Our education system is underperfoming but there could be a chance to fix that - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Our education system is underperfoming but there could be a chance to fix that

Canberra’s parents — and taxpayers — must wake up to the inconvenient truth that its education system has long underperformed.  

But there could finally be an opportunity to turn that around with the current independent inquiry into literacy and numeracy. 

It might come as a surprise that the ACT’s education system is the subject of scrutiny.  

Students’ test scores are near or at the top of Australian rankings, and the school system is also the country’s best funded. 

But several key facts should shake the longstanding comfortable complacency. 

First, it’s clear ACT schools significantly underperform when compared with schools with similar background-students elsewhere in the country.  

A 2017 report commissioned by the Directorate showed results were poorest in maths — with Year 5 students in public schools around 6 months behind comparable students in other cities. And a 2018 ANU study found ACT students were 8–12 months behind in secondary maths compared to similar schools.  

Unfortunately, rather than engage with this, the government has preferred to deny it. It has rejected the way socio-educational advantages are calculated and repeatedly questioned the role of standardised testing like NAPLAN. 

Second, a transformative educational improvement in the territory’s Catholic schools is sharpening the divide with public schools.  

Canberra’s Catholic schools are undergoing a unique shift in teaching practice across their system. In just a few short years, this already shows impressive indications of success. 

In 2019, 56% and 74% of ACT public schools performed more poorly than similar schools in Australia for Year 3 and Year 5 numeracy respectively. In Catholic schools, this was a lower — but still alarming — 41% and 65% respectively.  

By 2022, the trends couldn’t be starker. Across the same measures, public schools remained at 66% and 72% respectively. But the share of Catholics underperforming had effectively halved to just 17% and 35% respectively. 

This shows the current inquiry is necessary, long overdue, and that there is an evidence-based path to achieve more success across the entire education system. Recent CIS research shows how the ACT could turn around its maths results by boosting maths teaching in its schools. 

First, there’s strong evidence on teaching practices that maths teachers can rely on. 

Around the world there’s increasing interest in maths teaching informed by science of how children learn — referred to as the ‘science of maths’ movement. This research indicates what works best and what isn’t effective.  

Sadly, many widely-held beliefs and practices are simply not supported by the best education science. 

Fundamentally, maths instruction should be explicit and generally led by teachers — with step-by-step demonstrations, offering repeated opportunities to practice with guidance, and providing active and fast-paced questions from teachers. 

Second, though many children show signs of struggling with maths, some supposed remedies for this problem make it worse. 

For some educators, parents, and even academics, the solution to poor engagement or interest in the topic, or even for conditions like ‘maths anxiety’, is to limit their exposure to maths.  

This can include replacing ‘boring’ maths – like arithmetic or rehearsing common ‘maths facts’ like multiplication tables  with ‘fun’ maths — generally games, puzzles, and the like. But often this just means children never engage confidently with the maths they need to learn. 

Similarly, because some children become anxious about maths tests under time pressure, it’s tempting to reduce reliance on this kind of test or practice.  

But the reality is that, without requiring both quick and accurate answers from students, they won’t become fluent enough to handle more complex maths as they get older. 

And third, focusing on early maths skills really adds up. 

Though early education is generally highly valued, specific maths preparation for school is not well understood.  

By the time school starts, several capabilities are likely to predict how well children will do in maths throughout their schooling. The ability to count numbers in sequence, determine basic quantities (such as correctly interpreting the number of objects), and especially to consistently and correctly associate a number with a specific quantity are all key to early foundations. 

Maths education has long suffered throughout the declining school outcomes over recent decades.  

There is an unfortunate legacy of some academics, bureaucrats, unions, and policymakers who’ve not only done little to improve maths teaching, but have actually contributed to this problem. 

The current inquiry gives the ACT the chance to lead the nation in reforming the way it teaches, tests, and talks up maths in our classrooms. 

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