The real education revolution Labor needs
A defining feature of Kevin Rudd’s leadership was inflated expectations. Big promises on climate change, health and education were not matched by performance in government. The much-touted revolution in schooling has been more like a Sunday church picnic than a storming of the barricades. Australia’s schools today are little different from when Labor came to power in 2007.
With the release in December 2012 of international benchmarking results for years 4 and 8 students (directed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement), the need for education reform has become unavoidable. The data exposes Australia, measured by the standards of developed nations, as an educational backwater. We are superior to the developing nations of south-east Asia, South America and the Middle East, but struggling against the academic powerhouses of Europe, North America and north-east Asia.
In each of the five disciplines assessed (year 4 reading, maths and science, and Year 8 maths and science) Australia was outranked by Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, the United States, England, Russia and Finland. Furthermore Japan did not participate in the year 4 reading assessment but beat Australia in the other four areas. Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands did not undertake the year 8 assessments but were superior to Australia in the three year 4 tests.
In year 4 reading, we ranked 27th out of 45 nations.
Even more disturbingly, 24% of Australian students were below the intermediate benchmark standard (capable of basic reading comprehension throughout a text).
In year 4 maths, Australia placed 18th of 50 nations, with 30% of students below the intermediate benchmark (basic knowledge in dealing with whole numbers, fractions, shapes, graphs and tables). Year 4 science produced a ranking of 25th out of 50 countries. The year 8 rankings, while better overall (12th out of 42 nations in both maths and science), were marred by poor benchmarking results in maths. Thirty-seven per cent of Australian students lacked basic skills in dealing with decimals, percentages, graphs, tables and simple algebra. If Australia has a future in the so-called Asian century, it is certainly not in maths.
No parent could look at these results and not be deeply concerned. No serious politician, having studied the IAEEA report, could deny the need for action. The spotlight has fallen on Australia’s comprehensive schools system, particularly the majority public sector. Having been involved in and studied public education for many decades, I believe the current system is adding only minimal value to students’ capabilities. Most of the gains in individual learning capacity are fashioned in the home. Parents’ aspirations for their children are a stronger determinant of student achievement than the institution of schooling itself.
In the conventional wisdom, schools are seen as places where children do most of their learning. Yet up to school-leaving age, children spend only a small amount of their time in school (around 10%t). The major role models and opportunities for education are in the home. By age three, for instance, children have acquired more than half of the language they will use for the rest of their lives. Schools, at best, are a useful addition to the learning continuum. At worst, they are places where students muddle through, making only marginal gains in knowledge and life skills.
“The statistics do not lie: comprehensive public education in Australia is struggling.”
The IAEEA findings indicate that Australian schools are muddling through. When excellence occurs, it is due primarily to home-based factors. The school learning environment is of secondary importance. How can this point be proven for Australia’s student population? One way is to take a control group of pupils who have done exceptionally well and examine the factors which contributed to their success, so as to measure the relative contributions of school and family.
The selective high school system in NSW is ideal for this purpose. In their year 7 intake, these schools draw on high-achieving primary school students — a case study in academic excellence. When we examine the features of this cohort (such as demographic and cultural characteristics and primary school education), one factor stands out: Asian heritage. In recent decades, coinciding with the Asian migrant intake to Australia, there has been a sharp rise in the number of selective school students from Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds. This trend is being supplemented by the emerging success of Indian-origin students in selective entry.
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