5 changes that would help end the school lesson lottery
by Jordana Hunter, Amy Haywood
As students head back to school around the country, yet another government report points to the urgent need for reform in Australian education.
The Productivity Commission’s review of the National School Reform Agreement, released last month, makes for sobering reading. Despite increased spending on education, student performance has largely stagnated, and the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students remains vast.
To date, national reforms have been largely ineffectual in boosting outcomes.
But this weighty tome also offers Australia’s education ministers a gift; practical advice on how to fix the curriculum-planning problem in schools by increasing teachers’ access to high-quality, comprehensive curriculum materials.
Grattan Institute research shows the vast extent of the curriculum planning challenge that Australian teachers face. It also shows that high-quality curriculum materials can make a real difference, simultaneously reducing teacher workloads and increasing student learning.
Careful curriculum planning underpins great teaching. But a co-ordinated, whole-school approach is needed to sequence lessons so that they gradually build up student knowledge and skills year-on-year. Individual teachers can’t tackle this on their own.
But in a Grattan Institute national survey of 2243 teachers and school leaders, half of the respondents told us they were planning lessons on their own, and only 15 per cent said they had access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes.
Left to fend for themselves, teachers often end up creating lessons from scratch and scouring the internet and social media for teaching materials. The result is a lesson lottery, where students may be exposed to highly repetitive lessons or be left with critical gaps in their learning.
Most teachers are crying out for high-quality curriculum materials. Ninety per cent of those we surveyed said that access to shared, high-quality materials would give them more time to hone their practice and meet the needs of individual students. It would also ease workloads. Teachers spend three hours less each week sourcing and creating materials when they have access to shared high-quality materials for all their subjects.
The National Teacher Workforce Plan, signed off by education ministers in December, and the new National School Reform Agreement, currently up for negotiation, provide the avenue to overhaul curriculum implementation in schools.
The workforce plan commits to finding ways to better support teachers to implement the mandated curriculum, and the national agreement is a chance for federal and state governments to reach consensus on key reforms for the years to come.
But education ministers need to keep their eye on the ball and ensure they keep quality standards high, as the Productivity Commission cautions and Grattan research demonstrates. Not all curriculum materials are equally effective, and teachers need support to find, adapt and use good-quality materials well in their classrooms.
Governments should stick to five key principles.
First, new curriculum materials need to be genuinely comprehensive, supporting teachers to deliver a robust and coherent sequence of instruction that enables students to develop rich knowledge and capabilities year-on-year. The last thing teachers need is more disconnected worksheets and activities – social media and government websites are awash with those already. Curriculum materials should cover everything teachers need, right down to lesson-level materials – so that teachers can focus on refining their teaching, understanding student needs, and adapting their approach as necessary.
Second, curriculum materials should reflect the growing evidence-base for effective teaching practices, such as explicit instruction, mastery learning and formative assessment.
Third, curriculum materials should be quality-assured by a new independent review body, so teachers can be confident the materials are road-tested and ready for the classroom.
Fourth, choice is important. Schools should have access to a range of comprehensive, high-quality curriculum materials. Even though all materials will need to be aligned to the Australian curriculum, or state-level variants, different curriculum material providers will inevitably emphasise some aspects of the curriculum content over others, using different examples in science or history, say, or different approaches to assessment.
Diversity in high-quality, comprehensive offerings would be a good thing for schools and for Australia. It would support school-level choice, and competition between providers should encourage innovation and improvement in the quality and effectiveness of offerings over time. It would also avoid the perception that governments are ‘mandating’ a single approach to curriculum implementation in schools.
Last, schools and teachers need much more professional development, so they can use external materials effectively and adapt them as needed. Governments should invest in strengthening subject-specific curriculum expertise and reinforce the importance of whole-school planning and collaboration between teachers. This will require an update to the national professional standards for teachers and principals, and an overhaul of professional development programs.
For the sake of our students’ futures and our teachers’ sanity, state and federal governments must act now. The federal Education Minister should lead his state counterparts in ensuring high-quality curriculum materials are available for the benefit of all teachers and students. It’s time to end the lesson lottery.
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