How to fix our plummeting Maths and Science results

By November 30, 2016Education

The results of the latest international benchmark tests are now in.  Once again the picture is not a pretty one for Australia.  Once again there will be much hand-wringing.  And once again nothing will change.

Every four years since 1995, Australia has participated in an international benchmarking test in science and maths (TIMSS).  Last year, 6,057 Australian Year 4 students and 10,338 year 8 students took part in the latest round.   Australia’s performance on all tests was mediocre (at best) and showed no significant improvement since 1995.  Meanwhile many other countries have significantly improved.

The scores are divided into 5 bands.  Just 5% of our year 4 students managed to perform at the highest level (let’s call that an A) in maths.  But 50% of Singapore students (for example) perform at that level.  By year 8, 7% of Australian kids get an A, but 54% of Singapore do.

The story is no more palatable in science.  Just 8% of our year 4s would get an A in science while 37% would in Singapore.  Just 7% of our year 8s get an A, compared to 42% of Singapore’s year 8s.

Overall, Australia has dropped 5 places in Year 8 results since 2011 and 10 places in year 4 maths results (our year 4 science was already terrible in 2011).

Of course, these results have been politicised within seconds of release.  The Labor Party says they show we need to spend more on schools and the Government says we need to fix up teaching.  Both statements are right as far as they go.  Unfortunately, based on previous performance, putting out a press release is as far as either party will go.

We can fix Australian education.  But to do it, two important vested interests, the rent-seeking private education providers and the teaching unions, need to leave the field of battle.  And it would be good if they took their political patrons with them.

Australian taxpayers give $12 billion a year to private education providers.  That amount is growing very rapidly and is a big contributor to the rapid rises in costs of Australian education.  It does not go towards better classrooms or teachers for the children who need it most, rather large chunks of it are spent on marketing to secure the next round of bums-on-seats based funding from the taxpayer.

The other incessant driver of cost increases is smaller class sizes driven by teaching unions.  Once again billions are spent and not a cent of it goes towards improving teaching or facilities. Meanwhile, the countries flogging us in TIMSS have been leaving class sizes at levels last seen in Australia in the 1960s and using the money that saves to focus on what goes on in those classes.

In those countries there’s a constant and pervasive culture of teacher-performance mentoring – not monitoring, mentoring. Teachers are treated like the professionals they are. They’re not abandoned in their classrooms to sink or swim, they’re constantly watched, receive constant feedback from acknowledged experts in teaching and must repeatedly demonstrate their capabilities. The career path keeps the people with the expertise at the coalface helping to bring others along. Good teachers are not promoted out of the classroom, they’re given progressively greater influence over the effectiveness of other teachers. Good teachers are used to breed more good teachers.

Systems like this have been in place in Finland since the mid-1990s, and are being progressively implemented in China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore. They’re now starting to bear fruit as all of these countries race ahead of Australia.

Australia’s version of all this is very ordinary by comparison. In 2013, the OECD conducted a detailed survey of all OECD teachers. The Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) revealed that while Australia certainly has teaching and mentoring programs, most new Australian teachers reported that they received little or no constructive feedback from the programs, it was rarely based on classroom observation and, as a result, it was disconnected from student learning. Most teacher professional development consisted of attendance at one-off courses and wasn’t part of any longer term collaborative research program.

Any incentive to improve is severely lacking. Ninety per cent of Australian teachers said they’d receive no recognition (and they’re not talking about pay) if they improved the quality of their teaching or were more innovative in the classroom. Nearly half of all teachers felt that appraisal of their work was merely a box-ticking administrative exercise and had little, if any, impact on what they actually do every day.

This mentoring and professionalism stuff is all well and good, but all this time away from class, researching and watching others, would cost a packet. The students don’t disappear. There still has to be someone in the classroom, but with their teacher off ‘gallivanting’, more teachers need to be employed to cover the classes. The interesting thing is that each of the high-performing school systems actually costs less than the Australian education system and considerably less than the OECD average. And it’s not because the teachers are poorly paid. When all the economic adjustments and fiddles are made to ensure we’re comparing apples with apples, teachers in some of these systems earn more than Australian teachers and have careers that allow them to earn even more if they’re effective.

The high-performing countries aren’t extracting the cost of teacher mentoring from teachers’ salaries, they’re getting the money by keeping class sizes high. The average Shanghai teacher is working with a class of 40 children, whereas the average Australian teacher has only a little over half that many rascals (23) to deal with.

The combined effect of privatising our schools and caving in to union demands on class sizes is to make the entire system much more expensive while not meaningfully improving anything about the delivery of education.  Both things can be fixed.  But both things require more political will than either side has shown until now.

If we want to keep reading headlines about how far behind Australia’s education system is falling behind, then the path is clear.  Keep doing what we’ve done up until now.  But if we’d rather not pick of the paper in 2020 and read we are now dead last on TIMSS 2019, then now would be a good time to do something about it.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • James Patrick says:

    Dear David,
    I have just read your article in Wednesday CM. I am 82 years young and have had close contact with the education system in Taiwan (not Chinese Taipei) for the past 25 years. Their teachers are not better trained nor is there a better professional development system. They follow a rote learning model with constant memory tests. The difference is that parents (mostly mothers) take a keen interest in weekly test results. They pester the teacher if the results are not excellent. This is parents at all socioeconomic levels. They also send their children to cram schools every evening. No amount of money will significantly improve our system until the attitude at home dramatically changes. The education research experts will always focus on their “territory” but we need some sociologists to do some research. James

  • Hello David,
    I agree with you to some extent. Teachers are the life-blood of our community, I know they can be difficult at times. However, I don’t think testing school children every five minutes and grading teachers on those results is improving things. Sure, we need teachers with the knowledge and the desire to teach all subjects from primary school. Inspired teachers can deliver excellent results. We need to pay teachers much better than we now do, I’d say a fifty percent increase in their salaries would be a start. Many people with excellent knowledge of their subject are much better paid by industry than by schools. Who wants to try to guide children and inspire them to be paid peanuts? It seems to me that we, as a community, would rather see young people in detention centres at a cost of 250 000 dollars per year each, than pay teachers what they are worth. If enough of the public get behind an idea the government of the day has to implement it or face extinction and loss of face and respect. Many of our politicians are not well educated and do not really understand the importance of scholarship.

    All subjects are necessary, not just math and science, but the future of society and our community, depends our understanding of the world, and we do that through math and science in all its broadness. I am a math graduate, and to teach that subject well and in an inspired way one needs to love the subject. And the same goes for any subject I guess. Sure, parents are very important, but remember many parents are really “flat-strap” paying the mortgage or the rent and putting food on the table, and they both work as well. Now that’s something the government should think about. Finally one of the best, and in my opinion he is the best mathematician in the world today and he is an Australian. He was educated in Adelaide and a math professor at twenty. He is interested in Australia’s progress in maths as well. I am referring to professor Terrence Tao.

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