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If We Want A-Class Students, We Need A-Class Teachers

In many cases, school has become an interruption to learning rather than a cause of it.

21/12/2016 11:19 AM AEDT | Updated 21/12/2016 11:19 AM AEDT
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"We could save everybody a lot of anguish if we simply handed out final results based on an income test rather than an academic test."

Australia's exam results are in and they are not pretty.

Our education system continues to stagnate while the rest of the world races forward. Worse than that, the gap between the rich and the poor stubbornly persists and grows. And that is the real tragedy because it tells us that we are actively destroying the one thing that could save our economy when the coal runs out -- intelligence.

In Australia, it is an undeniable fact of education statistics that socioeconomic status predicts academic performance. On average, the children of low-income parents do not perform as well academically as the children of high-income parents.

Earlier this year, the Grattan Institute analysed the 2015 NAPLAN results and put some hard numbers around that assertion. They found that high-scoring Year 3 students from the lowest income quintile are almost two years behind their peers (with identical starting scores) from families in the highest income quintile by Year 9. They all started out as potentially great Australian thinkers, but just six years later, that potential had been severely inhibited in the kids without money.

Too many academic writers are willing to put that down to better breeding (whatever that may be), but the reality is that it's a symptom of an ineffectual (and dysfunctional) education system.

Another way of saying this is that in Australia, your home life has more impact on your learning than what goes on at school. In many cases, school has become an interruption to learning rather than a cause of it.

Genetically, IQ is not influenced by a person's socioeconomic status, but it's a testament to the failure of our education system that here, academic performance is. Here, the size of the numbers in your parents' bank account determines your academic success not the size of the numbers on your IQ test.

We could save everybody a lot of anguish if we simply handed out final results based on an income test rather than an academic test. The result is not likely to be materially different to those we get now. And that would be true no matter which school system you chose.

The job of a good education system is to, well, deliver good education -- to everybody. A good education system should be blind to any disadvantage. It should ensure that students perform to their full potential regardless of their home environment, where they live or their parents' jobs. In the countries that are putting us to shame, that is exactly what their education system achieves.

In the latest round of OECD tests (PISA), nine of the 14 countries that beat us in science (for example) had systems in which economic disadvantage is barely a factor. A poor student in Macao or Hong Kong was three times as likely to perform well as that same student in Australia.

Australian taxpayers fund education because countries that educate their children do better than those that don't. And yet we are happy to pay for a system that is so broken that it consigns most of our children to the learning rubbish heap. That is a tragedy for them but it is a disaster for Australia. We can't afford to waste potential like that. It is the educational equivalent of shutting three out of every four of our businesses and farms. If for no other reason than naked self-interest, Australia needs desperately to fix its highly inequitable education system.

We won't do that with charity. We already spend more on education than most of the countries who are flogging us. We won't do it by making it harder to become a teacher. And we certainly won't do it by giving every school a new library or a better cricket pitch.

We will do it by copying the one thing that all the high performing countries do. We will ensure every teacher in every school is better today than they were yesterday. We will do that using proven systems of mentoring and peer review. We will no longer throw teaching graduates into classrooms and give them four days a year of lip-service 'professional development'. We will monitor their every move and help them ensure the next move is a better one.

The systems that outperform us by a country mile are systems designed to make sure the teachers keep learning too. For people with a passion for teaching, this would be heaven on a stick. A true professional would eat this up. Someone who just wanted a secure job with good holidays and shorter-than-average hours would be less inclined to apply. It's a system designed to attract only professional educators and make them even better at their job as they go.

Do that and we will truly have the foundation for a school system, and kids, that can beat the world.

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