As the old drivers of prosperity in Australia give way to the new twenty-first century technology and service economy, education has never been more important for global competitiveness and making young people life and career-ready.
But the evidence mounts that we’re failing to keep up with the rest of the world.
The results of two recent international surveys, known as TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Studies) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), have revealed Australia’s performance in literacy, maths and science has been static for the past 20 years. More worrying is that culturally comparable countries like Canada, the USA and the UK have overtaken Australia and are accelerating in their improvement whilst we stand still.
No doubt these results will make the call for improvements in our education system to become louder and more insistent.
Whilst a public fixation on international academic rankings can be frustrating for educators, another way to see this is as a clear sign that the community appreciates how important a good school education is, to an individual’s life chances and to our shared future prosperity. They know education is important and they want the best one possible for our kids.
Geoff Masters from ACER and others have made the strong point that if we want to see significant improvement we can’t just keep doing more of the same. But there is also a risk that we reflexively select approaches that are driven by ideology rather than being guided pragmatically by the evidence.
We should start by looking what those three nations have doing for the past five years. A common theme been a system-wide commitment to evidence informed practice.
Evidence-informed practice is a way of achieving a continual improvement in student learning where high impact approaches are used more often and low impact approaches are retired more quickly.
For this to work we need a collective commitment to building, sharing and using dependable evidence in the pursuit of ever better learning for our children and young people. This can sustainably lift the learning in every classroom, in every school across the country. This is not by doing the same things everywhere but by doing the best things in each environment, for each learner.
To enable and support this culture we need to arm our busy teachers and school leaders with easy access to:
- Helpful data on their students, provided in useful forms to help them diagnose specific challenges;
- sound evidence on what works best, for which learners and under what conditions so that they can understand the ‘good bets’ for their school and community;
- support to faithfully adopt and then intelligently adapt the activity for their context; and
- tools to help them continuously evaluate their impact on educational growth to determine whether to embed or abandon.
None of this takes away from the importance of quality teaching or removes the professional judgment of educators – in fact it amplifies it. We expect our doctors to have access to the best medical data and research knowledge when treating our kids. We should expect our education system to provide our teachers with similar access to learning advances so they can best teach our children and young people.
A shared focus on evidence informed practice also builds trust across the sector. Policy makers trust teachers and school leaders are relentlessly pursuing improvement and sharing their learning. Practitioners trust that reliable evidence of impact directs policy priorities. And society trusts that our tax dollars are spent on the things that will produce the greatest benefit.
This is a national priority that could see us kick out of our flat performance and really fire up an engine for growth and innovation to compete with the best in the world and more importantly improve the life chances for the next generation.