‘We’ll raise bar by weed­ing out’

Al­ter­na­tive stud­ies show the ben­e­fits of ed­u­cat­ing three-year-olds are short term

The Weekend Australian - - OUTLOOK CONFERENCE 2018 - RE­BECCA UR­BAN NA­TIONAL ED­U­CA­TION CORRESPONDENT

The NSW govern­ment will weed out poor qual­ity teach­ing grad­u­ates by with­hold­ing job of­fers if uni­ver­si­ties re­sist calls to lift course en­try stan­dards, the state’s top ed­u­ca­tion bu­reau­crat says.

Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment sec­re­tary Mark Scott said the govern­ment faced op­po­si­tion from uni­ver­si­ties towards its bid to raise the bar for en­try to study to be­come a teacher.

“The NSW govern­ment — hav­ing pushed that point hard but faced sig­nif­i­cant op­po­si­tion from uni­ver­si­ties — is now go­ing to use its power as an em­ployer,” he told the 2018 Out­look Con­fer­ence yes­ter­day. “They can en­rol who they like but if those peo­ple are not go­ing to get the jobs … those uni­ver­si­ties will have to re­spond.”

Mr Scott’s com­ments come af­ter the NSW govern­ment an­nounced tough cri­te­ria for prospec­tive teach­ers, in­clud­ing a min­i­mum credit-grade point av­er­age in their stud­ies. Teacher can­di­dates will have to prove sound prac­ti­cal knowl­edge and abil­ity, and un­dergo psy­cho­me­t­ric test­ing of cog­ni­tive and emo­tional in­tel­li­gence to be em­ployed in the NSW school sys­tem.

The new Teacher Suc­cess Pro­file pol­icy comes amid con­cerns school leavers with very low ATARs have been ac­cepted for ed­u­ca­tion de­grees.

Mr Scott said he an­tic­i­pated a decade of “very sig­nif­i­cant change” for the univer­sity sec­tor, which would need to re­spond to employers in­creas­ingly tak­ing charge of the knowl­edge and skills their em­ploy­ees at­tained, and how they at­tained them, and the grow­ing re­quire­ment for em­ploy­ees to be life­long learn­ers.

“I think mar­ket re­al­i­ties are go­ing to come to bear on this,” he said. “The idea of ‘come and give us your next four years and $40$50,000’ … I think stu­dents are go­ing to query that, par­ents are go­ing to query that and employers are go­ing to query that.”

Mr Scott said school ed­u­ca­tion pol­i­cy­mak­ers “need to think through the kinds of skills, ca­pa­bil­i­ties and mind­sets young peo­ple will need to flour­ish’’.

“There once was a model that you went to school to be ed­u­cated, and ed­u­ca­tion pre­pared you for work,’’ he said.

“We know now that what ed­u­ca­tion is pre­par­ing peo­ple to do is to spend their life learn­ing.”

It’s so sim­ple — pile our three­year-olds into 15 hours of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion a week for 40 weeks and all these won­der­ful things will hap­pen. The tran­si­tion of our lit­tle ones to school will be smooth and pro­duc­tive. They will get bet­ter NAPLAN re­sults. They will stay longer at school. They will be less likely to need ex­tra sup­port. They will be less likely to be­come crim­i­nals.

If you be­lieve all that, you may also be­lieve in the Tooth Fairy and Father Christ­mas. But, but, say the ad­vo­cates of spend­ing tax­pay­ers’ money on sub­si­dis­ing early ed­u­ca­tion, what about the re­search?

One prob­lem with this ar­gu­ment is that a lot of the re­search has been un­der­taken by par­ties with con­flicts of in­ter­est or by bu­reau­crats given the task of back­ing up the pre­ferred poli­cies of their po­lit­i­cal masters.

At least, the Aus­tralian re­port over­seen by Su­san Pas­coe and Deb­o­rah Bren­nan and com­mis­sioned by the states and ter­ri­to­ries ac­knowl­edges that the “skills and be­hav­iours (that) establish the foun­da­tions for fu­ture skills and suc­cess are pro­vided in most, but not all, homes”.

Hav­ing made this con­ces­sion, they go on to as­sert that “qual­ity early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion gives all chil­dren the best chance of es­tab­lish­ing these ca­pa­bil­i­ties. With­out these foun­da­tions in place, child- ren of­ten strug­gle at school, and then of­ten go on to be­come adults who strug­gle in life.”

Ac­cord­ing to Pas­coe and Bren­nan, “qual­ity early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion makes a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to achiev­ing ed­u­ca­tional ex­cel­lence in schools. There is grow­ing ev­i­dence that par­tic­i­pa­tion in qual­ity early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion im­proves school readi­ness and lifts NAPLAN re­sults and PISA (in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tion achieve­ment) scores.

“Chil­dren who par­tic­i­pate in high-qual­ity early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion are more likely to com­plete Year 12. High-qual­ity early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion also has broader im­pacts; it is linked with higher lev­els of em­ploy­ment, in­come and fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity, im­proved health out­comes and re­duced crime. It helps build the skills chil­dren will need for the jobs of the fu­ture.”

This sum­mary is in fact a mish­mash of re­sults from var­i­ous stud­ies, in­clud­ing from over­seas. For in­stance, we sim­ply don’t have the data to sup­port the propo­si­tion that early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion raises Year 12 com­ple­tion rates be­cause we don’t have linked data. More­over, the in­vest­ment in fouryear-old early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion is rel­a­tively re­cent.

