Education reform needed but don’t throw good out with the bad

Education reform needed but don’t throw good out with the bad

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About 600,000 students aged 15 from 75 countries take the PISA test, measuring reading, maths and science skills. It’s not for them to sweat over – they never get a grade. That’s left to the governments and education systems which have to justify where they land in the rankings. For some nations the release this week of results was a time for praise, for others self-examination. For Australia, which has steadily fallen every three years the test has been given, it should provide a trigger for action.

The bad news for Australia was clear-cut. Students recorded their worst ever results in all three categories and are now about a full school year behind where Australian students were at the turn of the millennium. Victoria’s results were better than most, recording no significant decline in performance in reading and science and the smallest decline in maths of any state or territory. Hardly something to be applauded.

Australia is going backwards compared with other nations.

There has been no shortage of the usual sound-bite responses: the need for a jump in teacher pay, the need to declutter the curriculum, the need for more mathematics teachers. There is probably some legitimacy to all of these claims, but let’s keep some perspective. While Australia is well behind standout countries such as Estonia and Singapore, its results are similar to those in Germany, Sweden, Britain and the United States. These are hardly slackers when it comes to commitment to education.  And while the headline results for Australia are disappointing, the detail reveals some real success stories.

In reading, immigrant students in Australia scored higher than or at least at the same level as their native-born peers, which was well above the average. Australia was also noted as a standout success in reading for students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Principals in Australia reported fewer staff and material shortages than average, and funding levels for each student sit comfortably at the higher end.