Human cost of failing the education test

Fiona Mueller

27 January 2020 | Canberra Times

To Australia’s shame, the most recent NAPLAN and PISA results confirm the feedback from parents, employers and universities.

One in five Year 9 students did not achieve the NAPLAN minimum standards of literacy and numeracy in 2019, and a significant proportion of Australian 15-year-olds did not meet the proficient standard in reading, mathematics and science literacy set by the OECD’s tests in 2018.

And that does not include the children who only just reach the benchmarks, who slip through the academic cracks because they are never adequately supported and challenged, and show little or no understanding of the extraordinary nation and world into which they have been born.

Taxpayers are now fully aware of the billions upon billions of dollars spent on schooling, but it is the human cost that should occupy our minds.

Since 1989, state and territory ministers have signed four national agreements on educational goals for young Australians. Calling themselves the “proud custodians of Australia’s education system”, they met in December 2019 to launch the latest version, the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration.

But the document that should inspire us with a strategic plan for Australian education over the next decade is a long-winded fizzer.

Not one of the 11 items under the Commitment to Action offers a smart, honest assessment of the current problems and realistic solutions that the ministers – who hold direct responsibility – must address to ensure that “all young Australians have the opportunity to reach their full potential.” Nor do they reflect the new Declaration’s commitment to “strengthening accountability and transparency with strong meaningful measures.”

A few frustrated principals and experienced teachers could probably have painted a much more useful picture (with practical examples and case studies) over the summer break. After all, they are living it.

Piecemeal proposals that state the obvious and completely ignore past policy failures mean that parents and employers should not hold their breath for improvement in student performance any time soon.

For example, although there is widespread concern about the overstuffed, waffling Australian curriculum, it seems only mathematics is to get a major review in 2020.

People with strong mathematical skills generally earn higher salaries and mathematics is a key to success in many aspects of study and life. Unlike most high-performing countries, Australia no longer makes this subject compulsory for senior secondary students and there are too few qualified teachers.

But it makes no sense to review one area of the curriculum in isolation when the weaknesses of Australian children’s learning, the absence of consistently high national standards and the lack of evidence-based, strategic thinking are glaringly obvious.

If states and territories really do want a national curriculum (signed off by all ministers years ago), and are genuinely committed to equity and excellence as well as financial efficiencies, a root and branch review of the whole curriculum for Kindergarten to Year 12 is required.

But instead, a new approach to wasting money and time is coming our way in the form of an “evidence institute”, another big government (Gonski) solution that fails the common sense test. Yes, there should be a clearinghouse for research into good educational policy and practice, with easy access for teachers and principals.

Although there is widespread concern about the overstuffed, waffling Australian curriculum, it seems only mathematics is to get a major review in 2020.

A cooperative university sector could have nailed this decades ago as part of the evolution from the teachers’ college model. Now taxpayers are going to fund a joint Ministerial Company to bridge the gap between the research and the classroom. Utopia.

The ministers have decided to “convene a national forum biennially with education stakeholders to showcase best practice, success stories, and progress against the goals outlined in the Declaration.”

After 30 years of similar declarations from talkfests in Hobart, Adelaide and Melbourne, what chance is there that the Alice Springs document will “turn the aspirations into actions”? We have to wait two years to find out.

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