Category Archives: Research

Script for generate-and-explore demonstration

The Python script below provides a demonstration of generate and interpret.

This page has a link to it in a to-be-published journal paper explaining what it’s about (will be linked following publication).

For the time being, it is described as:

Generating:

Consider a simple system that generates numbers (after Kelly and Gero 2015). The system has two variables: firstly n, a range of numbers with constraints; and p designates an operator, one of multiplication, division, addition or subtraction. The system has an initial state, which for the sake of example we can take  to be constrained by 5<n<95 and p=+ the operator for addition.

The system generates by choosing two values for the variable  within constraints and performing the operation  on them to produce an artefact (the resulting number). For example, the system chooses first 6 and then 72 and adds them to produce an artefact of 78. With this setup the system clearly has a bounded space that it is ‘searching’ through generation and given enough time it would eventually ‘discover’ all possible artefacts in the space, i.e. {10,11,12,…,189,190}.

This extremely simple proposal is representative of systems that have a clearly defined grammar and perform search through application of that grammar, i.e. an example of routine design.

Interpreting

Through additional rules, the system is able to explore. After producing an artefact, the system interprets what it has produced such that:

  • If the current artefact, along with the previous two artefacts, make up an arithmetic or geometric progression, then change the operator to the corresponding operator; and
  • If the numeric value used to create the arithmetic or geometric progression is outside of the constraint, extend the bounds of the constraint

The significance of this will be in the paper, but essentially it’s representative of the way that people undertake creative tasks. We have vast amounts of experience, but only access some of it at a time. This kind of generate-and-interpret movement is a suggestion for how we move around within our own experiences, stimulated by interpreting what it is that we’ve created:

 

The importance of context for studying online groups in Facebook

This piece originally appeared on the Australian Digital Futures Institute blog with the same title.

Social science researchers in the 21st Century often find themselves wanting to analyse interaction in online groups. This is quite simply because an awful lot of social interaction occurs online these days what with Facebook, email, learning management systems, forums and all the rest. We are as a society perhaps still coming to terms with the notion that there are quite a few people out there who utter more words online than they do face to face (I suspect that some days I might be one of them).

context
context

At first glance, online groups represent an incredible opportunity for researchers. Every trace from every interaction, however informal, is recorded, along with its timestamp and a unique code. A greedy glint comes into the eyes of any statistician or researcher with a data mining technique or two up their sleeve at the mere thought of thousands, perhaps millions, of interactions waiting to be analysed. But there is more to this story – context is important for studying online groups in Facebook.

My particular area of study is looking at the professional development of teachers in online groups. In work that I’m doing with Dr Amy Antonio of ADFI, we’re looking at Facebook groups to see how teachers are providing for one another with things like links to resources, opportunities for reflection, practical advice and emotional support.

We picked a popular Facebook group and downloaded its thousands of messages and began applying the tools of the trade in earnest: social network analysis to see who is important in the group; thematic analysis to see what’s being talked about; manual coding to get a calibration and an intuition for the data and a deeper understanding through discourse analysis of specific parts of the interaction.

The problem with all this though is that we hadn’t taken into account the question of context.

Online spaces are by definition artificial environments. Everything is designed: the look and feel of the space, the actions it affords, the representations of the people inside it and even the ways in which those people can interact. Again: all this is designed.

When researching these online spaces, we need to confront the fact that we cannot make assumptions about what might constitute “normal” activity or interaction in the space.

If I’m studying an online group that only talks to each other once a week, when for other groups within the same environment the norm is about 100 posts a day, then that is significant and says perhaps that whatever we find out about this group doesn’t really apply generally to the larger environment. I’ve not conducted a meta-analysis or anything, but anecdotally this seems to be missing from many studies of online groups.

And so what I’ve learnt from all this is that:

  1. When analysing online groups, we can’t make assumptions that the group is “typical” for that environment without making sure of it. And beyond that:
  2. We can’t assume that we know what a “typical” interaction in the environment looks like without considering the design of that environment.

