Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Releases

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of evidence-based quantitative-meta-analysis-driven value-free decision-making.

I am incredulous.

Two releases announced today have confirmed my bifurcated faith and despair in the times in which we live.  One was the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after nearly two decades of house arrest.  The other was the release of Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy, a report on school education from the Grattan Institute.   The report outlined evidence for the proposition that "“improving teacher effectiveness benefits our children. ... [but] ... the drive to reduce class sizes, whilst well intentioned and politically popular, is found to be without impact in producing better education outcomes for students."

These two releases might seem entirely unconnected.  Indeed, that is part of the problem.  What they throw into stark relief is the confusion that reigns in our public discourse about how we measure value.

In any quantitative terms, the impact of Suu Kyi's release is miniscule.  Nothing has changed in the Burmese regime; no material, constitutional or even spiritual benefit will flow to the Burmese people as a direct result of the release of a single individual.  She holds no office, has no authority, and her now being free to go about her work will make no appreciable impact on the Burmese GDP.

But the symbolic power of the event - its capacity to touch hearts and minds, to shape attitudes and behaviours - is immense.  "The symbolic importance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the only prisoner of conscience in Burma who is a truly global figure, is not lost on anyone" wrote the Asian Human Rights Commission on Friday.  "Her captivity symbolizes the captivity of her country: the captivity of over 50 million others to the whims and dictates of army officers who have shown manifestly, time and again, that they hold office to serve only themselves and theirs."

This is a game-changing event.  Though it has no measurable outcomes, its value is literally inestimable.  I do not use this word as a cliched alternative for "very, very big", or as an excuse for poor economics.  I mean precisely that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi has an impact and significance in an area of human behaviour in which quanitative measurements, or estimates, are simply not relevant.  She stands as lightning rod for the energy of freedom, in Burma and in the wider world.  Lightning may strike next week, or next year, or never - it is impossible to predict - but her power as a symbolic catalyst for change is palpable.

Heady stuff.  

By contrast, to open and begin to read Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy is like sliding into a bath of lukewarm jello.  It puts together a case carefully constructed from a number of existing studies and evidence (there is no new or original research).   It finds a correlation between educational outcomes of students, educational performance of teachers, and national economic benefit.  Seemingly there has been negligible benefit from reduction in class sizes. "Teacher effectiveness is the key: not class sizes. This is the best policy lever for improving schooling for students and giving parents what they want. It will provide more bang for our education buck."

And here is where I am tempted to despair.  I have no quibble with the research methodology: the report measures what can be measured, quite well.  But it ignores what cannot be measured, and this is its problem.  There is a myriad of statistics proving that "a 10% increase in teacher effectiveness would improve test scores by 19 PISA points and put Australia amongst the best performing education systems in the world" or that "the impact of a one standard deviation increase in test scores [would be] GDP growth between 0.8%-1.2%".

But amid the statictics, I looked in vain for a description of any sort of "teacher effectiveness" I recognised.
Where were the effective (and beloved) teachers of my childhood?

Where was Mrs Oakland, my Year 2 teacher, who taught me that with achievement should come humility?  Where was my only openly gay teacher who in year 11 taught me that it was braver to be tolerant than to be closed-minded?  Where was Mr Fergusson, who taught me that words have real power, to shape our thoughts and values?

Making something into a number does not make it a fact.  It sounds scientific to say "for Australian school education systems to be amongst the best in the world, students would need to learn 5% more in each year of their schooling.  We estimate that this improvement would occur if all Australian teachers were 10% more effective, or if the least effective 14% of Australian teachers improved to the level of teachers at the 14th percentile".  But actually, that is supposition wrapped up as mumbo-jumbo.  What does it actually mean "to learn 5% more in each year of schooling"?  What sort of qualities does a teacher have who is "the level of teachers at the 14th percentile"?   These aren't facts, these are aspirations wrapped in numbers to give them a veneer of objectivity.

If I want aspirations, thank you very much, I'd prefer the symbol of Aung San Suu Ky.  Or my high school teacher Mrs Moulton, who taught me that, with enough courage, effort and compassion, the boy I was could actually become the man I dreamed to be.

Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy measures what can be measured: numeracy and litercy scores. Like the MySchools website, it is silent on the rest: on values, community, role models, symbols.  These things can't be tested, and can't be quantified.  But they are important.  Immeasurably important.

Inestimably important.

In classrooms across the country, every school day, teachers are teaching our children maths and reading.  But they are also teaching them how to cooperate, how to value the things our society values, how to lead full and happy and profitable lives.  Very often they teach these qualities not by lecturing on the topic, but simply by being the sort of people our children can admire, respect, and aspire to be like. 

Just like Aung San Suu Ky.


  1. Lovely. When I started teaching, I thought I was in it to make sure that the kids learnt proper maths and literacy (rather than incorrect rubbish taught by idiots). The longer I do it, the more it becomes about teaching them to be kind, empathetic, thoughtful, confident, brave, compassionate people.

  2. Now that wasn't Mr Fergusson, by any chance; he of the two "s"s, teacher of Latin, and terror of the under-prepared?

  3. It was indeed. Yes, two 's's, and I was often under-prepared.