So let me rain on the pa­rade of op­ti­mism about the ben­e­fits of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion and the pre­sumed in­vest­ment re­turns to tax­payer spend­ing in this area. (Pas­coe and Bren­nan es­ti­mate the re­turn to be be­tween $2 and $4 for ev­ery dollar spent, which is very low by the stan­dards of these kinds of stud­ies.)

Con­sider the ev­i­dence from the very large Head Start pro­gram in the US, in op­er­a­tion for more than 50 years. There are sev­eral com­po­nents to this pro­gram but a core fea­ture is the pro­vi­sion of preschool­ing for three and four-yearolds. The staff to chil­dren ra­tios are low and staff mem­bers are ex­pected to be univer­sity grad­u­ates.

The eval­u­a­tion of this pro­gram in­di­cates that while it helps chil­dren set­tle into school, there are no ob­serv­able dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tive and non-cog­ni­tive out­comes by the time the par­tic­i­pat­ing chil­dren fin­ish first grade.

There is sim­i­lar ev­i­dence from Bri­tain in re­la­tion to the roll­out of preschool ed­u­ca­tion that be­gan there in the early 2000s. For ev­ery 10 per­cent­age point in­crease in the pro­por­tion of three-year-olds at­tend­ing preschool, there was a 2 per cent rise in lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy scores. More­over, the ef­fects were found to be short­lived, with the im­pact es­sen­tially zero by the age of seven.

Ar­guably, these stud­ies are not en­tirely neg­a­tive about in­vest­ment in early ed­u­ca­tion. While the ef­fects may wash out quite quickly, eas­ing tran­si­tion to school is a worth­while out­come. More­over, many stud­ies find that preschool is more ben­e­fi­cial for chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds rel­a­tive to other chil­dren.

Prob­lems for early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion devo­tees arise from sev­eral stud­ies that show govern­ment in­vest­ment in child­care and as­so­ci­ated early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion can have ad­verse con­se­quences for chil­dren and par­ents.

In a study about the im­pact of the pro­vi­sion of child­care by the Que­bec govern­ment for chil­dren from the age of two to five, an im­por­tant rev­e­la­tion was the sub­sti­tu­tion of pub­licly pro­vided care for in­for­mal and fam­ily-based child­care ar­range­ments.

The au­thors of the study, pub­lished by the Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search, found sev­eral ad­verse con­se­quences for the chil­dren in terms of be­havioural is­sues — mea­sured by ag­gres­sion and hy­per­ac­tiv­ity, in par­tic­u­lar — and their health. Many par­ents with chil­dren in child­care are only too aware of the re­peated episodes of ill­ness their chil­dren seem to pick up.

The core find­ing was “the pol­icy re­sulted in a rise of anx­i­ety of chil­dren exposed to this new pro­gram of be­tween 60 per cent and 150 per cent and a de­cline in mo­tor/so­cial skills of be­tween 8 per cent and 20 per cent”.

The au­thors also found “famil- ies be­came more strained with the in­tro­duc­tion of the pro­gram, as man­i­fested in more hos­tile, less con­sis­tent par­ent­ing, worse adult men­tal health and lower re­la­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion for mothers”.

This study should give some of the en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port­ers of child­care and early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion pause for thought. In an­other study, econ­o­mists used out­come in­for­ma­tion from the Bologna (Italy) day­care sys­tem, which has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing high qual­ity. For ev­ery ex­tra month of day­care that chil­dren at­tended be­tween the age of 0 to two years, it was found that IQ re­duced by 0.5 per cent of the same chil­dren at age eight to 14. Note that the au­thors were deal­ing with a rel­a­tively af­flu­ent pop­u­la­tion.

“The mag­ni­tude of this neg­a­tive ef­fect in­creases with fam­ily in­come. Sim­i­lar neg­a­tive im­pacts are found for per­son­al­ity traits. These find­ings are con­sis­tent with the hy­poth­e­sis from psy­chol­ogy that chil­dren in child­care ex­pe­ri­ence fewer one-on-one in­ter­ac­tions, with neg­a­tive ef­fects in fam­i­lies where such in­ter­ac­tions are of higher qual­ity.”

To sum up, my warn­ing is al­ways to be wary of as­ser­tions by self-in­ter­ested aca­demics, bu­reau­crats or politi­cians that a pol­icy is ev­i­dence-based. There is al­ways a range of stud­ies and the re­sults are of­ten not con­sis­tent. This is clearly the case when it comes to the im­pact of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion and child­care.

Per­haps the strongest propo­si­tion to emerge from the lit­er­a­ture is that early ed­u­ca­tion po­ten­tially can ben­e­fit chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds.

Mind you, get­ting a three-yearold to at­tend 15 hours of preschool for only 40 weeks a year is a chal­lenge in it­self, par­tic­u­larly if the life of the prin­ci­pal carer of the child is not well-struc­tured. It is hardly surprising that the par­tic­i­pa­tion of chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds in child­care and preschool is much lower than of chil­dren from mid­dle-class fam­i­lies.

If La­bor were fair-dinkum about fol­low­ing the ev­i­dence on early ed­u­ca­tion, it would con­cen­trate its ef­forts on these un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren rather than al­low the tax­payer sub­si­dies to be snaf­fled by mid­dle-class par­ents.

Get­ting a three­year-old to at­tend 15 hours of preschool for only 40 weeks a year is a chal­lenge in it­self

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