Education: Creating a Nation of Losers
Spending on schools has increased by 60% since the Coalition came to government but what do we have to show for it. The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results show not only that 15 year old students are performing worse than 15 year olds in comparable countries but also worse than Australian 15 year olds did ten years ago. Staggeringly, 41% of students did not even meet the minimum standards for reading, up from 31% in 2000.
Australian students are three quarters of a year behind where they were 20 years ago when it comes to reading and the reading results were the best of all the tests.
In maths, Australia trailed 23 countries including Singapore, Japan, Korea, Estonia, the Netherlands, Poland, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. And in science, we were behind 12 countries including Singapore, Estonia, Japan, Finland, Canada, Poland and New Zealand.
Over 15 years of tests of mathematical literacy the standard of students has fallen by 15 months and the standard of science literacy has fallen by 12 months: so much for the promotion of STEM skills in schools. More disturbing is the fact that the group that is falling behind fastest is the lowest socio-economic cohort. At the age of 15 they are now three years behind students in the highest 25% socio economic cohort.
What should be done? Education Minister, Dan Tehan, has an agenda to put to the COAG education ministers when they meet next week. He is placing great emphasis on the training and recruitment of teachers with a focus on numeracy and literacy learning. This is the same approach being taken by leading countries like Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai (one of four Chinese provinces) and Singapore.
Australian education ministers can borrow some of the approaches from Hong Kong and Singapore. These emphasise teaching quality but also place great emphasis on a uniform approach across schools. The first thing that was done in these countries was to develop a uniform approach based on evidence. The next step was to train the principals and teachers in the new approach. They were also provided with support as they implemented the program. Finally these countries invested heavily in training the parents so they could support their children at home.
This is a missing ingredient in Australia and may explain the decline in STEM scores among lower socio-economic groups. The key point is that it is not just the education of the individual student that counts but the education of the family.
The meeting of education ministers in Alice Springs next week will discuss a Commonwealth proposal for a National Schools Reform Agreement under which the states will agree to implement a uniform program for educational change. This will include a commitment to teach phonics as part of literacy learning.
The issue for adoption is that schools in Australian states have different standards of outcomes in the PISA tests. The ACT, Victoria and Western Australia had very high standards in the tests whereas other states performed at average or below average levels. There is a danger that high achieving states will see the adoption of national reforms as ‘dumbing down’.
There is a danger that the issue will also become ideological as the education unions weigh in but hopefully the discussions will be driven by the evidence.