CHRIS BONNOR. PISA – the never-ending story

Dec 5, 2019

It’s PISA time again and Australia’s student achievement levels continue to be miserable. The finger-pointing is in full swing…again. Someone should re-shoot ‘Groundhog Day’ around the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), with a cast of education ministers, their shadows, a teacher unionist, journalists, the odd academic and crowd shots of everyone else with an opinion. It would be an easy script to learn – it has remained unchanged for well over a decade.

The headlines tell bits of the story: ‘Australian students’ maths performance falls to OECD average in worst result since 2000′ (The Guardian). ‘Australian students behind in maths, reading and science, PISA education study shows’ (ABC News). ‘Alarm bells’: Australian students record worst result in global tests’ (SMH etc). Stand by for a deluge of opinion, with Jordan Baker first off the block with ‘The PISA problem: ‘The rest of the world is moving away from us’ (SMH). Comments like “alarm bells” and “wake-up call” are in full flight. We’ve heard it all before.

This time around it might be worth labelling a few responses with a few ‘f’ words, much as I do in my little blogsite. Statements and commentary can quite easily be categorised as fact, fiction, fable, fallacy, foible, fluff, fudge and so on.

Federal minister Teehan wants next week’s education council of ministers meeting to reset the agenda. The very idea of an enduring solution emerging from that gathering is fantasy. Apparently they are fiddling with longer term goals, but it seems bit futile – we’ve yet to implement the 2008 Melbourne Declaration.

Teehan also says money is not the issue. That’s a partial falsehood. We spend a lot on school education but in grossly inefficient and ineffective ways. Too much public and private funding is allocated to the top end of schools, for too little in the way of results. Teehan also wants more basic skills, but Geoff Masters from ACER gently reminded him through the media that PISA does not assess basic skills.

AEU President Correna Haythorpe wants extra teaching resources to solve the problem, a solution in the category of fallshort. She also says the results showed a gap in the performance of students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds compared with those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. That’s a fact.

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek, says the results were a huge wake-up call for the Liberals, who’ve seen school test scores plummet on their watch. That falls into the fudge category: they’ve fallen on everyone’s watch. The priorities of the Rudd and Gillard governments didn’t help, the latter wanting Australia to beat Shanghai by 2020 (a fantasy). 2020 arrives in three weeks.

Jordan Baker’s line that the rest of the world is moving away from us has a ring of reality. This is feasible: mediocre test scores aside, some of this was always going to happen as more countries applied proven policies. The ACER’s deputy chief executive, Sue Thomson, points to improvement in maths performance in comparable countries that just isn’t replicated in Australia.

And so it goes on, but what about the serious side? Commentary and our policy has an understandable focus on schools. This is essential: we aren’t going to improve in maths if we don’t provide qualified maths teachers. There is always room to improve teacher and school practice; the reform agenda will always be with us.

But the settings in which schools operate, the whole framework of schools is dysfunctional and regressive. It needs a massive re-think. Not much will change – including our PISA performance – unless this happens. The reporting and commentary around the current PISA panic, as in the past, largely avoids the deep-seated problems that are acting like an anchor on our progress, increasingly segmenting student enrolments. Here are some recent symptoms of a big problem:

  • Higher SES students are crowding into higher SES schools – and the reverse is happening in lower SES schools,
  • Indigenous students are highly represented in schools with the least capacity to help them,
  • most regional schools in Australia have seen an increasing concentration of the most disadvantaged students,
  • government schools, the ones that enrol a majority of students, have an increasing proportion of the most disadvantaged,
  • the distribution of higher achieving Year 12 students has changed – favouring higher SEA schools, non-government schools and urban schools,
  • research using both My School and ABS data suggests other widening gaps both on the basis of student ability and student cultural background.

Concern about such trends is emerging in more considered debates about student achievement, but at the moment we are all too busy hyperventilating over PISA. Surely a 2020 vision will emerge next year?

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development


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