Queensland’s rise to top education performer could provide a model for the country
Published by ABC, Tuesday 23 October
Ten years ago, nobody would have believed that other states should be learning from Queensland’s school education system.
When the very first 2008 NAPLAN results were published, Queensland was the lowest achieving state in the country. But a lot has changed.
A new Grattan Institute report shows Queensland primary schools are now the star performers in Australia in reading and numeracy.
The state-by-state report card on student progress in NAPLAN shows that at primary school, Queensland students make one month more progress on average in numeracy, and two months in reading, once student background is taken into account.
This story is consistent across all school sectors — government, Catholic and independent (although it is most obvious in government schools). And is seen in a range of low, middle and high “advantage” schools.
This doesn’t mean that every school is nailing its teaching, but it is big enough to mean that we should look for system-wide explanations.
Our report takes into account students’ family background, and uses NAPLAN results to track students’ progress — how much they learn as the move through school. By contrast, Australia has traditionally focused heavily on students’ achievement at a point in time. Progress gives a better indication of how much a student learns in the classroom.
The rest of Australia should now investigate the distinctive features of Queensland’s primary school system to identify if there are government policies or teacher practices that might explain these high rates of student progress.
Whatever Queensland did, it did before 2010
It is hard to know exactly what is driving these outcomes in the “sunshine” state.
Queensland’s high rates of progress were consistently above the national average from 2010-2016, so the contributing factors are likely to have been in place before 2010.
One theory is that Queenslanders simply focused more on NAPLAN after the 2008 shock that embarrassed them. The heavy public attention on improving the state’s NAPLAN results may have flowed through to schools, teachers and students to try harder on the test.
But the NAPLAN shock also prompted the Queensland government to introduce a specific strategy in 2009 to improve literacy and numeracy at primary. Changes included new specialist coaches and higher standards for teacher professional development.
A unique feature of the Queensland school system is its opportunities for secondary teachers to work across schools to collaborate on how they grade student work, known as “moderation”.
Building teacher capabilities in grading student work is more intense in Queensland, because senior secondary assessment has included a lot of internal assessment (until recently).
These moderation opportunities can help teachers to understand where students are at in their learning, and this culture may flow down to primary schools.
School autonomy may not explain the progress
School autonomy has increased in Queensland over the past decade, but it is hard to say if it is a key driver of its good performance.
Our analysis shows little difference in student growth between public and private schools — even though private schools have much higher levels of school autonomy.
While some of Queensland’s independent public schools appear to be using their extra freedom to great effect, a rigorous evaluation of this program is needed.
Why might increased autonomy not necessarily be the driver?
More autonomy can have positive effects, but schools and teachers must be adequately supported by the government at the same time. This issue has been a challenge in other states and territories, and more work should be done to understand what the Queensland experience has been.
Does a prep year make a difference?
It could be also tempting to think Queensland’s new prep year and other early learning reforms a decade ago are behind the higher rates of student primary progress, but the timing does not quite add-up.
The reforms would have needed to have been fully implemented by 2007 to have an impact on year 3 results by 2010; and we know the reforms were phased in slowly.
Our findings are a win for Queensland primary schools, but they should not rest on their laurels.
We can’t tell how well students are progressing in secondary school (given year 7 students in Queensland were still in primary for the time for which we have data).
But Queensland’s boosts to student achievementin year 3 and year 5 do not fully filter through to secondary.
All states have homework to do
And all states and territories must do more to lift student progress in low-achieving, disadvantaged schools, where students make only half the progress in numeracy from year 7 to year 9 as students in high-achieving schools.
This is a pressing challenge facing all jurisdictions.
Australia’s state governments need to investigate why students make more progress in some states than others, to identify what teacher practices and school policies produce the best results for our children.