Six things Labor’s review of tertiary education should consider


Geoff Sharrock, University of Melbourne

In March, Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek outlined Labor’s plan to review the architecture of the post-school education sector if elected next year. She said they would look at whether current qualification structures, the mix of institutions, and financing models are still fit for purpose.

The Mitchell Institute has highlighted incoherent policy across the higher education and VET sectors – a legacy of short-term fixes and poor state/federal co-ordination. The latest fix is last year’s freeze on teaching grants in the higher education sector. Meanwhile, the VET sector has seen falling TAFE enrolments and VET FEE-HELP loan rorts.




Read more:
Vocational education and training sector is still missing out on government funding: report


A Labor review would seek to “put TAFE and unis on an equal footing” while restoring demand-driven funding. What should it consider?

1. Look beyond a 2020 vision

Any “2020” vision shaped by near-term budget or electoral considerations risks (at best) partial policy fixes. Earlier reform attempts have mixed subsidy cuts, fee hikes and Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) changes, many of them rejected as unfair.

A 2030+ vision is needed to reset post-secondary education as a platform for knowledge-era nation-building. In this future, most Australians will need to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives. And as now, the sector will serve many related aims: as a booster of innovation, an export industry and a channel for global engagement.

2. Work back from the future of work

Recent reports conclude that Australians aren’t facing an “end of work” future where robots take our jobs. Instead, we are seeing old job destruction, new job creation and (mostly) the transformation of existing jobs to focus more on non-routine tasks, both manual and cognitive.


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Meanwhile, post-school credentials, especially bachelor degrees, are becoming mainstream pathways into the Australian workforce. The authors of this recent future of work report conclude that:

Education and skills remain essential, as partial insurance against technological unemployment, as a basis for innovation and competition, as a contributor to individual resilience and adaptability to change, and as a bulwark against further deepening of inequalities in opportunity.

3. Learn from other systems

But what kind of education and skills is less clear. In international comparisons, Australia looks strong in bachelor degrees. But some systems, such as Canada with its large community college sector, are stronger at the sub-bachelor level. A review should test whether we have the right mix for our future labour market, which types of qualifications should be demand-led and how these are to be financed.


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Some systems focus more on upper secondary vocational credentials. Offering these on a demand-led basis implies a different profile of post-compulsory provision, perhaps with a more diverse mix of institutions.


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Some systems have strong industry and government support for a broader vocational sector with clearer pathways into work. In Australia, post-school pathways should be clearer into initial credentials and jobs, and into flexible “lifelong” learning for mid-career up-skilling.


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4. Consider new types of credentials

Since 2012, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms have promised mass scale yet personalised degree level learning, at very low cost. At the same time we’ve seen wide experimentation with new types of micro-credentials. These represent the accomplishment of short study, training or project assignments, often focused on enterprise skills. Small and stackable units of learning may count for credit towards a degree. Or supplement one by certifying wider sets of capabilities valued by employers.

As portfolio careers become mainstream, a subset of the emerging streams of micro-credentials that specify what learners know and can do in more detail will gain wider acceptance.



The Conversation, based on The Future of University Credentials by Sean Gallagher, 2016, CC BY-ND

A formalised system could offer more portable credit across education sectors and providers, and wider recognition across employers and industries. This may be a better fit for the idea proposed by the Mitchell Institute in 2015 for the government to provide younger cohorts of students a standard entitlement for upper vocational as well as degree level programs.

Or the idea proposed by the Business Council of Australia last year to provide every Australian a capped Lifelong Skills Account that could be used to pay for courses at approved providers across the tertiary spectrum over the person’s lifetime.

In each case a key aim is to ensure that young people in particular choose post-secondary courses and skillsets with clear aims in mind, without being diverted or disadvantaged by funding anomalies.

5. Learn from mistakes

Along with lessons from VET FEE-HELP, Australia may learn from the UK experience with big funding cuts combined with big fee hikes in 2012. This lifted university revenue per student but also landed many graduates in major debt for decades. This has raised serious questions about value for money at English universities.

In 2014, plans to deregulate uni fees in Australia assumed competition would limit price hikes while HELP loans kept study costs fair. This “market” solution failed to see how open-ended loan entitlements in Australia can lead to major debts where much of the cost is eventually met by taxpayers.

6. Settle structure, then governance and who funds what

RMIT’s Gavin Moodie has argued a joint review by state and national governments is needed to integrate VET and higher education policy. Industry engagement is needed also, to help define future needs and support more work-integrated learning.

A Labor review should rethink the future structure of post-secondary education then reconsider who finances what level of qualification.

The ConversationFinally, we’ll need an independent body to oversee tertiary education, and plan for the long term.

Geoff Sharrock, Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Budget 2018: what’s in store for education



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Mai Lam/The Conversation NY-BD-CC, CC BY-SA

Andrew Norton, Grattan Institute and Glenn C. Savage, University of Western Australia

It wasn’t a big budget for education this year, with schools funding already set in the last Budget, and the funding freeze for universities announced in the Federal Government’s mid-year budget update in December.

But the National Schools Chaplaincy program will become permanent, with A$247 million set aside over four years from 2018-19.

And there is some good news for students in regional, rural and remote areas, with:

  • A$96.1 million over four years for young people in regional, rural and remote communities to transition to further education, training and employment

  • A$14 million over four years for 185 Commonwealth Supported Places annually for students commencing a bachelor degree at university through a Regional Study Hub

  • A$53.9 million over four years to improve regional students’ access to youth allowance, and

  • A$123.6 million over five years to regional universities for additional Commonwealth Supported Places from 2017-18.


Mai Lam/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Schools and early education funding

Glenn Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Sociology of Education at University of Western Australia

Despite ongoing political debates about school funding, most of the big news happened in last year’s budget, when the federal government formalised details associated with its Quality Schools reform package.

The package centres on a commitment to align school funding with the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) recommended in the 2011 Gonski report into school funding.

To achieve this, the government plans to progressively raise funding levels for government schools from 17% to 20% of the SRS and for private schools from 76.8% to 80% of the SRS by 2027.

The government argues that this delivers an additional $24.5 billion for Australian schools over the decade, and says it will be up to states as to whether they wish to fund the remaining amounts so that all schools reach the full SRS.

The government also claims its reform package provides more consistent needs-based funding when compared to the so-called “special deals” established under the Labor Gillard government.

