A federal election is an opportunity to take stock of how Australia is doing, where it’s going, and what governments can do about it. This series, written by program directors at the Grattan Institute, explores the challenges that Australia faces and advocates policy changes for budgets, economic growth, cities and transport, energy, school education, higher education and health.
Australia’s schools are not keeping up with the best in the world. There is a real problem, and governments must act. But the newly elected Coalition government must tread a fine line: good Commonwealth policy will not save Australia’s schools, but poor policy will damage them further.
A big challenge for any Commonwealth education minister is that state governments hold key responsibilities in the areas that will lift student outcomes. Many of the ideas in the Coalition’s education policy “Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes” will go nowhere without agreement from state and territory counterparts.
The best approach for the Commonwealth is to play a modest role, focusing its efforts in areas where national scale or consistency is a genuine advantage, or where current arrangements mean it must be involved. Overreach creates confusion, duplication and regulatory burden.
The focus of the last three years
At the 2013 election, the big issue was school funding – specifically the Gonski reforms.
After the election, the Coalition government tried to play down the importance of funding, by re-litigating what it appeared to promise before the election.
It has not worked: school funding is still the festering sore that infects all our education discussions.
Instead, the Coalition focused on four pillars: teacher quality (predominantly through initial teacher education); school autonomy; parental engagement; and a stronger curriculum.
The impact of this approach was mixed.
Reforming initial teacher education will and should continue. Incentives for school autonomy interferes with what should be a state-level decision. Parental engagement matters, but the Commonwealth government is poorly placed to drive change. Strengthening and streamlining the national curriculum had value but the costs of continued tinkering outweigh the benefits.
Overall, the four pillars failed to address the seriousness of the problems facing Australian schooling. And the problems are substantial.
Australia’s reading performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests has declined by the equivalent of almost six months worth of learning since 2000, while other countries have shot ahead.
Family background strongly affects outcomes: between Years 3 and 9, similarly capable students from families with limited education fall up to two years behind their peers.
Roughly one in four students will not finish Year 12 by age 19, and many of these will leave school without the reading and maths capabilities they will need to stand on their own feet as adults.
The national minimum standards for the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) do not highlight those falling far behind. A Year 9 student at the national minimum standard for reading operates well below the level of an average Year 5 student.
Australia’s strongest students must also do better. Only 15% reach the highest levels of mathematical proficiency in PISA, compared to 40% in the five best systems in the world.
These educational failings at both ends of the achievement spectrum limit productivity, innovation and economic growth.
Three key reforms that will lift student outcomes
The reforms to lift student outcomes are well known. Each requires a shift in focus for policymakers at all levels of government – but the key levers are largely within the remit of state governments.
1) Focus on progress, not just achievement
School education policy should explicitly aim to lift the progress (that is, learning growth) of all students, not just their achievement at a point in time.
Schools and teachers cannot control what their students know when they start the school year in January, but they can dramatically influence how much they learn by December. Yet our A to E grading system focuses on students’ achievement, and largely ignores their progress.
Students learn faster through “targeted teaching”, when teachers identify what each individual student is ready to learn next, teach them accordingly and track their progress.
Targeted teaching is vital because student achievement varies widely. For example, in a typical school the top Year 9 students are seven years ahead of the bottom students in literacy and numeracy. Yet targeted teaching is not the norm in Australian schools today.
2) Invest in improving teaching practice, not narrow accountability or incentive schemes
Outside the home, nothing influences student outcomes more than effective teaching.
Teaching works best when teachers embrace their collective professional responsibility; when they collaborate and observe each other, rather than working in isolation; when they rigorously discuss and use data; and when they receive feedback and meaningful appraisal.
High-performing education systems have learned these lessons. They relentlessly improve classroom practice by building teacher capability. Principals are central to this process.
Australia’s system leaders must invest more to improve teaching practice. A great example is the Early Action for Success program in New South Wales, which is improving teaching in over 300 disadvantaged government primary schools.
By contrast, international experience shows big risks and limited gains from using test scores to hold teachers accountable.
The evidence behind performance pay schemes for teachers is also mixed. It is hard to measure performance with sufficient accuracy, and paying teachers for student performance may erode the intrinsic rewards of teaching and undermine morale. A randomised trial of performance pay in Texas found no significant effects on student test scores or teacher practices and attitudes.
No one doubts that performance and accountability matter. But narrowly-designed incentive schemes do more harm than good.
3) Make trade-offs to improve how and where money is spent
Trade-offs are needed to direct funding and resources where the evidence shows they will make the most difference.
Time, and therefore money, could also be saved by scaling up investment in tools that help teachers understand what students know and what they need to learn next (classroom-based formative assessment tools and learning continuums). Teachers and schools could then spend far less time reinventing the wheel.
Three policy suggestions for the Turnbull government
In school education, as elsewhere, the Turnbull government should focus on changes that can be implemented administratively or with bi-partisan support, or where public support can be built. Policies that will not make it through the Senate should simply be ditched.
A core policy should be to strengthen the evidence base in school education. More rigorous research is needed, including systematic evaluation of major educational investments and policies. Commonwealth support would bring benefits of scale and independence.
The beauty of this goal is that it only requires modest investment, and should attract bi-partisan support.
A more challenging goal is to finally realise the goal of a simple, fair and transparent funding system. To do so, the Coalition must invest time and political capital to build public support for a compromise model with elements of Gonski but not the full price tag.
The principles outlined by Simon Birmingham last October provide a good basis for discussion.
But hard decisions are required, because funding is not currently allocated to where it will make the most difference.
The most disadvantaged students need relatively more funding, and most are in government schools. To keep the cost down, special deals for “funding-maintained” schools (which receive more funding than their socioeconomic mix warrants) should be removed.
Only the Coalition can safely make this trade-off: remember the backlash to Mark Latham’s “hit-list” of private schools.
Better teaching not stronger markets
The Coalition should ditch its Independent Public Schools policy, which pushes school autonomy without providing the support to make autonomy work.
It should also avoid policies based on a flawed belief that more competition and choice means better schools.
Market-oriented policies will struggle to pass the Senate, and there is a better way. Stronger outcomes will come from the hard yards of making teaching more professional and more rigorous, not the seductive simplicity that underpins the myth of markets.