The Rudd government was elected with the promise of a “revolution” to provide Australia with a world-class education system. Why is an education revolution required, and what forms could it take?
According to a recent OECD report, 13 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds are at risk of not having the basic skills necessary for work and future citizenship. The situation is worse among Indigenous students (40 per cent), in remote parts of Australia (27 per cent) and for the lowest socioeconomic quartile (23 per cent).
Although these percentages are not unusual by international standards, they highlight an important element in Australia’s current skills shortage: too many young people are leaving our schools inadequately prepared for the workforce and adult life. The personal, societal and economic costs of this problem have been extensively documented and present governments with a challenge that may well require a revolution.
But which of the levers available to government are likely to be most effective in raising standards among our lowest achievers?
The factors leading to low achievement are complex. Often they are related to broader social and health issues beyond the control of the education system. Government initiatives in education have included improved testing and identification of children with low levels of literacy and numeracy, clearer reporting to parents, the provision of additional tutoring for at-risk students, and the better preparation of teachers to teach fundamental skills such as reading.
At a general level, educational science suggests that the most effective lever for improving the performance of underachievers is to improve the quality of classroom teaching: to get all teachers doing what our best teachers already do.
While excellent teachers are not identical, they do have some characteristics in common. For example, they create classroom environments in which there is a belief that all students can learn successfully, where students are motivated by curiosity, value learning for its own sake, and feel supported and safe to take risks. Learning cultures of this kind are more effective in the long term than “performance” cultures in which learning is driven by external demands, competition and the threat of failure.
Outstanding teachers also monitor the progress and learning needs of individual learners. They take time to understand children’s interests and motivations and to diagnose individual difficulties and misunderstandings.
This is a challenge in the average classroom in which some children can be five or six years ahead of other children of the same age. But excellent teachers understand that teaching is more than delivering a fixed curriculum to a class of students. They appreciate the importance of catching learning problems early and know that, unless educational needs are identified and addressed, some children will fall further behind over time.
Having identified students’ learning needs, outstanding teachers use evidence-based strategies and interventions to target those needs. They draw on a body of professional knowledge about effective methods of teaching: what works, for whom and under what conditions. They are eager to learn from research and practice, to experiment and to share successes and failures with colleagues. They know that becoming a better teacher requires ongoing learning and that teaching expertise, like other forms of expertise, requires years of work.
The emphasis for these teachers is on seeing every child make substantial progress. They recognise and celebrate such progress, even if a child is still performing below most children of the same age.
So what can governments do to get all teachers doing what our best already do? Part of the answer is to attract the best possible people to take up teaching as a career. This, in turn, will depend on making teaching more attractive. One way for governments to enhance the status of teaching is to work with the profession itself to clarify what it means to be an excellent teacher, to support the development of a national system for certifying teachers of excellence (perhaps similar to the CPA for accountants), and to pay more to teachers who meet these high standards. If the Business Council of Australia had its way, our best teachers would be paid substantially more - up to $130,000 a year.
In parallel, there needs to be an investment in the professional development of teachers and school leaders specifically focused on the attainment of advanced standards of practice. The focus should be on developing skills in diagnosing learning needs and implementing targeted, evidenced-based teaching methods.
To support teachers and school leaders in addressing the needs of all students, most schools would benefit from increased technical and paraprofessional support. A common complaint among teachers is that they spend too much time on external demands and non-teaching activities. Increased incentives also are required to ensure that our best teachers teach in schools where they are most needed - particularly in rural and remote schools and schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.
Providing every Australian child with excellent teaching certainly will require an education revolution. But can we afford anything less?