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Making the school system work

By Sue Thomson - posted Friday, 6 December 2013

The international comparison of results of Australian students indicate our education system has plenty of room for improvement. The global educational monitoring by the Australian Council for Educational Research includes the international and national management of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment.

The 2012 PISA report shows Australian students at the age of 15 are performing significantly higher than the OECD average, but are being outperformed by their peers in several OECD countries and other participating non-OECD countries and economies. In mathematical literacy, Australia was ranked equal 17th, in scientific literacy equal eighth, and in reading literacy equal 10th.

The report also shows that while Australian 15-year-old students are performing above the international average, their average mathematical and reading literacy performance has declined during the past decade. Their average score in scientific literacy has not changed between 2006 and 2012.


Is there anything we can learn from the top-performing countries or economies? Absolutely, so long as we understand the complete picture in terms of the approaches taken. We also need to bear in mind surveys such as PISA are snapshots revealing the results of earlier policies.

The top performers focus on teacher quality. In Shanghai, higher-performing and lower-performing schools are paired, with a team of master teachers and school leaders from the higher-performing school providing ongoing guidance and mentoring on everything from lesson plans, to minute-by-minute approaches to teaching, to the development of practices to foster a culture of excellence in the school. The emphasis here is on a long-term mentoring relationship rather than a fly-in-fly-out quick fix.

One of the approaches used in Singapore is to focus on the curriculum, not simply in terms of national curriculum statements, but also by linking teacher expertise to a "coherent curriculum" shaped by textbooks and teaching materials approved by Singapore's Ministry of Education. Another approach in Singapore is to control teacher supply and quality, by matching teacher education places to the requirements of the school system, by providing student teachers with a free university education and stipend, and by maintaining favourable and competitive salaries for teaching relative to other occupations. Candidates for primary school teacher education must demonstrate proficiency in maths.

The top-performers are typically centralised systems with mandated teaching standards tied to a curriculum, and with coordinated teacher education and in-service professional development programs that mandate what teachers assess and teach.

Our various education systems adopt a mix of more centralised and more devolved approaches. It may appear, superficially, that we should apply a centralist approach, but it's worth noting the key to improved outcomes is to align the curriculum and approaches to teaching and assessment in a way that enables progressive learning by students. How you enable that can be, but need not be, through top-down control.

Efforts to improve the quality and effectiveness of classroom teaching include work on the Australian curriculum, national professional standards for teachers and school leaders, co-ordinated approaches to school improvement focusing on practices that specifically enhance the quality of teaching and learning, and a more fine-grained approach to monitoring school systems in terms of student outcomes through the National Assessment Program.


We should not simply abandon those efforts, but the PISA results indicate that now is the time to identify what we can do better. We must act to stop the slide. Australia must strive to improve outcomes for all students - getting the lowest achievers up to an acceptable standard and extending the higher achievers.

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This article was first published in The Australian on December 4, 2013.

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About the Author

Sue Thomson is director of Educational Monitoring and Research at ACER

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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