2014 CoCo Seminar – Supporting Pre-Service and Early Career Teachers in Australia: Design for a Learning Network

Below are the details of a talk presented at the CoCo research lab at the university of Sydney.

A link to the AdobeConnect recording of the presentation can be found here.

Abstract:
This talk presents a number of perspectives upon a growing learning network of pre-service and early career teachers. The learning network has arisen through a collaboration between a number of Australian universities, with the aim of facilitating support in the transition between pre-service education and the first years of service. The talk is structured to refer to this example in posing questions more general to design for learning networks:

– What is the motivation for developing the learning network? Original research into the need to augment teacher support in Australia.
– How do design of the set, activities and relationships align with participant motivations? Participant ownership and designing for culture (desired within the network) as well as cultural history (of the participants in other networks).
– How does theory influence the design process? Theory-based criticism of the design and allowing this to inform further design.

Does Australia want the P-TECH model?

Corporate highs: the US P-TECH model for schools in Australia?

[Article originally published in The Conversation here]

Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited a P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early Career High) school in New York last week, hinting it’s a model of education we should consider implementing in Australia. The school, partly funded by IBM and training students to suit the company’s needs, is different to anything we have in Australia. While the P-TECH model would be feasible here, the model risks confusing economic needs with educational ones.

The P-TECH model in the US

The approach taken by P-TECH has generated a lot of interest since it was opened in 2011. It already has a name, the P-TECH model, and is being copied in cities around the US. New York State, for example, has developed partnerships for a further 16 schools like the original.

The P-TECH model sounds a little confusing at first: both private and public money is used to fund high schools that also give university degrees. P-TECH schools are situated in low socio-economic areas and have a stated aim of helping students to become “job ready” for a particular sector of employment that has a shortage of workers. Existing schools in the US have focused on training for the technology sector and new schools are also looking to train workers for manufacturing and health care.

During Abbott’s recent US visit, he hinted these private P-TECH schools are something Australia would think about adopting.
AAP

The school that Abbott visited, for example, was funded by the NYC Department of Education, the City University of New York and the private company IBM. The school goes for two years beyond the equivalent of our Year 12. Graduates receive corporate mentoring during their study, an associate degree in technology (similar to a diploma) upon graduation, as well as a job interview with IBM.

“The school that will get you a job.”
Time Magazine

Politicians in particular are big proponents of the P-TECH model because it looks like a win-win situation. The nation’s economy gets a supply of workers in sectors where there are perceived shortages. The private business entering into the partnership gets positive publicity and a supply of qualified labour. The state gets to have the cost of education significantly subsidised by private enterprise. And the student gets a qualification for the cost of just two years’ extra study.

While the ideas in these schools are not new, their integration in the P-TECH model is generating a buzz in the US to the point that the latest version in Chicago made the front page of TIME magazine. The question is now being asked whether the model might have a place in Australia.

Is it feasible in Australia?

While we don’t have anything like the culture of philanthropy seen in the US, businesses see this model as much more of an investment (in publicity, recruitment and training) than charity. There would likely be interested parties, especially given the huge positive coverage received by IBM in the US.

The challenge for implementing these schools is in the grey area they occupy between high schools and universities. In Australia, only accredited institutions can award degrees. Any P-TECH type school would require either accreditation or exemption – this would be difficult for a school to obtain without significant political willpower.

Perhaps more to the point, it is difficult to see the need for schools that give degrees in Australia, where the separation of school and further education still serves the needs of both students and the national interest.

Does the P-TECH model have educational merit?

We’ve been talking about a new type of school, yet still have not mentioned educational value. This is partly because the first cohort at P-TECH hasn’t graduated yet so not much is known about outcomes. Yet we can consider likely implications.

Those arguing for these schools point out the advantages to students in gaining employment and higher starting salaries. This comes from an unstated belief that the goal of education is to create graduates who meet the economic needs of the country, and that those graduates can thus fulfil their own need for gainful employment. From this perspective there is no problem with inclusion of private companies in educational partnerships.

