Australian education crying out for remedial help
Recent education results should be ringing alarm bells throughout Australia.
Every three years the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts standardised testing of the skills of 15-year-old school students from more than 70 countries. The tests – the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – focus on three areas: knowledge of and ability to use basics of science; maths; and what the program calls “reading”, formally known as comprehension in the days when Australian students received direct instruction in ability to use their own language.
The results of the 2015 program, released last month, make sombre reading.
It is revealing to compare outcomes in the three key areas with national expenditure on schooling per student per year. Considering payments by government’s alone, Australia spends more than $60 billion a year on our schools.
Yet the most successful nation under recent PISA testing was Singapore, where only about 60 per cent of Australia’s expenditure is allocated per student per year.
Surprisingly the United States, which is one of the world’s biggest education spenders, languish in the middle of the world’s performers with standards in sharp decline.
Apologists for Australia’s parlous performance (and there are plenty of them, generally current or former senior education bureaucrats) speak of Australia’s “rich curriculum”, citing our teaching of music and art to all students, and our concentration on sport. Yet who has ever evaluated the impact of art and music lessons or sport (which costs public schools of NSW and the ACT more than $1 billion a year) on the lives and careers of our graduates?
Given the picture painted by the most recent PISA results it might be expected that our educational leaders would be visiting places like Singapore to see what it is that they’re doing right. Not so. In an extraordinary recent statement, the New South Wales Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli asserted that we would not want our students working as hard as youngsters do in Korea to achieve high standards. “Don’t work hard; don’t aspire to excellence” would appear to be the message to our current crop of students.
There are some differences in approach to schooling adopted by the Singaporeans that our educational leaders might care to emulate. In Singapore, high schools operate from 7.30am until four in the afternoon. Moreover the work of teachers is regularly assessed, including in-class observation of lessons every year. As a result, teachers are placed in one of five bands, from A to E.
A-grade teachers in Singapore receive significant financial bonuses. In contrast, to continue in employment E graders have a nine-month period to improve.
In general, Singaporean students and teachers work harder than do ours and the continuation and prosperity of teachers in the profession is tied to observed performance and a dedication to continual improvement of educational practice. This is a far cry from our “job for life” mentality where often the worst teachers in each state are paid the same as the best.
Last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a study demonstrating that, over the next 30 years, Australia’s standing in overall national wealth will fall well behind that of several of our near neighbours who currently are far poorer than we are. If those same neighbours also possess a far more effective standard of education than our own, this would be a powerful predictor of an increasingly difficult and poorer standard of living for our grandchildren.
Surely it’s well and truly time to wake up and take the remedial action that’s so urgently needed.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Canberra Times, January 9, 2017.
Also in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Brisbane Times online.