What is the best way to raise standards, especially amongst disadvantaged groups, and make sure that Australian students are achieving the best academic results? The question is more than hypothetical, given last week's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results that show Australian 15 year olds going backwards in reading.
The 2009 results released last week show a 13 points drop compared to Australia's performance in 2000. It's also the case that other international tests like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that our students are consistently beaten by students from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
Based on a deficit view of education and the belief that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are destined to failure, one approach is to argue for more government intervention in education and to pressure governments to redirect funding from so-called privileged non-government schools to disadvantaged state schools.
A good example of this cultural-left view of overcoming disadvantage is a recent article written by a long time critic of Catholic and independent schools Chris Bonnor in which he analyses the PISA 2009 results.
Based on the test's observation that Australia's education system is "high quality/medium equity" Bonnor argues that the nation's schools are guilty of reinforcing disadvantage. Instead of our education system promoting equality for all, the situation is one where the "achievement gaps between high socio-economic status (SES) and low SES students have increased".
Bonnor blames this inequality on Australia's adoption of what he describes as "a lopsided free market of diversity, competition and choice" in education championed by conservatives like Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Howard.
The first thing to note about Bonnor's argument is that it is dangerous to draw a conclusion or make a generalisation from one piece of evidence. One swallow does not a summer make and, contrary to what the 2009 test concludes, the 2006 PISA test argues that Australian schools are very successful at providing a ladder of opportunity.
As noted by Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, "Another indicator of our world-class education system is the observation that the relationship between socioeconomic background and student achievement in Australia is weaker that the OECD average. In the popular jargon, Australia is a '"high quality/high equity' country based on our PISA 2006 performance".
Based on the one PISA test, Bonnor also argues that school competition has not "delivered any significant increases in quality" and that the results show "no significant differences between government, Catholic and independent schools".
The implication is that parents are wasting their money paying non-government school fees and governments are justified in reducing funding as such schools fail to do any better than government schools in tests like PISA.
Ignored, based on the results of Australia's literacy and numeracy tests at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 (NAPLAN), year 12 results and tertiary entry is that Catholic and independent schools consistently outperform government schools (with the exception of those that are selective).
Also ignored is the evidence that non-government schools outperform government schools even after adjusting results for students' socioeconomic background. In opposition to what non-government school critics like Bonnor argue, socioeconomic background is not the main factor in deciding whether students succeed or fail.
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