TER #227 – School Segregation and Policy Failures with Michael Sciffer – 17 Aug 2023

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PhD candidate Michael Sciffer discusses his research into equity and school segregation, and the policy failures that have led to Australia having one of the most segregated education systems in the OECD.

Kolber’s Corner – Steven Kolber considers the three dimensional nature of curriculum

Steven Kolber on Twitter

Education in the News – Cameron looks at the history of the current NSW industrial dispute.


00:00 Opening Credits
01:31 Intro
04:28 Kolber’s Corner
09:10 Education in the News
23:12 Feature Introduction
25:26 Interview – Michael Sciffer
01:18:44 Patron Shout-Outs

Feature Interview Transcript (unedited, prepared by Otter.Ai)

Click here for interactive transcript.

Cameron Malcher  Joining me now from Murdoch University is Michael cipher, Michael, welcome to the podcast. Hey Cameron, we’re here to talk about the topic of your PhD research, which is not just the issues of equity and segregation in Australian schooling, but particularly the policies that have both led us here, and possibly that might lead us out of the problems that we face. And I suppose the first question to really set the scene is from the perspective of equity and segregation from your research perspective. How would you describe the current state of Australian schools? What are the equity and segregation issues currently facing schools in Australia?  

Michael Sciffer  Well, it’s, I guess the the issues are, is that young people that their social backgrounds or the social groups to which they belong, are quite strong predictors or drivers of educational outcomes, academic outcomes, school completion, graduation, a and even transition to tertiary education. So that’s creating social inequities in education, which flow on to life outcomes as well.  

Cameron Malcher  And a figure that often gets tossed around coming out of the OECD PISA data is that Australia has, I think, something like the fourth most segregated education system in the OECD. But what does that actually look like? Like when we talk about segregation by socio economic background and status? How severe is that separation? And where are those different groups situated?  

Michael Sciffer  it as a Yeah, it is quite strong compared to other countries within the OECD. We’re well above average, in terms of this, of the degree of segregation between schools based on social backgrounds. And that’s backgrounds when we talk about that as a socio economic status. So based on parental education, parental occupation, and income, those sorts of factors are what we measure when we’re measuring social segregation in Australia and internationally, certainly, with the OECD data sets, and where we find that segregation in Australia, there’s really two ways of measuring it or describing it, or explaining it. And those two things are, firstly, neighborhood segregation. So real estate prices, where people live according to what industry they work in, but also school systems are also explaining segregation. So that’s things like public and private schools have very different social profiles, which are contributing to that social separation of young people in our schools.  

Cameron Malcher  And I mean, I remember back in the early days of, you know, the lead up to the Gonski report in the lead up to the idea of a more equitable school model. So we’re talking 2002 1009, I think 2008 2009. Julia Gilad made a comment that, you know, students postcode should not determine their educational outcomes, from what you’re saying that still very much remains the case? Has there been any major shift in that? Have we seen any transition away from socio economic status really being that key determiner, or is it as entrenched as it was 13 years ago, 14 years ago,  

Michael Sciffer  it’s it’s still as entrenched as it was, then it is most likely at the same level, the research I’ve looked at, thankfully, has not seemed to have gotten too much worse than then. But there’s there’s not a lot of research, which demonstrates one way or another, whether it has greatly improved or got worse. And so it seems to be it’s at a similar level, to that time. So in other words, those interventions that have been put in place, if not addressed, school segregation, and the effects of it on young people, unfortunately,  

Cameron Malcher  well, let’s let’s get into that idea of some of the policies and interventions because the particular paper of yours that we’re using, as the basis for this discussion is titled, measuring the equity of Australian schools, the case for policy reform. And I mean, you do have quite a striking subheading in that paper simply titled policy failings, where you talk about some of the ways in which we have failed to address it. So you know, we’ve had, we’ve had a lot of educational policy churn over the last two decades, both at the federal and at various state and territory levels. And it feels like you’re kind of saying none of those have effectively addressed this issue of segregation and lack of equity.  

