For years we have heard Victoria talked about as the ‘education state’. The slogan is even spread across our car’s number plates.
Field Rickards, Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne, says education in Victoria is fairing well compared to other Australian states.
But he says it is concerning education standards throughout Australia as a whole are tracking backwards.
Reports say we are facing a slow decline in Australian educational standards. It seems our quality and standard of education is falling behind the world’s best performers.
Students from Poland, Germany and Vietnam are now outperforming Australia’s teenagers. Australia’s student performance sits at 14th in the world.
“Somebody somewhere needs to say this isn’t good enough,” Rickards says.
He says we will have to turn to the power of the human mind to fuel basic industries if Australia’s natural resources like wool, coal and iron continue to diminish.
“We need to invest in our young people,” Rickards says.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveals Australian 15- year-olds’ scores on reading, maths and scientific literacy have declined since the year 2000.
The decline equals more than half a year of schooling and at the same time, kids in other countries have shown improvement.
Perhaps it is time for change in the Australian education system.
Rickards says there is an issue with student engagement and questions whether education can continue to be delivered as it is today.
The average Australian 15-year-old student has problem-solving abilities equivalent to a 12-year-old Korean pupil in maths and science.
Our 15 year-olds are three years behind students from Shanghai in maths and one and a half years behind in reading.
And from years four to eight, our kids’ performance is lagging behind England and US.
“The way we deliver education needs to be re-thought,” Rickards says.
There is an increasing gap between the performance of students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds; a difference larger than the OECD countries’ average.
“We need an equitable system where it is possible for any student, regardless of their background, to obtain excellence,” Rickards says.
According to Rickards, we are seeing a decline in the quality of teachers across the country.
An Australian Council for Educational Research study reveals our teacher education policies are falling short of high-achieving countries.
“What matters most in student learning is the effectiveness of the teacher,” Rickards says.
He says he would like to see more of the most able high-school graduates come into teaching.
“We want students with the highest intellectual ability, but we also want to take students who have the right personal qualities.”
Less than half of Year 12 students offered a place in an undergraduate teacher education course have an ATAR score in the top 50 per cent of the age cohort.
The proportion of teacher education entrants with an ATAR of less than 50 nearly doubled over the past three years.
More places in teaching courses have opened up, resulting in a decrease in entry scores to fill places.
“Universities can do a lot better to increase the capabilities of teachers on graduation and to support teachers who are already in service to continue to improve,” Rickards says.
But teacher quality is not the only issue with our education system.
Rickards questions the effectiveness of the set curriculum.
“Is the curriculum so constrained that we’re not really giving students a chance to get deep meaning out of their lessons?”
“If education is about facts we might as well give it away because students can look up facts on Google,” he says.
“Education is about being creative, it’s about collaborative problem solving, it’s about how to think.”
Education researcher Rachael Wilson has identified a declining participation in maths and science as a pressing issue.
Australia is just about the only developed nation where it is not compulsory to study math in order to graduate from high school.
Math is a requirement for high school graduation in the USA, China, Finland, South Korea and Singapore.
It is not a requirement in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia to study math to year 12 level.
To no surprise, China takes the lead for the highest student performance in mathematics.
Bronwen Dalton, Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, says there is a lack of discussion about the consequences of falling behind in maths and science.
But both sides of politics recognise the way to secure economic growth is to become an “innovation nation”.
Dalton says it is from the area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that technological breakthroughs are most likely to develop. !
On average, 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require STEM skills and knowledge.
But fewer than one in ten Australian students studied advanced maths in year 12 in 2013.
“It is time we fall in line with international best practice and make maths and science subjects compulsory if we are to compete as an innovation nation,” Dalton says.
And her concern for education standards does not stop there.
She has labelled Australian education as ‘monolingual’ and says the lack of Asian language study is a big problem looking forward.
“The retreat from Asian languages is curious and also of concern given our geography and our engagement with Asia in terms of trading partners,” she says. !
Australia saw significantly higher rates of Asian language learning in the 1990s than today.
Dalton says the idea Chinese is too difficult to learn, and studying a language will not maximise ATAR scores, are perceptions that feed into undercutting a commitment to Asian languages by the mainstream.
How can we see an increase in Asian language study?
Dalton recommends incentives through final year scoring and for successful Asian language speakers from non-Asian backgrounds to share their knowledge amoung student cohorts.
She says learning a language could become a requirement for certain university degrees and more non-Asian teachers could have an effect.
“Most teachers are from an Asian background, but having someone from a non- Asian background teaching the language shows it is also an attainable goal.”
For many, Australia’s decline in education performance is concerning and upsetting.
Dalton says the growing gap between the performance of selective schools and state schools does not bode well for mainstreaming a high achieving society.
But what is the way forward for Australian education?
“Unless we address critical deficiencies in early childhood education, unless we reposition STEM in the curricula and unless we address the quality of our teachers, we might continue to decline in our standards.”
Professor Field Rickards says it is up to politicians to recognise the need for change.
“Education needs to stop being a political football,” he says.
“We need to stop having arguments about class size, school choice and performance pay.”
“They’re the things we put money into, but they’re the things that don’t work.” !
The way forward to improve education in Australia will continue to be debated. But it is agreed almost unanimously education is an important investment for the future of our country.