This Thursday the Gonski Institute for Education will be hosting its 2nd Public Lecture responding to Gonski 2.0. Speaking from an educational leadership perspective, Dr Scott Eacott, Dr Richard Niesche, Robyn McKerhian and Iris Nastasi will discussion the problems and possibilities.

The event will be live stream and then available via You Tube. As soon as the links are known they will be added here, as will a link to Dr Eacott’s slides.

For further details or to register for the event, see: here

Below is a copy of my presentation text

Gonski 2.0 and Principal Preparation: A Response

Since its release on 28 March there has been substantial dialogue and debate on what is, and is not, in the Federal Government’s Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools – affectionately known as Gonski 2.0 (and this is the label I will adopt for the rest of this paper). Reactions have varied, ranging from the supportive through to rejection. But as is always the case with such reports, the nuances of what it means for those working in and with schools is important.

The executive summary of Gonski 2.0 outlines some of the contexts in which it was prepared, including:

  • In a world where education defines opportunity, schooling must support every one of Australia’s 3.8 million school students to realise their full learning potential and achieve educational excellence.
  • Since 2000, however, academic performance has declined when compared to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
  • Declining academic performance is jeopardising the attainment of Australia’s aspiration for excellence and equity in school education.
  • The extent of the decline is widespread and equivalent to a generation of Australian school children falling short of their full learning potential.

What cannot be lost in this discussion is the idiosyncratic nature of Australian federalism. Constitutionally, education is the responsibility of the States / Territories. Despite this, it is the Commonwealth government that holds the funds – distributed via States / Territories. This leads to strategic reporting of funding arrangements to best meet arguments. Irrespective of this underlying condition, the issue of declining – or at best stagnate – performance has been consistent across government (at all levels) and systemic rhetoric for some time. The unanimously accepted idea is that reform is needed. But what can and should this reform look like? And what are the issues that Gonski 2.0 raises?

In this paper, I am going to focus on Chapter 4: Empowering and Supporting School Leaders, and in particular, the implications for principal preparation. Importantly, what I offer here is not a definitive statement on principal preparation in Australia. Rather, this paper is a researched informed (a claim that not all responses to Gonski can make) contribution to ongoing dialogue and debate on the issue of principal preparation from an educational leadership academic perspective. There is of course a bias present as I work in a university and teach almost exclusively into the Master of Educational Leadership, and graduate research programs (PhD, EdD, Masters by Research, and Honours) in educational leadership. But this does not reduce the strength of argument and is no more a vested interest than anyone else responding to public policy.

Recommendations and findings

Chapter 4 includes three findings and four recommendations. The findings focus on comprehensive training and preparation of aspiring school principals (Finding 13), alignment with the Australian guidelines for school leadership development and monitoring for effectiveness (Finding 14), and ongoing participation by principals in quality professional learning centred on leading learning (Finding 15). The specific recommendations are:

Recommendation 17
Review and revise the Australian Professional Standard for Principals to prioritise leadership of learning and make maximising the learning growth of every student every year the key focus.

Recommendation 18
Ensure principals have the professional autonomy and accountability required to lead their school on the improvement journey most relevant to their starting point.

Recommendation 19
Create and provide opportunities to implement a structured career pathway for school leaders which articulates clearly defined roles and development streams for middle leaders through to experienced principals and provides the opportunity for remuneration, recognition and allocation of responsibilities appropriate to the role.

Recommendation 20
Provide school leaders with access to a variety of professional learning opportunities appropriate to their career stage and development needs and recognise and harness the skills and experience of high-performing principals by enabling them to share their expertise across schools and throughout the system.

In this relatively short response paper, and in the interests of not diluting my argument too much, I take stimulus from Recommendation 20 and focus on three matters: i) variety of professional learning opportunities; ii) career stage and development needs; and iii) relevance and currency.

Variety of professional learning opportunities

Any argument about ensuring that current and aspiring principals have a variety of professional learning opportunities requires some evidence as to what current practices are. So what do we know about school leaders’ professional learning? While there is arguably systemic data on this, there is not too much publicly available. To that end, if we review the Australian Council for Educational Research triennial Staff in Australia’s Schools survey (McKenzie, Weldon, Rowley, & Murphy, 2014), we see that the average primary school leader participates in 13.7 days of professional learning per year, with secondary school leaders slightly lower at 12.1. Both values are higher than teachers with 10.1 (primary) and 8.2 (secondary) respectively, which may or may not be surprising. These professional learning opportunities are primarily offered by employers (including regional / local offices), professional associations (e.g., Australian Council for Educational Leaders, Australian College of Educators), and to a lesser extent, universities, with many supplemented through informal mentoring relationships and other networks. These professional learning opportunities are considered as helpful or very helpful by 84% or more participants.

