The non-partisan think tank the Grattan Institute has published a new report that identifies improved teacher effectiveness as the key to achieving better educational outcomes for Australian students. The reform focus, the Institute argues, will allow Australia to increase its international performance and help the nation harness the economic and social benefits of a better-educated population.

The Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy report is an attempt to broaden the education policy agenda by looking beyond the narrow focus on class sizes. Dr Ben Jensen, the Education Program Director of Grattan Institute says:

‘Measures to improve teacher effectiveness will deliver better value for our children’s learning outcomes, improve Australia’s economic productivity and be a better use of public funds than reducing class sizes.’

The Grattan Institute adds:

‘The drive to reduce class sizes, whilst well intentioned and politically popular, is found to be without impact in producing better education outcomes for students.’

The report represents a break from the usual policy discourse that places emphasis on quantitative performance indicators.

For too long politicians have framed policy around achieving progress on simple metrics. The new Grattan study addresses an example of this by challenging the politically popular proposal of improving student/staff ratios.

Quantitative indicators can be useful, but they have limitations. They often obscure opportunities for identifying the systemic drivers of problems, opportunities for improvement, and barriers to progress. Improving the student/staff ration in schools doesn’t tell us about the quality of the learning environment, whether the curriculum is relevant or best practice pedagogies are used, and as the Grattan Institute point out, it tells us nothing about the effectiveness of teachers.

Examples of this practice are not limited to education. They can be observed across issue areas. Another example that comes to mind is the focus on increasing the number of hospital beds or the doctor/patient ratio that emerge in healthcare debates. The increased salience of these measures hides the contingent causes of poor health—diet, exercise, malpractice, etc—that would increase the wellbeing of citizens and stengthen our health system.

I hope Grattan Institute’s focus on effectiveness inspires others to look beyond narrow prescriptions wherever they are found: Whether in attempts to address climate change, public health problems, urban planning or population growth. These areas are ripe for a fresh approach.

The current practices of Australian politics stand in the way of such a shift. A more enlightened approach to policy development will require today’s political leaders (in the parliament and beyond) to leave behind the comfort of focus-group tested positions and simple sound bites. Overcoming this hurdle will be challenging, but success will deliver more innovative policy development and help secure a bright future for Australia.