The average Australian 15-year-old is now around one academic year behind those of the same age from two decades ago, says the federal education minister.
Alan Tudge says despite the 38 percent increase in education funding over the last decade, education performance has dropped “in both absolute terms and relative to other countries.”
Australian students are now, on average, three years behind in maths and over one year behind in reading and science compared to fellow Singaporean students.
“If this was our economy, this decline would be a national topic of conversation,” Tudge said. “Perhaps the lack of attention is because the decline has been gradual.”
PISA testing results, which measures the academic performance of 15-year-olds across OECD nations, also shows a gradual fall in Australia’s education levels.
In the early 2000s, Australia ranked 4th internationally in reading, 8th in science, and 11th in maths. But by 2018, those ranks had fallen to 16th, 17th and 29th, respectively.
Tudge highlighted three targeted areas for improvement to bring Australian education back among the best in the world by 2030; teaching quality, the school curriculum, and effective assessment and feedback.
Several problems were found in the current level of teaching quality, the most important in-school factor in determining student performance. Courses were found to be leaving graduating teachers insufficiently prepared to teach due to too much focus on theory at the expense of practice.
“The OECD data backs this up: teachers in Australia feel less well prepared than the OECD average across curriculum content, pedagogy, managing student behaviour and monitoring student development,” Tudge said.
Long pathway-to-teaching courses were also deterring mid-career professionals from transitioning into teaching careers. Professionals are currently required to undertake a minimum two-year masters degree to obtain teaching accreditation.
“It would be a rare mid-career person who could afford to take two years off work. Shorter pathways are required,” he said.
The Australian school curriculum, which is currently already under review, also needs improvement.
The review will update, refine, and declutter content across the board. Tudge also wants to see a greater focus on the education fundamentals of reading, maths, civics, and citizenship.
Finally, effective assessment and feedback is required to identify where more learning support is needed. NAPLAN will be joined by Online Formative Assessment, which is currently under trial and aims to increase classroom teaching effectiveness.
Teach for Australia, a not-for-profit organisation, welcomed Tudge’s plans to reverse the current decline in student performance across the board.
“Australia is at a critical juncture for action to reverse the decline in student performance and the Minister’s plan … is an important step forward,” Teach For Australia CEO Melodie Rosevear said. “The evidence is indisputable that great teachers make all the difference to students.”
“We look forward to sharing the experiences and learnings Teach For Australia has gained in 12 years of designing and delivering programs aimed at recruiting top talent into the classrooms where they are most needed.”
The Australia Education Union (AEU) disagreed with Tudge and said that school funding inequity was a more pressing issue than another education review.
“Public schools, which educate the vast majority of students from remote, lower-socioeconomic, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, will be denied the resources needed to close student achievement gaps,” AEU president Correna Haythorpe said. “For every child to achieve their full potential, Australia’s school funding inequality must be rectified.”
However, Tudge highlighted that the decline was “consistent across different groups of students.”
“Our top students are less likely to score in the highest achievement bands and our lower-performing students are more likely to have fallen below the proficient standard,” Tudge said. “The problem is not a growing divide in student results; it is a decline in performance across the board.”