Australian schools are failing

Why Australian schools are failing

A new Productivity Commission report confirms what’s long been known: Australian schools are failing on the twin goals of educational excellence and equity.

Little progress has been made in raising the bar, levelling the bar, or ensuring more students are able to meet basic standards. Most damning is the conclusion that most who fall behind early in school never go on to beat minimum expectations in literacy and numeracy.

This is a far cry from the lofty ambitions of decades of reform efforts — including two rounds of Gonski reviews, two rounds of National Innovation and Science Agendas, several reviews of teacher training, Building and Digital Education Revolutions, among many more.

The Commission blames vague and bureaucratic policy wonk-speak for governments not making any dent in outcomes. It’s right to do so.

Ultimately too much education policy is about inputs, not outcomes.

The result is that policy consistently targets increasing what goes into education as an end in itself — more funding to schools, building more and better facilities, introducing and enforcing more regulations, and the like.

But what policymakers put in currently has little connection to what comes out of education.

What’s routinely lacking is a clearly defined and tangible link between a policy initiative and a desired outcome — namely, an improvement in student achievement, retention, engagement, and so on. Without this, as the Commission finds, record spending can easily go to waste.

Education ministers must use this report and the upcoming renegotiated agreements between Canberra and the states as an opportunity to sharpen the shared commitments to raising education outcomes.

Any serious attempt to do so must have explicit and firm targets for academic improvement. In countries that have made leaps in international leagues tables, a common ingredient has been that policymakers have stated, and worked toward, a national educational improvement goal.

Speaking at the CIS in 2021, then education minister Alan Tudge was unambiguous — calling for school systems to sign up to a national commitment to raise Australian students’ ranking in PISA testing. Current Minister Jason Clare must echo this ambition.

Of course, any school system’s journey to improve education outcomes ultimately drills down to ensuring the teacher workforce has the size and skill to deliver effectively.

Building a more responsive and diverse teacher workforce is the only way to plug existing gaps in needed areas and reduce out-of-field teaching.

A 2021 review confirmed the problem is that getting into teaching has become unnecessarily rigid and difficult. To this end, the Commission backs in CIS’ call to halve the length of postgraduate teaching degrees to help more teachers into the workforce more quickly and to reduce disincentives. Only a more flexible, modern approach to the teacher workforce will see it overcome the decades-long shortages in maths and science teachers.

While Minister Clare has demonstrated capacity to work together with the states in developing a framework in the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, it remains to be seen if this will meaningfully make a difference.

The Commission is right to highlight that the quality of teaching is the ultimate driver of education outcomes.

Yet, policymakers are gun-shy in promoting evidence-based teaching practices. But top-quality teaching can no longer be left to chance if our education systems are to reach their potential.

Compared to high-performing countries, our classrooms are more likely to involve student-led rather than teacher-led approaches. The result is that students are not consistently learning as efficiently as possible.

A December report from the Australian Education Research Organisation highlighted the extent of the problem. While many teachers believe they are using evidence-based practices in the classroom, just as many are also not up to date with current evidence. That’s not because teachers are uninterested or unmotivated, but that they need better tools and guidance on what’s most effective in the classroom.

For this reason, education ministers must include safeguards that every jurisdiction is committed to reflecting evidence-based teaching practices consistently. It won’t be enough to focus only on ensuring teachers have new and better curriculum resources — which helps them with what to teach — unless they also get support with how to teach most effectively.

Education ministers must heed the Commission’s warning and follow what is a viable pathway to improving education policy coordination.

For any chance of success, ministers will need to push back against a union campaign that threatens to bankrupt the process — by clawing the debate back to the zero-sum funding debates of old.

If education policymakers are to seize the opportunity to re-energise reform, they must focus on how to best raise outcomes, rather than fixate on inputs.

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