Yesterday the OECD released the 2012 results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
You’ve heard of the “Education Race?” Well this is the Education World Cup.
As Angel Gurria, the OECD General Secretary puts it,
PISA has become the world’s premier yardstick for evaluating the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems.
Unlike NAPLAN where most school students in the country sit the exams in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, PISA tests only assess a sample of 15 year olds in any given country. In Australia this meant 14,481 from 775 schools across the country.
Students answer a pen and paper booklet containing mathematical, scientific or reading literacy related questions. They also do the same on a computer, as well as attempt some problem solving tasks.
Students then answer a 30 minute questionnaire about their background, motivation to learn mathematics and general attitudes towards school.
Taking the PISA results at face value we see that Aussie kids are three years behind their Chinese counterparts in mathematics, two years behind them in science and one and half years in reading literacy.
As you can imagine this meant panic stations in the Education Minister’s office. Within minutes of the results being made available online, Christopher Pyne released a media statement.
He declared Australia’s academic performance had continued to slip and “Labor’s Education Revolution has been a spectacular failure.” As he propped up the sky above Canberra he claimed, “These results are the worst for Australia since testing began and shows that we are falling further behind our regional neighbours.”
In a week where he has appeared somewhat duplicitous regarding school funding he said, “This clearly shows that more funding does not equate to better outcomes.”
Perhaps after Gonski was gone and then back again, it may well be gone again. Who knows?
Perhaps even more worrying than that is Pyne’s assertion that,
PISA shows us that our education system is high-equity where socio-economic status matters less when compared to other OECD countries.
The key qualifiers here are “when compared to other countries” and that they only factored in the mathematics scores of a handful of these other countries
To get a better picture of how “equitable” our education system is, it would be pertinent to look at Australia in its own right.
What PISA actually tells us, is that for mathematics:
On average, students in the independent school sector achieved significantly higher than students in the Catholic or government school sectors, and students in Catholic schools scored significantly higher than students in government schools. These findings are also applicable to scientific and reading literacy.
Or more explicitly:
When student-level socioeconomic background is taken into account, students in independent schools performed significantly higher than students in Catholic schools, and students in Catholic schools performed significantly higher than students in government schools, although the differences are reduced.
I’m not sure how Mr Pyne misinterpreted that to mean that socioeconomic factors are somehow unimportant.
And as if we didn’t know already, the picture is even bleaker for our indigenous kids who, on average, are two and a half years behind non-indigenous students across the board.
While kids in metropolitan schools are around a year or so ahead of their rural and remote peers, students for whom English is their second language out-performed their English speaking schoolmates in mathematics, but fell well behind when it came to science and reading literacy.
Comparing Australia to the top performing countries in PISA seems strange, when the top performing “country” is Shanghai, but the results – used appropriately – could inform how we address education issues in our own – rather large and diverse – backyard.
Unfortunately it appears Christopher Pyne wants to sweep diversity under the carpet by dismissing socioeconomic considerations while continuing his mantra of all the evidence showing that better outcomes are achieved by “Lifting the quality of teaching, ensuring we have a robust curriculum, expanding principal autonomy and encouraging more parental engagement.”
Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that greater school autonomy lifts performance, and his idea of a robust curriculum is one that isn’t overly focused on Aboriginal history, it his view on “teacher quality” that has the potential to shape classrooms more than anything else.
He is on record as saying he wants to “dismantle student centred approaches” and return to a more “rote learning” methods.
Why? Because that’s what they do in China. Perhaps we should also follow their lead and have Big Tobacco fund our education system.
At least that would take care of that pesky Gonski situation.