Michael Sciffer  And I think that the first reason for that is that we don’t measure that. So we don’t measure the effects of segregation. on student outcomes. So, for example, that in NAPLAN, they do measure parental background, and how that predicts student achievement and achievement growth. But we don’t measure the impact of segregation. So interestingly, near the end of last year, that Productivity Commission released a report looking at the most recent national school reform agreement, which expires at the end of this year. And they looked at a range of issues. And they found that school segregation or the concentration of disadvantaged students into disadvantaged schools, is a systemic driver of unequal outcomes in Australia. And none of the ways we report on student achievement in Australia capture those effects. So one of the issues we have is that there’s not a lot of political discussion or public discourse around this simply because it’s not measured. So it’s, it’s really just the, you know, the odd academic paper that comes out that points to these effects. Instead of being part of the regular review of the school system that happens that NAPLAN is supposed to be a measurement of how different student groups are going. And it does touch on that, but it doesn’t, it doesn’t really capture those systemic drivers of inequality in our school system, it looks at how families have an impact on student outcomes. It doesn’t look at how school systems have that impact on outcomes.  

Cameron Malcher  I mean, obviously, the decision to measure or not measure something is a deliberate one. It’s it sort of sounds a little bit like it’s a choice not to measure something so that you don’t have to factor it in.  

Michael Sciffer  I think that’s there’s certainly some truth to that. At the same time. These things are not commonly asked, I don’t think Australian society in general is, is aware of how segregated our schooling system is, compared to say, the United States, for example, where there are decades of social struggle around the school desegregation coming out of the civil rights movement, and even before that time, in the 50s. And going right back to the 30s, where there has been legal cases to address segregation in the United States, we’re not so aware of it. Some people are aware, for example of how we segregated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from education largely excluding them, or given giving parents the right to object to them being enrolled in schools. Some people are aware of that. But many people are not familiar that of the socio economic segregation in our schools, we like to think of ourselves as a egalitarian society where your parents paycheck doesn’t predict what your opportunities are in life. And we’d like to imagine our school system is is part of that process where we give everyone a fair go to achieve their potential in life. But in fact, what the research has shown, including that productivity commission report is that this, our schooling system is actually entrenching inequality. So making it harder for some particular groups to achieve their academic potential in life simply by the way we structure our schooling system in Australia.  

Cameron Malcher  So getting back to that idea of policy failings that have contributed to this situation, what are some of the policies that on the surface might have claimed to be addressing issues of equity, or that might have been expected to address issues of equity that you think haven’t achieved their intended goal?  

Michael Sciffer  I think policies that may have claimed to addressed that haven’t, for example, are around the way we fund equity in schools without accountability for that. So we have the the different loadings for student equity in schools, that there’s not a lot of accountability around whether that money actually reaches those students, and how it’s spent on those students. And in fact, the federal government is currently looking into that as to how effective that money has been targeted to those particular students. And at this at the same time, there’s not a lot of pressure on schools to ensure that they are playing their part in ensuring that all young people, particularly disadvantaged young people, that they’re catering catering for them in their schools. So there’s there’s not enough pressure on all schools. All schools, public and private are receiving substantial amounts of money from federal and state governments. Yet there’s not the accountability to ensure that they are playing their part in lifting the in the achievement of all young people in their community.  

Cameron Malcher  Another kind of, perhaps a little bit of a overdone want to call it glib, but another little statement that came out of a lot of the policy discussions and equity, as a way of summarizing some of these problems is just the idea that concentration of disadvantage is itself a further disadvantage. Do you see that reflected in those additional funded loadings like our, our astute schools getting funded, based on their concentration of disadvantage, or just on the individual relative advantage and disadvantage of students  

Michael Sciffer  there in the in the formula, federal formula funding of schools, there is a way of increasing funding to schools based on the level of concentration disadvantage, at this stage, though, that that funding formula has not been fully implemented. So the vast majority of schools with those concentrations of disadvantaged students are public schools. And I think the only jurisdiction where public schools are funded at 100% of that minimum resource standard is in the AC T. Nowhere else in Australia is funded to the those minimum resource standards as a DEP has identified in the original Gonski review. So there is a formula for it. And it’s meant to have happened, but it hasn’t, because the federal government in particular, but state governments as well, are not funding public schools in particular, up to that level. So the mechanism for targeting resources to concentrations of disadvantage have not been implemented yet.  

