Schools are finally getting back to what works best - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Schools are finally getting back to what works best

This week Victoria finally embraced the evidence on how kids learn to read, and the crucial role of phonics.

One by one, states and territories have realised that supporting this critical foundational skill could be what makes the difference to the students who have historically failed.  

From 2025, teachers in the Victoria’s 1,500 or so public schools will be required to spend at least 25 minutes a day on the explicit teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness.  

Currently, students in schools virtually right next to each other are receiving vastly different types of instruction; leading to vastly different success rates. Predictably, this has also meant the students most in need of quality public education those whose families cannot supplement instruction themselves have been left behind. 

In May, the Victorian Auditor-General released a report showing that, despite some improvements in primary school reading and a significant increase in school funding, overall results had not improved in the 10 years to 2022, while outcomes for disadvantaged and Aboriginal students hadworsened by some metrics.  

These poor results have forced the Victorian government to join the other states and ACT in mandating the structured literacy approach, where phonics instruction is a key ingredient, and a greater role for explicit teaching across the curriculum. 

Importantly, the education focus is shifting away from constant demands for more funding, and looking at what will actually produce results.

Contrary to the claims made by some in the debate, Australia spends more on schools than many comparable countries, and our results have not only stagnated across that backdrop: on some metrics, students today are doing worse than those a generation ago.

The approach of jamming ever increasing amounts of money into the system while doing little more than crossing our collective fingers that this improve outcomes has not borne fruit. 

It may almost seem trivially obvious, but it is the quality of teaching that matters the most to student learning outcomes. Unfortunately this has not been central in education reform for decades.

Instead, as the Productivity Commission found when reviewing the previous National School Reform Agreement, scores of initiatives have been undertaken that have done little to improve student outcomes.

Too much money has been spent on ‘reforms’ where there is little or no evidence of likely success; such as reducing student-teacher ratios.

Instead, a federal government-appointed review, intended to inform the next school funding agreement, recommended a more uniform and consistent approach to school practices, particularly to develop students’ foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

In short, if governments want student outcomes to meaningfully improve, the focus must be on improving teaching quality. 

It is challenging for policymakers to meaningfully impact school practices at the classroom level but, as CIS highlighted in a recent report, Implementing the Science of Learning: teacher experiences, there is a growing body of evidence on good teaching practices from which we can draw.

Policymakers may shy away from pursuing policy that can be seen to be ‘telling teachers what to do’, but this should not be a barrier if changes are carefully managed in a way that respects the challenges the profession faces around workload and retention. 

After all, schools exist to educate students, not to give jobs to teachers, union organisers or bureaucrats.

Teachers want to do the best they possibly can for students. All teachers want to be better at their jobs. It is the role of education policymakers to help them.

One area where policymakers can promote change at scale is the curriculum. 

Beginning in the 1970s, Victoria began moving away from a heavily prescriptive curriculum to one where schools and teachers became responsible for creating teaching programs that reflected the comparatively vague, government-issued curriculum guidelines. Other states did similarly as part of the zeitgeist of the time.  

A tremendous volume of work is now done at the school level to fill the gap. Unsurprisingly, this leads to enormous variations in quality between schools and even within schools.  

New South Wales has undertaken reviews of its syllabuses which are more detailed, local versions of the Australian Curriculum to support its schools to create more uniform and higher-quality programs to serve students.  

When schools have well-sequenced curricula to draw upon (and even better if those curricula are fully resourced down to individual lessons) this reduces their workload.

Generating more consistency across the system promotes more equal learning opportunities for students, regardless of which school they attend 

But leaders must provide the necessary support to achieve this 

Evidencebased practice is crucial to future education outcomes. The science of learning — the body of knowledge that connects insights derived from cognitive science and educational psychology about how humans learn to effective teaching practices — should be central to future reform efforts.

Governments have already agreed to the conclusions of the most recent panel to review initial teacher education, which has recommended extensive changes to teaching degrees focusing on the science of learning.

They can also offer and support better teacher training in service. For example, South Australia’s Literacy Guarantee unit trains staff specifically in the new way to teach reading before sending them out to schools to train teachers, alongside other professional learning opportunities.

The results have been stark: in 2018, only 43% of Year 1 students in South Australian public schools met the required threshold in phonics ability. By 2023 it had increased to 71%. 

Unfortunately, for too long we have accepted declining student results for a fear of confronting bad teaching practices and evidence-free learning approaches.

We have been fed meaningless clichés or told the issue is a lack of funding, or even poor parenting; when the real issue has been the pursuit of untested educational fads.

Thankfully we have started to see a change in educational practice to an approach based not on the values of the past, but on the evidence of what has worked in past.

Not back to basics but back to what works best.

Trisha Jha is a Research Fellow, and Simon Cowan is Research Director, at the Centre for Independent Studies.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio