How to achieve excellence in Australian schools - Grattan Institute

Published by the Australia Financial Review, Sunday 26 November

Australia’s school education system is not fit for purpose, and we need to rethink the way we teach students, support teachers and run schools. The “Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools”, led by David Gonski and due to report next March, offers a reform opportunity that must be seized.

School education in this country faces three major challenges: to improve student learning in core academic areas; to better prepare young people for adult life; and to do so in a way that is fair for all.

To tackle these diverse challenges, we need an adaptive approach whereby teachers, schools and systems use regular, accurate feedback to continuously improve their practice.

And a new approach is needed. Despite pockets of great teaching, overall student performance is flat or declining. For example, in the international PISA tests, Australian 15-year-olds perform on average six to 12 months below where they did a decade ago.

Last week we got better news: Australian students punch above their weight on a new PISA test that measures collaborative problem solving. But while our best students excelled, our lowest performers languished well below their peers in otherwise comparable countries such as Canada.

Worse, these results come after a decade in which school funding rose by 7 per cent above student enrolments and wages. An education system that spends more, delivers less, and has widening equity gaps is not fit for purpose.

In June, the Commonwealth government legislated to increase real funding by about 1.2 per cent per year above enrolments over the next decade. Whatever people think of that so-called Gonski 2.0 deal, it’s clear that Australia must get maximum bang for the buck from future funding – the remit of the new Gonski review.

Top-down approaches won’t work. Rather than a “one-size-fits-all” model, each school should use feedback about what is and isn’t working for them and adapt their teaching over time to maximise impact. While informed by research, this is an inherently local process.

Bottom-up improvement isn’t the answer either. If each school tries to improve in isolation, we will never achieve the gains needed, because there would be no adoption of best practice.

Instead, as I argue in a Grattan Institute paper released today, Australia needs an education system that adapts and improves over time – a learning system that systematically learns. Adaptation is an evolutionary process, selecting what works best and culling what doesn’t. But while it is automatic in biology – Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” – adaptation takes conscious effort in education.

Student outcomes improve when teachers track how much their students are learning, identify the specific teaching practices that boost learning and those that don’t, and then deliberately adapt the way they teach. This process is among the most powerful educational interventions.

The same logic holds true at higher levels of the education system. Regional networks should use feedback to improve the support they offer schools; states should learn what works best at a network level; and so on.

The key to being adaptive is not more innovation, but better selection. This means an explicit focus on inputs (what is done), an equal focus on outcomes (what is measured), and a systematic learning process to decide what to do differently next time.

Here are four ways Australia can make its education system more adaptive.

First, teachers and schools need better access to “small data”, data they trust, gathered regularly enough to track the progress of students over time. This does not mean more standardised tests, instead well-designed classroom assessment against a defined sequence of learning that identifies what students know now and what they need to learn next.

Second, system leaders – including education departments and the heads of the Catholic and independent sectors – need to ensure schools and teachers have good access to the evidence about best practices, plus the time, tools, training and support to implement them in the classroom.

Third, Australia should follow the lead of high-performing education systems such as Singapore and Hong Kong by making better use of our best teachers. Instructional leaders should teach fewer classes and instead should spend more time teaching other teachers how to identify and implement the best ways to improve student performance.

Fourth, teachers and school leaders should embrace the benefits that come from standardising elements of teaching practice. Too many schools lack clear classroom routines, don’t fully document their curricula, or don’t set aside the time to ensure that student assessment is consistent across teachers.

Here’s the bottom line: Australia won’t achieve excellence in school education unless policy makers give teachers the practical support they need to rigorously adapt and improve their practices. This is a challenging vision, but worth striving for: an adaptive education system would build professional responsibility, and ultimately transform all our schools.