Staying at School Ain't Silly

Nicholas Gruen draws my attention to a piece on school completion by CIS researcher Peter Saunders (based on a longer paper here), who argues:

Three-quarters of students currently stay to year 12, and most of them benefit from higher earnings and better job prospects as a result. But this doesn’t mean the remaining quarter would enjoy these same outcomes if they too stayed on, for the more we extend schooling, the deeper we delve down the ability pool.

The Australian Council for Educational Research finds that, far from benefiting from more education, low ability students lose from it. They increase their unemployment risk by three percentage points and reduce their earnings by 5 per cent by staying at school for two additional years. They are better off leaving after year 10 and getting a job.

This is the ACER report Saunders is referring to, which is mostly OLS (its IV stratagy uses instruments I find pretty unconvincing). By contrast, most published economic research on this topic finds large and positive wage returns for dropouts when schooling is instrumented using school leaving laws. In other words, the average across-the-board wage gain from another year of schooling is large, but so is the wage gain enjoyed by a child who is forced to stay on at school for a year by a compulsory schooling law. In the Australian case, here’s the abstract of a paper that Chris Ryan and I have forthcoming in the Economics of Education Review:

Estimating Returns to Education Using Different Natural Experiment Techniques 
We compare three quasi-experimental approaches to estimating the returns to schooling in Australia: instrumenting schooling using month of birth, instrumenting schooling using changes in compulsory schooling laws, and comparing outcomes for twins. With annual pre-tax income as our measure of income, we find that the naïve (OLS) returns to an additional year of schooling is 13%. The month of birth IV approach gives an 8% rate of return to schooling, while using changes in compulsory schooling laws as an IV produces a 12% rate of return. Finally, we review estimates from twins studies. While these studies have tended to estimate a lower return to education, we believe that this is primarily due to the better measurement of income and schooling in our dataset. Australian twins studies are consistent with our findings insofar as they find little evidence of ability bias in the OLS rate of return to schooling. Our estimates of the ability bias in OLS estimates of the rate of return to schooling range from 9% to 39%. Overall, our findings suggest the Australian rate of return to education, corrected for ability bias, is around 10%, which is similar to the rate in Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States.

The person I think is most on-the-ball on this issue is Phil Oreopoulos, of the University of Toronto. Over the fold, I’ve pasted his conclusion, from a new chapter entitled Would More Compulsory Schooling Help Disadvantaged Youth? Evidence From Recent Changes to School-Leaving Laws.

This paper uses recent experiences in raising the school leaving age to 17 and 18 in order to assess whether such policies can increase school attainment, and can improve career outcomes. The results suggest that recent and more restrictive compulsory schooling laws reduced dropout rates, increased college enrollment, and improved several social economic indicators. Some caution is warranted, because focusing on more recent law changes leads to less precision, and the results appear to be driven mostly from Hispanics (born in the U.S.) obtaining more schooling. However, the overall estimated effects are quite consistent with previous studies and suggest that compulsory high school at later ages can benefit disadvantaged youth.

States that increased the school leaving age above 16 witnessed an increase in average years of schooling for 20-29 year-olds by approximately 0.13 years, while high school dropout rates fell by about 1.4 percentage points. Raising the age limit also increased post-secondary school attendance by about 1.5 percent, even though postsecondary school is not compulsory. This finding perhaps indicates that would-be dropouts reconsider post-secondary options after they complete, or come close to completing, a high school degree.

Among students who were affected by the more restrictive laws, I estimate that additional compulsory schooling significantly improved their early career outcomes by lowering (on average) the likelihood of unemployment, and by increasing earnings. Furthermore, these individuals were less likely to fall below the poverty line, and were also less likely to receive welfare. Exceptions, leniency, and weak consequences for truancy substantially weakened the effectiveness of these laws of increasing school attainment. Exceptions may be desirable, since some students would clearly not benefit from staying in school. The results in this paper do not determine whether those students for whom exceptions were made exhibit gains from being forced to stay. While allowing exceptions is probably necessary, the results point to the need for more resolve in cases where students begin to display signs that they are disengaging from high school.

Ideally, compulsory schooling laws would need only exist ‘on the books’ if students wouldn’t want to leave unless their friends leave, and most students accept the established norm not to leave before the minimum possible age; in a cyclical pattern of peer influence, students who stay would encourage struggling students to do likewise, thus virtually eliminating drop outs before graduation Greater initial enforcement may help establish an acceptance amongst youth that they are expected to stay in school, therefore limiting the need to enforce such laws in the future. Students may also find it easier to accept staying if schools would offer more curriculum choice (such as traitbased training), as some governments have already done (for example, in the province of Ontario, Canada).

Overall, the results presented in this paper speak in favor of supporting an increase of the school leaving age to 17 or 18. Raising the school leaving age may offer an effective and affordable means to increase education attainment among the least educated, thus improving these individuals’ subsequent employment circumstances and earnings potential.

This entry was posted in Economics of Education. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Staying at School Ain't Silly

  1. conrad says:

    I’m surprised the ACER people came to that conclusion. Flicking through that report, it looks like one of those “we must find a reason” articles which doesn’t have the supporting data (which is disappointing given their level of statistical knowledge — obviously their ability to run the tests and interpret them is different in this case). It seems pretty clear to me that it is basically impossible to estimate the causal effect of staying at school without looking at other factors that they didn’t measure. Had they measured intrinsic motivation and other such variables, I’d bet that the kids that don’t leave school to get a job when they are not doing well are basically the path-of-least-resistance kids (i.e., ones that can’t be bothered doing anything), and some that did leave school early would have been going into family businesses etc. and hence had more reason to. Oddly enough, this is their recommendation of the last paragraph — which is probably already happening and hence partially responsible for their suprising [sic] results.

