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Australian education crying out for remedial help

9 January 2017 2 Comments

Recent education results should be ringing alarm bells throughout Australia.

Every three years the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts standardised testing of the skills of 15-year-old school students from more than 70 countries. The tests – the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – focus on three areas: knowledge of and ability to use basics of science; maths; and what the program calls “reading”, formally known as comprehension in the days when Australian students received direct instruction in ability to use their own language.

The results of the 2015 program, released last month, make sombre reading.

It is revealing to compare outcomes in the three key areas with national expenditure on schooling per student per year. Considering payments by government’s alone, Australia spends more than $60 billion a year on our schools.

Yet the most successful nation under recent PISA testing was Singapore, where only about 60 per cent of Australia’s expenditure is allocated per student per year.

Surprisingly the United States, which is one of the world’s biggest education spenders, languish in the middle of the world’s performers with standards in sharp decline.

Apologists for Australia’s parlous performance (and there are plenty of them, generally current or former senior education bureaucrats) speak of Australia’s “rich curriculum”, citing our teaching of music and art to all students, and our concentration on sport. Yet who has ever evaluated the impact of art and music lessons or sport (which costs public schools of NSW and the ACT more than $1 billion a year) on the lives and careers of our graduates?

Given the picture painted by the most recent PISA results it might be expected that our educational leaders would be visiting places like Singapore to see what it is that they’re doing right. Not so. In an extraordinary recent statement, the New South Wales Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli asserted that we would not want our students working as hard as youngsters do in Korea to achieve high standards. “Don’t work hard; don’t aspire to excellence” would appear to be the message to our current crop of students.

There are some differences in approach to schooling adopted by the Singaporeans that our educational leaders might care to emulate. In Singapore, high schools operate from 7.30am until four in the afternoon. Moreover the work of teachers is regularly assessed, including in-class observation of lessons every year. As a result, teachers are placed in one of five bands, from A to E.

A-grade teachers in Singapore receive significant financial bonuses. In contrast, to continue in employment E graders have a nine-month period to improve.

In general, Singaporean students and teachers work harder than do ours and the continuation and prosperity of teachers in the profession is tied to observed performance and a dedication to continual improvement of educational practice. This is a far cry from our “job for life” mentality where often the worst teachers in each state are paid the same as the best.

Last year, PricewaterhouseCoopers released a study demonstrating that, over the next 30 years, Australia’s standing in overall national wealth will fall well behind that of several of our near neighbours who currently are far poorer than we are. If those same neighbours also possess a far more effective standard of education than our own, this would be a powerful predictor of an increasingly difficult and poorer standard of living for our grandchildren.

Surely it’s well and truly time to wake up and take the remedial action that’s so urgently needed.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Canberra Times, January 9, 2017.
Also in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Brisbane Times online.


  • Noel Beddoe said:

    We need better teachers

    In his discussion of Australian educational standards, Ross Fitzgerald (“Australian schools need remedial action”, January 9, pp.14-15) does well to compare our practice with that of Singapore.

    The annual assessment of teacher quality which is followed in Singapore includes interviews with students and their parents concerning teacher attitudes to the pursuit of excellence.

    We are hampered by many provisions beyond that of teacher tenure (the friend of the lazy) to which Fitzgerald alludes; our public school permanent teachers, for example, have access to long service leave, which costs Australian governments more than a billion dollars a year and creates no educational outcome of any kind.

    We are used to the comfortable idea that, because of economic advantages from our past, standards in Australia are superior to Asia.

    The days of the validity of that attitude are over.

    Last year, for example, the government of NSW let a major contract for the building of trains to a firm in South Korea, rejecting tenders from Australian companies.

    So far this century 90 per cent of new patents in the field of technology have gone to Asia, less than 1 per cent to firms in this country.

    The front line troops in the quest for the prosperity are our school teachers.

    Current approaches are in need of urgent appraisal.

    Noel Beddoe, Kiama, NSW.

    The Canberra Times, January 10, 2017.

  • Bob Gardiner & Noel Beddoe said:

    Teacher bashing

    Noel Beddoe (Letters, January 10) holds to the time-honoured tradition of teacher bashing. It’s nice to suggest Singapore holds teachers “accountable” (an often-used cliche), but he may want to note Singapore invests heavily in all facets of education.

    Another country we would do well to emulate is Finland; all teachers have been supported to gain higher degrees. An Australian visitor to a Finnish school once asked what disadvantaged schools were like. The answer was “there are none”.

    Fancy those lazy Australian teachers wanting tenure. Huge numbers of our teachers are on short-term contracts and unable to enter into a mortgage. I suppose Mr Beddoe is happy to pay big dollars to employ doctors (probably not scientists, they can also live on dedication).

    I was a teacher for over 40 years in public and private schools, and rarely if ever saw proper investment in education.

    Dedicated teachers can prop up the system for only so long. Eventually high standards must be paid for, and it isn’t cheap.

    His last sentence “Current approaches are in need of urgent appraisal” is spot on, but probably not in the way he meant.

    Bob Gardiner, Isabella Plains

    Before using PISA scores to assess Australia’s educational performance Ross Fitzgerald (“Australian education crying out for remedial help”, Canberra Times, January 9) should inform us of the size of the error terms (which are considerable) of the test scores and the standardisation of sampling (which is not very even across nations) used.

    These key measurement weaknesses make the rankings largely meaningless for diagnosing any need for remedial action. PISA test score rankings do allow grumpy old men, like Professor Ross Fitzgerald and myself, to let off steam about how standards have fallen since our school days when Australia was the brightest star in our southern hemisphere and a place at Oxford or Cambridge was the goal we dreamed of.

    Dr Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW

    The Canberra Times, January 12, 2017

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