Four ways to unlock the potential of Australian students

Thursday, Jul 21, 2016, 11:28 PM | Source: Pursuit

By Field Rickards

Four ways to unlock the potential of Australian students

Now more than ever, Parliament must work together and face Australia's big national interest challenges.

Pledging to engage in cooperative politics, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised that "where there is common ground, we will work very hard to accomplish it … we have an opportunity here, the Australian people expect all sides of politics to work in the national interest."

Foremost, both parties must stop treating education as the political football it has been for many years and develop the 10-15-year bipartisan approach required to tackle Australia's declining performance.

Key student achievement indicators show urgent action is needed to reverse the decline in Australia's education system that has been occurring for more than a decade.

Some Australian children starting primary school are delayed in one or more areas of their development. Picture: Public Domain Images

Australia is sliding down several international measures with the gap between our lowest and highest achievers now greater than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. Our overall student achievement ranking is significantly behind countries that were equivalent to us a decade ago. Moreover, it is our highest achievers that are falling behind most.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results also show that in the past 15 years the number of countries significantly ahead of Australia increased from one to nine in reading, from seven to 16 in mathematics, and from three to seven in science.

In every PISA testing cycle this century Australia's reading, mathematics and science results have declined – both nationally and across each individual state.

Furthermore, almost 25 per cent of Australian children starting primary school are delayed in one or more areas of their development. For some rural, regional and Indigenous communities it is every second child. As these students progress through school, these problems can deepen and multiply.

These trends continue despite increased public spending on education services, from early years and schooling to vocational and university education over the last decade.

Investment in Australian early education and care has tripled over the last decade to $7.7 billion in 2015-16, yet our E4Kids research shows that our highest quality programs are concentrated in wealthier suburbs - out of reach of the disadvantaged children who need them the most.

Clearly, increasing funding on its own is not enough. The real issue is the application of funds.

Popular policy distractions and a lack of agreement across governments have too often prevented funding increases from being as effective as possible and made schools and students subject to prolonged and damaging uncertainty.

Nothing less than a coherent long-term strategy for education will arrest Australia's decline. If we do not act, social and economic disadvantage will become both more pronounced and more difficult to overcome. Inequality impacts on the whole of society, undermining prosperity and cohesion.

In all sectors, we must ensure that spending is directed to where it will have the most impact on student learning, including where there is greatest need.

As the OECD has put it, systems that "allocate resources more equitably" get better results.

An equitable system is one where it is possible for any student of any background to achieve excellence and progress. This is our challenge. If we fail to achieve this, we are doing our country and our future economic growth a great disservice.

So how can we invest wisely to realise the potential of all of our students?

As Laureate Professor John Hattie's acclaimed work shows, what matters most in student learning within schools is the effectiveness of the teacher.

Teachers have a critical role in improving student outcomes. They need support to become highly developed experts who can maximise student potential.

Teachers are central to maximising a student's potential. Picture: Melbourne Graduate School of Education

The Australian Government must work together with their parliamentary colleagues, state and territory governments, system leaders, school leaders and teacher education providers to do four key things:

First, they must increase the effectiveness of all teachers in what I call clinical teaching. We need to develop teachers' capabilities through initial teacher education and professional development to diagnose, intervene and evaluate a wide range of individual student learning needs. Teachers must be able to use evidence about what each student knows and understands to inform the appropriate teaching interventions.

Second, they need to acknowledge that some teachers are more effective than others and excellent teachers must be recognised through new professional structures and pay levels.

Third, teachers must be enabled so they work in collaborative teams, with lead teachers elevated to support their colleagues. Just as teams of lawyers, engineers and doctors problem solve difficult issues together, the complexity and challenge of teaching cannot be tackled in isolation.

Fourth, school networks can effectively leverage the excellence that exists in each school. Focused support for effective networks will enable schools to share expertise and success to support continuous improvement.

The central role played by education in shaping our future economy and society requires governments to carefully consider how public policy choices are discussed and debated.

We cannot afford to be complacent any longer. A circuit breaker is needed to address the steady decline in student performance.

The new parliament must lift above the distractions to focus on the greatest educational needs and invest in teachers and evidence-based interventions that work.

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