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    So there are no diminishing returns to education for individuals? I wouldn’t have thought that’s correct at all.

  3. So there are no diminishing returns to education for individuals? I wouldn’t have thought that’s correct at all.

    I would think that diminishing returns would be encountered the further up the “chain” of education you go. Moving a person from illiteracy to literacy would have a far greater impact on the individual and society than, say, moving a person from a PhD. to post-doctoral studies.

    As a high school teacher and as an (amateur) economist, I think the following are the most important to understand:

    1) Primary education (literacy/numeracy) is the most important form of education in our society,
    2) Many children and teenagers do not “fit” into traditional educational structures (ie schools). Alternative forms of education are needed for this minority.
    3) Maintaining objective educational standards is paramount – the goal must be to increase the amount of people who meet these standards on merit.
    4) A free market structure will skew the balance in favour of the rich and educated over the poor and uneducated. Tax revenue must be diverted to give the poor and uneducated a better chance.

  4. Sinclair Davidson says:

    OSO – I think that is about right. I agree with your first three points. Point four is problematic. In Australia tax revenue is already diverted in favour of the apparently poor and uneducated with education expenditure distorted into the public school system.

  5. ChrisPer says:

    And is the income forgone discounted into the person’s earnings?

    When I started Engineering on lecturer told us that he had calculated the cost of one year repeated at four times a graduate’s then annual income.

    The problem is that schooling is less important then avoiding bad strategic life choices.
    If staying at school a year or two helps someone avoid just a couple of those, you will get a better outcome by miles – and it has nothing to do with the benefits of education. (eg teen pregnancy, drug use, criminal convictions)

  6. Quite the opposite, one of the worst and silliest ideas is compulsory education. It does not at all mesh with democracy or liberty or freedom. Like compulsory voting, it is the antithesis of liberty, freedom or responsibility.

    Most young people attend State Schools. Where are the studies that show that the money already spent on providing money for capital infrastructure and staff wages is well spent? Every year there is an outcry for more and more money to be spent on education. How efficiently is that money spent? How much better can that money be spent? Couldn’t 12,000 to 15,000 hours of the lives of young people in compulsory School attendance and the pervasive interference of family life in time spent on more school work at home be far better spent. Any extension in the age of compulsory attendance would require more money to be spent on education than is already spent, or wasted.

    In continuous demeaning of private / independent school education, there is almost never any questioning about the new Church like status of school education, especially State School education.

    I don’t think the right questions are being asked. For instance, where are the questions about whether 8, 9, 10 or 12 years of school education is the best use of the time of young people (the largest minority group of people without any rights, about whom everyone has an opinion, and who are treated like lab rats)? Who is asking the questions about whether the KLA’s could be taught more efficiently in less time? Who is asking whether we continue the process of teaching and delivery simply as a means of supporting the continuing employment of staff to fill their time, and to justify all the money spent on infrastructure and capital items, and waste?

    Young people would be better served by their taking on responsibility and having the choice of what to do with their lives, and to decide whether further time spent at School is of any benefit. When young people are empowered with the freedom and responsibility to make choices and decisions for themselves in a natural, learning environment where they have the support of interested, committed staff, they realise, over time, their choices result in consequences, and they take responsibility for preparing themselves for life as effective adults. I know people will argue that young people don’t know how to make choices or the right choices, and that they might fail (as if failure was not part and parcel of learning and life) and therefore should be compelled to attend School so they know better. My counter to that is that any form of compulsion only extends that time in which others are taking responsibility for them, and so they neither know independence, nor personal responsibility nor how to make effective choices, and worst of all, not anything whatsoever about democracy. Instead there is a continuance of dependence. And it erodes personal initiative, enterprise and innovation – the opposite of what Australia needs. Perhaps that is just what some want – dependent, easily controlled, easily compelled, easily directed, easily manipulated young people who fulfill the needs of the economic machine and are readily subservient to the State, to Unions, to employers, etc, in other words a continuance of this militaristic induction into anti-democratic life.

  7. conrad says:

    Derek, can you specify when people shouldn’t have to go to school? The current age is 15, which takes you to about year 10 (the same as many countries in the world — including some 3rd world ones, like China). Say a 12 year old doesn’t want to go to school (as in any type of school — including home schooling, vs. public school), and their parents allow them not to go. What do you with them, or for that matter, what do you do to them when they are 25 and are illiterate?

  8. Conrad,

    I once made a detailed submission to PM Howard that included support for our view and approach to learning and education (it did not argue a case for ceasing compulsory schooling – in Australia that would be even more heretical) by suggesting that not only would we be far, far happier and relaxed about operating a self-funded (that is free of coercive, manipulative government funding) democratic centre of learning (or school for those who still enjoy using that word) but would gladly deny ourselves and our children access to youth allowances within a short specified time of students graduating and deciding to seek work or establish their own businesses. That’s the extent to which we are prepared to back up our principles with action.

    It was fairly typical of the conservatism of the last federal government, not to respond and to still treat all parents and students in one classification, and not to seek to differentiate between people.