Cameron Malcher  Well, we did get, you know, when I asked the question earlier about whether we’d seen much of a shift in where the schools were addressing issues or disadvantage, as you say, we didn’t get public schools funded to the full resource standard. But we did get four years of reasonable increases in funding, accounting for I think, only about two thirds of the full increase that was promised under the Gonski model. So what do you see as the barriers to that having the positive impact on student learning? What else is the bigger picture beyond just funding and resourcing that’s actually having that, I don’t wanna say negative impact, but maybe it’s not allowing student learning to progress at the rate that is needed or expected.  

Michael Sciffer  I think, I think funding is the first step. And it’s a necessary step to ensure schools have the resources to address those concentrations of disadvantage. So clearly, schools that have a high proportion of students, from fam from low income families from rural areas, they, they need additional resources to support those young people in their schools, for example, they most likely need smaller class sizes, for example, teachers need more time to work with families, who were children are more likely to have disabilities, for example, because they’re in disadvantaged communities. So that’s why those resources are really important. But then the next thing is, is that we actually, we don’t really understand in Australia, why those concentrations of disadvantage are driving such inequality in our in our in our national schooling system? And that’s because we don’t even measure that. So the first step is we need to actually start measuring. Firstly, where are those concentrations of disadvantage, we know where they are at a system level. And we know state by state, which states are more advantaged than others. But we really don’t know. I mean, you could trawl through the My School website if you wanted to, to try and find disadvantaged schools. But it’s a it’s a really broad brush picture that doesn’t give you enough information to really identify patterns of where those concentrations are. By identifying those patterns, you can start to think about what’s driving those concentrations, and then start thinking about, Okay, why why does it matter? Why are these concentrations of disadvantage, creating such problems in student learning outcomes? We don’t we don’t measure that. So we don’t we can’t answer those questions yet. And then, I guess the the only the only evidence that we have internationally around this whole issue is that the the most effective way of addressing concentrations of disadvantage, in terms of the impacts on student learning is to get rid of concentrations of disadvantage, so to desegregate schools so that’s, that’s certainly happened in the United States. So there is a there is a lot of research, which compares young people who grew up in schooling systems that were highly segregated, versus the next generation when schools were desegregated by race. And that second generation, the achievement gaps between African American and European American students, they shrank a lot. And lifelong outcomes were much better for those young people. That second generation of young people from employment outcomes, income, incarceration rates, health, all those things that the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups closed in the United States. I mean, they weren’t completely closed, but that gaps narrowed. That’s the only evidence we have anywhere in the world of an effective program to address concentrations of disadvantage. And that was to desegregate schools. Well, on that  

Cameron Malcher  example of closing a gap between segregated groups in society, and in that particular case, obviously, it was heavily race based. But was it was the closing of the gap a case of was it was it a case of the two trajectory lines converging a little bit more, meaning the top may have come down a bit more on the bottom may have come off a bit more? Or was it primarily a case of the bottom rising a little bit closer to the more advantaged students?  

Michael Sciffer  It was the it was the bottom rising. So that that’s one of the most interesting things about that research is that there was no negative impacts on the learnings of advantaged students, they continued to achieve as they have in a segregated schooling system. What’s not measured by that research is the positive impacts that those young people experienced in terms of being able to learn social skills, and to learn how to cooperate and get along with people from different backgrounds. So advantage, young people enjoy those benefits. And also, obviously, they enjoyed the benefits of living in communities where there were more economic opportunities for everyone. So therefore, there was less disruptions, crime, those sorts of things, less taxes, they had to pay, because less people were relying on the welfare system, those sorts of things. So everyone benefited in the end. But in terms of any negative, there was no evidence of any negative effects on on the outcomes, learning outcomes of advantage, or white students in the US. It was simply African American students, their outcomes lifted quite markedly.  

Cameron Malcher  And I think I mean, I think that’s a point worth highlighting because in the discussion around issues of school choice, and the separation of public and non government schools, often, especially what I see on social media, in parents groups, and in suburb based community groups, there’s often a bit of a, I think, a fear of integration having a negative impact on one’s own kids. That drives a lot of that conversation. That’s certainly the impression I’ve had from engaging in some of those conversations with people. So I think it’s really worth highlighting the, the idea that that segregation is beneficial for everyone, at least not in the Senate, at least in the sense of not having a negative impact, because that fear of negative impact seems to be what drives so much of the conversation I see online.  

