“We will get Australian students back to the top of the class,” Malcolm Turnbull declared last year as he announced David Gonski would lead an investigation into how to raise educational standards in Australian schools.
The release of the consequent report is imminent, meaning we will soon be able to judge whether the Prime Minister’s forecast – made at the same time as he committed an addition $18.6 billion in recurrent funding to schools over 10 years – is achievable.
Judged by the impact of increased educational expenditure over the last 15 to 20 years, the chances are not good. The reality, as measured by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Program for International Student Assessment tests, is that standards have either flat-lined or gone backwards.
And the reasons why Australian students underperform has little, if anything, to do with funding. Compared to other OECD countries Australia’s expenditure on education as a percentage of gross domestic product is above average.
But compared to stronger performing education systems, Australian classrooms have been forced to adopt a dumbed down, overcrowded curriculum that lacks academic rigour.
In addition to being superficial, the various curriculums across the states and territories fail to provide students with a firm grounding in the basics and the type of deep content knowledge associated with the subject disciplines.
In relation to history, for example, the curriculum is awash with references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and spiritual values with minimum reference to the benefits and value of Western civilisation and the importance of the Enlightenment and Judeo-Christianity.
In relation to classroom practice, our curriculum also fails to embody best practice. Research carried out by the OECD concludes that the prevailing orthodoxy in Australian schools in based on constructivism.
Constructivism is defined as a situation where “the classroom is no longer a place where the teacher (‘expert’) pours knowledge into passive students, who wait like empty vessels to be filled. In the constructivist model the students are urged to be actively involved in their own process of learning.”
As a result of turning teachers into “facilitators” and “guides by the side”, and treating students as “knowledge navigators” and “digital natives”, it’s not surprising that standards are falling.
Constructivism and adopting an inquiry-based approach centred on the world of the child ignores the reality that explicit, teacher-directed learning based on essential knowledge, understanding and skills is critical if schools are to be effective.
As concluded by the UK report The Secret of Successful Schools,the philosophy of teacher-directed learning is one of no excuses, where expectations are high, there is strong discipline and a traditional curriculum based on “teacher-led, whole class teaching”.
The UK research mirrors that of the success of Charter Schools in America that especially help disadvantaged students in urban ghettos achieve better than expected results.
As noted by education expert Brian Caldwell, another reason Australian students underperform is because our education system is highly centralised, bureaucratic and inflexible.
Even though the states have control of school education under the constitution and the Commonwealth neither employs any teachers nor manages any schools, over the past 20 years or so all roads have led to Canberra.
Instead of competitive federalism we know have a national curriculum, national testing, national teacher standards and a federal government that increasingly ties funding to compliance.
Government schools, in particular, suffer because they lack the flexibility and freedom to select and manage staff, to implement a curriculum that best suits their students’ expectations and abilities and to innovate and implement best practice pedagogy.
It should not surprise that Catholic and independent schools achieve stronger results compared to government schools, even after adjusting for students’ home background, as they have greater autonomy and the freedom to compete.
A definition of madness is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In many ways Australia’s education system epitomises such an approach, as the politicians, policy makers and educational bureaucrats in control keep repeating the same mistakes.
As to whether the report investigating the most effective way to spend the additional Gonski 2.0 billions signifies a radically different or new approach we will soon know – but based on past practice don’t hold your breath.