Learning loss of past two decades should be focus of policymakers

However, recent CIS research shows students have generally weathered the pandemic better than predicted.

In fact, the biggest priority in education should not be focused on any learning loss of the past two pandemic years, but the sustained learning loss of the past two decades.

There were concerns that, if Australian students suffered the pandemic learning hit seen in overseas countries, they would be around one-and-a-half months behind where they were pre-pandemic – and Victorians up to four-and-a-half months behind.

But the evidence on pandemic schooling so far paints a cautiously optimistic educational picture.

Preliminary 2021 NAPLAN results indicate students are on par with 2019. The research shows students who did best during home-based learning were those who were more engaged, more focussed, more motivated, coped well, and put in extra time studying. And while there’s evidence some students may have performed better or worse than normal, it’s not clear that students who started behind fell further behind, nor that disadvantaged students, particular those in regional areas, were disproportionately impacted.

In fact, those in the regions largely fared better than their city peers.

It’s logical policymakers initially looked to COVID catch-up programs to address potential pandemic-induced learning loss. In-school, small group tutoring can turn around relatively small numbers of struggling learners over a short period.

At the time, it was expected a substantial number of – mostly disadvantaged – students may have suffered acute learning loss. However, it’s not clear that recent extensions to these programs in NSW and Victoria are justified, given what we know now about the impacts of home-based learning.

Across 2021 and 2022, it’s likely this will amount to about $1.2 billion in new funding that could be better spent elsewhere.

Moreover, the problem is that COVID catch-up, by definition, risks being short-term in focus and limited only to a subset of students.

This means policymakers and educators need to stop fixating on short-term learning loss and instead confront the long-term decline – even if it’s the harder task.

Australian student achievement in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment has declined more consistently and steeply than in other country in the world, other than Finland.

Compared to the average Australian student less than two decades ago, today’s student is 14 months behind in mathematics. That’s what deserves undivided attention from policymakers and educators.

The education system really needs to see long-term and widely shared improvements for all students.

The education system really needs to see long-term and widely shared improvements for all students. To bring the system-wide improvements that are needed, there’s no substitute for getting all students consistent access to high-quality, evidence-based teaching in every class.

The teachers most in need of extra support are those outside of the major cities. The best investment policymakers can make now is to give teachers the tools and training to implement these practices.

That will bring sustained improvements to the work of educators and permanent gains in student outcomes. And that doesn’t necessarily require more funding – just better use of it.

Teachers already participate in regular professional development to improve practice. The issue is not a lack of quantity of training hours, but of quality. That’s why education ministers around the country should take note of NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell’s shakeup of professional development providers last year.

Professional development must now must meet a more rigorous test of quality and appropriateness. That is common sense and will help more teachers get access to the training supports they need. For professional development to be more effective, it must also do better in what it teaches the teachers. There remains a shortage of training available to teachers to upgrade their skills in evidence-based teaching methods – an issue of supply, not of demand.

As the chief regulator of teaching quality, the states must no longer free ride on the federal government’s efforts to bring the sector into line with best practice.

Policymakers were right to be concerned about the potential educational impacts of the pandemic. But that mustn’t be the singular focus, else it risks distracting from the long-term goals. Lifting teaching quality for all students – not just giving extra teaching to some students – should be the focus.