Australia’s students are failing: I blame the politicians

The results of PISA 2015 have just been released – and Australia has slipped down the rankings, again. The Australian Council of Educational Research has called it, and Australia is now in absolute decline in reading, mathematics and science. A close reading of the full 472 page report from PISA  does indeed offer some salutary lessons for Australia. 

1. Federal politicians – butt out!

The more federal politicians get involved in education, the worse we perform.

Our decline began at about the same time our federal politicians took over education with their own personal ideas picked up from their politician mates in other countries, and began playing games with the states and territories, holding them to ransom if their latest great idea wasn’t implemented. 

Dr Brendan Nelson started it all  with a National Curriculum and the hugely non-standardised and ultimately meaningless A to E reporting system that we now endure across the country. 

The Labor Rudd government took up the baton in 2008 and instituted the national assessment plan for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN). 

Julia Gillard then made friends with fellow lawyer Joel Klein, the head of the New York city Department of Education. She decided to follow his lead and introduce MySchool – the public naming and shaming website for schools, where schools’ NAPLAN results are released for all to pore over and make ill-conceived comparisons across schools. 

This was despite New York, and the US as a whole, performing far below Australia on international testing. 

Then conservative federal education minister Christopher Pyne introduced a back-to-basics curriculum  borrowed from England – another country which performs below Australia. Specifically, “creative and critical thinking” were to be stripped from the curriculum.

And the rationale for each of these changes wrought upon us by these doctors and lawyers taking time out to be politicians?

To stop our slide down the international education rankings. 

So, how’s that working out for us?

How about we bring educators back into the policy fold?

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2. Stop rabbiting on about ‘back to basics’

The 2015 PISA test was a test of scientific literacy. It wasn’t a test of scientific facts. The students didn’t have to know their periodic table off by heart, or to solve chemical equations. 

PISA is not a test of content regurgitation. You can complete the test with no knowledge of the scientific facts. But you do need a scientific vocabulary, and an ability to think empirically. It was a reading comprehension test, and many of the answers were written.

In short, the students were being asked to think, read and write like scientists

They had to read scientific explanations of phenomena (interestingly, the impact of fossil fuels on the global climate was the focus of several test items), alongside data charts and tables, interpret that information, analyse it and give a written rationale for their interpretation and analysis.

Our students failed precisely because their vocabulary, word reading and comprehension skills are basic. 

The sooner the government pulls its “innovation” narrative across into the education space to replace its “back to basics” mantra, the better.

3. Money matters

Despite the huge investment in education over the past decade or more, we are not improving.

That doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter, because it obviously does if you are the student, and you and your family don’t have any. 

The report couldn’t be clearer and the statistics couldn’t be more stark. If you are from a low socio-economic background you are highly likely to perform poorly at school. 

The report also makes it clear that there is nothing natural about that fact, it is an environmental phenomenon. You perform poorly because your country didn’t provide an education system that enabled you to achieve.

The PISA report shows that Australia is a high achiever in the inequity table. In fact, we are now even more inequitable than we have ever been. 

Now, that is a result worth having a moral panic about. 

4. Invest in teachers

According to the global report, the high correlating factors for the highest performing countries in science were:

  • the abilities of the teachers to teach and explain science concepts

  • hands on experiences with science

  • smaller class sizes 

  • more hours spent doing science during school hours 

Hopefully our policymakers read the report closely enough to find out what is really going on in education in Australia

creative-commonsThis piece was written by Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra. The article was originally published on The Conversation. 

Misty Adoniou

Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra.

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