Michael Sciffer  I think so. And I mean, I totally I totally understand the anxiety that parents feel about the future of their own children and wanting to give them every opportunity that they can. That’s a very natural desire that every parent has. I share those desires as a parent, myself. But it’s there’s not the there’s no evidence of those negative impacts. And in fact, if we buy a guess if we allow those fears to drive middle class parents, middle class parents make those choices to withdraw themselves from broader community. Then in the end, they are actually undermining the future of their own children, by segregating society and separating people into different classes of opportunity. History shows what happens in societies where that happens that leads to social breakdown. It’s not a nice place to be. So if we want a cohesive community, we need to ensure every young person is is given a chance to achieve their potential. And that can’t happen in a segregated schooling system.  

Cameron Malcher  I realized this may be something it’s certainly not something that’s strictly in this paper, but it goes to something that you meant mentioned earlier in this interview, one of the things that is a significant driver of school segregation, as you mentioned before was simply housing prices. You know, obviously, the context of 1960s and 70s, USA is a little bit different to 2023. Australia. And that issue of house prices alone is a significant separation factor of communities like you’re not going to find children from the same wealthy advantaged backgrounds in suburbs that are more disadvantaged, and vice versa, simply because they can’t afford to, you know, families that don’t have that socio economic advantage, can’t afford houses another suburb. So is how much of the segregation is driven or reflective of the fact that our society is quite segregated. And because of the, you know, spread out nature of social dwellings in Australia, we have a very segregated living arrangement. There are very, very wealthy and advantage suburbs, and they’re very well, very disadvantaged suburbs. How would you go about desegregating those school systems where they are geographically separated and segregated?  

Michael Sciffer  Yeah, I mean, that’s, that’s definitely a key driver of segregation is suburban, house and land prices. And, and that’s why in the United States, for example, which is well over 90%, our public schooling system in the US, so that a lot of the battles in the US on school boards are around school boundaries, drawing up those boundaries to exclude or include particular parts of a community from a school enrollment zone. So it does matter. And it certainly matters in the United States. And it doesn’t does matter here in Australia as well. Thankfully, we’re not yet as segregated by suburban areas as the US is. And that’s largely because our incomes aren’t as divergent as the US. But I mean, there are some things governments can do about that, for example, ensuring that there’s an even spread of public housing across neighborhoods. So maybe get rid of some of the middle class nimbyism around who lives in their neighborhood ensuring that our neighborhoods are a diverse mix of all Australians, not just one particular group of Australians. And then the other the other solution to that in metropolitan areas is public transport. So when I, when I visit Sydney, I see a lot of young people in school uniforms, on trains that appear to be traveling all over the city. At least attending different private schools. So there’s certainly a way for middle class students in cities to get around to different schools, and that’s on the public transport system. Where are those options for working class kids to access the public transport system to access or the rich variety of schools that are on offer in places like Sydney and Melbourne? Yeah. That that that itself? And I’m, I guess when I suggest these ideas, it’s certainly not saying that that’s the policy solution. But it’s certainly an option for middle class families. Why not spread that to working class families as well?  

Cameron Malcher  Yeah, although what you say just there about public transport, for example, serving students in sort of the immediate inner city area very well, you know, I mean, I live in the sort of outer ring of Sydney. And while the public transport still quite reasonable and reliable, it immediately breaks down for that kind of daily commute. For example, if you’re going anywhere, but into the CBD, it’s just not supported. You know, I live, I live in one of the outer suburbs of what’s known as the University of Sydney. And I live not far from one of the state’s most expensive private schools, and another kind of middle range Catholic school, and then a couple of public high schools nearby. And the train line that comes closest to all of those, the only way to get onto it, if you don’t live nearby is via the CBD. So it becomes an hour journey. So any students who wanted to travel either away from those schools or to those schools, is facing potentially an hour long public transport journey from any other suburb that’s not already in this area. It’s, it’s quite, I don’t know, I like to think of it as being kind of the law of unintended consequences in many ways, because we do have quite a robust public transport system, but the students are very localized. It’s very isolated in where they can actually access it. A via public transport. It’s an interesting factor.  

