Politicians have failed our kids by centering the education policy debate on funding alone.
A decade ago the then federal opposition manufactured a claim that school funding had been ravenously cut. Scare campaigns work and money came to define the debate for the next decade.
The problem is, more money doesn’t directly translate to better student outcomes especially when it takes the focus away from what’s happening in the classroom.
Funding for our schools has been increasing for the last decade. We spend more than the OECD average on education. At the same time, we’ve experienced a decade of decline in our kids’ performance.
20 years ago, Australia ranked 4th internationally in reading, 8th in science and 11th in maths. Now we have fallen to 16th in reading, 17th in science and 29th in maths.
Australia has lost the equivalent of one year’s worth of learning over the past two decades. We were once on par with top performing nations such as Singapore. Now the average 15-year-old Singaporean is three years ahead of Australian pupils.
We also lag behind countries that we used to outperform. The UK, Canada and New Zealand have leapfrogged ahead of us in all three assessment domains. We need to look far beyond funding to halt this decline.
A study by Labor’s Andrew Leigh identified a decline in the entry scores required for our teacher workforce. While academic performance and mastery of subject matter are not sufficient conditions for effective teaching they are, unquestionably, necessary ones and higher education providers have been contemptibly cynical in trying to avoid this fact.
This is compounded by the fact that too many initial teacher education programs at Australian universities are divorced from the science of learning. They often fixate on arcane sociological theory at the expense of practical training.
The refusal of many programs to implement robust training in phonics and phonemes (the building blocks of any sound literacy instruction program) — despite several government inquiries and resulting mandates — is unforgivable. Universities and teachers unions have shown themselves time and again to be staunchly resistant to common sense reform.
This is one area of reform where the solutions don’t have to come at great cost. Fixing initial teacher education is crucial. It is also one of the few aspects of school education over which the commonwealth exerts meaningful influence. The government needs to hold universities’ feet to the fire. They could be publishing the results of minimum literacy and numeracy tests for teachers and taking action against providers that routinely admit large numbers of students who are unable to pass these tests after multiple attempts. They could also make robust training in the science of reading a condition of receiving commonwealth-supported places for their education degrees.
We also need to hold the line on external, standardised accountability metrics. The long running assault on NAPLAN and the ATAR is misguided. Removing these metrics is akin to destroying the thermometer because the room is too hot. What hope do we have of reversing the decade-plus decline in educational performance if we abandon NAPLAN, the only routine, standardised, annual piece of data? Likewise, abandoning or diluting the ATAR will not help the relatively disadvantaged. ‘Holistic’ admissions (with consideration of extra-curriculars, applicant character, personal essays et cetera) simply introduce greater subjectivity and are much more readily gamed by those with superior material resources than standardised external exams.
On top of the decline in education outcomes we should be even more troubled by the rising rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm amongst younger generations.
This is fuelled by an emerging spirit of distrust and antagonism towards our fellow Australians. We see failure, defeat and disappointment increasingly attributed to the failings of others or the failings of our wider society, culture or class.
Yet failure, defeat and disappointment are crucial factors in personal development. Inevitable setbacks are an opportunity to teach children to problem solve, bounce back and deal with stress.
These skills are more important than ever because of modern challenges — from bullying to social media pressure to academic stress.
Unless we encourage resilience, we could be left with a generation more inclined to give up in the face of these challenges. Resilient kids are happier, more successful and more productive.
David Hughes is Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre: www.menziesrc.org.