Why School Children Are Falling Behind

schoolkidCritics of the Donnelly–Wiltshire curriculum review are right about one thing: implementing a detailed new syllabus by 2015 will be impossible. But that criticism misses the point. It is doubtful if the review team has any intention of even trying to produce a detailed replacement. The faults with the new curriculum go far beyond the headline issues of bias or balance. The underlying problem is that the curriculum is the expression of an education system which has lost its way. The first task for Donnelly–Wiltshire is to remove the most glaring problems so that schools can prepare their own detailed syllabus for 2015. The more important task is to lay the foundations for more fundamental reform.

By far the best short-term contribution by the reviewers would be to abandon the cross-curriculum themes of Asia, Australian indigenes and sustainability. Are these issues important? Of course they are, but there is not a scrap of evidence, from either the education literature or worldwide practice, that a cross-curriculum approach amounts to more than empty words. A few years ago the fad was for “language across the curriculum”. The “success” of that approach can be measured from the latest evidence that by world standards Australian secondary students are going backwards in maths and science as well as literacy.

The themes give the impression of being written by people recycling the issues and attitudes of their student years in the 1960s and 1970s. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

The National Curriculum’s Rubbish History Lessons

The “organising ideas” of the sustainability theme have all the flavour of Nimbin. The theme explicitly harks back to the long-discredited Club of Rome, which told us in 1972 that there were “limits to growth” because the world was running out of nearly everything. Since then (GFC notwithstanding) the world has experienced unparalleled prosperity. Globalisation, freer trade and economic development have lifted tens upon tens of millions of people in Asia out of poverty. World food production has soared; shale oil is transforming the energy situation in the USA and Canada and potentially in Australia. Is the “socially just world” anticipated in the sustainability theme limited to the perspective from Balmain and inner northern Melbourne, or does it acknowledge that China, India and Indonesia are not going to settle for less than we have when it comes to the good life? The reader looks in vain for any recognition that environmental degradation is often worst in poor countries and that economic growth provides the resources to do something about it.

The Asia theme also carries more than a whiff of yesterday. Leaving aside the fact that the mainstream cultural heritage in Australia draws overwhelmingly from Europe and our military security depends heavily on the United States, it is entirely desirable that Australians should have an appreciation of Asian geography and cultures. You would never know from the curriculum that the days have long gone when Asia was somewhere you flew over on your way “home” to the old country. These days nearly 2 million Australians travel each year to Asia for business or holidays. Their first-hand experience is worth more than any amount of patronising waffle that the “peoples and countries of Asia have contributed … to world history and human endeavour”.

The claim that this sort of rhetoric will provide “students with the skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region” is just fanciful. What would genuinely assist that worthwhile objective is teaching the major Asian languages in our schools, and doing so from an early age. In the entire 700-page curriculum there is not one mention of the teaching of Asian languages. We understand from other recent documents that language teachers are scarce and the curriculum is already crowded. In what purports to be a national curriculum, it beggars belief that we can find room for teaching Australia’s contribution to international popular culture or the quasi-mysticism of Gaia, but the critical issue of languages is excluded without a word.

Saddest of all is the recycling of every tired cliché about indigenous culture and identity. There is nothing new about teaching indigenous issues in our primary schools. Anyone who has worked in a teacher education faculty is familiar with the wearily cynical tea-room joke that “primary students may not learn much, but they sure know a lot about Aborigines and dinosaurs”. Might more of the same simply promote equal cynicism in our students?

How can we move from the faddish and the vague and a domination by yesterday’s ideas to a system that better serves our students’ (and our nation’s) interests?

A good starting point is to look at the latest evidence on student performance. Most parents, many policy-makers, and probably a considerable number of teachers would be astonished to hear that we have not until recently had solid evidence on the wider role of educational achievement. Parents have always known intuitively that basic skills are crucial, and economists have long known that a country’s development is connected to the skills of its workers. The problem is that we have not had research-based scientific evidence about the contribution to our national well-being of cognitive skills such as maths, science and literacy. Researchers have had to fall back on proxy measures such as years of schooling, enrolment rates and input measures such as variations in school expenditure and teacher numbers.

In a series of path-breaking studies, US economist Eric Hanushek and his colleagues have now filled that gap. After compiling evidence on all the international achievement tests given since 1960 in fifty countries, they used a battery of mathematical models to measure the contribution of those test scores to economic development. The work is of daunting technical complexity, because their models test for genuinely causal relationships as well as the many factors which enter into economic growth.