    I don’t think that school is the wrong place for young people to be. I do believe that many schools are wrong for young people. I believe that mainstream school education ought to be a choice. And if schools were places that young people wanted to attend because they were learning things that were relevant to their needs as individuals (rather than according to the demands of others), then most young people would attend anyhow. Parents are responsible for the education of their children. Most delegate that responsibility to the State, believing wrongly that they must. Parents’ role and responsibility is to support their children transition from dependence to independence, and that includes learning and preparation for life as independent adults, self-reliant, self-directed, self-initiating and responsible for themselves with high emotional intelligence, contributing to the social and human capital of the world around them with practical knowledge and understanding of the benefits of open, civil democracy.

    In believing, and knowing, that young people, when empowered with the knowledge that they and they alone are responsible for preparing themselves for life as effective adults, they will do so over the long term, eagerly, with determination and resilience, and they will be successful. Too many people trip over their personal gauge of success, believing that only people with a PhD or a degree or owning 3 houses, 2 cars etc is success. Successful people know they are successful. How each individual measures success is entirely up to them.

    To understand how it is possible for young people to learn and prepare themselves for life after decades of parents and young people being told that they cannot possibly undertake such challenges without a teacher being propped up in front of them telling them how, when and what they shall learn, and governments directing what they shall learn, in what order and at what pace and when they must be tested, the 150 year old curricula driven educational model must be put up on a shelf to continue to gather dust in its irrelevancy to life and the environment outside school compounds.

    A young person can now be illiterate after attending school for 7 or 12 years. How many people are illiterate well into adulthood, even with compulsory schooling? On the other hand when a young person is able to take charge of their lives and knows that only they are responsible for what they learn (and irregardless of what governments and teachers say, that’s what happens in fact, because young people are intelligent, living beings and not empty spaces or programmable computers, who learn to play the game and learn what’s required of them to get through, what the system demands, in all important, all too frequent tests), learning instead what they need to know and working out how they prepare for life, they are unlikely to be illiterate, probably less likely to be illiterate than people emerging from current mainstream education. But as in life there are no guarantees.

    It takes a very different supportive learning environment, a democratic, human rights and responsibilities based centre of learning to secure the necessary rights for children to be treated with respect, as equals, acknowledging their natural intelligence and creativity and their desire to learn, especially about those things that interest themselves most as individuals, not segregated by arbitrary classes, or by arbitrary age groups or by ability (or so called disability), or by gender, or according to the skills of teachers.

    I wouldn’t know what to do with a person who is illiterate at age 25 years, but they’ll know. And when they realise they need to be literate and numerate they’ll do something about it. It would take someone living in a vacuum with others taking responsibility for them, rather than the person taking responsibility for themselves to not realise what is so obvious.

  9. conrad says:

    Derek, I think you are confusing not going to school with what schools (or whatever you want to call them) should be teaching. i.e., compulsary schooling how you want it vs. compulsary schooling how you don’t want it. Its worthwhile noting that it is already legal (I could be wrong on that) for parents to teach their own children, including home schooling, although I’m sure there must be legal caveats to this. The same is true for schools — they can essentially teach whatever they feel like, and they do (which is why you have schools doing international versions of Year 12, versus the State ones which are around). If thats message you want to give, then all you need to do is publicize it (or perhaps people are happy with the current system, which is why so few people do it).

    That is of course a highly different proposition to parents not sending their children to schools (of whatever type) and not teaching them, which is how I read your original note. I imagine the second of these would be fairly common (or perhaps common enough), given the rate of child abuse etc., and my interest is how one would get children educated that live in these circumstances if you had no legal means. I seem to remember having a similar argument with you some time above about a similar issue. I’ll just point out here that if you don’t think there are parents like this, then my recommendation is to go down to DOCS or somewhere like that, and I’m sure you’ll change your mind.

  10. conrad says:

    Derek, as an additional thing you should think about are critical periods in development. If, for example, you don’t learn to read until you are 25 years old, there is a very good chance you will always be a poor reader. You can see this when people learn to read very different scripts later in life (e.g., Chinese->English or vice versa). Here you often have very smart people who try very hard, but some proportion of them are never able to read in their second language/script especially well, for reasons which are not currently clear (some people do fine). Thus if you are 25, you may not know what to do about your illiteracy simply because there is nothing you can do about it — the fact you had bad parents that didn’t send you to schools has basically cursed you all your life.

  11. ChrisPer says:

    Also, the kids who can’t read after school are that way by either serious disability, or serious truancy. Aboriginal kids especially suffer from this, mostly because truancy levels have been astonishing and the teaching time they are in school is wasted on trying to maintain control. The children of literate parents are now often illiterate.

  12. Conrad,

    The only confusion is accepting that I have a different view from yours. I said I don’t agree with compulsory schooling. That does not mean to say that I refuse to accept the legislation that requires compulsory schooling / education. Home based learning is just as valid as any other form of learning. There are schools and then there are the majority of schools which do not suit many young people. The nature, design, staffing, teaching and curricula of many schools are not made for young people of the post industrial, information age of the 21st century, with its many problems created by the current and past generations, but suit a period up to the 18th century.

    The best learning happens when students take on their own self-directed, self-initiated learning, undertaking their own research and study from a range of sources, including fellow students, parents, internet, libraries, the wider community and then if and as necessary seek out assistance and support from committed, interesting and willing life experienced teachers, who then both co-operate as active learners.

    Few, if any, other processes have changed and adapted as little as mainstream education. I have little interest in mainstream education, except with reference to its impacts on individuals, society and the environment. People who choose to involve themselves in mainstream education can live with it or seek to change it as they wish. I also have little interest in changing it, except with respect to re-opening an education institution that better suits my family’s needs, interests and values and that satisfies the needs of those who also choose it. I don’t want or need the approval of others, except that legislation strictly prescribes what is demanded by government. I know legislative and regulatory requirements very well. I know painfully how much it impinges on people making real choices.

