Teacher's bookshelf: A Commitment to Growth

Tom Bentley, Executive Director for Policy and Impact at RMIT University, reviews A Commitment to Growth: Essays in Education, by Professor Geoff Masters AO.

Over two decades, Geoff Masters' work has become a watchword for integrity and rigour in education policymaking. His leadership of the Australian Council for Educational Research has seen ACER extend its global reputation for designing and administering educational assessments, often at very large scale, for education systems around the world.

Masters is known as a leading authority on educational assessment. Yet throughout this period, he has maintained an unwavering commitment to broader and deeper aspects of education, and their connections to assessment.

That commitment leaps from the pages of this volume, as well as being reflected in its title. Its core is a refusal to allow education to be understood or measured primarily as a reductive exercise, in which the distribution of achievement and its benefits are static, or fixed in sum.

Reading these essays together, as they address some of the key cross-cutting issues in Australian schooling, and the evidence that underpins them, a cumulative picture steadily emerges.

Masters outlines a ‘big five' challenges in school education: raising the professional status of teaching, reducing disparities between Australian schools, a 21st century curriculum, the ‘long tail' of underachievement, and getting all children off to a good start.

He deftly grounds evidence-based analysis of why Australia's educational performance has declined, with broader discussion of how global changes require us to rethink the nature of curriculum and assessment.

Across seven linked chapters, the book goes on to address how educational assessment could be reconceptualised by challenging the deep assumptions that underpin assessment practices, and then reconstructing systems of measurement and feedback to enable a focus for all learners on continuous growth and progression, supported by assessment which is genuinely personalised.

The book concludes with a section on the hard work of school improvement and system-wide learning, attempting to show how a developmental perspective can also be used to harness the efforts of teachers and school leaders into comprehensive improvement processes, without distorting or undermining the deeper purposes of learning and teaching.

The clarity and rigour of the prose might lead readers to see Masters' conclusions as common sense. Yet nobody should underestimate the level of challenge they present to Australia's educational status quo, and to levels of inequity and incrementalism that have massively constrained the achievement of Australian school students over the last two decades.

The level of influence achieved by this work is evident in the extent to which the recent (second) Gonski Review reflects his arguments on curriculum, collaboration and assessment in its main recommendations. His leadership of the current New South Wales Curriculum Review is a further indication. Yet to make these changes in ways that also achieve equity, as laid out in A Commitment to Growth, presents a huge challenge to us all.

This book is an accessible, grounded explanation of the current challenges, and a sophisticated guide to how Australian school-age education can be rethought and redesigned. Essential reading for anybody with a practical interest in the next decade of Australian education.

A Commitment to Growth: Essays on Education is published by ACER Press and is available to order via the link.