Four ways to improve Australian school students’ results
Published in The Australian Financial Review, 11 April 2021
Alan Tudge, the relatively new Education Minister, bolted out of the gates with an ambitious goal of returning Australian schools to the top of the international class by 2030.
In an important but under-reported speech to the Menzies Research Centre, he drew attention to Australia’s performance on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). He’s right to do so. We’ve been falling behind for 20 years. It is an urgent problem and a big challenge.
Hand wringing over the OECD results is sometimes dismissed as a bad case of PISA envy. PISA results can feel like an abstract concern – more a vanity project than a problem with real-world consequences – but Australia’s decline reveals an all-too-real fall in the reading, mathematics and scientific competence of our teenagers, with significant implications for our economy and society, and for our children’s lives.
In a rich country, we have every reason to expect teenagers to achieve the national proficient standard on PISA. Yet over 40 per cent failed to meet the standard in 2018. In maths, the proportion that fell short was twice as large in Australia as it was among the top five PISA performing countries.
Clearly, struggling students are being let down. But high-fliers are also underperforming. In maths in 2018, the cohort of high-fliers was one-third the size of the cohort in PISA’s top performers.
Of course, calling out the problem and solving it are two very different things. The causes of the decline are complex. But with few exceptions, a teaching workforce that shies away from hard work or lacks commitment to students is not among them.
There are still important reforms Minister Tudge can make. We recommend four immediate steps.
First, the federal government should offer $10,000 cash-in-hand scholarships to encourage high achievers to study teaching, as we argued in our 2019 report. The number of top students wanting to become teachers fell by a third over the past decade – more than any other undergraduate field of study.
Second, Minister Tudge should commission a new independent review of initial teacher education. He should not shy away from imposing tougher measures to ensure teaching graduates are classroom-ready, equipped with the content knowledge they need as well as up-to-date, evidence-based teaching approaches, particularly in reading and maths.
Third, the federal government should broaden the suite of tools available to teachers to assess their students’ learning.
Fourth, some hard thinking is needed to unravel the problems we face in maths. The biggest PISA drop has been in maths and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a subject where teachers often feel less well-equipped.We need to turn that ship around, and quickly.
Successful reform is a team sport. Minister Tudge can propose national goals but he can’t deliver them without a concerted effort across national, state and territory leaders, school leaders, teachers, students and their communities.
A lot of the heavy lifting will need to be done by state and territory governments and leaders in the Catholic and independent school systems, which are responsible for developing the quality of the existing workforce.
It is today’s teachers and school leaders – not the relatively small cohort of new teachers who join the profession every year – who will have the greatest impact on student performance over the next decade.
State and territory governments need to build, recognise, reward and deploy teaching expertise, as we argued in our 2020 report. They should enhance teacher career paths by creating instructional specialists and master teacher roles to make sure the best teachers get extra pay, time, and responsibility to lift teaching quality.
Under our plan, instructional specialists would be paid $140,000 a year, and a small elite cohort of master teachers (about 1 per cent of the workforce) would be paid $180,000 a year – about $80,000 more than top teachers get now. This reform would not only reward high-performing teachers, it would make teaching a more attractive profession for the next generation.
Australia’s PISA performance in 2030 will be determined by today’s crop of five- and six-year-olds who have already started school.
It is one thing for Australia to want to be among the best. It is quite another to have the fortitude and leadership skills to make that happen. Purposeful reforms, not headline-grabbing slogans, will be required.
Otherwise, when 2030 rolls around, all we will have to look forward to is another education minister setting out an ambitious 10-year goal to return Australia to the top of the class.