Michael Sciffer  Neighborhood segregation is very challenging. And it’s it’s, it’s an area that’s really not even thought about in Australia, but certainly in European cities, and US cities, it’s thought about a lot, and there are policies to try and address it. But I think, as a first step, we should be thinking about actual education policies that are driving segregation. They are much easier to address. They don’t involve shifting people to new suburbs or anything like that. They’re simply about thinking about how we spend, how we account for public money, and how that money is used to educate young people. That’s much less radical reform. In many ways, it’s simply just ensuring there’s some accountability for public funding. And I think addressing segregation driven by schools is a much easier policy area, in terms of the logistics of it. Politically, it’s quite challenging, of course. But in terms of, you know, comparing that to building more train lines, for example, or building more public housing, it’s actually a much, much simpler proposition to address the drivers of segregation within the actual within actual school policies.  

Cameron Malcher  Well, before we get into a bit more detail about what could be some of the policy tweaks here in Australia, I just want to expand on international comparisons a bit more. We’ve talked about the United States, particularly historically. But as was mentioned earlier in this interview, comparisons through OECD data through PISA is one of the things that’s really highlighted just how relatively segregated our schools are. Where does that place us in terms of educational outcomes compared to systems that aren’t so segregated? It  

Michael Sciffer  what it what it does is that it means that our schools in Australia are an important factor in terms of inequities in our schooling system. So our net, the National Education declaration talks about a goal for Equity and Excellence for our schooling system. And if that, if that is a genuine goal of equity, then clearly we want a schooling system that contributes to equity. But the reality in Australia is that our schooling system contributes to inequality. Unlike other schooling systems, I think that the schooling system I think is most comparable, or could be the most comparable, in terms of the sort of society it comes from. Is is Canada, simply by way of history and geography. They’re, they’re a federated Commonwealth from a British colonization, horrific crimes against their indigenous populations. Very wealthy, now, a strong welfare state. A large resource base, modern economy, many things that are very similar between Canada and the US and Australia. And one area that’s different is that Canada, on certainly one measure from the OECD has the lowest level of school segregation within the OECD. So that’s one system to which we we could think about in terms of relative comparisons. I know a lot of people talk about Finland, for example, which also has amazing, great outcomes in terms of equity and excellence, compared to Australia. But it is a it is a very different country, culturally, and economically and historically to Australia. It’s very cohesive. It’s not as multicultural as Australia. But Canada is very similar in many ways to us. And they’re doing in terms of equity. They’re doing better than Finland now. And that if you want to look at league tables of outcomes, just an achievement, the average scores Canada is beating Australia every year since 2000. in Pisa, so they they get better outcomes on average. And their gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students is much smaller. It’s about half the size of Australia’s and their school segregation. Is is minimal compared to Australia’s  

Cameron Malcher  Can we just go little bit deeper into that Canada comparison, because you mentioned that they’ve consistently been higher than Australia in the PISA league tables. Now, when PISA was first run, the results were first published in 2000. I think the test was first run in 99. And everyone was kind of surprised that Australia’s results at that time and I think we came in stretching my memory. Now I think we came in like we’re in the top 10 for almost every category. And we’re like fifth for either numeracy or, anyway, we were quite highly ranked. Since then, the narrative of Australian education has been of declining rankings in those PISA rankings, particularly in the last decade. Has Canada maintained their place, or have they perhaps had a similar narrative have declined, but at a slower rate, how have they compared to Australia’s trajectory over that time,  

Michael Sciffer  there’s minimal, minimal decline in Canada’s and I think their place is the same in most years. There’s been other countries, interestingly, that have improved. Estonia is the standout, they’ve seemed to have come from nowhere to be right up there in the top, top three, or top two or something in the 2018 results. Poland has been another one that improved its outcomes. And in both those countries, the reason why they did is that they improve the outcomes of disadvantaged students. So Poland, for example, restructured their schooling system, which led to less inequalities among students in their their opportunities in schooling. And yeah, all those all those top performing countries are highly equitable systems. And many of the reforms that have been introduced in those ones that have that have gotten better have been reforms that have raised the outcomes of disadvantaged students.  

Cameron Malcher  How do we I mean, it’s such a big policy area, how do we clearly attribute cause and effect to that? Or the other things at play? Like how do we how do we confidently stand on that data and say, This is what has led to these improvements?  

