Crude Calculations don’t Add up to a Great Education
27 July 2018
It’s not unusual for academic research to conclude with the finding that, well, more research is needed. The fact that the conclusion is inconclusive doesn’t mean the research wasn’t worth doing. After all, research that concludes with new unanswered questions has served a genuine purpose.
I pondered the purpose of academic research recently when I was asked by a journalist to comment on a research paper by an academic who had looked at whether there was a link between the employment status, occupation and income of young people aged 24, and the school they attended.
The researcher found that there was no statistically significant link between the two. Furthermore, she found that attending a non-government school didn’t make it more likely someone aged 24 would have a full-time job, be a manager or a professional, or be on a higher income.
The researcher concluded with the suggestion that, unless parents and governments want non-monetary returns for their investment in non-government schooling, they might be over-investing.
The research and the journalist’s question, seeking my comment, prompted questions of my own.
My first was: since the academic had done similar research using different data but coming to the same conclusion in the recent past, why was this now news? I was advised that posing the question was futile, since modern media calculations distort the measurement of time so that what is new, and therefore news, is entirely arbitrary.
My second question was: what proportion of young people have entered the full-time workforce, have become managers and professionals and are on higher incomes, by the time they’ve reached 24? At that age, many young people have only just left university. And those who followed a vocational education path, through an apprenticeship perhaps, would only be at the early stages of starting a career. In any case, career success, however measured, might not be apparent for decades.
My third question related to the researcher’s conclusion – that unless parents and governments are seeking non-monetary returns to their investment in non-government schooling, they might be over-investing.
My question is: why not test the assumption that’s implicit in the conclusion – that parents are seeking a monetary return from their child’s education?
To answer my own question, I assume that parents want what’s best for their children, now and in the future. This includes wanting them to find a job that’s personally and financially satisfying and matches their skills and interests.
But that’s just one factor that might be on parents’ minds. They aren’t involved in a commercial transaction, seeking a crude financial return, when they sacrifice their after-tax income to educate their children in an Independent school.
Independent schools, like government and Catholic schools, are engaged in a social good – educating young Australians.
The commitment by governments to education – and by parents who make additional sacrifices – isn’t solely based on expectations of a financial return, in which children are simply seen as potentially lucrative economic units.
Parents firstly think about the needs of their children now, when they are at school and where they will spend up to 14 years of their young lives. They want this experience to be secure and engaging for their children, with a rounded education seen as having a value in itself, not just as a way station on the path to somewhere else.
Of course parents, regardless of where they send their children to school, are also thinking about the future. They want them to reach their potential, to learn skills, aptitudes and values that will enrich them now and allow them to become informed and engaged citizens.
Independent Schools Victoria has done some research of its own. It reveals that parents with children in Independent schools already place a premium on ‘non-monetary’ returns from their ‘investment’ in education.
In surveys carried out over the past 4 years, 9183 parents have given an indication of why they chose an Independent school, selecting from 22 options.
At the top of the list are the school’s emphasis on values, beliefs and attitudes. The second most common reason is a parent’s belief that the school best suited their child’s needs.
Academic results are eighth on the list. Anticipated monetary returns don’t rate a mention.
So back to the academic research. It prompts – but doesn’t address – deeper and broader questions that are part of the seemingly never-ending debate about the purpose of school education. Is is about preparing young people to enter the workforce? Or should it be more focused on their social, cultural, intellectual and personal development?
For many parents – and teachers – I suspect it’s not either/or. It’s both.