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.

Take, for example, the top 12 NSW selective schools, as measured by year 7 entry scores in 2012. Each of them is in Sydney — a city in which 53.3% of government secondary students have language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE). Yet in these leading selective schools, according to the My School website, the proportion of LBOTE pupils is 88.2%, a near monopoly. The ethnic conversion rate is extraordinary: for every five LBOTE primary students there are nine LBOTE students in elite secondary education.

In explaining such a large variation, the obvious factor is the contribution of home learning. Asian parents are highly devoted to the education of their children: assisting with homework, organising extra tuition, forever encouraging excellence. In selective entry, this is their winning advantage — a family-based contribution underpinning high-level achievement.

By contrast, families which adopt a “leave it to the school” approach are heavily disadvantaged. No matter which Sydney primary school they attended, pupils from a non-Asian background are less likely to attend the best government high schools.

In the public debate, we have grown accustomed to the idea of migrant families struggling to make their way in Australia. Sydney’s selective school figures indicate a different trend in social mobility, with Asian parents using school-aged education as a springboard for the next generation. Their sons and daughters are moving quickly into middle-class professional jobs. The problem of immobility is greater among families from an English-speaking background, especially those on low incomes. Visit any suburban public-housing estate in Australia and this debilitating trend is obvious.

The former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew’s prophecy about poor white trash in Australia has found a new resonance.

The statistics do not lie: comprehensive public education in Australia is struggling. It is selling short our nation’s potential, both in terms of international economic competition and as a domestic social good. The recent benchmarking results will further encourage aspirational parents to move to the non-government sector. Increasingly, government schools are becoming a residual system, catering for a disproportionate share of students with learning and behavioural problems. Many families feel trapped, wanting better for their children but unable to afford private school fees.

The crisis in public education is Labor’s greatest social-policy challenge. The starting point for reform is to be honest about the failings of government-run neighbourhood schooling. The comprehensiveness of the system has dumbed down standards, levelling out classroom learning to the lowest common denominator. Large state education bureaucracies have placed a dead hand on innovation, encouraging uniformity and generating mediocrity. Public schools have become a production line for internationally substandard results, especially in the outlying states.The measurement of classroom results and reporting of information to parents is still rudimentary. Nothing threatens vested interests inside the system more than rigorous performance measurement. It exposes bad practices and bad teachers, putting pressure on principals to do something about them. Without the discipline of measurement, students with learning difficulties are simply left behind — rationalised away as too dumb to learn and too hard to teach.

Chronic under-investment in the teaching profession has undermined the quality of tuition. Compared to knowledge workers in the new economy, Australia’s teachers are shockingly underpaid. When this is combined with lax university entry requirements, teaching is no longer seen as an honoured and well-rewarded vocation. The profession is old and getting older, often with substandard teachers serving for several decades at one school and then drifting into retirement. Archaic industrial agreements have produced a sheltered workshop environment. In most states, it is impossible to get rid of under-performing staff.

A real education revolution involves four system-changing reforms.

The first is to rebuild the teaching profession, attracting talented people who are otherwise being lost to financial opportunities in private enterprise. This involves substantial pay increases, plus the introduction of performance pay. In return, outdated work practices should be abolished. University entry standards also need to be increased (through separate interviewing and testing processes), thereby lifting the status of teaching. The profession needs to regain its standing as an elite tertiary vocation, instead of a poorly paid job for society’s hard-triers.

There should be no place to hide for under-performers in government schools. The knowledge and skills of teachers need to be tested regularly, an essential discipline for an ageing profession. This information should then be reported to parents. They have the right to know about the capacity of the people instructing their children — one of the basic rights of modern citizenship.

With new rights come new responsibilities. A second reform is to ensure all parents follow the Asian example: at every opportunity, supporting the education of their children. For parents who lack literacy and numeracy skills, schools should be funded to provide remedial adult-education courses. An incentive system should also be established, rewarding parents who assist with homework and class reading programs. Principals should have the capacity (and funds) to waive excursion fees for these families (in some cases, costing up to $1000 per annum). Parents who refuse to do the right thing would continue to pay — a financial sanction on irresponsibility.

After-school tuition is one of Australia’s fastest growing industries. High and middle-income families are seeking to compensate for the failings of classroom instruction by using professional services outside school. Students from low-income backgrounds are at a comparative disadvantage. Often this is a double jeopardy: parents who do not assist with homework and do not have the funds to pay for special tutoring. Governments need to introduce a means-tested tuition voucher scheme, ensuring that poor families are not left behind in the race for academic achievement.

“Simply writing a cheque to schools is not a solution. System-wide institutional change is needed …”

A striking feature of Australia’s education system is the differing standards of preschool and school education. Generally, preschools are responsive, caring and highly professional facilities, with higher standards of service than schools. This is a product of their different management structures. Most preschools are community-based, with the autonomy to adapt their services to individual needs. One of the objectives of education policy should be to run schools on the successful preschools model — a third reform.

This requires the transfer of management control from state bureaucracies to principals, parents and communities. Since 2010, the Barnett government in Western Australia has been encouraging the establishment of independent public schools. These are government-funded facilities run by principals and school boards, comprising industry and community representatives. Under the WA system, schools are able to select staff, manage leave and budgets and determine the curriculum which best suits their students. They often work in local and regional clusters, sharing resources and ideas for improved teaching. This is the type of system Labor needs to introduce nationally. With the publication of the IAEEA results, inertia is no longer an option.

The fourth reform is to create comprehensive measurement systems for Australian schools. In many respects, an education revolution is a measurement revolution — pressuring substandard schools and teachers to improve results. The National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing and the My School website are a useful start, but more needs to be done. While the website publishes basic value-adding data (the improvement student year groups make between tests), this is not broken down class by class, allowing an assessment of the performance of classroom teachers. Nor does the website encourage competition among local schools by directly comparing their value-adding results.

The federal government needs to introduce four major changes to school measurement:

  • Conducting NAPLAN tests annually (rather than every second year) and starting them in year 2. Currently in primary schools, NAPLAN applies to years 3 and 5. This means, in the assessment of value-adding data, it is not possible to gauge a school’s outcomes until students reach the end of year 5. This is too late, delaying remedial action in underperforming primary schools.
  • Publishing value-adding results for each class on the My School website, thereby facilitating public accountability in the performance of individual teachers. Annual end-of-year testing would make this possible.
  • Providing value-adding comparisons between local schools, not only published on the My School website but also mailed directly to parents.This is the type of information parents want: a hard-headed assessment of how their school is performing relative to the other schools they know and talk about in their district.
  • Surveying parents who take their children out of schools, thereby measuring dissatisfaction levels in a practical way. This should be part of the My School reporting process — identifying systemic problems (such as bullying) and forcing schools to resolve them, instead of just watching the victims transfer to other schools.

This reform program requires new government spending, especially in reconstructing the teaching profession and expanding after-school tuition.

These targeted outlays are a better option for the Gillard government than its proposed funding of the Gonski review model. Simply writing a cheque to schools is not a solution. System-wide institutional change is needed to repair the damage done to public education.

*This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 49, Not Dead Yet: Labor’s Post-Left Future by Mark Latham, out today in print and e-book