Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mechanistic management and Mr Rudd's education revolution

Neil Whitfield has been discussing the Rudd/Gillard plans for change in the education system. I have not commented to this point because I have yet to read the detail of what has been said.

While I still have to read the detail, I am drawn now to comment because of the overall impression that I have formed based on reporting. However, my comments must be remain qualified because I have not looked at the detail.

In a recent post, Mechanistic Management - the sometimes fallacy of planning, I talked about what I saw as problems in current approaches to planning. This post is in fact just one in a whole series of posts exploring what I see as growing problems in the application, in fact misapplication, of ideas and techniques that I once supported.

I make this point because I want to alert readers to my own biases, the point from which my comments start.

To my mind, there is something old fashioned and mechanistic in Mr Rudd's education revolution. It is simply the latest flowering of an approach that no longer really works. In fact, an extension of the approach applied by the Howard Government. To understand this, we need to look at main themes in the education revolution.

The first element is the emphasis on measurement. I support measurement. However, the problem with application of simple measurement based management approaches is that they focus responses on things that can be measured. Many educational results are not easily measured, especially in the short term.

The second element is the emphasis on transparency and accountability. Again, I support transparency and accountability. However, on their own they are slippery terms.

Transparency first. Transparency simply means being able to see how things work, how decisions are made, what the results are. This is not quite the same thing as receipt of information on specific aspects of performance, the current Rudd Government focus.

Accountability second. Here we have to ask, accountability for what and to whom?

As a parent, my daughters' old school and its teachers were accountable to me for my daughters' education. The school was also accountable to the NSW and Federal Government who regulated and funded.

As a NSW taxpayer, the NSW Government was accountable to me for its expenditure on school education. As a Federal taxpayer, the Federal Government was also accountable to me for its education spend.

These accountabilities can and do conflict.

As a parent with limited cash, I resented the way that Government controls and reporting requirements driven in part be accountability requirements forced up fees. As a parent with his own education ideas, I resented the way in which (and despite school statements to the contrary) league table requirements affected actual teaching.

The third element in the Rudd approach is national uniformity. This uniformity can be both a good and bad thing and at the same time.

A uniform system means that things are standardised. This may make it easier to move children between schools in different jurisdictions. It may make it easier for employers to make standard judgements. At the same time, a varied system allows for experimentation, for test. I have long complained about the way in which the very centralised NSW system works against particular areas and schools

Uniformity is also a sign of the fourth element, the application of standards based approaches.

I support standards based approaches so long as their limitations are recognised. The purpose of a standard is to ensure a consistent output or result. However, there are two difficulties here. The first lies in the definition of the standard. The second is that performance then zeros in on the standard - things that exceed the standard or lie outside the standard are less likely to happen.

A related semantic problem is that the word "standard" can carry the connotation "good" instead of the real meaning "consistent". A standard car is not the same as a good car.

The fifth, linked, element in the Rudd approach is payment by performance, whether at individual teacher, school or system level. This follows logically from the measurement emphasis, but also links to sets of ideas (beliefs, really) connected with performance based pay. Again, performance for what purpose?

The sixth element in Mr Rudd's education revolution lies in its focus on the role of education as an economic driver, training people as inputs to the national economy.

This is a very old idea. As an example, the changes to the various state technical education systems at the turn of the twentieth century was driven by what was then called the new education. In turn, this drew from the political and economic rivalry between the old European empires.

Yes, education is an important economic driver. But it is more than this, because education is linked to our society's ideals and values, the very things that makes us Australian.

In all this, the whole Rudd education is bound up in the semantics of modern managerialism, set within the bounds of past ideas. I would feel a lot more comfortable if there was more discussion of ideas, less focus on specific activities.


I see from today's Sydney Morning Herald that NSW Universities have been accused of inflating their UAI scores, setting cut-offs and then admitting students who in fact fall below the mark cut-off.

Of course they are. I would too if I were a Vice Chancellor. Now that the UAI entry scores have become a competitive measure for ranking universities, their real usefulness is much diminished.

Postscript 2

Still on the SMH, I see that Gerard Henderson does not agree with my assessment of Mr Rudd's education revolution. Still, we are at least in agreement that Mr Rudd is old-school!

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