The underlying question is therefore around quality and professional learning that has an impact on practice. In Gonski 2.0 this is said to be achieved by aligning with the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s (AITSL) Australian guidelines for school leadership development. Given the politicised role of AITSL and the profession’s engagement with it, I am going to refer to the work of Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2007) on the qualities of exemplary leadership preparation programs. They articulate seven qualities:

  • Clear focus and values about leadership and learning around which the program is coherently based;
  • Standards-based curriculum emphasizing instructional leadership, organizational development, and change management;
  • Field-based internships with skilled supervision;
  • Cohort groups that create opportunities for collaboration and team-work in practice oriented situations;
  • Active instructional strategies that link theory and practice, such as problem based learning;
  • Rigorous recruitment and selection of both candidates and faculty; and
  • Strong partnerships with universities, schools and districts to support quality field-based learning

These are not too dissimilar to the goals of Gonski 2.0, particularly the focus on instructional leadership. There has been a lengthy history of partnerships in developing leadership preparation programs in all sectors and states / territories. If we accept that teachers are the key leverage point for improving performance then focusing leadership preparation and development on instruction makes sense. And improving instruction is only made possible by having a model of pedagogy that is desired (Ladwig, 2005), something that has been replaced in the rhetoric with a list of practices based on effect sizes. Whether this list constitutes a coherence model of pedagogy is infrequently discussed to any great extent. The former (a model of pedagogy) can be used to work with teachers while the latter (a list) simply tells teachers and leaders what to do.

What has not been addressed in any great detail at least in Australia, is how an increasing number of school leaders are turning to social media for professional learning. This is however far from trouble free. In some currently under review work, I investigated whether there is potentially ‘social science Kardashians’ in educational leadership. That is, are there educational leadership ‘researchers’ (those who trade on academic titles and/or affiliations) who have social media profiles that exceed what could be expected given their research / scholarly track record might indicate? This work is an appropriation of Hall’s (2014) work in Genome Biology. Using a sample of educational leadership researchers on Google Scholar with Twitter profiles, the findings are interesting for thinking through leadership preparation and development and what leaders are exposed to.

Of the 30 researchers identified through Google Scholar, only four had Kardashian-index or K-Index scores that were high (2.5 times the median absolute deviation from the trendline), and two were only just (less than 0.1 above the threshold). In contrast, 8 of the 20 researchers identified through keynote speakers at educational leadership conferences had high K-index (ranging from double the threshold through to ten times). What this means is that a number of big names called upon to give keynotes (and usually regularly) are not those researchers who have attracted attention for the quality of their research in the traditional academic sense (e.g., peer reviewed publications, citations). It is quite possible that some of these keynote speakers are simply famous for being famous. There is much more nuance to this claim that I have engaged with here, but it is worth thinking about. If the speakers invited to keynote at conferences are invited because they are big names and will get ‘bums on seats’ rather than due to new or quality research then it is possible that they are what current and aspiring educational leaders come to see as the cutting edge of research. For me, this is highly problematic and something that all involved in the preparation and development of school leaders need to be mindful of. We cannot assume that the big names we are exposed to, especially those regularly cycling around the keynote circuit are reflective of the latest and greatest in research.

A secondary analysis stimulated by the K-index work was the possibility of Twitter Tagging Cartels. That is, when famous keynotes consistently tag one another in tweets – not for the purpose of engaging in conversation, rather just tagging. A form of social media name dropping. Building profiles through connections. In this case, it is possible that those on the fringe of this power group (the ordained next generation) extend their reach and influence – irrespective of the quality of their research – solely through connections. In many ways, there is nothing new about this, but social media has provided a new infrastructure for these entrepreneurial types to build profiles and followership well in excess of what traditional measures of academic success might suggest.

If quality and variety are issues for the ongoing professional learning of current and aspiring principals, then further dialogue and debate is necessary as to what constitutes quality and how does the field assure that this is what we have moving forward.

Career stage and development needs

There is a well-rehearsed line of argument that the professional learning needs of educators, including those in leadership positions, changes with career stages. What is rarely discussed is how do we best define career stage?

Common approaches have focused on experience – usually defined in years – and/or role (e.g., assistant principal, deputy principal, principal). To a certain extent, the latter is present in Gonski 2.0 with reference to a structured career pathway and linked professional learning. And this is also an approach taken by many systems. But is there a text of equivalency here? How do we know that such groups, whether they be based on years of experience and/or role are a homogenous group? Is there a difference based on context? Do rural and regional school leaders need the same as urban? What if you move contexts do you need to do it again from a different perspective? What if you chance sectors, move states, and so on?

An alternate version is currently underway given the roll out of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Rather than based on years of experience and/or role, you now have a career structure built on performance – or at least those willing to subject themselves to evaluation (and the cost) of higher levels of accreditation. For principals (current and aspiring) this is made a little more complicated by the fact that AITSL has ‘the’ Principal Standard. Note the singularity. Despite its visual representation, unlike the teacher standards, there is only the principal standard. How then do principals continue to engage with ongoing professional learning linked to career stage if there is a glass ceiling of performance?