    The other confusion may arise from your plucking out an example of how I might respond to a particular person in a particular situation, and asking how I would deal with such a person. It’s too hypothetical. I can say we have worked with some young people rejected by mainstream schools, or who have rejected mainstream schools. Usually they were too intelligent for the system and teachers. A few were functionally illiterate after many years of mainstream schools. It took a long time for those people to overcome the many issues and labels that attached to them from their experiences. Eventually they took responsibility for themselves and learnt what they needed to know (including becoming literate) to become effective adults. Moreover they learnt what it was like to have freedom, and to experience other democratic values, especially of equality, respect, trust and justice and fairness, values they had not previously experienced.

    Too often, people judge and make the rule according to the exceptions. There will always be exceptions. I stated earlier that some people emerge from mainstream education and are still illiterate. I could also add that many young people emerge without life skills or any understanding of democracy, given that they spent most of their lives preparing for life in a civil, open democratic society, in a hierarchical, autocratic environment. My interest is in working with people as individuals, in a participatory democratic environment, whose ideas, needs, values, interests and communication style is not homogenised with other people, so there is not one expectation for a group of people, but the right of individuals to choose to be members of a learning community or not, as individuals.

    The act of compulsion in education serves to lower the reasonable expectations of clients, the students and their parents, and the quality of service delivery, infrastructure, resourcing and maintenance.

  13. conrad says:

    Derek, I think you are confusing what I’m saying (or me vice-versa). I’m happy to see all types of schooling — and that includes home schooling, and, as I pointed out, what you are asking for is legal now. I imagine that if you have the cash, you can start a school up tommorow if you want and get teachers to teach in whatever humanistic style you see fit (if you can find them). There are certainly schools that take very different approaches already in terms of the way things are taught. In Victoria, where I live, for example, you have “music schools” where kids arn’t forced to go at all (McKinnon high), “alternative” schools (Swinburne High), Steiner schools that encourage creative learning, and the old style authoritarian schools full of poor quality bored teachers which you and certainly me went to. I’m not sure how much difference it makes in outcomes, but you can take your pick if you are a parent (and they’re just examples of government funded ones, not that you’ll necessarily able to get into them given the demand for free education). Also, working in universities, I’d love to see people engage in more self-directed learning, as whatever goes on in schooling days doesn’t teach them that — in fact, a reasonable proportion of undergraduates resent having to do any of this at all and also resent problems without easily definable solutions.

    Also, my examples are not just weird hypothetical ones incidentally. This is basically the problem the government faces every day, with the most hyped-up examples to do with black kids living in weird areas (although of course the problem exists to differing extents across Australia).

    To simplify things, let’s say I give you 10,000 kids whose parents are not willing to teach them anything or really care at all whether they go to school. I give you money for 100 specialists and on-costs to try and help them. This is basically the situation as it exists now (who knows the real numbers are — but 1:100 specialists/problems kids[parents] probably wouldn’t be a bad guess). Perhaps I’m really nice and give you special money to set up your new “we love the individuals” school, and you can somehow get staff/teachers for your school that care as much as you do. As should be obvious, you are going to run out of money setting up a new type of school (and it will only be able to take a few hundred of 10,000 anyway), and other such centres you dream of. You also don’t have enough money to help many kids at the individual level (that will be done by DOCS, in a rather less tactful sort of way than you would like) — in fact, you don’t have anything like it. Simply telling people that if they love their kids etc. they’ll learn better isn’t going to help the kid with an alcoholic mother, and nor is the alcoholic mother going to care what you tell them. Even suggestions like helping people 1 on 1, which undoubtely would work better than at present, isn’t going to work, because no-one is going to be willing to give you the money for it. You can try and find volunteers, but you still need resources, and you may not be able to find enough volunteers who are skilled enough anyway.

    Thats why their are laws forcing parents to send their kids to school. Since, whilst forcing parents to send their kids to school might not be optimal given limitless money/resources, the basic idea is that it means even kids with alcholoic mothers (or whatever), have to go, and the government has some sort of recourse to try and get kids to a level where they can at least function in society, even if there is nothing they can do about the parents. The fact that they are being sent to a type of school that might not be the best given all possible types, is simply a restriction caused because there are not limitless resources.

  14. Conrad,

    The only confusion is that what I propose in education (and what we were doing, and achieving, with real outcomes by Students we reported publicly) is NOT legal in our State. The Queensland Government happily saw to that, by changing legislation, so that it became highly prescriptive, anti-choice, took away Natural Justice afforded to State School counterparts and far more controlled than public school education. It was then used it as a blunt instrument against us, because we were different and challenged too much of their notions and the efficiency and efficacy of education. We still intend to reopen our School. People were hurt in many ways by the governments’ actions. None of the people directly connected with the School were listened to. That included all the students, staff, parents, Graduates and schools, organisations and people from around the world who knew us far better than government tried to.

    At least we agree that education should provide the choice of differing models, so that education as a whole might actually learn and move forward.

    I see that you want to provide a social service of creating leaning environments for young people. I simply wouldn’t consider numbers of young people as you suggest. I still believe the conveyor belt like mentality of mass education is the greatest problem. It churns through people and spits them out the other end, but not enough happens in between for those who don’t fit the average, either well below or above. The great leveller that some people see in education also destroys personality, passion and uniqueness.

