Being CEO of a national education organisation with a key role to play in promoting excellence in teaching and school leadership, as well as a proud citizen of this country, I was interested to see how the media would respond to the news of Australian students' performance in the latest round of PISA tests.
Strongly, I was hoping. Our standing in the PISA tests is something that every single one of us should sit up, take notice of and do something about. The media has a role to play in this, if they are to serve the public interest.
So, when I opened the papers on the morning of 4 December, I couldn't help but be astounded by the prominence given to the ongoing saga about the Essendon Football club's handling of the aftermath of the doping allegations. Perhaps the most extreme example was in the Melbourne Herald Sun, where the drugs in football story took up the entire front page with further reportage on pages 4, 5, 6 and 7, while the PISA article only made a few column inches on page 3.
Yes, sport is important in Australian culture; but more important than education? The answer to that question should be self-evident. I am the first to acknowledge the PISA results don’t tell the whole story. Imagination, drive, insight, critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving, creativity and self-confidence are arguably more important but without basic literacy, numeracy and scientific competency these higher order skills are elusive.
This preoccupation with sport is not the media's fault. Their relative weighting of stories reflects the interest of the general public, if not the public interest.
So, how do we turn this around?
First, the slightly good news. Australian students still rank significantly above the OECD average on each of the PISA measures: mathematical literacy, scientific literacy and reading literacy. Being above average isn't good enough, though. We need our students to be top of the class. Added to this is the matter of the steady decline in Australia's scores since 2000. This has to be turned around.
Educators and commentators alike maintain that the countries that rank highest on the PISA tests place a high value on the education of their students. They view education as a necessity and are hungry for their children to benefit from its transformative powers. If the balance of reporting in the Australian media is anything to go by, we seem to care more about sport. So, first things first, let's turn the national attention to a rigorous and ongoing debate about our schools and we want our kids to learn. We can’t afford to lose sight of the importance of education amongst the press of life and leisure activities.
Then, if we do value education, what as a society can we do collectively to raise the standing of our students? I believe that we need to maintain a focus on a well rounded education that meets the needs of all students; that recognises and encourages creativity, builds character, demands high levels of collaboration and fosters the talents of young Australians, as well as building the core knowledge and skills examined by PISA. We also need to take collective responsibility for the education of Australia's children. Learning starts from conception and is strongly related to the child's home environment. A home that is rich in conversation and language of all types will assist the child to get a good start when they begin school and families that engage with what a child does at school have a huge impact on their success.
Expectations also affect how students perform in school. Tests like PISA paint an alarming picture that for many Australian children their success in learning is related to where they live and their family's relative socioeconomic advantage. In short, the PISA results tell us the wealthier and closer to a city a child's family is, the better the child will do in school. Over the years, I have experienced colleagues who buy into this story, ready to give up on excellent results for children in less advantaged areas because it's too hard to make a difference. We have to expect that every student will learn and achieve to a very high standard, no matter what their family background, or where they live. Expectations drive results.
Another key factor in lifting performance is the quality of teaching in our schools. A core part of AISTL's responsibility is development of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST). I am proud that for the first time we have nationally agreed standards that articulate what it takes to achieve excellence in teaching.
These Teacher Standards provide a common framework and language to support teacher development. They are professional criteria which state that teachers must:
- Know students and how they learn
- Know the content and how to teach it
- Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
- Create and maintain supportive and safe environments
- Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning
- Engage in professional learning
- Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community.
I raise the teacher standards here as they represent a core part of the solution to Australia's current education problem. A highly skilled teacher is able to ensure that every student succeeds in an education worth having; an education that is well rounded and that incorporates a focus on core knowledge and skills while taking into account individual background and needs.
Excellence in teaching is fundamental to ensuring we provide our children with the best education possible and, as a result, turn around Australia's ranking in PISA.
Education is a collective, whole of community endeavour, a public good. Tests like PISA, while they don’t paint the whole picture, do give us an indication of the health of our education system and, in Australia, it is clear we need to do better. I, for one, take seriously my responsibility to play a part in making a difference.
What do you think we need to improve education outcomes for young Australians?