Teaching quality is the biggest challenge facing the bush

Blaise Joseph

04 June 2018 | The Australian Financial Review

It will surprise few people that students from rural areas tend to perform worse on average than those in cities. In fact — as shown by the results of NAPLAN and two different international standardised tests — the more remote the area, the lower the average student test score.

Decades of research show the most significant in-school factor that affects student achievement is the quality of teacher instruction. But in country areas, it is a particular challenge for schools to attract and retain experienced and expert teachers.

This was the most pressing issue discussed by the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, authored by Emeritus Profession John Halsey and commissioned by the Turnbull government. The review received hundreds of submissions, and the vast majority rated the area of teachers and teaching as the most important.

But this is not just an Australian problem. According to an OECD report, the city-country gap in achievement exists in most countries; and internationally it is much harder on average for rural schools to attract experienced and more qualified teachers. Realistically, this is a problem we can only mitigate, rather than solve entirely.

So how can the size of the problem be reduced? The Halsey review proposes few specific actions, but unfortunately doesn’t give any analysis of the costs and benefits of each approach. It suggests: university teacher education degrees include a subject specifically covering rural education, more teacher professional experience placements in rural schools, and using targeted salary and conditions packages to attract experienced teachers to rural schools for fixed term appointments.

In theory, these ideas are sensible, but are potentially expensive — and it is unclear if they are cost-effective uses of taxpayer money to increase teaching quality in rural schools.

Unfortunately, it seems the trend for Australian government-commissioned education reviews these days is to be overly general and not address the pros and cons of their ideas. The Gonski 2.0 review into schools was the epitome of the genre — full of clichés and jargon at the expense of practicality and evidence.

To be fair, the Halsey review doesn’t quite reach the Gonski 2.0 level of platitude litanies. But the fact that the Turnbull government’s response to Halsey’s review was simply to accept all 11 (very broad) recommendations and then note that the more specific 53 suggested actions were just “examples of what could be done to implement these recommendations” and “are very specific and may cut across existing initiatives” shows the practical policy utility of the Halsey review is limited. Prepare the mothballs.

The Halsey review also focuses arguably too much on curriculum and technology.

One recommendation is about “ensuring the relevance of the Australian Curriculum” for students in rural areas. It seems absurd that, when faced with a gap in achievement in the curriculum, a response is to blame the curriculum. Why is the gap a problem if what is being measured is supposedly irrelevant for country kids? And no evidence is presented to suggest that the reason students in rural schools are underperforming is because the content being taught isn’t relevant enough for them.

Another focus of the review is technology for rural schools. Of course, access to fast and reliable internet is often a challenge in country areas, and technology has the potential to open up many mobile learning opportunities for students.

But there is too much faith in the possible productivity gains from technology in schools. There is no clear relationship between use of education technology and student achievement. In fact, some studies suggest there is a negative relationship. Australian schools already use technology much more than most other OECD countries — including the top-performers like Singapore — according to the international education datasets. So more technology is no silver bullet for rural education.

Nevertheless, Halsey’s review is an important contribution, expresses aspirations we all support, and is at least “a starting point for many conversations” — to quote the federal government’s response.

But state and territory governments are going to have to do much more detailed analysis if they are to come up with a blueprint to improve teaching in rural areas; and minimise the educational disadvantage faced by country students.

Blaise Joseph is an education policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and a former teacher.

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