    If I was in a position to have to consider dealing with 10,000 young people who needed support in education and in their lives, I would want to approach them as individuals. 10,000 is once again simply a number. It would need to be approached in little steps with one person and family at a time. As we treated people at Booroobin we treated each as an individual, along with their families. As we did at Booroobin, I would engage each family, talk through the issues, and reach agreements on ways forward. They would want to be involved, and not forced to be involved, as with legislation making school education compulsory. Irregardless of who they are and their personal circumstances, most parents want the best for their children. Everyone wants and needs respect for who they are. However, part of any agreement would be the unequivocal understanding that school is about learning for young people, and that involves their empowerment to take full responsibility for themselves over time. As we did in our School, and later the self-funded Democratic Centre of Learning, students and staff selected, elected staff who would achieve the sorts of requirements that students had, and who could work as a team. Most of all staff needed real life experiences, and could communicate effectively (including most of all the ability to listen effectively) with students as equals, and be subject to exactly the same Rules, and justice processes as students themselves. We aimed for a staff to students ratio of 1:10, but mostly failed to achieve that at an average of 1:6. On average our Staff was comprised of 60% parents, who had to apply like anyone else, and be screened, and elected and stand for annual elections and performance reviews, like other Staff. Our Staff also were required under their Terms and Conditions of Employment to do whatever was necessary to get the job done, and often worked after hours during the week and on weekends, attending regular Parent / Staff nights, informal gatherings with share meals, Parent Liaison Meetings with students and parents, fundraising, and extra-curricula activities like transporting a car load of young people kyaking at 6.00am on a Saturday morning or a 3 weeks Trip Away, one of many, camping in National Parks en route to north Queensland after assembling all the equipment and building 4 wheel drives from the ground up to engineering standards to get there.

    The people, facilities and resources exist to support all young people. It’s too often misdirected, from central planning areas. No-one should fall through the cracks (in broad, open view) as so often happens. It is essential to devolve the power and ability to do things at community level where the problems are known, to people who have the ability and the fortitude, the interest, commitment and dedication to do the work in resourced aesthetic facilities (if they’re not aesthetically suitable learning environments, we would make them that way with the help, input and assistance of young people) in, or as close as possible to, nature and the natural environment. Why the natural environment? Because we often forget how much people learn so much, given time and the space, from nature.

  15. Andrew Leigh says:

    Derek, you seem to be arguing entirely from theory. But it’s straightforward to present theories that go the other way (as Conrad has persuasively done). The only way to sort this out is to go to the data, which was the point of my paper with Chris.

  16. Andrew,

    When does theory become fact and hard data? When can theory be transformed into reality, when people who have the will, the commitment, the resources and the abilities, are stopped from doing so, without giving up our democratic, human rights, parental, and educational beliefs, principles and values?

    I can quote our data from the experiences of putting our beliefs and principles into action, based on models of education that date back decades.

    There is data assembled in published books like the Sudbury Valley School Press’s “Legacy of Trust” (1992) or “The Pursuit of Happiness – the lives of Sudbury Valley alumni” (2005). You can see the range of publications and learn more about Sudbury Valley on their web site: They have successfully continuously operated for nearly 40years, even though fully self-funded, self-governed, self-managed, and self-determining. Fortunately. they have the right to exist free of the sort of government interference that we experience in Queensland. On the other hand, Summerhill School in Suffolk, England, survived the threat of of closure by their Labour Government, through good legal representation, of GeoffreyThere is a clear difference between places where people are viewed as masses or in bulk terms rather than as individuals. I have a clear preference for the latter. The issue of data vs theory arises from these differing standards, values and views.

    I could simply point to the fact that free / progressive / democratic Schools like the Sudbury Valley School, and its sister Schools around the world established by people like us in Queensland whose life experiences informed (in education, teaching, business, government as sole parents) us there were far better ways for our children to learn and grow than what has been on and continues to be on offer, and Summerhill School and others like the New School, Newark, Delaware US, that was just featured in Delaware Today with other private Schools, or Windsor House School in Canada, or Riccardo Semler’s initiative in Brazil, Lumiar, or the Sands School in England, or any of the many brave, courageous Schools affiliated with and attending the annual International Democratic Education Conference, the Alternative Education Resource Organsiation or the Australasian Association of Progressive and Alternative Education Inc.

    The longevity of these Schools, which do not suffer the degree of politically motivated gross intolerable intrusions that we suffered in Queensland, is owed to the people who hear about search out and find the School of their choice, usually without the benefit of anything, but their own personal and collective experiences and insights.

    The problem I have with Conrad’s hypothetical and theories is that like so many others, he postulates the problems in mainstream education, but cannot find the solutions, because he, you and I are stuck with public education as it is, and not what it could be, while we wait for some magic data to appear that contradicts the failing theories behind mass, non-individualised public education. We have our own solutions, and like many, many others before us are prepared to take assessable risks to transform our theories (proven to be correct from data in other Schools that preceded us) into action – and we were very satisfied it was working according to our Foundation Constitutional Objects, our knowledge, our experience and the relationships with the Students, Graduates and parents.

    It is only possible to pioneer something new, and possibly better, when people take risks. If we waited for data to emerge from somewhere or someone we’d still be sitting in the Dark Ages, and we wouldn’t have Nobel Laureates who sought to convert theories, often accidentally, into reality. We would have not allowed the likes of Greenberg, Sadofsky, Piaget, Steiner, Montessori, Friere, Neill, Dewey, etc to undertake their important works in education, with young people from whom some of us have learned and evolved education and learning further. The problem with Australia as it now stands, is that governments especially and others have sought to reduce risk taking to its lowest most minimal extent. Yet risk taking by scientists, business people, educators, sportspeople, inventors, etc is the only way we can flourish, and what we relied on to advance Australia (in many ways, but far from in all ways) as we have done over the last couple of hundred years.

