Friday, December 7

A closer look at our education report card

In our schools, Australia really is the land of the fair go. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds do reach higher educational standards than they would almost anywhere else in the world.

By world standards, Australia offers high quality education – and offers it more equitably than most other countries. But there are areas of concern, particularly with Aboriginal students' achievement and with remote schools.

I've followed up my previous blog post by going into the Australian Council for Educational Research website and downloading the executive summary of Australian results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The exec summary itself is a 14-page PDF file, while the full Australian report runs to almost 10 megabytes of PDF.

As the previous blog post noted, Australia is still up there with the better performers, but has slipped on some key measures.

And to my mind, the exec summary doesn't provide enough information to answer some key policy questions that should concern all Australians and their politicians. Answers which may show us the way to regain the lost ground, and more.

The summary says questions guiding the development of PISA are:

  • How well are young adults prepared to meet the challenges of the future? What skills do they possess that will facilitate their capacity to adapt to rapid societal change?

  • Are some ways of organising schools and school learning more effective than others?

  • What influence does the quality of school resources have on student outcomes?

  • What educational structures and practices maximise the opportunities of students from disadvantaged backgrounds? How equitable is education provision for students from all backgrounds?

Under the heading, Policy Issues, and looking at the new focus on science education, the summary notes that "Australia is well placed to continue its tradition of producing high quality scientists".

It also notes that "Analysis of Australia´s performance in terms of equity and achievement places us in the category of above-average level of student performance and below-average impact of socioeconomic background in scientific literacy; in other words, high quality and high equity".

Literacy in reading also shows a narrowing of the gap between well-off and poorer students, but the report notes this may result from declining achievement in the higher levels rather than improvement at the bottom end.

The report does point to worrying areas, two of which are:

The achievement of Australia´s Indigenous students continues to be a concern. Average scores for Indigenous students place them on a par with students in a low-performing country such as Chile, and two and a half years behind the average for their non-Indigenous contemporaries. While some individual Indigenous students performed very well on the PISA assessment many more performed extremely poorly. There is no doubt that many Indigenous students will continue to need extra support.

The relatively poor performance of students attending schools in remote areas is also evident from these analyses, and requires attention. Students attending schools in remote areas were found to be achieving at a level about a year and a half lower than their counterparts in metropolitan schools in all of the assessment areas. It is recognised that schools in remote areas face problems such as attracting and retaining qualified teachers, maintaining services and providing resources, and in their capacity to send staff to participate in professional development.

Despite its aims, the PISA study may not settle debate on questions such as Australia's mix of public and private education, and the way it is to be funded. We have just removed a Prime Minister who was ideologically unable to collaborate with the Labor-governed states, and who also wanted to impose his mid-20th Century mindset on our school curriculums.

Can we achieve more in education (and in health, and everything else) with "wall-to-wall Labor governments"? Perhaps, but there'll always be tensions between Federal and state responsibilities and funding.

Are we focusing too much on vocational preparation, and not enough on developing our children so they can live better lives in in our rapidly changing world? The PISA report suggests we are achieving a good balance, but we shouldn't take it for granted.

Can we improve the professionalism, the status and the remuneration of teachers? Will some have to put extra effort into professional development to cope with our changing, digital world?

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