The view of the PM is typical of this notion of education:

What we want to do is ensure that youngsters are getting an education which is relevant to their needs and that we are investing in education and training systems that are going to have appropriate economic pay-offs for our country.

What this perspective neglects is that the next generation has needs much broader than gaining employment and being a part of the economic life of the country. For example, they need to leave school with the ability to think critically, to have the broad range of skills for leading a fulfilling and creative life – no matter their circumstances. This view is summed up by Richard Shaull in his foreword to educational theorist Paulo Freire’s book:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

The P-TECH schools, with their involvement of the private sector and focus upon vocational training, are likely to be a step backwards in achieving this. It is entirely possible for these schools to succeed in their own terms and achieve high rates of graduate employment, yet still to fail their students.

The Conversation

Nick Kelly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Do we want an Augmented Reality or a Transformed Reality?

It is widely agreed that we are headed towards a world where augmented reality (AR) systems will be as common as smart phones are today. In The Conversation alone you can read about how it will revolutionise medicine, entertainment, the lives of disabled persons and of course advertising and shopping.

The big three tech companies are all spending big on technology in the AR domain for this reason. Google will be releasing Google Glass later in the year, Microsoft has been working on its own AR device and Facebook recently bought the Virtual Reality company Oculus Rift.

Through AR in its proposed incarnation as a kind of “smartphone within our glasses”, we will have the ability to control everything entering our optical nerves – and to integrate this visual data with a wealth of external information in order to transform our daily lives.

This could mean offering us information about people as they pop into our field of view, information about objects when we see them or even introducing to our field of view things that don’t exist at all.

The unspoken future

The recent history of technology suggests that it is no stretch to predict the future of AR if we leave it in the hands of these tech giant companies.

There will be apps that extend ever further into the visual domain aiding us in all those things we do, be it building a house, studying at a distance, travelling in a new city and even making love.

The price for access to these new services and of having information at our fingertips however will be surrendering ever more of our personal information. Most critical of all, we will likely need to submit to the potential for advertising everywhere.

We’ve already seen how the preponderance of screens in the world has increased human consumption of advertising – what some refer to as pollution of the mental environment.

By surrendering control over our corneas advertising no longer needs to be limited to a screen or a surface.

AR has the potential to be a truly disruptive technology, but a question being asked now that we find ourselves on the doorstep of this future is: Do we want a world that is a better-functioning, more efficient version of the one we find ourselves in?

Transformed Reality?

Luckily artists have also got their hands upon the technology to provoke our imagination to dream about how instead of merely augmenting reality we could be aiming to transform it.

Consider for example the Artvertiser project, where artists have developed an application that replaces all billboards in your visual field with images of art – instead of subconsciously consuming ads from the bank you could be consuming artworks from Banksy, for example.

artvertiser

(source:http://theartvertiser.com/)

This is a deep idea that demonstrates the choice that AR presents to its adopters.

Through detection, replacement and synthesis AR has the potential to either add or subtract entirely from our sensations. Whole environments, buildings and even people could be filtered in or out based on personal preference.

We will, for the first time, be able to exercise control over almost everything entering in through our visual field – if we want to.

AR is different to other technologies. Because it is so closely tied to our senses (and the focus here has been upon vision, yet it needn’t be) we can not only add to our reality, but also subtract from our reality.

This is the first time in human history that this has been possible, and now is the time to start dreaming –how could we use the advent of AR to transform society for a world that each of us wants to live in?

The United States Model for Higher Education in Australia

I’ve just had an article published in the conversation, which is the short-form version of a longer piece that I wrote. It’s about the proposed changes to the Australian system of Higher Education, why this looks a lot like the model used in the US and the research into likely impacts from the proposed changes.

