Who is David Gillespie?

Author of Free Schools, David Gillespie is scheduled to speak at All-Colleges Day. AEU ACT Research Officer, Tom Greenwell, looks at some good, bad and very unfortunate aspects of his book.

As a father of six children, David Gillespie thought very long and hard about which school they would go to.

On his calculation, educating his family in private schools would have cost him over a million dollars. So, he decided to investigate whether private schools actually provide a better education. The result of his research was Free Schools: How to get a great education for your kids without spending a fortune.

The Good

The headline conclusion of Free Schools is that private schools are a waste of money: they don’t provide superior academic outcomes to public schools. Gillespie argues that with respect to standardised test scores: “Studies have consistently shown that when you adjust for the socioeconomic status of the children in the systems, all three Australian systems are equally effective…” While this is not a new finding - and Gillespie seems less interested in the great values public schools impart – it’s a powerful message to other parents tempted to think exclusive fee-paying schools are the answer.

Gillespie also looks at the broader education landscape. His account of what the highest performing education systems are doing could be right out of our Enterprise Agreement claim. He focuses on Shanghai and emphasises the value of mentoring; research; feedback; and lesson observations, facilitated by reduced face-to-face hours. The comparison he makes is striking. “A Chinese teacher spends just ten to twelve hours a week with their class whereas their Australian peer is slogging it out for 20 hours a week (almost twice as much of their time as a teacher is spent in front of their class.)”

The Bad

David_Gillespie.JPGUnfortunately, as Gillespie ventures into territory beyond his experience and expertise, his book becomes increasingly tendentious.This is most apparent in his deep hostilityto unionism in general and the AEU in particular. His thesis is that once upon a time the AEU was a genteel professional association but in the 60s we became a militant trade union.

Perhaps the clearest indication of his deeply anti-union bias is his take on the first time our NSW counterparts - Teachers’ Federation - struck in October 1968. On Gillespie’s own account the strike took place because there was a majority member vote in the face of a Government refusal to negotiate on maximum class sizes of 49 (average 36); provision of relief teachers only after 4 days of absence; and salaries. The result on the day of the strike was the NSW Government requesting $5 million extra funding from the Commonwealth and, a few days later, adding $1 million to the education budget.

Gillespie actually thinks this was a bad thing. He seems to believe that taking action to reduce class sizes from 49 was an instance of teachers pursuing our own interests to the detriment of students – rather than a case of improving learning conditions and working conditions.

Gillespie regards the AEU’s significant responsibility for class-size reductions as Exhibit A in his case for our pernicious influence. The effect of class size reductions is the subject of incredibly extensive study in which scholars typically wield meta-studies. Gillespie has just two case studies. He just doesn’t consider – or even mention - the extensive evidence that reduced class sizes significantly improve student outcomes.

The gold standard in this kind of research is large-scale randomized trials such as the Tennessee STAR project and the Wisconsin SAGE project. In these studies, students were randomly assigned to classes of different sizes in order to isolate the impact of class size from other variables. They found that students placed in smaller classes performed better than their peers in larger classes across all grades and geographic regions. Sadly, Gillespie just ignores the evidence that doesn’t fit his conclusion.

On his own account, the examples he mentions have unique characteristics. In a case he uses from California, class size reductions occurred so rapidly, 28,500 new teachers (an increase of 46%) were brought in over just 3 years. Unsurprisingly, this meant many teachers in the system were inexperienced and this negatively affected quality. A warning against extremely rapid change perhaps, but hardly evidence against class size reductions per se

Furthermore, Gillespie contends that, as a union, we protect bad teachers and seek to censor the reality that there are better and worse teachers. He doesn’t refer to AITSL certification at all, any of the performance management mechanisms in our Agreements, or any statements we’ve made. It’s just caricature.

The Ugly

Education policy is a hotly contested space and it’s always valuable and invigorating to engage with different views. Sadly, much of the time Gillespie seeks to disparage the basic motivations of those he disagrees with. So, on Gillespie’s account, the reason the AEU differs from him on class sizes is not because we interpret the evidence differently but because “Unions like smaller class sizes because any reduction in class sizes leads to a significant increase in the number of potential fee-paying members.” (p.51) Really. His argument gets that puerile.

This reflects an approach which is not only offensive but intellectually sloppy. Around issues like class sizes and teacher performance, Gillespie tends to cherry-pick evidence and consistently fails to consider counter-evidence, opposing views or prominent objections to his conclusions. Moreover, he tends to attribute straw-man positions to his opponents without quoting or otherwise demonstrating they hold the positions he ascribes to them.

Gillespie’s interrogation of the myth that ‘you get what you pay for’ in education is a very welcome contribution. Sadly, he obscures his important message with a series of unfortunate prejudices about education policy and education unions.

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