In answering a question from Jane Prentice (Member for Ryan) in parliament about Australian students going backwards, Christopher Pyne makes two separate claims.
- Student results are going backwards in both real and relative terms.
- The answer is to use more effective teaching strategies than we use at present.
Let’s look at the accuracy of those claims separately.
Are Our Students Going Backwards?
A review of NAPLAN, TIMMS and PISA results shows that over recent years:
- Year 3 students have improved their results in reading, spelling, grammar and punctuation, while their results in writing and mathematics have remained stable1.
- Year 4 students’ results in mathematics and science has remained stable2.
- Year 5 students have improved their results in reading, while their results in other areas have remained stable1.
- Year 7 students’ results have remained stable in all aspects of literacy and numeracy1.
- Year 8 students’ results in mathematics and science have remained stable2.
- Year 9 students’ NAPLAN results1 remained stable, their PISA3 science results remained steady, and their PISA mathematics results went backwards3.
While our Yr 9 PISA results went down, a quick look at the broader array of results suggests that Mr Pyne’s claim about our students’ going backwards in real terms may have been a bit of political hyperbole – something I believe all sides of politics engage in. Mr Pyne also referred to the Gonski Report4 to back his claims. However, the Gonski report included no new data – simply a summary of existing NAPLAN, TIMMS and PISA data reviewed above. That said, after reviewing the data, Mr Gonski did find that:
“Overall, Australia has a relatively high-performing schooling system.”
While our real results are stable, our relative performance in comparison to other countries is slipping.
- In 2000, only one country outperformed us in reading (Finland), while in 2009, six countries did better than us (Finland, Canada, Korea, Singapore Shanghai and Hong Kong).
- In 2000, only two countries outperformed us in science (Japan and Korea), while in 2009, six countries did better than us (Japan, Korea, Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore).
- In 2000, only one country outperformed us in mathematics (Japan), while in 2009, twelve countries did better than us (Japan, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taipei, Finland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Canada, Netherlands and Macao).
So are our students going backwards?
The data suggests that overall, our students are doing as well as they always have; however, several other countries have made significant improvements and now do better than we do. A closer look at the data also shows that we need to do more to improve the results of both our lowest and our highest achievers.
Will Adopting More Effective Teaching Strategies Help?
The short answer is … yes! Mr Pyne’s focus on effective teaching strategies is educationally sound.
Every teacher, no matter how talented they already are, can incorporate some additional effective teaching strategies into their repertoire. It costs very little, and it has a massive impact on student results. In fact, research shows that students placed with high-performing teachers progress up to three times as fast as students who are assigned to low-performing teachers.
“The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
McKinsey & Co. in Gonski
Yet, Mr Pyne goes further, championing orthodox teaching, such as direct instruction, as the effective teaching strategies we need. While this flies in the face of progressive educational theory, research shows that orthodox teaching, such as direct instruction does, in fact, have a large impact on how well students do at school while some progressive approaches, such as constructivism and whole language do not5. See the tutorial on the Evidence Based Teaching for more details.
Yet, while direct instruction is an extremely effective teaching strategy (and a solid foundation for most lessons), it is not the only effective way to teach. Other highly effective strategies4 include a mixture of orthodox and progressive approaches, such as:
- Reciprocal teaching (0.74)
- Practice spaced out over time (0.71)
- Teaching problem-solving strategies (0.61)
- Phonics (0.65)
- Meta-cognitive strategies (0.69)
- Feedback (0.73)
Creativity programs (0.60)
Australia continues to have a strong education system. Other countries have caught-up, with some countries now surpassing us. This should spur us on to do even better, but we don’t need to belittle what we have already achieved to do this.
The promotion of effective teaching strategies is a sensible way to move forward, and this should include orthodox approaches, such as direct instruction, as a solid foundation.
Furthermore, we should take a closer look at what those countries who are performing better than us are doing, such as the way Finland supports struggling students.
- Australian Curriculum, Assessment & Reporting Authority. (2013). NAPLAN Summary Report. [↩]
- Thomson, S., Wernert, N., Underwood, C. & Nicholas, M. (2008). Highlights From TIMSS 2007 From Australia’s Perspective, Highlights From The Full Report: Taking A Closer Look At Mathematics And Science In Australia. Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell, Victoria. [↩]
- Lokan, J., Greenwood, L., & Cresswell, J. (2001). Fifteen-Up And Counting, Reading, Writing, Reasoning: How Literate Are Australia’s Students? The PISA 2000 Survey Of Students’ Reading, Mathematical And Scientific Literacy Skills. Australian Council for Educational Research. Camberwell, Victoria; Thomson, S., De Bortoli, L., Nicholas, M., Hillman, K. & Buckley, S. (2011). Challenges For Australian Education: Results From PISA 2009: The PISA 2009 Assessment Of Students’ Reading, Mathematical And Scientific Literacy, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell, Victoria. [↩]
- Gonski, D., Boston, K., Greiner, K., Lawrence, C., Scales, B. & Tannock, P. (2011). Review of Funding for Schooling—Final Report. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. [↩]
- Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. London. [↩]