Here’s the long form version:
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Students protest the “American Model” for higher education

If you wondered why a few thousand students were marching around Melbourne and Sydney yesterday, it’s because of the government’s plans to emulate the United States in the way that our university system runs. Education Minister Christopher Pyne makes no secret of his admiration for the American higher education model, saying three weeks ago to a London audience that “we have much to learn about universities competing for students and focussing on our students. Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States.”

Yesterday’s marches were organised by the National Union of Students using the tag line “say no to deregulation and the American model”. They are a response to last week’s budget which proposes a move towards students taking on more debt and universities competing directly for students on the basis of price as well as quality – the hallmarks of the American model. What does this mean for the future of Australia’s higher education, why are students up in arms, and why would the government want to do this?

What are the changes that have got students into the streets?

The government has proposed three big changes to higher education that have got students onto their feet and out on the streets: deregulating fees, lowering government subsidies for student places and charging real interest on HELP loans.

As has been written about extensively, deregulating fees means universities can charge what students are willing to pay. This means that they will go up on average (even the government forecast is 14% although nobody really knows by quite how much), especially in elite universities where they will go up significantly more than this. Lowering the government subsidy to university places by 20% makes sure that the rise is fees will be at least this much.

Finally, the government is raising the interest on student loans (which, remember, will be larger than in the past). Previously loans were indexed to inflation meaning that there was no real interest. The proposed change is to use the government 10-year Treasury rate (currently at 3.76% but which has an average of 5.54% over the past 16 years). This means that loans (which often take decades to pay back) will be growing through the effects of compound interest, multiplying the effect of any rises to university fees.

What is the “American Model” and will these changes really take us there?

Looking at Australian and US universities in 2014, the clear differences that can be summarised by two words: diversity and debt.

In Australia, all of our universities are funded under a single model and student fees are capped through regulation. As a result there are only modest differences between our institutions.

In contrast, the American model has been deregulated to allow vast differences between universities. To give an idea of the disparity, annual tuition fees at elite universities can be enormous (e.g. $44,000 at Harvard) whilst the lower tier of regional universities charge significantly less (e.g. $4,500 at New Mexico Highlands University).

Mr Pyne continues to tout the American model to his London audience on the basis of exactly this diversity: “they have developed a diverse array of institutions encouraging prospective students to pick and choose their futures and where they are going to study, immerse themselves in enriching extra-curricular activities, and make life-long friends.” This desire for “more diversity” is Pyne’s way of saying that he wants our top universities to be better and compete with the Harvard’s of the world, even if the cost is that our other universities are worse off.

The government has made it clear that one of its main priorities for higher education is “not getting left behind” by having more of our universities in the top 50 in the world (indeed, Pyne litters many of his speeches with commentary on our status within the university world rankings, despite significant criticisms of how meaningful they are). Deregulating fees is designed to create the disparity that will enable this, creating the virtuous cycles that will allow universities with a strong reputation to charge higher fees and increase quality – and the less-discussed vicious cycles that will see other universities have to compete on price rather than quality. The clearly stated goal is to bring about the kind of ‘diversity’ seen in the US system.

The second part of the US model is in regard to student debt. In Australia in 2014, students are given loans by the government through the HECS-HELP scheme. Students pay the loan back at a compulsory rate that varies from 4-8% of income, rising along with salary – however these payments only kick in once loan holders are earning over a certain threshold (currently $53,345). The public purse contributes significantly to the cost of higher education in the form of this below-market rate of interest as well as debts that do not get paid back.

In 2014 students in the US are eligible for a “federal loan”, mostly through the Stafford loan scheme that has an interest rate linked to the US Federal 10-year Treasury rate plus a small margin. This is currently at 3.86%, although students who have financial need have this interest subsidised by the government. In addition, all students taking out loans pay a 1% loan fee and government subsidies have strict conditions on them.

The 2014-15 budget proposal to link student debt to government 10-year Treasury bonds would bring Australia directly in line with interest in the US model. Pyne’s claim that profits used from the loans will subsidize students with financial need is yet to be fully described, but also appears to be in line with the US model of subsidies for students in need. Like the US system the changes move towards a “user pays” model, in which the combination of higher fees and the introduction of real interest on debts will move the cost of studying onto individual students.