What role do credentials play in the preparation and development of principals? From a formal perspective, there is the traditional pathway of Bachelor (or the increasingly popular Master of Teaching) as Initial Teacher Education, followed by post-graduate coursework (Graduate Certificate and/or Masters) and then post-graduate research (Masters by Research, EdD, or PhD). What role can, or should this pathway play in the development of Australia’s school leaders?

For me, mindful of my bias, there is a significant role to be played by universities in this space. Systems do a fantastic job of preparing their leaders for leading in their systems. The ACER research supports this, and it makes sense. Who better to prepare and develop leaders for working in a system than the system? But what of more? Gonski 2.0 spends a lot of time discussing the role of personalised learning, what would this look like for school leaders (and teachers for that matter). There are, as I flagged earlier, examples of systems and universities partnering for credentialing. But I want to make a specific argument here. That is, despite the push to have impact and perpetual improvement, there is more to the preparation and development of school leaders then learning to lead. What I believe is also required is a focus on learning for leading. The latter is of increasing importance in an era of standardisation, data-drive decision, and policy informed research – and something that is not always delivered from the inside of a system. Challengingly though, learning for leading does not always have an immediately recognisable impact is therefore often dismissed as irrelevant.

Relevance and currency

The question of relevance and currency is an ongoing one for principal preparation and development. In attempting to standardise programs what is left are simplistic one-size-fits-all approaches stripped of the diversity and variety that gives strength to a field. Think here of how aligning with the professional standards is stripping initial teacher education of philosophy, sociology, history, organizational theory and reducing it to a technicist deliverology – an argument that to some extent has been led by the profession. The same can be said of principal preparation and development programs needing to align with the immediately observable work of principals. If we reduce programs to learning to lead, then who gets to decide what we are leading for, and for whom, is removed. In seeking problem solvers and not problem posers we lose diversity and the asking of big questions.

Education is complex. There are no simple solutions. Programs should reflect this. As English (2006) argues they should have ‘internal contradictions, antinomies, circularities, and contested intersections. In short, a cutting-edge, research-centred preparation program would reflect the knowledge dynamic at work in which it is embedded’ (p. 466). Therefore, while I welcome the Gonski 2.0 idea of recognising and harnessing the skills and experience of high-performing principals by enabling them to share their expertise across schools and throughout the system, I am reminded of Thomson (2010) arguing do we want to learning how to play the game better or challenge the very rules of the game and its formula for success? For me, the big questions and issues of education are not going to be resolved through playing the current game better.

What learning for leading does is introduce current and aspiring school leaders to the conversation of the world. Through broad exposure one is better positioned to have clarity of purpose, be judged on the coherence of practice with that purpose, and generate the narrative of what is and can be education. This is not about being the local face of a system – although I am aware there is that role to play – but focused on leading a narrative of education. After all, if educators do not tell the story of their school, staff, communities, and most importantly students, someone else will have data to do so.

Conclusion

There is a substantial amount of recommendations, problems, and possibilities in Gonski 2.0. For educational leaders, at all levels, there is plenty to do. In this paper I have focused on some matters to do with the preparation and development of school leaders, notably principals. Is the argument complete – far from it! But when is anything in education ever complete. And more importantly, that was never my intent. Rather, what I am hoping to do is start a dialogue and debate about what can and could principal preparation and development in Australia be.

Irrespective of what one thinks of the Gonski 2.0 report and its recommendations, and the potential of Australian politicians to deliver, there is a genuine opportunity for the profession to stand up and lead a conversation of Australian education. Does this require the field to come together to have a shared vision, possibly, but if so, I would argue that this shared vision needs to be a commitment to contestation, to dialogue and debate. One where we do not accept a one size fits all approach and instead seeks to learning from one another – across sectors – in the interests of working for students. To do so we must go beyond the loudest and biggest voices to bring diversity of thought and opinion together to not simply problem solve but to ask questions. The big questions that shape the education of Australia’s children require substantial commitment and as a profession are we up for it, I think so.

References

Darling-Hammond, L., LaPointe, M., Meyerson, D., Orr, M. T., & Cohen, C. (2007). Preparing school leaders for a changing world: Lessons from exemplary leadership development programs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University | Stanford Educational Leadership Institute.

English, F. W. (2006). The unintended consequences of a standardised knowledge base in advancing educational leadership preparation. Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(3), 461-472.

Hall, N. (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome Biology, 15(7), 424. doi:10.1186/s13059-014-0424-0

Ladwig, J. G. (2005). Monitoring the quality of pedagogy. Leading & Managing, 11(2), 70-83.

McKenzie, P., Weldon, P., Rowley, G., & Murphy, M. (2014). Staff in Australia’s schools 2013: main report on the survey. Canberra, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Thomson, P. (2010). Headteacher autonomy: a sketch of a Bourdieuian field analysis of position and practice. Critical Studies in Education, 51(1), 5-20. doi:10.1080/17508480903450190

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