Labor doesn’t agree, suggesting the Coalition is shortchanging the nation to the tune of A$17 billion (the initial claim was $22 billion) when compared to promises made by the former Gillard Labor government.

Labor has promised, if re-elected, to return to the Gillard model.

This ensures funding will be a defining issue at the next federal election, especially given last week’s Gonski 2.0 report has made a suite of recommendations that the federal government supports and could very well require an additional injection of federal funds to implement.

But any potential changes hinge on whether the Coalition is actually in power when next year’s budget is delivered. And, if so, whether it has any luck pursuing the new Gonski agenda with states and territories.

Aside from these ongoing Gonski wars, this year’s budget contains a few additional highlights.

Most controversial is A$247 million over four years to extend the National School Chaplaincy Program, which will have a new anti-bullying focus. The program was first introduced under the former Howard Coalition, but was subsequently dumped by Labor. It’s strongly supported by conservative backbenchers.

Other notables in this year’s budget include:

• A$440 million to extend the National Partnership Agreement on universal access to early childhood education for a further year.

• A$154 million to promote active and healthy living. This includes A$83 million to improve existing community sport facilities and expand the Sporting Schools and Local Sporting Champions programs.

• A$11.8 million over three years to expand the Early Learning Languages Australia program to more preschools and trial the program in 2019 and 2020 from the first year of school through to year two in primary schools.

• A$6 million over two years (from 2017-18) to continue and update the communications campaign to increase public awareness of changes to the Quality Schools package (aka public relations to sell the government’s reform package).

• A$1.3 million per year until 2020-21 to continued funding the MoneySmart Teaching program, designed to improve financial literacy education in schools.

• A$134.3 million over four years to the Northern Territory as part of the children and schooling component of the National Partnership Agreement on Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment.

Finally, the government has signalled its intention to continue exploring ways to deliver new and diverse pathways into the teaching profession, with the view to increasing the supply of quality teachers. This measure builds on previous work associated with the Teach for Australia program.

To pursue this aim, the government has suggested it will invite proposals in 2018 from providers to deliver alternative pathways into teaching.

Higher education and VET funding

Andrew Norton, Program Director of Higher Education at Grattan Institute


Mai Lam/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

VET

The long aftermath of the VET FEE-HELP loan fiasco is still being felt in the 2018-19 Budget. The government is planning to spend A$36.2M over fours years for a new IT system to ensure compliance in the replacement VET Student Loans program.

The VET Student Loans Ombudsman, given the task of receiving student complaints about vocational education lending, is to receive another A$1 million to help deal with the large numbers of people making complaints.


Mai Lam/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Higher education

Higher education’s big Budget news came early, in the December 2017 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). It announced a two-year pause in tuition subsidy growth, and a range of reforms to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). There is no major change to these decisions in the 2018-19 Budget.

The pause in tuition subsidy growth has been implemented. It was done without going back to parliament using university funding agreements. For domestic bachelor degree places, universities will receive the same total amount that they received for 2017 for each of 2018 and 2019. Previously, there were “demand driven”, meaning that the Government would fund every student the universities enrolled.

This funding freeze means that universities won’t receive the value of inflation indexation to per student Commonwealth contributions, or Commonwealth contributions for any additional students they enrol above 2017 levels. But they will still receive indexed student contributions for all students they enrol.

The government has also used the funding agreements to reduce the number of Commonwealth-funded diploma, associate degree, and postgraduate coursework places. About 4,000 allocated places were abolished, but some of these weren’t being used anyway, so the practical effect may be limited.

Soon after these policies were announced, partial exceptions began with the University of Tasmania, the University of the Sunshine Coast and Southern Cross University all receiving additional places. These are confirmed in the Budget at a cost of A$124 million over five years.

In addition, the Budget has a new announcement of A$96 million over four years for nearly 700 extra student places for young people from regional areas. This is in response to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education.

Including the new places, funding on Commonwealth contributions through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme will be just over A$7 billion for 2018-2019.

From 2020, the government says it will resume funding increases based on population growth for universities that meet yet-to-be determined performance criteria. The Budget paper shows predicted spending of A$7.3 billion in 2020-21.

But numbers this far out are moot. With an election due in the next 12 months, and Labor indicating it will go back to demand driven funding, the funding freeze could be over by then. If the Coalition survives in office, it may also make substantial changes.

The other major MYEFO announcement was to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) loan scheme. Unlike changes to total tuition subsidy payments, these need legislating and the relevant bill is still before the Senate.

The most important proposed changes to HELP are the income thresholds determining whether, or how much, a HELP debtor needs to repay each year. If it passes, the bill would lower the initial repayment threshold from A$52,000 a year to A$45,000 a year. HELP debtors earning between A$45,000 and A$52,000 would repay 1% of their income. But some other thresholds are more generous than now, and many HELP debtors would end up paying less per year than they do now.

The government also originally proposed a A$100,000 lifetime cap on borrowing under HELP for all courses except medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, rather than just the full-fee student FEE-HELP scheme. The Budget confirms that the cap would be A$100,000 of HELP debt at any one time, allowing people who have paid off some debt to borrow again.

Whether HELP reforms eventually pass the Senate remains to be seen. In either case, it is fortunate for the higher education sector that they were not rejected prior to the May 2018 Budget. The freezing of the demand driven system showed the government was not bluffing when it said it needed to reduce higher education spending. Like the demand driven system, equity programs and some research programs are vulnerable to cuts the parliament cannot easily stop.

As it turns out, these programs survive in the Budget.

Research funding will receive a modest boost, with nearly A$400 million extra over five years for research infrastructure.

Although the higher education sector gets off lightly in the Budget compared to MYEFO, higher education providers will be hit with extra charges. The Government plans to charge them more for the services of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

The ConversationThe government also plans to charge higher education providers A$10 million a year to recover costs associated with HELP. We can only hope some of this is used to improve on the current very unsatisfactory public reporting of HELP’s finances.

Andrew Norton, Program Director, Higher Education, Grattan Institute and Glenn C. Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Sociology of Education, and ARC DECRA Fellow (2016-19), University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gonski 2.0: there is evidence inclusive schooling will help those left behind



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The benefits of mixed-ability classes are shared by all.
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Linda J. Graham, Queensland University of Technology; Ilektra Spandagou, University of Sydney, and Kate de Bruin, Monash University

The recently released Gonski 2.0 Review aimed to examine how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes. A particular area of focus was to improve outcomes across all student cohorts including disadvantaged and vulnerable students, and academically advanced (“gifted”) students.

The report sets out a radically different vision of Australian school education but does not fully explain how this vision can be achieved.




Read more:
Gonski review reveals another grand plan to overhaul education: but do we really need it?


This omission has been rightly criticised. But there has been little acknowledgement of the positives in the report or the problems it seeks to address. These problems are real and are important to confront as they affect us all and will increase in the future.

By far the biggest problem is more than one quarter of Australian school students are “missing out” from their school education. This affects their ability to participate in an increasingly high skills economy, setting them up for a lifetime of precarious work or welfare dependency.

The presumption has always been that these students just aren’t “smart enough” to “keep up” and seldom is the need to do so questioned. Gonski 2.0 changes that by recognising and challenging deep fault lines in our education system that have extremely negative equity effects.

What’s the problem?

The report notes our current age/grade system leaves too many students behind. It acknowledges the huge range in the learning readiness of students the same age, stating the:

most advanced students in a year group can be five to six years ahead of the least advanced.

The presence of this gap does not mean students at the lower end are destined to remain there. These students can and do succeed, but it takes the right supports from expert teachers and the time to provide them.

Yet, our system is currently structured in such a way that those who fall behind get left behind. This is because the Australian curriculum is content heavy and the pressure to cover this content over the course of a year leaves teachers with little time to provide the individualised support needed by almost one in five Australian students.

“Summative assessment”, or benchmarking, is used as a blunt tool to determine what students have or have not learned. They are then graded A-E against the achievement standards. In some schools they’re also ranked against their peers.

By the end of their schooling, some 26% have still not achieved a Year 12 Certificate or its equivalent.


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What is Gonski’s solution?

The report proposes a “radical” new approach based on:

  • all students being educated in mixed-ability classrooms

  • greater use of formative assessment to determine where students are in their learning

  • differentiated teaching to meet students at their respective point of need

  • a redirection in focus from comparative achievement against an age/grade standard to individual growth in achievement against a defined learning progression.



The Conversation/Federal government, CC BY-ND

Some commentators have criticised the lack of supporting evidence and it’s true the report relies heavily on a select range of sources and does not make the grade in terms of academic rigour. This does not mean the ideas proposed or practices described are fanciful or have no evidence to support them.

Take, for example, the concept of teaching students in mixed-ability classrooms, the use of formative assessment, and differentiated teaching. While these might sound radical when combined into a new vision for school education, each has evidence to support them. They’re all elements of inclusive practice.

The evidence for inclusive education

The benefits of mixed-ability classes are shared by all. There are a range of important academic and social benefits for students with disabilities (including improved memory and stronger language and literacy and mathematics skills), as well as students without disability (such as social and emotional development).

Ability “streaming”, which involves assigning students of the same grade into ranked classes based on prior achievement or perceived ability levels, has a neglible effect on achievement and profoundly negative consequences for lower ranked students. Despite strong evidence against streaming, many schools still stream classes by ability and some education systems stream entire schools.




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The way schools cope with learning difficulties is doing more harm than good


Formative assessment is feedback given to students during the course of their learning, and can help students understand what progress they have made and what the next steps are. It has been highlighted as one of the most effective practices a school can adopt to individualise learning for all students with long-standing and consistent evidence to support its use. Teachers can also use the information to differentiate their teaching to ensure that they are truly teaching each student based on their needs.

Teachers differentiate when they provide appropriately challenging work for all students, using a variety of means to help them engage with the content and demonstrate their learning. There is evidence whole-school models of differentiation can improve academic outcomes and close achievement gaps including in high stakes tests. Teachers who have the opportunity to practice differentiated instruction and receive ongoing professional development develop competency and stronger belief in their own capability.

Inclusion is better for everyone

In offering a bold vision for the future, the Gonski 2.0 report has encouraged Australia to help more of our young people successfully navigate a precarious future.

The ConversationMore flesh is needed to make this vision a reality but the individual components that make up the vision are not radical and, if done well, can enhance students’ learning experiences and outcomes. And that is better for everyone.

Linda J. Graham, Professor in the School of Early Childhood & Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology; Ilektra Spandagou, Senior lecturer, University of Sydney, and Kate de Bruin, Researcher in Inclusive Education, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gonski 2.0: teaching creativity and critical thinking through the curriculum is already happening


Bill Louden, University of Western Australia

David Gonski’s report on Australia’s schooling system identifies three key weaknesses and proposes a set of pathways towards improvement.

These weaknesses include decline in student achievement over time, age-based rather than developmental approaches to differentiation in learning goals, and failure to prepare students for a complex and rapidly changing world.

On the third of these issues, the report argues more attention to general capabilities such as problem-solving, social skills and critical thinking is essential in preparing students for an uncertain future.

A zero-sum game?

Early critiques of the report have asserted critical thinking has taken over from knowledge in the latest Gonski review. And also that an increased focus on general capabilities means a decreased focus on knowledge and skills in school subjects such as history and science.

This approach treats the school curriculum as a zero-sum game. More of one thing must mean less of another. What the report actually recommends is a positive-sum. A more structured approach to general capabilities within the established learning areas would better prepare students to succeed in a changing world:

Recommendation 7

Strengthen the development of the general capabilities, and raise their status within curriculum delivery, by using learning progressions to support clear and structured approaches to their teaching, assessment, reporting and integration with learning areas.

The detail of the report argues general capabilities “cannot be taught in isolation”. It argues there should be a structured and consistent approach to teaching, assessing and reporting on the general capabilities. Without this, teachers cannot be expected to integrate them into subject-based learning.

Gonski 2.0 argues the development of general capabilities should underpin subject-based learning.
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Read more:
Teaching how to think is just as important as teaching anything else


The curriculum wars

The role of general capabilities in a subject-based curriculum has been a recurring theme in Australian curriculum history.

The 1990 Finn Report identified six key areas of competence essential for all young people in preparation for employment:

  • language and communication

  • maths

  • scientific and technological understanding

  • cultural understanding

  • problem solving

  • personal and interpersonal characteristics.

The 1992 Mayer Report identified seven similar key competencies and proposed a set of nationally consistent principles for assessing and reporting on them.

This theme was taken up in the 1999 Adelaide Declaration of National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century, which identified eight general competencies in addition to the knowledge and skills in key learning areas such as literacy and numeracy.

It was reiterated in the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. It characterised successful learners as creative users of technology, logical thinkers, creative and resourceful problem-solvers, and able to collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas.

The 2010 Australian Curriculum organised the school curriculum across three related dimensions:

  1. learning areas

  2. cross-curriculum priorities

  3. general capabilities.

The general capabilities were expected to be addressed through the learning areas. The detailed syllabus materials identify opportunities for each of the general capabilities in context. For example, in year eight curriculum content descriptions, critical and creative thinking are a part of the requirements for Historical Knowledge and Understanding:

Renaissance Italy (c.1400 – c.1600)

The way of life in Renaissance Italy (social, cultural, economic and political features) and the roles and relationships of different groups in society

Critical and Creative Thinking

  • Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
  • Organise and process information
  • Identify and clarify information and ideas

The Review of the Australian Curriculum in 2014 acknowledged widespread support for the inclusion of general capabilities, but took issue with their ability to be developed outside the context of specific subject areas. The review recommended literacy, numeracy and ICT competencies be maintained in the curriculum. The other four general capabilities were to be taught only where they are relevant in academic subjects.

The Australian government’s response to the review did not take up this recommendation. The general capabilities remain within the revised Australian curriculum.

Preparing students for a complex and rapidly changing world is an important feature of the Gonski 2.0 report.
shutterstock.com



Read more:
Gonski review reveals another grand plan to overhaul education: but do we really need it?


What’s different about the Gonski 2.0 proposal?

The place of general capabilities in the school curriculum is one of the never-ending stories of Australian education. The old curriculum warriors such as Kevin Donnelly continue to protest that capabilities are subject specific, not general, but there is widespread agreement about their importance.

What’s different about the Gonski 2.0 proposal is the recommendation that fine-grained learning progressions be developed for the general capabilities. Students will now be expected to demonstrate progress from year to year.




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It proposes, to begin with, two general capabilities – critical and creative thinking, and personal and social capability. In each case, progressions are expected to underpin subject-based teaching and learning and provide for feedback, measurement and reporting.

The ConversationDeveloping the new progressions is not without risk. Existing progressions in literacy and numeracy build on a century of research on reading and mathematics learning. The new progressions in creativity and social skills will need to be underpinned by new scientific work. Without that detailed work, we can expect another 30 years of reviews and critiques on the role of general capabilities in schooling.

Bill Louden, Emeritus professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gonski review reveals another grand plan to overhaul education: but do we really need it?


Glenn C. Savage, University of Western Australia

Today’s release of the report from the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (also known as Gonski 2.0) proves sceptics both right and wrong. In many ways, the report reflects a smorgasbord of popular ideas that have been doing the rounds for some time.

These include Professor John Hattie’s mantra that young people should gain “a year of learning growth from a year of schooling”, along with other claims about the importance of quality teachers, early years learning and school leadership.




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Gonski review attacks Australian schooling quality and urges individualised teaching approach


One could be forgiven for seeing these arguments as yawn-worthy: not because they’re wrong, but because they have been repeated ad nauseum.

Despite this, the report is also deeply radical in scope and vision, especially in its focus on overhauling core aspects of curriculum, assessment and reporting.

In doing so, it places significant faith in the power of data, evidence, technology and personalisation of learning to drive improvement, and help the nation cast off the shackles of its “industrial model” of schooling.



The Conversation/Federal government, CC BY-ND

A radical rethink of curriculum, assessment and reporting

While the report makes recommendations across a variety of areas, its most radical lie in the areas of curriculum, assessment and reporting. Central to these is an argument that the current national curriculum, which is organised into year levels rather than levels of progress, leaves some students behind, fails to extend others, and limits opportunities to maximise student learning growth.

This strongly echoes recent work by Professor Geoff Masters. He has argued for a re-visioning of the way we assess students to better focus on student growth.

The report portrays the traditional year level curriculum as a relic of the 20th century industrial model of schooling, ill-suited to producing adaptive and personalised learning experiences. Instead, it argues for a shift away from the year level curriculum. It recommends that over the next five years, the national curriculum be reformed to present both learning areas and general capabilities as “learning progressions”.

This will ensure, the report argues, individual student achievement can be better understood and catered for, rendering schools more agile and adaptive to personal needs.

Accompanying this major change is a recommendation to introduce new reporting arrangements that not only focus on attainment, but also highlight “learning gain”. This is designed to ensure young people and parents don’t just have information on where young people sit relative to so-called “lockstep” level years. They would get more tailored information about individual progress.

What else does it recommend?

The report makes a number of other recommendations to supplement these major changes, including but not limited to:

  • Establish a national research and evidence institute to coordinate and disseminate best practices. This is essentially identical to Labor’s promise to create an Evidence Institute for Schools if elected.

  • Develop an online and on-demand formative assessment tool, to be based on revised national curriculum learning progressions. This would help teachers monitor student progress in real time and better tailor teaching.

  • Introduce a national Unique Student Identifier for all students to be used throughout schooling. This would enable the consistent tracking of students if they move between schools or systems.

  • Prioritise literacy and numeracy, particularly in the early years, to ensure young people have the necessary foundations.

  • Conduct a comprehensive national review into years 11 and 12, with a focus on objectives, curriculum, assessment provisions and delivery structures.




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An education research institute won’t take politics out of the classroom


These proposed changes, particularly those resting on technological advancements, will powerfully open the door to edu-businesses. They will also create new opportunities for edu-preneurs whose work seeks to profit from translating “what works” into action in the classroom.

We need to be careful not to stray too far from addressing inequalities in Australian schooling through re-distributive funding.
Shutterstock

Do we need another grand plan?

The idea that a radical national overhaul of curriculum, assessment and reporting is the primary way to stop Australia’s declining student achievement feels a bit Groundhog Day.

This was exactly the logic that drove the creation of the national curriculum in the late 2000s, and led to other unprecedented national reforms. These include NAPLAN, the My School website, and national teaching standards.

The problem is, despite time, resources and investments committed to revolutionising Australian schooling, these grand designs have done nothing to stop declining student achievement.

So, before we charge forth into the reform wilderness, serious debate should be had about whether these radical plans pass muster, and whether it’s worth the investment to put Australian schooling under another round of major surgery when the last round had minimal impact.

As part of this, we need to (once again) question whether the contemporary reform fever does any more than treat symptoms while deeper structural conditions continue to ensure, as the original Gonski report put it, unacceptable links between a young people’s socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of achievement.

