We could worry about coming 27th in Year 4 Reading in the latest global education tests. But the real problem is that a quarter of the kids tested can’t read, can’t do simple maths and can’t understand the most basic of scientific concepts.
The results from the latest round of international tests are worse than expected and expectations were already low. Assessments released earlier in the year showed that things were not going as well as they had or should at the secondary level. Now we see that things are even more worrying in the earlier years.
We could worry about coming 27th in Year 4 reading, or 25th in Year 4 maths, or 12th in Year 8 science, but the real worry is that up to a quarter of the kids tested can’t read, can’t do simple maths and can’t understand the most basic of scientific concepts.
It is possible but highly unlikely there has been a glitch in the testing or the analysis. It is also possible but very unlikely that these tests of a small part of the curriculum give a misleading picture of things in general. After all, these are the “basics” in the sense that they matter in themselves and in the sense that if you can’t do them you can’t do much else either.
More troubling still is the fact that we know what needs to be done and also know that it won’t be.
In the short-to-medium term the answer is in helping teachers to be better at their job. In the medium-to-long term the task is in a technology-rich re-engineering of the student and teacher working day.
Both will happen, but only where they are least-needed, in schools with lowest levels of educational need and deepest pockets. The big systems, and particularly the government systems, are not capable of doing what needs to be done. Schools need to make much better use of the money they already have as well as get more money of the Gonski kind.
To take one example: the best way to increase the effectiveness of the existing teaching workforce is through in-school feedback, mentoring, and coaching. But as the Grattan Institute has pointed out, that means trade-offs — bigger classes and/or fewer classes to free up the necessary teacher time.
Another example: it is clear that the best way to build “teacher quality” over the longer term is to pay them more — a lot more. But in any foreseeable budgetary climate that can’t be done without biting the bullet of “class sizes”. One recent US calculation found that if each classroom were to contain five more students every teacher could get a 30% salary increase, which is somewhere near the necessary order of magnitude. Australian research by ANU economists Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan strongly suggests that students as well as teachers would be the winners in that kind of trade-off — more pay means more capable teachers means better student performance.
Merely mentioning such heresies points to the problem under the problem: who is going to formulate and drive such an agenda? Australia’s schools suffer from dysfunctional governance.
Our problem is not that we’re going backwards but that other systems are going forwards, some of them, particularly in East Asia, at a rapid clip. How do they do it? Reform efforts around the world point to the same conclusion: a lot of ducks have to be lined up over a long period of time. Big reforms do deliver, but only if they are sharply focused on student learning, refuse to buckle to established interests and approaches and are driven consistently over a long period of time.
That cannot happen even within any one Australian state. Schools are divided into three separate systems funded in three different ways; budgets are locked up in agreements with unions centering on fixed maximum class sizes; and the tiny amounts of discretionary money left over are at the mercy of governments in more or less permanent election mode.
We have no less than eight such unsteerable “systems”, a national Rubic’s cube that simply cannot be got to line up, as the interminable Gonski negotiations demonstrate — and Gonski, it should be remembered, is a long way from being the kind of big, long-term agenda that is required. The estimable Gillard goal of getting results to put us in the OECD’s top five school systems by 2025 is a pipe dream.
Depressingly, a prerequisite to getting anywhere near that target is reform of the machinery of reform. Since that would include putting all schools on a common and national basis of funding and control, at a safe distance from governments and politics, as well as a quite different approach to industrial relations and agreements, it is not going to happen. Our best hope is that the coming rounds of international testing delivers results no worse than today’s.