There is "a long tail of under-achievement" among disadvantaged school children, according to a recent Commonwealth Senate Committee report, Quality of School Education. By Year 5, the top 10 per cent of readers are at least five years ahead of the bottom 10 per cent.
In Queensland, about 83 per cent of indigenous children in Year 3, along with about 52 per cent in Year 5 and 65 per cent in Year 7, can read at the minimum standard to allow them to make satisfactory progress at their grade level.
It begs the question: what should Queensland do about schools whose students consistently post low achievement rates?
Research estimates that teachers are responsible for about 30 per cent of the variation in student achievement, although some research puts the figure as high as 60 per cent.
But Queensland was among the states and territories which recently refused to provide the Commonwealth with individual performance data on students and schools because identifying data could be used to punish poor performing schools.
In the US, the controversial "No Child Left Behind" legislation (the reauthorisation of which is before Congress for consideration) tackled accountability for the academic achievement of such disadvantaged student groups head-on.
It placed accountability for student achievement in literacy and numeracy squarely with schools and recognised the link between teacher quality and student achievement.
Of course, even its supporters realise that the legislation has its problems.
However, as the Education Sector think tank's co-director Andrew Rotherham put it, people "worry that calling attention to these problems and publicly identifying schools that have to improve will erode support for public schools, while increasing support for ideas like school vouchers. But they have it backwards: it is inattention to the problems that 'No Child Left Behind' is pointing out that is the biggest problem facing public schools".
What is our community more concerned about: that children are not reading and writing at grade level or that poor performing schools and teachers might be treated differently from their more effective counterparts? In Queensland, as in the US, we need to face up to the issues of teacher quality, performance and remuneration. In other professions, those who are more effective or take on more difficult tasks are rewarded.
In the teaching profession, the fixed-pay system rewards seniority, not performance, and teachers hit maximum salaries by their mid-30s.
This was a central issue on the mind of the Senate Committee in its report.
It recommended that steps be taken to improve the remuneration of teachers so as to raise the profession's entry standard and retention rates by providing incentives. The key will be to get the incentives right.
Take, for example, Queensland's hardest to staff rural and remote primary schools such as those on Cape York. Available incentives under the Remote Area Incentives Scheme include an incentive payment of up to $5000 a year to stay on after the minimum service period, a "compensation" payment to offset travel costs, and extended emergency leave.
Not one of these incentives is directed at attracting teachers who are effective in the classroom. Nor is a single incentive directed at retaining teachers whose students achieve strong gains in literacy and numeracy.
Queensland is not alone. The other states and territories have incentive systems to attract and retain teachers in rural and remote schools, but not to boost or reward performance.
It is time to start rewarding those teachers who repeatedly demonstrate their effectiveness, especially those who teach the most disadvantaged students in remote and rural areas.
For that, we will need to start linking teacher and student performance data and start paying good teachers what they are worth.
Kirsten Storry is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies.