What Australia must do to lift flatlining student scores - The Centre for Independent Studies
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What Australia must do to lift flatlining student scores

While Australian students have scored a mixed report card in the latest round of international testing, flatlining results in several subjects are concerning.

In new results released today, Australian students in 2022 have recorded a dead heat in maths, science, and reading to Australians in 2018 in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

At first glance, policymakers may take some comfort from the halt in our slide in international rankings. After all, Australian students have bucked the disastrous international trend. Around the world, results have plummeted in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on education systems. The average 15-year-old in the OECD in 2022 is around a year behind in maths and science compared to 2018 — and well over a year behind in reading.

However, although we may have averted the worst of Covid-era education destruction, it doesn’t mitigate the many flaws in the school system.

More than two-in-five students don’t meet the national proficiency benchmark in science and reading, and around one in two don’t meet it in maths. And it mustn’t be forgotten that since international testing began, Australian 15-year-olds have suffered among the steepest and most consistent achievement declines in the world.

On a recent visit to Australia, renowned education economist, Eric Hanushek, labelled this as effectively imposing a 6 per cent tax on the future living standards of our youth. It’s this long-run learning loss — not the more recently-feared Covid-related one — that’s the key marker of our performance over time.

Neither Gonski-era funding influxes nor an increased emphasis on student equity groups has led to a meaningful improvement in outcomes.

Australia’s school systems have undergone one of the fastest influxes of funding in the developed world. But as the Productivity Commission has shown, there’s no evidence that Gonski funding has produced meaningful impacts on the quality of education.

A closer look under the hood of student results reveals a two-track education system. Though achievement levels have held up or improved for well-off and city students, declining trends persist for students at greatest risk. Those from poor backgrounds, those living in remote areas, and Indigenous students all suffered lower results compared to the 2018 round.

The latest results come at a pivotal time for Australia’s education policymakers. This month, education ministers will negotiate the next round of school reform agreements — where states and territories agree to multi-year reform priorities and funding arrangements.

Though many stakeholders singularly see these agreements as opportunities to bake in yet more inputs, policymakers must instead focus on outcomes. Education unions have already begun waging their predictable campaign. With its bullish open letter to the Prime Minister and march on Canberra last week, the Australian Education Union seemingly likes its chances of leaning on the mostly-Labor governments across the country to advance cynical funding demands.

But this is the wrong way to ‘reform’ the school reform agreements. What’s missing are shared goals with firm performance targets — including a national improvement target based on the PISA benchmark. Education Minister Jason Clare has previously committed to placing performance targets on the states and must stay true to this mission.

We must make a smarter investment in catching up students who fall behind and schools that are underperforming.

A tragic failing in the education system is the hopelessly low rates of catchup. Only around one in five students who fall behind ever goes on to exceed minimum achievement levels. Though there are some standout ‘turnaround’ schools, they’re dwarfed by the number who are underperforming or coasting.

So-called ‘needs-based’ funding doesn’t work unless it’s used to ensure that the very best teachers in the system find their way to the very neediest of students. Rather than pumping in more money across-the-board, it could be better invested to bring champion teachers to schools in dire need of turnaround.

And we must place what happens inside the classroom at the top of our priorities. Education research clearly shows what most impacts student outcomes is the quality of teaching they receive. Highly effective teachers can generate around twice the rate of their students’ learning progress than less-effective ones.

Yet this is rarely recognised by policymakers due to the opacity of what happens in the classroom. But policymakers can measure and report on this among a marker of school and system performance. Last week, the Senate’s education committee recommended a novel solution: a national student survey to monitor the learning climate in school.

A mixed report education card is comparably reassuring amid decades of bad news. But it doesn’t get policymakers off the hook for reform.

Our education system still scores a ‘needs improvement’ and education ministers must now show they’ve learned the lessons if we’re to lift our game.

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

Photo by Caleb Oquendo.