Taken with Pyne’s comments, it seems clear that the changes being proposed to Australia’s higher education system are aimed at making the Australian system more like the US system. If that’s the case, what can we learn from the US system before we start to go down this path?

The American student debt problem

Whilst the government’s main concern is raising the quality of our top universities, the priorities of the students marching yesterday was a concern about the social and economic problems that the US model has been seen to cause.

There is much evidence from around the world that higher fees disproportionately affect students from a low SES background. Firstly the prospect of high levels of debt discourages these students from attending university. Put simply, the idea of taking on a $100,000 dollar debt for a law degree looks very different depending on whether your parents are earning twice that or half that. Secondly, students from a low SES background end up paying more fees overall (e.g. not having parents helping leads to longer time to pay off the debt which with real interest means that they simply pay more). Professor Bruce Chapman, who designed the current HECS system to combat exactly these factors, is one of the many critics of the shift towards a US model on the basis that it will hit women and students from low SES backgrounds the hardest.

Shifting the burden of paying for education away from the public purse (coming from taxes on those with a higher income, generally the previous generation) and onto individual students (the next generation) is something that a nation can only do once. The government that implements such a change can claim many ‘savings’ but it has many hidden negative consequences.

Student debt in the US is causing what some academics have called a “crisis of justice”, affecting the everyday lives of students who for years after graduating are required to use their disposable income to service their student debt. One group that suffers most from higher fees are those students that for a range of reasons drop out of university before completing their degree.

The level of debt in the US has not just led to social inequality but also widespread economic problems. For example, high levels of student debt directly correlate with the decreasing number of loans for homes and cars being taken out by young adults. High levels of personal debt are having a negative impact upon the national economy as a whole.

And in case there is any doubt that fees will rise, the US example shows that fees have risen at a rate that far outstrips inflation. In the ten years to August 2013 the CPI (inflation) was 26.1% whilst the cost of tuition rose 79.5%. In other words, opening fees up to unregulated competition has led to everyone paying more.

One reason for higher fees is that deregulating universities opens them up to market forces, obliging them to do what it takes to stay competitive. For example, based on the US model we can expect to see our universities vastly increase the amount of their budget used for marketing. A US senate committee into for-profit universities found that on average 23% of the budget was being spent on marketing.

The reason why students were out marching in the streets yesterday should not simply be seen as a knee-jerk reaction to being asked to pay more. Rather it should be taken as a response to having heard the words and seen the actions of the current government in their desire to emulate the American model. The students protesting, supported by a host of academics similarly critical, are saying that embracing the US system is not what they want for the future of higher education in Australia.

 

The heroes journey and spurious correlations

A few interesting links to share:

1) Using the Hero’s journey to structure a tertiary education here

2) Spurious correlations. A collection of correlations with no basis. A nice reminder that any kind of statistical test should at some point be given the commonsense test.

3) This is an article about a clever study showing that active learning works. The study compares stand-and-deliver lecturing versus active learning. I look forward to any replication of this.

What gets measured: Bibliometrics and education

The world of research has been changing radically in recent decades with the ascendence of bibliometrics. All journals are now quantified and ranked by various measures, such as Source Normalised Impact per Paper (SNIP), the Impact Factor (IF) or the SciMago Journal Ranking (SJR). These are all variations on a theme of looking at how journals cite each other, on the basis that heavily cited articles and journals are of higher quality.

Criticism of such quantification is well documented and widely available, but the interest in this article is in this friction between what we might call the need to quantify and those things that are not quantifiable.

In this age of management we often hear the catchcry that “what gets measured gets managed“. That’s the thinking behind the use of KPIs in organisations. It’s also the thinking behind standardised tests in schools and this is where a lot can be learnt from making an analogy between bibliometrics and education.

What are the assumptions?

The assumption in bibliometrics is that citations are a good indicator of impact. This has been refined (i.e. in the SJR) so that citations in a well-respected journal count for more towards a weighted score (using the same algorithm that Google PageRank uses) and has been augmented by other innovations that make for better predictions (e.g. this technique) but the overall assumption is still the same – that more citations (in the past or the predicted future) is what you’re after.

Similarly, the assumption in education is that standardized tests (e.g. NAPLAN in literacy and numeracy) are measuring the thing that we want to be producing. In other words, it has the assumption that our education system is about producing adults that can perform well on these kinds of tests.

Clearly nobody (well, hopefully nobody) actually thinks this way, but the problem is if you don’t take this as the measure of successful education, what can you use?

Another way to measure?

The problem with measuring things (like test scores) that people do is that they will invariably game the measurements to maximise results. In this case, teach to the test at the expense of other things (e.g. producing whole and complete human beings capable of being a positive force of change in the world).

The bibliometric measure is particularly interesting (as is the Google PageRank) in that it is far more difficult to game, being fundamentally a socially driven measure (although it can still be gamed, obviously, but much less directly).

Networked Learning for example is another way of thinking about education and suggests a different set of measurements. This is one way we could go.

Or not measuring at all?

Really though, humans work best when they have intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation has been a fantastic discovery that we have been using for many centuries now to make people do things that they don’t really want to (e.g. work or you don’t get fed), but basing everything in society upon this mechanism of extrinsic reward and punishment, whilst in vogue, is unlikely to create the kind of world that we want to live in.

The alternative (or at the very least augmentation) to the ubiquitous measure-and-manage approach is to create environments within which people want to do the things you want them to do – for example, in education, emphasising the reasons for learning, or using the student experience as a starting point to create something that they see has value.

This may all sound very much like hand-waving (and it is), but it has a strong basis in educational philosophy.

My memory of people trying to motivate me during school was a long chain of extrinsic motivations: Why do I need to learn algebra? (To pass the test). Why do I need to pass the test (To get into University)… (To get a good job)… (To earn money) (…).

Why do only some teachers tap into the intrinsic motivation for learning? This is topic too big for this post that merits much further discussion.

It is fundamentally a different focus to look towards building a culture rather than building a compliance. This applies as much to academia as it does to education.

Independent public schools – Why competition in public education is a bad thing

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF INDEPENDENT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

The current government is committed to creating “independent” public schools, a change to bring more autonomy to around 25% of Australian public schools. A $70 million fund has been set up to make this a reality.

According to Education Minister Christopher Pyne, independent public schools will give principals the autonomy to hire and fire their staff and control more of the school budget.

What is not being talked about is that a brief tour of recent history in other Western countries shows that dividing the public education system in two can be a very slippery slope. It has a tendency lead to negative social consequences and there is a lack of evidence of better student outcomes. So why then is this happening?

BIG IDEAS: TO SUBSIDISE THE SCHOOL OR THE STUDENT?

Influential Chicago economist Milton Friedman wrote more than 60 years ago about how to formulate government policy in education. Friedman’s big idea was that just because education is provided by a government, it does not mean that the forces of competition cannot be useful here too.

Friedman’s suggestion was that governments have a choice, between giving money to schools (to educate our children), and giving money to the parents of children (with which to choose a school). The advantage of the latter, says Friedman, is that schools will have a reason to compete with each other – with a result of greater quality for less money.

For this to work how Friedman intends, public (state-run) schools need to be in competition with other schools – and private schools, with their large annual fees, aren’t competing for the same students.

The way competition is achieved by policymakers is to give money to schools based on how many students they have, whether they are run by the state or whether they are independent – what is sometimes called a “voucher” system, in which parents theoretically have more choice.

In the US they created the competition for public schools by giving out “charters” for non-profit schools to be formed that are independent of the state in many ways, but are still subsidized by the state. In the UK they created “academies” under a similar model with government funding but school independence.

Here in Australia the suggestion is to follow a similar program and make roughly a quarter of the nation’s schools “autonomous”. The motivation in all three cases is the same, a desire to introduce choice and competition into public schooling – and this is where the problem lies.

