcomes, this period in Australian education has been characterised by stagnant and/or declining educational results, both domestically and in international comparisons.
International literature has previously shown an association between an audit culture (a focus on standardised testing) and a decline in educational outcomes. And while specific details of how concrete outcomes will be measured remains scant, the government’s strategic plan suggests it is committed to standardised testing as a basis for measurement.
Focusing on outcomes can hamper teaching
Unsurprisingly, the announced linking of funding to outcomes has generated some criticism in academic and media circles. This is because much research in Australia and overseas has pointed to the profound impact that focusing on accountability and targeted results can have on pedagogy, teachers and students.
Standardised tests such as NAPLAN, when used as a basis for managing performance through the data they provide, can change the role and conduct of teachers. Research shows this can result in:
- a narrowed curriculum focus, with teaching time disproportionately devoted to tested subjects, marginalising other areas
- a shift from student-centred to teacher-centred learning
- aligning teaching with text-based standards and teaching to the test
- teachers’ professional competence unjustly being open to public scrutiny and blame
- privileging quantitative data over teachers’ professionalism and knowledge.
Teachers engulfed by an audit culture, where results of standardised tests are viewed as the sole indicator of the effectiveness of their teaching, can deem such practices as necessary.
Focusing on standardised testing outcomes has also affected students. This has been evidenced through:
- a hyper-competitive culture between not only students but also caregivers
- academic pressure and stress
- developmentally inappropriate expectations, where worthwhile teaching plans are put on hold to accommodate a fast-tracked curriculum for standardised testing preparation
- a decrease in student engagement, motivation and achievement.
Audit culture can affect vulnerable students the most. Research on NAPLAN, for instance, suggests focusing on standardised test results serves only to lock in outcome inequality for low socio-economic and linguistically diverse students. This is due to teachers having reduced opportunities to enact the pedagogy crucial to such students’ success.
These findings echo similar research in the US and UK demonstrating the disproportionate negative consequences for low socio-economic students and ethnic minorities subject to standardised testing.
There is no question improved educational outcomes are important. As is a plan for how we get there. But how we set about achieving this requires careful consideration and reflection rather than a one-size-fits-all approach across disparate areas of government.
Success in education should not be simplified to concrete outcomes, specifically results in standardised tests, alone.