School equity at expense of excellence, efficiency

Put to the test in terms of the education’s systems ‘3 Es’ — excellence, equity, and efficiency — Australia has largely been found wanting.

The OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment reports on reading, maths, and science performance of 15-year-olds around the world every three years.

The results, while very disappointing, will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying close attention to Australian schooling of late.

When it comes to ‘excellence’, our results have crashed between 2000 and 2018. In maths, a 15-year-old in Australia is now over 3 years of learning behind the typical student in the best performing countries.

It’s clear that the neglect for high expectations and rigorous testing, and the childish adoption of progressive educational fads, have taken their toll.

PISA lays bare what the CIS has been observing for years — our domestic testing regime is a soft touch, poor performance is often excused, and classrooms have become evidence-free zones.

When it comes to efficiency, it’s self-evident that there’s been no educational return on taxpayers’ investment — especially when it comes to countless STEM cash splashes. Over the past decade, Australian taxpayers have invested a record $473 billion in schooling. Most of this money has gone to increased staffing costs, which haven’t translated into better performance.

Most of the countries that do better than us spend less than us, and most of those that have recently overtaken us in the rankings spend less than two-thirds what we do per student.

On equity, PISA results show that we have a more equitable education system than most – as the OECD identified ours as among a handful of ‘high equity’ systems (meaning that a student’s background is not a strong predictor of performance).

The relatively rosy picture on equity is at odds with doomsaying of progressive education activists, trade unions, and — dispiritingly — education ministers at each level of government.

Disadvantaged students in Australia are more likely to perform well — especially those with a migrant background — than in most other countries. There’s also a relatively small spread in student performance between the top and bottom.

However, one unfortunate reason for this is that declines have been driven by poorer performance among advantaged, rather than disadvantaged, students. This is also responsible for the collapse in the number of high-performing Aussie kids to around 10%.

In short, our education system has become more equitable by dragging those at the top down, rather than lifting those at the bottom. That’s not a model for success.

There will indeed be much soul-searching to come, but if there’s to be a silver lining it may just be that this is the catalyst for much-needed reform. We also mustn’t lose sight that the real losers are young Australians, who have missed out on educational opportunities, and will surely suffer in their future employment prospects.

To be a world class educational system, all 3 Es have to be firing. It would appear we’ve worshipped at the altar of equity at the expense of excellence and efficiency.

Going forward, we need an unrelenting drive for excellence, which will bring the other Es with it.