    Data from our extremely small School (I no longer accept that bigger is better) we collected includes:
    100% of the Students seeking to Graduate through our unique Graduation process Graduated. This involved Students writing a Thesis demonstrating what personal steps were taken to prepare for life as effective (responsible, independent) adults and being examined, in much the same way as doctoral or masters thesis, by the School’s parents, staff, students and invited guests. A secret ballot with a majority voting yes, resulted in Graduation.
    100% of our long term students and Graduates (having a minimum of 3 years continuous attendance) either undertook further study, established their own businesses or sought employment;
    Comments the came back from places of further education, included that it was rare to find students enrolling who were self-directed (as Conrad noted);
    100% of our Students who took up further study (in the area of interest developed while at School) completed their courses;
    100% of Graduates and long term Students either enrolled in further studies or sought employment or established their own enterprises did so by choosing not to undertake tests and be awarded end of School grades, but demonstrated their abilities with a portfolio of work developed while at school and by seeking interviews;
    Students left non-state and public Schools to attend our School;
    100% of the Students who left our School could be tracked as enrolling in comparable aged grades in non-state or public Schools;
    No Students over the years who left the School dropped out of education;
    In 8 years of Graduates and long term Students being members of the wider community (we, the school / Democratic Centre of Learning that suspended its operation on threat of criminal action and fines in July 2006 (which I was nevertheless subsequently charged by Summons with committing in November 2006, but dropped 7 months later, while I remained on bail, without any evidence being produced) and the elected Staff) still retain contact, and remain friends), rarely have they been out of work, and they have undertaken many, varied jobs;
    Young people who attended our School, even years later, still associate with each other, are referred to and are affectionately known as the “Booroobin mob”;
    Almost all of the long term students and Graduates have maintained long term relationships and friendships; Etc.

    How do you measure more relevant personal attributes like effective communication (including listening) skills; resilience, determination, responsibility, independence, contributions (rather than taking away from) social capital, emotional intelligence, adaptability; life skills; the willingness of doing what it takes to reach personal goals; understanding and practice of democratic values; having an established work ethic; respect for people of all ages; equality; etc? I suggest you can’t. And we would not impose or compel such testing and data collection on Students, because it is entirely personal. Although students and staff agreed for a psychologist to interview, and report every one of our students to counter claims by government bureaucrat assessors (with only mainstream, State schools experience) that our students or a particular cohort of them could not express their needs (it was ignored just like personal submissions from parents, students, long experienced registered teachers). These are immeasurable attributes that we sought in Students seeking to Graduate. Unless Students wanted to, they would not have been tested on these or their many personally relevant life skills, developed while at School, not in spite of School or while they were away from School or after they had finished School, as so many do or don’t, leading to personal and social problems.

    Who associates the wider community data with the effects of mainstream education? For instance who associates drug taking, crimes of violence, break and entering, or previously high drop out rates in the first year of university, or Schoolies’ week excesses or mid life job and life crises, the mismatch between university graduates and available work in their field, the high levels of consumerism, materialism, waste, high speed driving accidents of young people or the environmental impacts and personal debt levels with the effects and outcomes of mainstream education? Who bothers to measure the effects of 150 years of curriculum driven education on the world and its environment, and the many national and international crises we are facing about water, soil, extreme pollution, over population, diminishing involvement and enrolment of young people in democracy and elections; etc? Where is the measurement, analyses and its correlation between the growth in intelligence and maturity and knowledge of young people relative to the same old, same old practices teaching, textbooks of mainstream education?

    If we only talk on the basis of data, then it’s very hard to talk at all. I’m more interested in the present and future. I’ve over half a century of doing envelope pressing things in the wider community that inform me. I listen to young people and people with three quarters of a century of experience, in education and life, who inform me. My background in banking, communities of interest, not for profits, environment, as a parent of some 25 years, as a husband of some 30 years are enough to inform me about the steps I and others who have similar beliefs will take to improve our lives, and especially the lives of our children and others.

  17. I like Saunders’ call for more domestic servants, back in the 19th century Australian conservatives complained that the lower orders sought jobs in factories rather than the wholesome environment of domestic service, which also provided sexual opportunities for the uglier members of the overclass.

  18. Of course, I wouldn’t agree with you.

    In the same way as our students were empowered and knew that their labour, knowledge and skills were of value, which they could offer to suitable employers (or by establishing their own business and charging accordingly for their services), and negotiate suitable pay and conditions subject to acceptance of their application and then provide the necessary interested, involved, committed effort, they also knew they could withdraw their labour, with notice, if the terms and conditions did not prove satisfactory, our school knew its value to the people directly involved to which it was contracted through signed Enrolment Contracts and Terms and Conditions of Employment pursuant to its democratic Constitution, and would not be subservient to a God like Government that dominates and bullies all who challenge or question it and who will not readily submit to its oppression or coercive ways.

    In case you were not being facetious, I apologise for thinking you were.