Michael Sciffer  It’s, it’s not something that so a data set like PISA is not something that you can say there’s cause and effect. It’s a cross sectional measurement. It measures different cohorts of students each three years, that it’s that it’s done. So you can’t say that, but you can see trends in schooling systems and the effectiveness of those systems. And there’s, there’s multiple things that obviously can impact like economic cycles. So for example, Greece went through its debt crisis, you could clearly see that on their, on their PISA results, the impact of that. So there’s many factors that that can play a role. But so I guess the way to try and look for potential causes, is to look for look for schooling systems that have similar policies, and see if they get similar results. And what we do see in the OECD is that schooling systems that are less segregated, have much better results for disadvantaged students. And they tend to be the systems that are performing above average as well. There’s other things that contribute to that, for example, the level of investment in schooling systems, the the level of training for teachers, quality of curriculum, respect for the profession, says systems that have a society that have really high respect for teachers, and it’s very difficult to become a teacher, because it’s such competition to get into it. Those are also schooling systems that are performing well. So there’s a range of factors. But one of them that’s really important is the outcomes of disadvantaged students. I guess, I guess one way to think about it is if you’ve got a limited pool of resources, and you’re trying to maximize your outcome or investment, then you would target that at an area that’s going to have the highest payout. And when it comes to student learning, students who are already achieving really well or above average, investing more in them only adds a little bit more to their achievement growth. Whereas students who are below average because of disadvantage you get you get much greater returns on your investment. In those students, so if you want to think about it purely from a numbers, and competition between countries and league tables and those sorts of things, the best place to put your resources and policy efforts are into those students who are going to share the greatest gains in achievement growth. And that’s clearly those who are currently below average, which is our disadvantaged students.  

Cameron Malcher  But I suppose the reason I’m I’m wanting to get a better understanding. I mean, obviously, as you say, Pisa is a limited data set that measures and compares a certain number of things. But when we talk about the relationship of segregation to school achievement, you know, you said that the United States as an example was over 90% public schooling system and less segregated than Australia is now. Yet they consistently perform worse than Australia. in Pisa. I think there’s only a couple of years where the United States has actually ranked above Australia in key measures of Pisa. So how does that how does that fit within this, this framework?  

Michael Sciffer  That’s because to think about the way disadvantaged impacts on young people, it impacts on them as individuals. And it impacts on them as a cohort within a school. So in the United States, the individual impacts on student outcomes, in terms of the impacts of disadvantage, much stronger than they are in Australia, because we have a much better welfare system in Australia, we have a much certainly much better health care system in Australia, compared to the United States. And we, we invest a lot, our investment at the individual student level, is better as well in Australia. So at an individual level, disadvantage, isn’t as strong as an impact in Australia as the US, but but at a school level, it is stronger in Australia than in the United States. So the type of school you go to in Australia matters more than it does in the United States. So that’s how segregation plays out differently between Australia and the US. So overall, the impacts of disadvantage are stronger in the US. But in terms of the school level impacts of disadvantage, they’re stronger in Australia. So it’s a complex picture. But if you want to look at systemic drivers of inequality, which is obviously what governments have the greatest ability to influence, or certainly education departments do, then it’s obviously the effects of schools and teachers. And those effects of schools in Australia are stronger than in the United States, and especially in terms of the impacts of disadvantage.  

Cameron Malcher  I see. And I think that’s also a good representation of, as you say, the multifaceted parts of society that contribute to that bigger picture. It’s not just education, it’s, as you say, health, its welfare, its social supports more generally. Yeah. Yeah. So I suppose the big question is, and, you know, something that’s coming out of your research is, what can we as a school system, as a country be doing to improve this issue of equity and segregation? You know, at the moment, our federal government have delayed and are still negotiating the next education reform agreement? What would you like to see included in that to help significantly address some of these issues of equity and segregation?  

Michael Sciffer  I think in the next, in the next reform agreement that they need to get a handle of those findings from the Productivity Commission, in terms of those systemic inefficiencies are drivers of inequality in the schooling system. So they need to start measuring that. So they need to come up with some measures of school segregation, and its impacts on student outcomes. That would be a first step, which could help guide future reform agreements around addressing those impacts. So you need to start measuring that so you can identify where it’s happening, what systems potential causes are the patterns of it, that sort of thing. Until you measure it, you can’t address it. So for example, with a current funding system, we target funding to disadvantaged students, because we can do that because we actually measure that disadvantage. So when, when parents enroll their children at school, the enrollment forms asked for their occupation group and their education. And then we use that as a measure of that child’s educational advantage or disadvantage. We also include, whether they’re a First Nation student, we look at the rural location of the school. And we also look at the per foot proportion of disadvantaged students in a school, we grab all those factors, we can then target resources to it. If we want to be able to start to address the system level drivers of inequality in Australian schools, we need to start measuring those system drivers. And we do have the data to do that. Now. We already have that I’ve been able to grab that data myself, and publish the results of that on particular years of students.  

