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Making an education revolution happen

By Peter West - posted Monday, 10 December 2007

We heard recently of a new report (PDF 4.5MB) on reading levels. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) runs a Program for International Student Assessment or PISA. This is a study done every three years on the knowledge and skills of 400,000 15-year-old students in 57 countries.

Students in some countries have done stunningly well. Koreans have improved so spectacularly they have improved, on average, by 31 score points - almost the equivalent of one school year. Finland’s students did next best, while students in Hong Kong, Poland and Chile have made significant gains.

Australian students have not done as well. Nor are they showing great improvement. Some 13 per cent of our children are reading poorly. They are thus at risk of poor educational achievement. This in turn makes likely a whole range of poor life outcomes, including those connected to health. Children who can’t read well can’t understand the complex messages sent out about what to eat and drink. Or the equally complex messages about how to exercise sensibly.


Of all the subjects surveyed, reading is the subject with the largest sex (gender) differences. Boys are much more at risk than girls. If they are working-class boys, they do worse again. And Indigenous boys are probably worst of all.

The PISA study is significant. This is no half-baked, impressionistic study. It’s done by well-reputed experts looking at a whole range of factors from socio-economic data to self-belief and attitudes to learning. These have great value in telling us how well kids will adjust to adulthood, work and life in total. PISA also examines scientific and mathematical skills and attitudes.

However, in this article I will concentrate on reading. First, because of my own understanding and experience. And second, because the ability to understand is such a fundamental platform on which to build other understandings, such as foreign languages, historical and environmental education.

A 15-year-old who can only copy information from Wikipedia will likely be extremely limited in what he can achieve in life. For this reason PISA literacy tests not just simple comprehension, but the ability to analyse information, interpret material and solve problems using basic data. And it is precisely at these higher levels that some 13 per cent of Australian students have been found wanting.

Australia now has a Rudd Government. Rudd has often spoken of an educational revolution. It will happen - I hope - through Julia Gillard, Minister for Education and Industrial Relations. But how would this be achieved? Let’s look at some key target areas.

Comparative data

PISA says that comparative data is essential. Some schools publish data on students’ achievement. Their children achieve significantly better than the rest. It follows that parents should know how schools perform compared with other schools. And how well their child performs against other children. This is not easy, as the question is always not just what they achieve but what value has been added to that success by the school.


The Rudd Government has published policies saying it will test children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and publish the results. I’m not quite sure how this would be done, as we have had a lot or argument lately about what parents should be told in school reports, with teacher unions opposing calls for more candid reporting on progress, and resisting comparisons among schools.

More literate teachers?

Teacher education is also discussed in PISA, with the recommendation that teachers be properly qualified. When we turn to Labor policy (as presented online) teacher education is discussed a great deal. Rudd has promised to assess students entering teacher education and look hard at their literacy and spelling. He wants teachers to be much more skilled in spelling (not just using a spell-check). He wants teachers to be able to write proper sentences and use a comma and apostrophe correctly.

I think this would be a laudable move. But as a university academic I mark many theses. And it is very common for masters and even doctoral thesis applicants to have difficulty with all of the tasks Labor wants emphasised. Because I often mark theses on boys’ education, I am no longer surprised by people who cannot write boys’ education without making a mistake. Many of these applicants are practising teachers.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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