  19. conrad says:

    “The problem I have with Conrad’s hypothetical and theories is that like so many others, he postulates the problems in mainstream education, but cannot find the solutions, because he, you and I are stuck with public education as it is”

    Actually Derek, I’ve spent a fair bit of my life trying to find solutions. That includes both developing and testing various programs (mainly for literacy). Given that the government coughs up a fair bit of the money, you basically need to play by their rules. Part of the rules are giving them hard data as to what works and what doesn’t, how different subpopulations behave in different circumstances etc. . Without it, they’ll basically just tell you to piss off, in a slightly politer sort of a way. Hence the shibboleth “evidence based practice” or whatever the most recent version is. This basically means running decent sized studies and comparing the outcomes in a way such that the study could be replicated if neccesary by a completely indepedent group and that factors that help/hinder learning can be understood. Its basically a slow and tedious procedure, but has more scientific validity than simply telling people “this way works best based on my observations, which are not specified such that someone else could do the same thing”.

  20. Conrad,

    Firstly, we aren’t interested in wasting our time completing reports for government. We’ve been there and done that, at our great individual and collective financial and personal cost. We’ve always been prepared to talk with other learned interested people, however, who’ve shown respect and treated us as equals.

    Secondly, we don’t want government money to run an independent School. We’re more than happy to pay our own way through fees, donations and contributions (that, as in the past, will be less than the cost of educating young people in public schools). Most so called independent Schools have lost their independence for that very reason. We wasted the time of one staff in three responding to and dealing with the ever changing requirements and reporting demanded by government that had nothing whatsoever to do with fulfilling the needs of students. The pittance in government funding didn’t match the associated costs (you should note that Founders, and families, who were far from wealthy provided the campus, the facilities, the resources and the Staff). Government intrusions only caused stress, interrupted students’ self-directed learning and finally stopped their self-directed learning, closed a school, stopped its staff and angered a learning community, much to their shame. Small, and even larger, schools cannot afford that sort of overhead, and loss of staff involvement. As a self-funded Democratic Centre of Learning young people benefited far more, because there was none of the excessively onerous requirements of government, and staff time was able to be dedicated for the purpose the School was originally founded, to be wholly focussed on supporting young people in their preparation for their lives as effective adults in a chemical free, organic, sustainable, natural learning environment.

    Thirdly, we’re not interested in experimenting on kids, the largest single minority in Australia without rights, and the reason why adults are permitted to keep dreaming up schemes and fads to try on them. We’re only interested in working with them as individuals, as I have said repeatedly. Because of this, and because every person is different, nothing of what we do would be of interest to government because they’re chiefly interested in solutions for mass education, not individualised learning that is of personal benefit to each and every student who chooses to remain enrolled.

    Fourthly, there was no requirement to report on innovation or anything different to government. Government wanted reports on how we complied with their prescriptive legislation. So innovation or difference was, and is, out of the question. What the State wanted was compliance not difference, nor innovation. They wanted sameness, despite that being diametrically opposite to the reasons for establishing the School, and why families had turned away from other schools in the first place. After all, the families had sought us out. They wanted the choice we offered. We were very resolved that we never, ever tried to convince anyone that our model of education was right for them. They had to make the choice, based on the information we put before them, and a check out period. The last thing they wanted was more of the same they had experienced in both public and private schools in the past. Deep, personal knowledge, understanding and experience is not reliant on the scientific validity of their knowledge, understanding or experiences. That might come later.

    Your summary does justice to the direction you have been pointing to all along. And that is, long suffering parents and their children must wait, in your opinion, for scientific validity of education approaches or even elements of education before they may experience them. I disagree.

    You responses indicate a belief that there is either generic legislation or generic treatment of schools or students, and that we must abide by a form of communitarian governance that requires all of us to await on approval to move forward, or stay just as we are. Society and progress simply don’t happen that way. In the “she’ll be right” mentality that predominates in Australia, progress would be negligible or not at all, if we all waited on approval to do the things we believed needed to be done.

    I wonder from what you’re saying, whether you support academic freedom? By contrast, we believe in both academic freedom and freedom of the individual to make choices, choices that are not artificially constrained by others, especially government, which with their lowest common denominator approach to education, is completely unsatisfactory.

    I guess you must also support the completely scientific, there shall by one right way only, approach taken by Mr Kevin Donnelly? He proposes that literacy ought to be taught and learnt only by the phonic method, based on scientific analysis that it works and other approaches do not. This of course raises the question of what data and testing is acceptable and what is not and to whom.

    Teachers have often pointed out to me that they’re taught most of the things that they observed that we were doing while they’re studying for their degree in education. Once they’re teaching, they’re restricted, though in Schools, by archaic, entrenched education systems which do not match the most up to date research and approaches to learning. Most of what we were doing, and propose to do again perhaps with a couple of differences, can be found in research. Unfortunately for us, what we were doing was far too innovative, too much in front of the pack for the State and its bureaucrats to acknowledge it, and besides they were seeking to constrain innovation to State Schools, but it has rarely surfaced because there are far too many old problems to deal with.

    Education practices such as self-directed, self-initiated learning; real, restorative justice in a justice system reliant on good record keeping managed by students; democracy; to role and benefit of play; participation of young people in school governance, Rule making and oversight; development of real life skills; free, open dialogue and conversation between people of all ages about any subject; learning by doing; implementing human rights; students initiated research; enterprise education; not making people different by applying labels to them; age mixing; student involvement in the selection, and election of staff by way of secret ballots; learning and teaching in small, committed, interested groups; the high integration of technology (1 computer for every 3 people) using industry standard software; enabling students to learn as much as they wanted at a pace that best suited them; accepting highly different, individual approaches to learning; giving young people a voice and the right of self-determination within a community that had standards, values and norms; etc are all at the pointy end of developments in education that Booroobin was implementing from 1996. Search, and you will find references in work by Piaget, Rousseau, Dewey, Greenberg, Sadofsky, Neill, Maslow, Gardiner, the United Nations, the US Declaration of Independence, Plato, Aristotle, etc, etc to our approaches. But they were not our justification.

