NAPLAN dive shows funding splurge is no fix for learning woes - The Centre for Independent Studies
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NAPLAN dive shows funding splurge is no fix for learning woes

The  NAPLAN results just released reveal a significant underperforming tail, which means school systems must do better in lifting achievement of struggling students — and that does not mean additional funding, but a smarter approach to education investment.

The new-look reporting in this year’s results shows that one in three students do not meet expected literacy and numeracy outcomes. For many, extra help will be needed to make progress in essential reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Compared to previous results, this means there are many more students who are either behind where they were expected to be, or at risk of being behind. Namely, there are around 50 per cent more struggling learners than reported in NAPLAN in the past; in large part because the previous marker for underachievement — the national minimum standard — has long been known as too weak.

The education system must now lift to meet this challenge. The new tougher test standard is an important step in lifting expectations of school systems and students. And now that the scale of low-achieving students in the system is better known, it must also be better addressed.

As a new Australian Education Research Organisation report earlier this week shows, our school systems have generally disappointed in supporting students who fall behind. In effect, only around one in five students who fall behind ever catch up. Around half of the students who do catch up don’t remain on track later in school.

At least in part, this is because the focus has typically been on tracking the overall level of student and systems’ results, rather than how well additional support has been available and successfully delivered when needed.

New NAPLAN report cards explicitly label students in the lowest achieving category as “needs additional support”. This now leaves little room for interpretation (as low achievement levels did in the past), by providing a clear signal to families and schools of what is needed. The challenge for schools now will be in better clarifying what that support will be and how that is expected to lift students’ performance. To date, this has been too ad hoc in practice and with limited guidance to schools. The ‘catch-up success’ of students — and the teachers who deliver it — must be better valued and recognised.

Systems must also be rated on their turnaround success. The soon-to-be-updated National School Reform Agreements — where the states and Canberra agree on shared goals and funding commitments — are expected to introduce explicit performance targets for states to meet. This should not only rate performance in terms of the number of students who keep up with achievement expectations, but also how well systems perform in catching students up (taking those behind expectations to meeting expectations) and in moving students up (lifting those at expectations level to meeting above expectations).

But policymakers must also be clear that providing additional support does not necessarily translate to pumping in additional resources.

Among the problems with Gonski-era education policy was the presumption that more across-the-board funding alone would deliver better outcomes. It’s now clear that the additional spending of the past decade has neither improved results nor narrowed equity gaps. The inputs-based approach of policymakers focussed on increasing teacher numbers, but not always on increasing the impact on education outcomes.

Instead, an outcomes-based investment approach toward funding is needed. This means making sure that resources are tilted to where there is the most chance of educational return — rather than viewing school funding as an extension of progressive tax redistribution.

Early intervention is key to improving this investment, provided we are awake to the potential of educational white elephants.

First, over recent years, there has been enthusiasm for scaling up small-group tutoring programmes as a fix-all in school systems. While originally intended as a temporary Covid-era remedy for lost learning, it’s now viewed as a permanent, mass solution to lifting performance of all struggling students.

Done well, small-group tutoring can be a highly effective tool for supporting at-risk leaners — especially those with learning difficulties and those who have missed extended class time. There is good evidence that well-executed interventions of this sort can be very successful.

But done poorly, mass small-group tutoring can be expensive and even counterproductive. Without a commitment to evidence-based practices, tutoring can simply be a more labour-intensive form of ineffective teaching. In some cases, withdrawing students from mainstreaming classes can limit their progress.

Before mass investment in small-group tutoring, school systems need to better build capacity in identifying the best targets for intervention and aligning practices with evidence of what works.

Second, starting education ever earlier has become a key policy objective. In most jurisdictions, the majority of children will attend preschool for at least the year prior to starting school.

But additional preschool attendance is also not a solution in itself. Without an evidence-based transition from preschool to early years of schooling, this investment offers only limited academic benefits for children.

It’s true that time spent in preschool can make children better prepared for school — academically, socially, and emotionally. And when early educators deliver focussed programmes for children at risk of starting school behind their peers, this can be a potent preventative.

But much of the time spent in preschool is not directly targeted at preparing children for learning. The sector does not yet have sufficient capacity to consistently deliver evidence-based doses of teaching, where needed, to build early literacy and numeracy that is foundational to school success.

While additional efforts toward early intervention can deliver a better educational investment, it remains the case that there’s no substitute for consistent, highly-effective teaching — which is both the best prevention and the cure for students at educational risk.

NAPLAN points us to a key weakness in the school system: there are too many low-achieving students who need additional support.

The test for policymakers and educators will now be to more systematically provide the support needed to lift the outcomes of struggling learners.

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Alena Darmel.