The results could not be simpler. From East Asia, with high educational performance and high economic growth, through middling countries in both measures, such as Australia, down to sub-Saharan Africa, with low scores on each measure, there is a clear and consistent correlation. So we now have reliable international evidence showing that better performance in the cognitive skills of maths, science and literacy leads systematically to increased prosperity. In short, what counts for our long-term well-being is high performance in the mainstream subject areas.

Simply spending more years in school has little impact on economic growth. You have got to learn improved skills in the mainline subject disciplines. In Hanushek’s apt phrase, “if you aren’t learning anything at your desk, it doesn’t matter how long you sit there”. And, to bring these findings back home to Australia, it is not difficult to see that a national curriculum which filters vital maths, science and literacy subjects through Aboriginal, Asian or Green perspectives will not even come close to giving our students the necessary level of achievement.

Many things contribute to economic prosperity, and Australia has done well in recent years from its commodity boom. We have done better in economic terms than would be statistically predicted from our mediocre education performance. But that relative advantage has probably passed its peak. Economic gains come many years after educational investments take place. If we are to have a long-run engagement with Asia on competitive terms, our international scores—which are modest and in decline—have got to match those in countries that routinely top the achievement charts: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. The stellar achievement scores for Shanghai in the latest international tests may be a foretaste of what we can expect more widely from China.

We have got to find ways of getting a greater performance orientation into our schools. How can Australian student achievement be boosted? No sensible person wants an educational system dominated by competitive exams. NAPLAN once a year and a PISA test every three years for fifteen-year-old students hardly seem excessive. Finland routinely scores near the top in international achievement tests. No one suggests that Finnish schools are unhappy crammers that pay no attention to wider personal development in drama, music and art.

Nor does a focus on boosting cognitive skills entail what uninformed critics like to dismiss as “drill and kill”. Anyone suggesting that the Asian countries achieve their high scores by rote learning and therefore lack the creativity of Australia’s students should be directed to stay behind after school and write out 100 times, “This allegation is a self-deluding myth”. Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, the organisation which administers the PISA tests, has pointed out that the maths test requires creativity and problem-solving skills based on a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.

The fact is that we now have a good idea from international practice of what works and what does not. More money is not the answer. A key finding from Hanushek’s work is that increases in spending per pupil in wealthy countries such as Australia or the USA show no correlation with improvements in student performance.

Many countries are now exploring ways of improving the quality of their educational performance. Worried by its dismal achievement scores, Brazil uses results from its national assessments to create an index of performance for every school in the country. In a truly innovative reform, that index is benchmarked to PISA scores, so that each primary school is given a target and trajectory for reaching average PISA performance by 2021. Perhaps we don’t want to go that far. Many countries are now experimenting with performance-based remuneration schemes for teachers. The balance of evidence is that performance-based pay can have a positive effect on student achievement. Perhaps we don’t want to go that far either.

If we are going to turn our nose up at reforms that other countries are prepared to consider, what do we have the courage to do? Some areas stand out as candidates for attention by the Donnelly–Wiltshire review.

First, greater school autonomy, more school choice, and a diverse and well-resourced non-government sector are proven instruments for improved performance. On the US evidence, it is often disadvantaged students who benefit most from school-choice initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools.

Second, student-centred learning, in which the teacher is seen not as instructor but as a facilitator of each student’s abilities and learning styles, has had a long run as the dominant classroom method. It has its place. Much of its emphasis on lively, inter-active teaching is worth keeping. It has, however, become hopelessly ideological, captured by those hostile to a content-based curriculum and to any form of external standardised testing.

It is now well past time to take another look at  It is a furphy to suggest that this approach is inevitably limited to boring “chalk and talk”. Nor is it remotely accurate to suggest that it cannot address the needs of less able students in a class. Direct instruction has been the dominant style in most Asian countries, and a major feature from their test results is that they do not in general have the long tail of non-performing students seen in Australia. If we are to adopt an evidence-based approach to reform, which teaching method actually has runs on the board?

Third, we must raise the quality of our teachers. It is well known that on average teacher-education students are drawn from the lower ranks of school leavers. The answer is not more professional development or insisting on graduate degrees. These things will have a measurable impact on school outcomes only if there are policies for selecting the right student teachers in the first place. High-performing systems such as Singapore do not have open entry into teacher colleges, with many students there because they have few other options. High-performing systems select for entry, with an extensive system of screening, testing and selection before training. Enrolments are confined to those who have shown high ability, aptitude and motivation. A radical reform of teacher training is long overdue. And when these higher quality teachers get to school they need a decent curriculum to teach.

Ken Gannicott was formerly Professor of Education and Head of the Graduate School of Education at Wollongong University. He now works as a private consultant.


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