Cameron Malcher  So just to be clear, what what makes up that additional data, you know, what you’ve talked about that is already measured, seems quite broad. And just by geographical concentration, you think they could start to paint a picture? What specifically is it that you have access to that could be measured more directly. So once  

Michael Sciffer  you take once you measure each individual student’s socioeconomic status, based on their parental occupation and education, you can then create a measure of the average level or socio economic status of a school, simply by taking the average of the of every student in a school. Now, they sort of do that with on the My School website with Ixia. But it’s a bit of a composite of a range of factors, not just socioeconomic status. But they do actually have a measure of average school SES, which they include in the NAPLAN reports. Sorry, no, they don’t include in the NAPLAN reports, which they include on the My School website. And they use it for targeting funding to concentrations of disadvantage, and they’re measured in in quartiles or groups of 25%. So there is actually a measure of it. But it’s, it’s kind of a bit clunky at them at the moment, but they’ve got the data already. The other the other sort of data that you need, is ABS data around geographical areas. So if you want to measure segregation, you need to think about segregation between who. So it’s not really very interesting or fair to compare a school in outback, Queensland, to one in the leafy leafy suburbs of Melbourne, for example. extremely different school communities, totally different school systems. There’s no point thinking about, unlike obviously, they’re two very different school populations, that one’s more advantage than the other. And that clearly predicts some of the differences in outcomes. But there’s not a lot anyone could do about that difference between those schools in terms of who goes to them. So you need to really think about okay, those, you need to think about neighborhoods, suburbs, communities, districts, etc. So the ABS does have measures of that I won’t go into the details of that go into the technical details of that. But the ABS already does have measures of that around communities of interest, which often centered around large commercial areas, or transport hubs, or local government areas, that data already exists, you can combine that with data that a car already has, and is available to researchers, for example, and you can start measuring segregation within communities between schools. It’s, it’s, it’s done in the United States. It can be done in Australia with existing data, it just needs to be put together.  

Cameron Malcher  So once hopefully, governments decide to put that data together and actually get that clear picture. What do we look at long term, particularly to address this issue of school segregation?  

Michael Sciffer  I mean, we can keep targeting resources to disadvantaged schools. But I don’t see a lot of evidence to say that that’s going to completely close that gap. He will support that. But I think I think the greatest impact that targeting resources to disadvantage students, the greatest impact it can have, is that it can give confidence to parents in a community that our schools well resourced to address the needs that it has, and therefore I can have confidence to send my own child to that school. What I mean that there’s some things we could do to ameliorate the impacts of segregation. So for example, governments could, or universities under the direction of the government could adjust tertiary entrance scores based on the type of school that you go to to address that disadvantage, so it’s actually very easy to be able to predict HSC results, the impact of the school you go to in terms of how segregated it is, what’s the effect is, what’s the worth, how’s that going to impact your results that which then go towards your ATAR? We can, we can measure that. And we could adjust ATAR scores to compensate students for that. So at the moment, as a society, we’ve decided to disadvantage some some young people, by educating them in schools that a highly concentrated of other disadvantaged students, we’ve made that choice as a society. So what do we do for those young people to compensate them for that choice that we’ve made as adults? Well, we could increase their ATAR scores. So as a community, we’ve we’ve chosen that we’ve made the decision that some children are going to miss out, how do we compensate that I think we could at least ensure that they get the scores that they would have gotten if they were attending a school system that’s not segregated. So that’s, that’s something we could do. It wouldn’t cost any money. It’s just some statistical calculations on a computer. So that that could be one way to do it. I think that ultimately, what we need to do is start doing things that other schooling systems have done 40 to 60 years ago, and that is make our schools less segregated. So reduce the inequalities between our schools based on the top students that attend them. The only way we can do that is to make parents feel confident in being able to send their child to any school, knowing that every school is a high quality school that will allow their child to achieve their potential in life. That goes back to resourcing in a big way. But also, we also need to make schools accountable for the public funding that they receive. So schools that are in receipt of public funding, should have an obligation to the taxpayer, to educate all Australians, not just a particular group of Australians. So if a school is, let’s say, gets 90%, of public funding equivalent to a nearby public school, then it seems reasonable that that school would educate, you know, a pretty close proportion of or pretty close number of disadvantaged school students as a nearby public school that’s fully funded. So one way to address this would be to require schools that receive public funding, which is every school as far as I’m aware, in Australia, in proportion to the taxpayer funding they receive, they could be required to educate a proportion of disadvantaged students from the local community. So if the only if a if a school receives a small amount of public funding, then it would only be a small requirement on them to enroll a certain number of disadvantaged young people from the community. But if they receive a very high proportion of funding, then it’s certainly my view, then that they have an obligation to the community to be representative of the community. Because it’s taxpayers money. And there should be accountability around that. Now, I know that sounds like quite a radical reform, and it’s not something that could be achieved overnight. But I guess as a first step, school should at least be should at least be reporting how well they do that?  