We need to be careful not to stray too far from where the first Gonski report started out. That is: addressing inequalities in Australian schooling through re-distributive funding.

This is not to suggest pursuing personalised or adaptive learning is a fruitless endeavour. But all the personalisation in the world means nothing without a commitment to equality of opportunity for all young people.

Oh… and will it ever actually happen?

There are significant political hurdles to be overcome before the report’s recommendations can be translated into action.

This endeavour will begin on Friday, when federal education minister Simon Birmingham will meet state and territory education ministers to discuss the report. Nearly all the recommendations relate to state responsibilities. The federal government needs to secure their support to translate the recommendations into a national response.

Birmingham faces state ministers, not to mention senior bureaucrats, who are already suffering reform fatigue from the last decade of national reform – many who have limited appetite for further major changes. It’s also very likely for resistance to come from within schools, where long-standing habits and cultures are difficult to break.

Ultimately, the whole Gonski debate started with money, and that may very well be where it ends. The federal funding of schools will be a crucial tool in Birmingham’s bargaining kit and will largely determine whether the report’s recommendations come to fruition.




Read more:
The passage of Gonski 2.0 is a victory for children over politics


The ConversationThat said, even money might not be enough this time around. What is now at stake is not just some tinkering at the edges, but a monumental rethink of the teaching and learning process.

Glenn C. Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Sociology of Education, and ARC DECRA Fellow (2016-19), University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gonski review attacks Australian schooling quality and urges individualised teaching approach


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Gonski review into the quality of Australian schooling has highlighted declining academic performance and recommended school education be radically reformed to tailor teaching and assessment to individual students.

The damning report, released on Monday, says the decline is widespread and “equivalent to a generation of Australian school children falling short of their full learning potential”. In a blunt criticism, it finds “many Australian schools are cruising, not improving”.

Among the constraints in the schooling system are “inflexibility in curriculum delivery, reporting and assessment regimes, and tools focussed on periodic judgements of performance, rather than continuous diagnosis of a student’s learning needs and progress”.

The review proposes the development of “a new online and on demand student learning assessment tool”.

This would enable teachers to assess, regularly and consistently, the progress of the individual student, and give them suggestions about strategies to assist that student.

“There is compelling evidence, in Australian schools and internationally, that tailored teaching based on ongoing formative assessment and feedback are the key to enabling students to progress to higher levels of achievement”.

The review into achieving educational excellence, chaired by businessman David Gonski, who headed the landmark inquiry under Labor into school funding, was ordered by the Turnbull government after it embraced the Gonski needs-based model. The government legislated last year for $25.3 billion extra funding over a decade.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement that his government had accepted in principle the latest Gonski report. Many of its 23 recommendations fall within the states’ jurisdictions and state ministers will be briefed on Friday.

The recommendations in “Through Growth to Achievement” include that all students have a number (Unique Student Identifier) throughout their schooling to track their progress better; the Australian Curriculum be updated based on individual student growth rather than fixed-year levels; greater priority be given to literacy and numeracy in early schooling years; and principals have the autonomy to lead learning in their school communities.

The review also urges strengthening the attractiveness of the teaching and school leadership professions, with clearer career pathways and better recognition of expertise.

The report says that since the start of the new century “Australian student outcomes have declined in key subjects such as reading, science and mathematics. This has occurred in every socio-economic quartile and in all school sectors (government, Catholic and independent).”

“There is also a wide range of educational outcomes in the same classroom or school, with the most advanced students in a year typically five to six years ahead of the least advanced students. Such disparity in learning outcomes is at odds with the goal of equity in education for all students,” the report says.

“Australian education has failed a generation of Australian school children by not enabling them to reach their full learning potential. Dealing with this situation requires a significant shift in aspirations, approach, and practice, to focus on and accelerate individual learning growth for all students, whether they are lower performers, middle ranking or academically advanced”.

The review says “Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children”.

This focusses on trying to have students attain specified outcomes for their grade and age, then moving them in lock-step to the next year. It is not designed to stretch all students to achieve maximum learning growth every year, and it doesn’t encourage schools to continuously improve, the review says.

“Australia needs to start by setting higher expectations for students, educators and schools, and rejecting the idea that there are natural performance plateaus.‘”

The review urges a national research and evidence institute be set up to share best practice.

Targeting the problem of “cruising schools”, it says this is one of the causes of stagnating student results.

Cruising schools are those that “maintain average achievement from year to year, but do not improve”.

“This is a significant issue”, the report says. About 30% of primary schools cruise from year to year rather than improve their results at the same rate as similar schools. “Cruising schools achieve outcomes above minimum standards, but deliver lower rates of learning growth than comparable schools where students have similar backgrounds in terms of parental occupation and education.”

The review says that among the priorities of the schooling system should be to “deliver at least one year’s growth in learning for every student every year”. It stresses the importance of early learning, and engaging parents as “partners” in their children’s education.

It says that without a national Unique Service Identifier “the educational history of the student does not transfer automatically from one school to another, meaning that the new school is starting from scratch in attending to that individual’s learning needs”.

Students should be encouraged to give more feedback about their education, the report says, and schools should partner with local industry and community organisations.

An inquiry should be held into years 11 and 12 schooling “to make sure it is contemporary, and adequately prepares students for post-school employment, training, higher education and to live and proper in a rapidly changing world”.

The ConversationThe Gonski panel acknowledges the difficulties of achieving reform in a federation. “However, we cannot let the challenge of delivery daunt our ambition”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why the Commonwealth should resist meddling in schools


Julie Sonnemann, Grattan Institute and Peter Goss, Grattan Institute

Australia’s education debate is shifting at last, from how much money governments should spend on schools to how best to spend the money for the benefit of students.

After winning parliamentary approval for the Gonski 2.0 schools funding deal (the “how much”), the Turnbull Government has commissioned the “Gonski 2.0 Review” to advise on how to spend the money wisely (the “how best”).

But the extra Commonwealth money going to schools (A$23 billion over the next 10 years compared to previous Coalition policy) is only 3% of all government spending on schools over the decade. It should not be used as an excuse for the Commonwealth to intervene more heavily in school education policy.

The Grattan Institute’s new report, The Commonwealth’s role in improving schools, examines what the Commonwealth should do if it really wants to boost student outcomes.

And the answer is: not very much.




Read more:
The passage of Gonski 2.0 is a victory for children over politics


States are better placed to drive reforms

The states run schools, as well as providing most of the funding. Heavy-handed Commonwealth intervention is likely to be counterproductive, costly and confusing.