    As parents, we’re responsible for our children’s education. We’re not prepared to wait for government or bureaucrats to approve what we know is in their best interests. We would not be acting in their best interests or our own, by waiting for others or seeking to convince others of what we know to be right. We want our choice of education and the school our children attend that conforms with our principles, values and personal convictions to be respected, or at least accepted (better still support it, but we’re past expecting that, after all, we’re only taxpaying Australian citizens). Our children are missing out on what we know works. Whether or not the current government of the day accepts that or not is irrelevant.

    As an elected staff, I can advise that students had no interest in being stopped and prevented from learning and pursuing their interests and preparing themselves for life as effective, independent, responsible adults. They weren’t prepared to wait on some bureaucrat or government to tell them that what, how, when or why they were learning was okay or must first be approved or denied.

  21. conrad says:


    I’m just pointing out that you won’t get anywhere without convincing evidence. You can talk all you want about these things, but we’ll never know whether you are correct. I might point out here that two nations that score extremely highly on literacy/science/mathematics have schools systems quite opposed to what you are saying (i.e., HK and Singapore, with Singapore on top). I could come up with stories about helping kids via authoratarian schooling that sound just as convincing as yours, and who is the lay person to believe? All those poor kids need is some good old fashioned discipline…..

    As a quick answer to your other questions:

    “I wonder from what you’re saying, whether you support academic freedom”

    Yes completely. That includes controversial things, and approaches to science that I personally particularly dislike. It also includes freedoms like you are suggesting — I’m happy for you to start up your own school with teaching philosophies that you think are good (just like I’m happy to have Steiner Schools — some of whose philosophies I disagree with). Alternatively, the government has some responsibility to make sure kids who come from your schools have some of level of literacy etc. . That should be quick and easy to determine (I’m not sure what the situation is in Queensland — I’m against huge bureacracy like we have at present).

    “I guess you must also support the completely scientific, there shall by one right way only, approach taken by Mr Kevin Donnelly? He proposes that literacy ought to be taught and learnt only by the phonic method, based on scientific analysis that it works and other approaches do not. This of course raises the question of what data and testing is acceptable and what is not and to whom.”

    The phonics/whole word debate is more complex than a simple dichotomy. But if taken as that, then yes I do support Kevin’s view on that issue. Only a fool wouldn’t. There’s a literal mountain of evidence on his side. Its a good example where teaching things the hard way pays dividends. This wouldn’t have been obvious if people hadn’t bothered to collect the data. Some of his other ideas are a bit odd, however.

  22. Hi Conrad,

    I apologise for the delay in responding to your last post. Life got busier, and then our car was stolen, and then located, damaged, and recovered.

    It seems that the issues have narrowed.

    I still don’t agree with compulsory education. I should add clarification though, that I believe that supportive, natural learning environment and a learning community is highly beneficial to young people. Its the compulsion that I don’t agree with.

    Its nice to see that you, at least support, academic freedom. It is not the case in Queensland, especially with the compulsion upon all schools to teach from the State curriculum, irregardless of their philosophy, principles or values. Being compelled to implement the curriculum only allows schools to be different by the mode of delivery of the curriculum. I have read about, met teachers, students, graduates and parents to know enough of the philosophies of other Schools, including Steiner. I (but not alone have decided to not choose other schools based on my research, but support their right to operate and to provide a much needed choice, even when there is a range of schools already offering choice. Data would only tell me a little of what the outcomes of education in other schools have to offer. Much of what I want out of education cannot be easily measured. In fact, I guess I would be concerned if there were measurements.

    Mr Donnelly offers an opinion on learning that he has been pushing for some time. I don’t agree with some of what he says. But what he has had to say on the formulation of curricula, who has input, who has control, and the rights of parents to choose, and for parents to know and have input into education, I do agree with. Phonics is simply one method, and it need not stand alone. It can be coupled with other methods, including self-directed learning, which Donnelly completely dismisses, because he sees teachers as central to learning, whereas I do not.

    I completely disagree that government ought to have any role, except perhaps in health, safety and trade practices, in the outcomes or operation of a completely independent, self-funded school or as I / we would prefer ours to be called, a Democratic Centre of Learning. It is up to parents, students and staff to decide whether the style, form, delivery, principles and values in school education fits and fulfills their needs. The achievements of students and their preparation for life after school, be that independent living, further education, work, establishing their own enterprises, managing and earning income from a portfolio of investments, travel, etc is completely up to them. When empowered to take such responsibility for their lives, as students in Sudbury model schools do, from the youngest of ages, they realise others will assess them in different ways according to their relevant needs whether as a landlord, employer, lender, tertiary educator, etc. This is part and parcel of preparing, researching and knowing what it takes to live an independent life.

    Although our Graduation process includes consideration of applicants’ literacy ability, or more especially oral and written communication and effective listening, I am interested to know more about the method you refer to as being quick and easy to determine. It may be a tool for self-assessment, or in an instance where a student might ask for external assessment, even though that would be unusual, based on past experience.

    Big government, cash rich governments, over regulation and excessive, far too powerful bureaucracies are the greatest burdens carried by Australians. Personally, our lives and futures have been so heavily and detrimentally affected and intruded on by a naive, immature State government and obedient bureaucrats. Queensland is completely different from Victoria. Its a state in fear of difference and individuality, where people constantly don’t do things for fear of government coming down heavily on them.

    I have appreciated this dialogue.

Comments are closed.