THE DANGERS OF COMPETITION IN EDUCATION

Whilst superficially appealing, evidence shows that introducing competition to public education can have a raft of undesirable social consequences that are very difficult to undo.

Some of the most harmful effects of introducing competition to public schooling have been identified by researchers as:

1) More pronounced social stratification. Dividing the public school system into autonomous and state-run schools is likely to widen inequality. The case of education in Chile, where a similar system (the first in the world back in 1981) provides an extreme example of the way that competition in public schools can lead to a cycle of widening social inequality.

In Chile, autonomous schools have the ability to select or reject students. In the drive for better results and the development of reputation these schools tend to favour students from wealthier backgrounds that are already achieving better results. Consequently, the 38.5% of students that remain in the fully public system are much more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and perform more poorly in national tests.

Further, the idea that parents now have more “choice” in where to send a child with the advent of competition is not as straightforward as it might seem. Will an autonomous school, which is being measured on academic results, spend its advertising budget in a wealthy or a disadvantaged neighbourhood? Does a parent that has the time and money to transport a child long distances have the same amount of “choice” as a parent that does not?

2) Impoverishment of the educational mission. Consider two schools in the US. One is a state-run school, the other a non-profit autonomous charter school. The state school spends their allocated $500 on advertising. The other school spends a full $325,000 on advertising. The autonomous school can do this because they have a different mission to the public school. Their “success” is entirely determined by the number of enrolments they can get and their score on a very limited range of indicators (often standardized tests). The two schools are playing by different rules but are evaluated by the same measures. It serves neither society nor the aims of public education to have schools spending their budgets on advertising or in targeting standardized tests, yet a competitive system encourages such spending.

3) Teacher remuneration and satisfaction. The charter school movement in the US was used as an opportunity to attack unions, with by far the majority of charter schools being non-union. This led to serious fissures within the profession and in many cases led to reduced teacher wages. Charter schools in the US have been shown to have a much greater turnover of staff leading to teachers in these schools with less experience.

4) Exploitation by for-profit entities. In the United States, charter schools are able to enter into agreements with for-profit organisations. This can lead to effective ‘subcontracting’ of education where a school pays a for-profit company to manage the school. Autonomy in schools can also open the door to corporate sponsorship, introducing commercialisation into the early years of schooling – a polluted mental environment in the very place where students are meant to be learning the skills for life.

5) Contentious educational outcomes. For all of this, the educational benefits are from most evidence non-existent. Chrisopher Lubienski, a Professor of Educational Policy with a focus on public and private interests, summarises the situation:

“Advocates argued that autonomy from bureaucratic regulation allows these schools to react to the needs of individual learners and be more effective at their core academic mission as measured by standardised tests… [Yet] Large-scale empirical analyses consistently find that charter schools are no better – and often somewhat worse – than public schools at boosting student achievement, even after controlling for demographic differences in the populations served at different types of schools”

Lubienski is talking about the situation in US charter schools, but the first sentence sounds eerily familiar to anybody listening to the rhetoric around the move towards independent public schools.

IT HASN’T HAPPENED YET, BUT THE RISK IS REAL

Here in Australia, we have a well-respected public system facing a serious change with the move towards independent public schools.

The assurance we are being given by government is that the independent schools policy is simply a way to give more power to principals regards staffing and operations. Whilst a reduction in bureaucracy within schools is welcomed by many there are other ways to achieve this outcome without creating this split between those that are autonomous and those that are not.

The risk we run by creating a division within our public school system is serious. Once a nation heads down the slippery slope of introducing more “choice” and “competition” into public education, the door is left wide open for any well-meaning ideologue to follow the ideas of Friedman.  All that is needed is to keep giving this subset of our public schools ever more autonomy and it will be to the detriment of the system as a whole.

This article is written as a response to Pyne’s claim that “the more autonomous a school, the better the outcomes for students”.