Most of the big reforms needed are within the responsibilities of state governments. For example, all the evidence shows effective teaching has the largest impact on student achievement. The biggest advances will be made when teachers know what works in the classroom, and how they can adapt their methods to better target their teaching to the particular needs of their students.

For this to happen, teachers need better support from the “system”: for example, better teacher development and greater standardisation of classroom materials so individual teachers don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

In school education, the states and territories are the “system” managers. Driving reforms such as these from Canberra would be difficult.

Federal funding conditions aren’t the way to go

Australia must learn from its history. Our report shows imposing prescriptive funding conditions on states and territories has been tried before, with little benefit.

Commonwealth interference can destroy policy coherence and simply increase red tape. The Commonwealth has few ways to independently verify if change is actually happening in the classroom, so adding an extra layer of government policies that chop and change only disrupts schools and teachers.

For example, the 2008-2013 National Partnership agreements for school education included a number of prescriptive and input-based conditions. These increased the administrative and compliance burden of states, and created instability in schools when the funding and initiatives stopped abruptly five years later.

Before looking to new reforms, the Commonwealth government should first deliver its existing responsibilities more effectively. These include initial teacher training, the national curriculum and national student testing. All require constant attention, and some require urgent reform.




Read more:
Changes to school funding – your questions answered


Prioritise a few national reforms only

If determined to act, we suggest the Commonwealth focus strategically on a small number of national reforms only. It is far better to focus on a few actions with a high chance of success.

We suggest the Commonwealth only pursue reforms that meet all of three criteria: the evidence shows it’s a good idea, the government can make it happen, and Commonwealth intervention will help. While many Commonwealth ideas are good in theory, many fall down on whether they can be readily implemented by state governments and actually lead to change in practice.

For example, in 2016 the Commonwealth signalled an intention to require all schools to use explicit teaching. While backed by evidence, this type of Commonwealth policy requirement is unlikely to lead to change without a raft of complementary state government policies. These include the right training and school support for teachers to switch to explicit teaching. It would be difficult for the Commonwealth to independently verify, and it also creates confusion by coming in over the top of state policies on effective teaching methods.

Commonwealth intervention must satisfy three criteria


Author provided/Grattan Institute

Four suggestions for new national reforms

We have four suggestions for new national reform areas where there are benefits of scale and coordination. These only to be pursued if state government’s have strong “buy in” and there is close collaboration in design and delivery:

1. Create a new national school education research organisation to investigate what works to drive school improvement and to spread the word across schools, states and sectors. The new body should be charged with lifting the standard of education research in Australia, establishing a long-term research agenda for school education, and promoting key findings across the country. It could link up all research on education for people from birth through to age 18, so policy makers and the community better understand the continuum of learning, from early childhood to school and vocational education.

2. Invest more in measuring new, non-cognitive skills such as teamwork and resilience, in the classroom. At present, Australia focuses much more on old, foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy, which are only one element of what we expect from 21st century schooling.

3. Develop better ways to measure student progress, for national bench-marking and for use in the classroom. NAPLAN seeks to measure students’ learning progress in core literacy and numeracy skills at the national level, but NAPLAN gain scores are not easy to interpret when comparing the progress of different student groups.

4. Invest in high-quality digital assessment tools for the classroom, so teachers know what their students know and how much progress their students have made.




Read more:
Gaps in education data: there are many questions for which we don’t have accurate answers


Resist over-reach

The extra Commonwealth money for schools under Gonski 2.0 is welcome. The shift in the education debate towards how best to use the extra money is still more welcome.

The ConversationBut for Australian students to get the most benefit, the Commonwealth must resist the temptation to over-reach by intervening heavily in school education policy.

Julie Sonnemann, Research Fellow, Grattan Institute and Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s ahead for education policy in 2018



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Funding dominated the schooling space in 2017, with both sides of politics debating whose funding package benefited which schools the most, and little attention paid to how the money is best spent.
Shutterstock

Megan O’Connell, Victoria University and Charlene Smith, Victoria University

As we see each year, funding is likely to dominate the headlines as major reforms across the early childhood, school, Vocational Education and Training (VET) and higher education sectors will be implemented.

But with the David Gonski-led panel set to deliver their final report and recommendations from the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, we look forward to education policy discussions extending beyond dollar values.

Early education

In 2017, federal early years education policy was dominated by changes to child care subsidies. The primary narrative was around affordability of child care and enabling parents’ workforce participation.

Preschool funding also hit the headlines as the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education was given a one-year extension, providing access for the 2018 cohort, but without any ongoing assurance to the sector.

Looking ahead for 2018

Funding for preschool should be made an ongoing and permanent commitment, as it is in the school sector. But funding should not be an end point.

Offering a second year of preschool can improve children’s schooling outcomes.
Shutterstock

The international evidence base shows offering a second year of universal preschool can have a substantial impact on children’s learning. Unlike many of our peer countries, Australia has yet to embrace this opportunity. But we hope policy-makers progress towards scoping and running pilot programs.

Quality also needs to be a core part of the policy agenda. Since the introduction of the National Quality Framework in 2012, most services have been assessed, and 75% meet the minimum benchmarks for quality. This is not sufficient to lift all children’s educational outcomes.




Read more:
How are we doing on early childhood education and care? Good, but there’s more to do


Recent US research adds to the body of evidence supporting the positive long term impacts quality early learning can have on educational, social and health outcomes. In particular, researchers are starting to demonstrate these effects in state-based universal provision of early learning.

Early childhood educators play a pivotal role in supporting young children’s emerging skills, and are key to lifting quality in early education. Some of the most pressing policy work in early learning is in workforce strategy, ensuring improved conditions, and supporting educators to develop and share the knowledge and skills they need to improve children’s learning experiences.

School education

Funding also dominated the schools space in 2017, with both sides of politics debating whose funding package benefited which schools the most. Little attention was paid to how the money can be best spent.

International testing also loomed large, with Australia’s relative lack of improvement on PISA and TIMSS sparking debate on how to improve education.

A brighter note was students in Australia performed well on the PISA collaborative problem solving test – ranking 10th out of 72 countries. This test is the first in a new suite of assessments PISA is conducting to measure not just what students are learning, but “what they can do with what they know”.

The 2017 NAPLAN Annual Report was released in December and led to extensive media attention on the under-performance of boys in writing. Other analyses focused on the socio-economic factors contributing to variations in performance.

