Boosting school students’ learning performance is not just one of the best ways to improve the lives of young people, it will also help lift Australia’s workforce productivity and economic fortunes.
Australia has significant room for improvement at both ends of the performance spectrum.
As the OECD PISA assessments show, Australia lags well behind the top-performing education systems on the proportion of our school students who excel – particularly in maths. But just as troubling, more than two in five Australian students fall short of benchmark proficiency in PISA maths, reading and science.
Grattan Institute’s analysis of the 2021 NAPLAN results paints an equally sobering picture. The learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students more than doubles between year 3 and year 9.
In year 3, the reading ability of children whose parents did not finish school lags two years and four months behind that of children whose parents have a bachelor’s degree. By year 9, the learning gap grows to more than five years. That is, the gap grows as children spend longer in school.
There are three things a new federal government should do to better set up Australian students for success.
First, it needs to work with states and territories to put the school funding debate to bed. There needs to be a credible agreement that ensures all government schools are on track to reach their full entitlement to needs-based funding based on the schooling resource standard.
Until the funding issue is resolved, it will continue to distract all parties from the hard work required to ensure every child receives a first-class education, regardless of the school they attend.
Need for high-quality teachers
Second, the government should step up its work to build a national, high-quality teacher workforce. Australia has many experienced, expert and highly motivated teachers. But teaching quality also varies significantly between classrooms and schools.
What’s more, a career in teaching has become a less desirable choice for many young high-achieving school-leavers.
Our research shows that these high achievers rightly worry about low pay for teachers at the peak of their career. They also wrongly perceive that teaching lacks intellectual challenge.
To turn this around, the government should offer $10,000-a-year scholarships for high-achieving students who choose to go into teaching. It should also work with the states and territories to improve the career path for our top teachers, to better recognise, reward and deploy teaching expertise.
New positions for best teachers
The government should support the creation of two new positions, instructional specialists and master teachers, paid about $40,000 and $80,000 more respectively than the current top pay levels for classroom teachers. This would send a powerful message that teaching expertise is highly valued.
These new positions should be restricted to our best teachers, who can demonstrate exceptional subject-specific content knowledge and classroom practice. This is especially important to arrest Australia’s 20-year decline in students’ maths performance.
Along with higher pay, teachers in these new positions should be given substantial new responsibilities and the time required to develop the expertise of their colleagues, through professional learning, classroom observation, coaching and feedback.
Third, the government should significantly increase its investment in building a robust education evidence base for Australia, including providing additional funding for the Australian Education Research Organisation.
Effective education policy requires a clear understanding of which teaching practices and programs work and which ones do not. Strengthening this evidence base would pay dividends across the spectrum, from more robust initial teacher training in universities, to better guidance and support for teachers in schools, to more effective intervention programs for struggling students.
A stronger evidence base would also help teachers, schools, and governments to resist popular but unproven educational fads.
Australia also needs to identify the most effective ways to deploy the non-teaching workforce in schools to maximise student learning, especially for struggling students. Teachers’ burgeoning workloads must be brought under control.
Our research shows that, despite significant increases in the proportion of non-teaching staff in schools, such as allied health specialists and teaching and administrative assistants, more than 90 per cent of teachers say they struggle to find the time to prepare effectively for the classroom.
Governments need to be more realistic about what teachers can achieve in the time they have available, and ensure all teachers have the knowledge, tools and support they need to focus on creating the next generation of smart, capable and resilient Australians.
While you’re here…
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