Cameron Malcher  Well, I mean, it as you mentioned before, there has been a lot of talk at a federal level of increasing accountability for particularly non government schools and how they use their funding for starting just the educational outcomes. I mean, there was that there was a story that I think kicked off a bit of Federal Minister Claire’s discussion about school funding, at the very beginning of the year of a school using money for principals plunge pool in his private residence that really started the ball rolling on discussions of accountability and how money is being used for educational outcomes. But it seems to me and I realized what I’m saying maybe a bit in politic, but it seems to me like what you’re suggesting, kind of flies in the face of the purpose of quite a number of schools, in that for some people as going back to that idea of, of the fear of impact for your own children. The self segregation is the point.  

Michael Sciffer  That That may well be the point that some school boards may hold. But is that the point that the taxpayer holds for that money? I mean, does does does The taxpayers seriously hand over their money to the government to disadvantage future generations of Australians? Because that’s currently what how school funding is. Yeah, I  

Cameron Malcher  was gonna say the answer that is yes. At the moment. They do. Absolutely. Yes. Yeah.  

Michael Sciffer  That is, I mean, is that really what the community would want? I mean, I doubt it. Is that Is that what is? I mean, does the government think that’s a good investment of public finances to create systemic inefficiencies in our schooling system? I mean, maybe that is the choice. But to me, it’s certainly not a rational choice. And it’s certainly not a moral choice to do that. But yeah, if we’re going to if if we actually want to be a system that ensures every young person achieves academic outcomes, that they that meets their potential, then we have to grapple with these issues. If we, I mean, we can keep throwing money at disadvantage, or we can enter disadvantage. Yeah, I think one, I think, I think the most rational one is to get rid of the disadvantage in our schooling system.  

Cameron Malcher  While obviously, I’m very much in agreement, Michael, about the idea of ending disadvantage as a policy priority, I think it’d be very interesting to hear the arguments against that idea that might come, especially as you said before, that those issues of school segregation are also high predictors of participation in society, employment, and all of those other things that have a cost to society. But for anybody who’d like to read more about this or learn more about these issues, where would you recommend they look,  

Michael Sciffer  they want to learn more about this, I guess, as a topic in Australia. I recently had published a article in the conversation, which is entitled, The type of school you go to matters. Google that, and you’ll find that and that has some links to my research and other people’s research as well. If someone’s particularly interested in my research, I have a ResearchGate profile. So you can just go to ResearchGate. Google my name Michael cipher, that will bring that up. Other people that they might be interested in. So people like Greg Pilates in the United States, Stephen Gorod, in the UK, Laura Perry, here in Australia, who’s my supervisor? These are researchers who have done a lot of work in this area as well.  

Cameron Malcher  Excellent. Well, I will make sure there’s a link to your profile into those papers in the show notes for this episode. Michael, we can only hope that in the renegotiation of Neeraj. People are listening to some of these ideas, but certainly our listeners appreciate it. Thank you very much for your time. No worries. Thanks for the time, Cameron  

1 thought on “TER #227 – School Segregation and Policy Failures with Michael Sciffer – 17 Aug 2023

  1. Such an important discussion on the systemic drivers of disadvantage in Australian education and how desegregation of Australian schools and education policy, resources and funding can be utilised for more equitable life outcomes. Looking forward to informing myself more on these increasingly crucial societal measures and solutions.

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