Overall the results indicate little to no changes in performance across the board, and closer analysis shows some worrying trends such as students falling behind as they progress through school.




Read more:
NAPLAN 2017: results have largely flat-lined, and patterns of inequality continue


Female students out-performed male students on NAPLAN tests in writing, and grammar and punctuation across all year levels in 2017.
Shutterstock

Schools policy in 2018

Testing will continue to dominate discussions in early 2018, with the Australian government continuing to attempt to persuade state governments to adopt a year one phonics screening. This would be a five to seven minute session one-to-one with a teacher to assess reading. Whether the screening is adopted will be dependant to a degree on the outcome of state elections.

Expect to hear a lot more about the Gonski 2.0 review this year, as the report is delivered to government in March.

The Independent Review into Regional, Rural, and Remote Education is also expected to be published early in the year.

Major reviews are also due out from the newly established Schools Resourcing Board, firstly into calculation of socio-economic status (SES) scores, and then loadings for students with disability.

The SES review is currently underway to assess the extent to which the current approach properly measures the capacity of parents to contribute financially towards the resource requirements of non-government schools. The board is tasked with making recommendations on the changes or alternative approaches needed to ensure confidence in the process. Public submissions on the issues paper are open until 20 February.




Read more:
Changes to school funding – your questions answered


The Melbourne Declaration is primed for a renewed look. In 2008, the Declaration set aspirational goals for education around equity, excellence and ensuring all students are “successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens”.

Yet, in the decade since we have failed to establish effective system-wide strategies for meeting and measuring these aspirations. Measuring all students along a singular ranking, as we do with the ATAR at the end of Year 12, may reflect to some degree who is a successful learner, but isn’t a strong reflection of these broader outcomes.

If these are the goals we continue to aspire to, then measuring students against them is a must. The general capability strands in the Australian curriculum provide a promising path and we hope to see sustained support for schools to cultivate these capabilities in their students.

Beyond school

Late in 2017 the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) revealed funding for Commonwealth supported places in universities would be frozen at 2017 levels over 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, vocational education expenditure fell further despite the critical role VET plays as a pathway for young people and in equipping the workforce with essential skills.

What’s ahead for VET and higher education

The changes to university funding will no doubt be a topic of discussion as university offers emerge.

Similarly in the VET sector, the Skilling Australians Fund which was announced in the 2017 budget is scheduled to commence in 2018. The fund is expected to focus on supporting apprentices and trainees, and will be financed through a proposed levy on firms employing skilled migrants.

There is an obvious disjuncture in policy approaches towards VET and higher education which has seen the VET sector go backwards in recent years. Projected employment growth is equally strong for people with vocational qualifications as university degrees.


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The ConversationBoth sectors play a critical in training a high calibre workforce. So, policy and funding conversations should consider the two sectors as part of a different but connected system. In 2018, we’d like individual students to be able to see potential pathways for themselves and their aspirations in our tertiary education and training system.

Megan O’Connell, Director, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University and Charlene Smith, Early Childhood Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How should Australia respond to China’s influence in our universities?


Jonathan Benney, Monash University

The federal government is concerned about Chinese influence in Australia, particularly on universities. While we don’t know exactly how deep this influence runs, we do know quite a bit.

Financially, many Australian universities depend on international students from mainland China. It was recently suggested that 16% of the University of Sydney’s revenue comes from these students. Over the past two decades, this rapid change has made universities look and feel different.

From a financial perspective, it didn’t really matter if universities changed; the more enrolments the better. From a social perspective, university administrators suggested that the presence of Chinese students would create mutually beneficial cross-cultural communication and exchange. Academics initially thought that while it might take a while, Chinese students would “adjust” to Australia.

More recently, academics have come to a more pessimistic conclusion: Chinese students in Australia inhabit a “parallel society”, in which they engage with Australian society only rarely.

The combination of these factors — Australia’s financial dependence on China, the increasing Chinese presence in Australia, the disconnection of mainland Chinese students from Australian society and culture, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasing global assertiveness — has begun to create conflict.

What are the conflicts?

When university students and teachers discuss contentious issues relating to China, they often face criticism from PRC students. The criticism can be harsh, well-organised, and heavily publicised. Cases at the University of Newcastle, Monash University, and the Australian National University illustrate the scope of the problem.

Nothing about student protest is inherently undesirable. In fact, it is a manifestation of the academic freedom that university students deserve – and would not have in China. But what constitutes a “contentious issue”, and who is orchestrating this criticism? Examining the issues disputed makes two things clear: first, that the issues Chinese students deem “contentious” are exactly the same issues that the Chinese government deems “contentious”, particularly those relating to China’s territorial integrity and history. Second, that the
organisations orchestrating the response to these issues, particularly the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), are funded by and work closely with Chinese state bodies such as consulates.

This runs in parallel with a steady intensification of “ideological education” in the PRC, together with attempts to shape how China is seen by the world through Confucius Institutes, the CSSA, and other “soft power” bodies. At last week’s Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stated China’s priority is to become a globally “stronger” nation.

So, should universities and the Australian government draw the line at some point? Should they ban or restrict contentious organisations? And if these groups cause friction on campus, how should university students and administrators respond?


Read more: Telling Chinese students to conform won’t fix cross-cultural issues


Three main issues in question

Is this really the Chinese government’s fault?

In some ways, yes. The chain of command is clear: from the PRC government to consulates to student organisations to students. On the other hand, students often don’t need to be encouraged to support Chinese interests. Teachers hear spontaneous outbursts of nationalism in class all the time.

Students in the CSSA are being manipulated by the PRC government, but they are individuals too. Universities should set a high standard for suppressing individual views. Supporting one government’s policies does not meet that standard.

Who is really being harmed here?

Broadly speaking, local students and academics are hearing views they don’t want to hear, often inaccurate, and frequently phrased in an inflammatory way. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Student politics is fundamentally confrontational. If local students and academics disagree, we can speak up, as
several students have done.

The more severe harms are to Chinese-background students,
whether or not they are from the PRC. Chinese culture is not the same as PRC culture. It is complex and diverse, and Chinese students have wide-ranging views on many topics. As a teacher of Chinese students, I am not particularly concerned when my students support the PRC. They have many reasons to do so. But I am extremely concerned when students tell me that they are afraid to criticise China, even in essays, because they are worried that their fellow Chinese students will attack them.

