This week in parliament, Christopher Pyne reasserted his commitment to independent public schools. Is this a good thing?
What Are Independent Public Schools?
Independent public schools have more autonomy than most schools because they have been granted the authority to make more decisions for themselves. The scope of these decisions can include making choices about what to teach, how to spend their money and who to employ. Yet, the flexibility remains constrained by certain external mandates (e.g. legislation and the centralised curriculum requirements) and the schools are held accountable for their results.
Existing examples of increasing the autonomy of schools include the Public Charter Schools Program (USA), Albertan Charter Schools (Alberta, Canada), and the Independent Public Schools Initiative (WA, Australia).
Do Independent Public Schools Improve Student Outcomes?
While some evidence supports the idea, the evidence is far from conclusive, and any differences in student results are marginal at best.
Christopher Pyne holds the WA initiative up as his shining example. Yet, Professor John Hattie, who was part of the team, who conducted the formal evaluation of WA’s independent public schools initiative, told the ABC1 that there was no real improvement in the academic results of schools participating in the initiative. The only improvement mentioned in the review referred to the subjective opinion of participating principals who told the review panel that they believed there had been an improvement in student outcomes.
However, there is some international research that supports independent public schools. Beyond WA, analyses2 of various international school systems’ PISA^ results showed that those systems who granted more autonomy to their schools performed better than those systems who did not grant their schools such autonomy. These findings were in stark contrast to the review of the WA initiative.
Yet, the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date3 found that the impact of granting schools more autonomy was marginal at best.
“Local autonomy, whether it is the ‘let the flowers bloom variety’ or site-based management within a framework of external accountability, does not produce results on any scale.”
Michael Fullan (2005)
Even the PISA studies had mixed results, with one study4 suggesting that autonomy over how to spend school funds improved student outcomes, and another study5, highlighting that student achievement can drop when schools have control over their own budgets.
There may well be some valid reasons for these mixed results. Perhaps the WA initiative has not been running long enough to produce results. Maybe the link between budgetary discretion is dependent on other things, such as accountability measures; and certainly, it is hard to measure the impact of a strategy where each school may be choosing to do decidedly different things.
I cannot say that greater school autonomy definitely has no impact on students’ results.
However, I can say that existing research does not show that increasing school autonomy is likely to lead to substantial improvements in how well students do at school. I can also say that the quality of teaching that occurs in each classroom has far more impact than any school-based factor6 .
Subsequent research may paint a clearer picture and tease out the subtle nuances that are important for increased school autonomy to work. Yet, at present, the evidence does not support the widespread implementation of such a radical proposal.^PISA is an international evaluation of school systems across the world. It is conducted by the OECD every 3 years and involves assessing how well 15-year-olds do in reading, mathematics and science
- ABC News FactCheck: Christopher Pyne in the red on student outcomes in independent public schools [↩]
- OECD, (2007). PISA 2006 Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World, Paris: OECD [↩]
- Miron, G. & Nelson, C. (2001), Student Academic Achievement In Charter Schools, New York, National Center for the Study of Privatization In Education. [↩]
- OECD, (2007). PISA 2006 Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World, Paris: OECD. [↩]
- Wossman, L., Ludemann, E., Shutz, G. and West, M. (2007). School Accountability, Autonomy, Choice and the Equity of Student Achievement: International Evidence from PISA 2003, Education Working Paper No. 13, OECD. [↩]
- Hattie,. J. (2009), Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, New York. [↩]