When dissenting Chinese students are ostracised by student organisations, this harms the dissenting students, who lose the valuable cultural connections and support that student organisations provide. It also harms the majority of PRC students, who never get the opportunity to debate ideas suppressed in the PRC media, and who accept too frequently that the views of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are correct and normal.

What right do universities have to intervene in student organisations?

As a rule, academic freedom should apply to everyone in the university. While it is reasonable to suggest that it should be restricted in some circumstances (for example, to restrict fascist organisations), the trend towards censoriousness on campus is also concerning. Free speech should be paramount, even when the CSSA says things people don’t like. Banning or restricting the CSSA, for example, would have no effect on the PRC but would irritate and harm many Chinese students.

It should not end there. Universities can actively facilitate diversity in debate. Responsible universities would prioritise funding to the setup of Chinese student groups without political alignment and to facilitating debate about contentious topics relating to China. They would also give prominent dissenters, like Wu Lebao, special support.

What do we need to do?

Australian universities have sometimes been naive about China. Chinese students have been admitted in large numbers without concern for their academic skills, taught without concern for their social and cultural needs, and little has been done to help them adapt to Australia and its culture. Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that they feel disconnected from universities and turn to student organisations that speak their language and understand their culture.

The ConversationUniversities need to have the courage to do two contrasting things: they should both acknowledge that the opinions of the CSSA are opinions that many Chinese students hold, and provide avenues for alternative points of view. This would allow students to hear debates about China and reflect on China critically — something they cannot do within Chinese borders. This would not create a new band of anti-PRC revolutionaries, but it would do something rather rare at Australian universities — treat Chinese students as humans with the capacity for rational thought.

Jonathan Benney, Lecturer in Chinese Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NAPLAN results show it isn’t the basics that are missing in Australian education



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AAP/Dan Peled

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

The preliminary results of NAPLAN 2017 are out, and the news isn’t good. The annual test of our students’ literacy and numeracy skills shows that not much has changed since 2011, coincidentally – or not – when we began this annual circus of public reporting of NAPLAN results.

In fact, it seems our kids are actually getting dumber – at least as measured by the NAPLAN tests.

Going backwards

The year’s Year 9 students first sat the test back in 2011 when they were in Year 3, so we can now track the cohort’s performance over time.

It is particularly useful to track their performance against the writing assessment task, as all the grade levels are marked against the same ten assessment criteria. Depending upon how they perform against each assessment criterion, they are assigned a Band level – ranging from Band 1, the lowest, to Band 10, the highest.

The minimum benchmark shifts for each year level, because we would expect a different minimum level of writing performance for 16-year-olds than we would of ten-year-olds. So, in Year 3 the minimum benchmark is Band 2, and in Year 9 it is Band 6.

A gifted and talented Year 3 student could easily achieve a Band 6 or above, and it is conceivable a struggling Year 9 student may only reach a Band 2.

This year, a staggering 16.5% of Year 9 students across Australia were below benchmark in writing. Back in 2011, when those students were in Year 3, only 2.8% of them were below benchmark. Somehow we dropped the ball for thousands of those kids as they progressed through school.

The high-performing states of New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT cannot claim immunity from this startling increase in students falling behind as they progress through school. Their results show exactly the same trends. This is a nationwide problem.

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It gets worse

Not only are the numbers of low-performing students increasing, but the inverse is occurring for our high-achieving students: their numbers decrease as they move through school.

This year, only 4.8% of Year 9 students across Australia performed far above the minimum benchmark – that is, at a Band 10 level. However, back in 2011, 15.7% of those same students were performing far above the minimum benchmark for Year 3 – that is, at a Band 6 or above.

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The trend is strikingly similar across all the jurisdictions. As NSW congratulates itself on improving its Year 9 results, it might want to look a little closer to see what the figures are really saying.

In 2011 an impressive 20% of NSW Year 3 students were far above benchmark in writing. But by the time they had reached Year 9 this year, the number of them who were far above the benchmark had dwindled to a depressing 5.7%.

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What is happening?

Why do we start so well, and then lose both high performers and strugglers along the way? Isn’t school supposed to be growing their literacy skills, not diminishing them?

Well, the NAPLAN statistics not only illustrate the problem, they actually provide the explanation.

We don’t have an early years literacy “problem” in Australia. The percentage of students below benchmark in Year 3 converts to very small numbers. In Victoria in 2016, for example, there were around 450 Year 3 students below benchmark.

It should be very easy to locate those children, and provide intensive interventions specifically designed for each student. But apparently we don’t.

By Year 5, those low performers across Australia are simply treading water and our high performers start to slide. Then it all takes a dramatic turn for the worse in Year 7, with a five-fold increase in students below benchmark and a three-fold decrease in those who are far above the benchmark.

So, what is going on?

Well, reading and writing gets harder in Year 4, and every year after that.

The Year 3 test is looking for evidence that the children have learned their basic reading and writing skills. They can decode the words on the page and comprehend their literal meaning. They can retell a simple story that is readable to others.

However, by Year 5, the test begins to assess the children’s ability to infer from and evaluate what they read, and to consider their audience as they write.

In Year 7 it is expected that children are now no longer learning to read and write, but that they are reading and writing to learn. To achieve this they need deep and technical vocabularies, and to be able to manipulate sentence structures in ways we do not and cannot in our spoken language.

And the NAPLAN results suggest that many of them cannot.

Instead, they are stuck with their basic literacy skills, obviously well learned in the early years of school. They can read – but only simple books with simple vocabulary, simple grammatical structures and simple messages. They can write – but they write the way they speak.

What’s the solution?

Raise our expectations of our students. And raise the quality and the challenge of the literacy work we do with them.

There has been a misplaced focus on “back-to-basics” literacy education in recent years. The last ten years of NAPLAN testing shows us we are already exemplary at the basics. It is the complex we are bad at.

It’s time to change tack. Our attention needs to focus on developing the deep comprehension skills of our upper-primary and high school students. And our teachers need – and want – the resources and the professional learning to help them do this.

Teachers must build their own understanding of the ways in which the English language works, so they can teach their students to read rich and complex literature for inference, to use complex language structures to craft eloquent and engaging written pieces, and to build sophisticated and deep vocabularies.

It isn’t the basics that are missing in Australian education; it is challenge and complexity.

The ConversationAnd until we change our educational policy direction to reflect that, we will continue to fail to help our children grow into literate young adults – and that is bad news for us all.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.