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Julia Gillard and Geoff Masters in conversation at Research Conference 2014. Photo by ACER.

Quality education for all

Geoff Masters and Julia Gillard discuss progress so far in achieving educational quality for all children across the globe.

Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the Honourable Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), discussed progress so far in achieving educational quality for all children across the globe and addressed the issues and plans for moving forward at Research Conference 2014 in Adelaide in August. [rd] spoke with them both before the event.

[rd]: According to the latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving quality for all, despite huge progress in getting more children into school, the 2015 goal of universal primary education is likely to be missed; wide disparities persist by country, socioeconomic status and gender; 250 million children have not learned basic numeracy and literacy skills, and a quarter of all children reaching grade 4 worldwide will not attain a minimum level of learning. What are the challenges in achieving quality for all globally?

JG: The number of children who don’t have the chance to go to school has dropped considerably since the early 2000s, but there are still 58 million children around the world who cannot exercise their right to go to school according to a recent report from UNESCO, and this is unacceptable.

Out-of-school children are the hardest to reach: they live in remote rural areas in developing countries; come from very poor families who need their children's labour; are denied access to school due to conflicts or humanitarian emergencies; or have disabilities – and girls are generally in a worse position than boys. Reaching these children cannot be done by simply constructing more schools, distributing more books or training new teachers.

Many factors limit their learning: family characteristics such as parents unable to monitor homework, lack of early childhood interventions, insufficient teaching and learning materials, overcrowded classes, absent students and teachers, poor use of classroom time, inappropriate language of instruction, insufficient learner assessment and limited teacher skills, and low levels of accountability in the education system.

Because they face additional disadvantages, meeting their needs is resource intensive and requires additional expenses, so countries need to develop coherent strategies for access, quality and equity as a basis for planning, implementation, monitoring and assessment. Measurement of learning and transparency are pivotal as tools to drive quality improvement

GM: A high priority for many developing countries in the past 15 years has been to get more students into primary schools, and in most countries it has been relatively straightforward to monitor progress. Much harder has been the challenge of monitoring the quality of the learning once children are in school.

National monitoring efforts, regional assessment programs and international achievement studies such as TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA reveal that a large percentage of children fail to learn even the most basic skills in reading and numeracy. The pursuit of ‘education for all’ has clearly not resulted in quality ‘learning for all’.

In a desire to provide a ‘world-class’ education, many developing countries are now benchmarking their curricula and measuring their performances against the standards of high-performing countries. The problem here is that, rather than providing accurate information about where students are in their learning so that interventions can be targeted appropriately, the tests these countries use often do little more than identify most students as ‘failing’.

A key to improving quality and equity beyond 2015 will be better information, nationally and for identified sub-groups, about where students are in their learning so that informed decisions can be made to promote successful learning for all.

[rd]: What are the challenges in achieving quality for all in Australian schooling?

JG: Over the past decade, we know that Australian students have fallen behind in some critical educational benchmarks. As Commonwealth Education Minister and then as Prime Minister, my focus was on turning these trends around and ensuring that every Australian child, no matter where they lived or who their parents were, received the highest quality education.

The Better Schools Plan built upon previous government reforms including nationwide literacy and numeracy testing and the online resource My School, which helped to build a better picture of which schools and which students were most in need of our help. The biggest challenge we now face in achieving quality and equity in Australian education is maintaining the funding levels necessary to adequately implement these reforms. The Better Schools Plan focused on both quality and equity: I wanted to ensure that every child had the opportunity to maximise their potential and compete in the Asian Century. To this point, the reforms ensured that new funding would be tied to an improvement agenda. It is not simply enough to pour money into our schools: that money must be demonstrably and successfully put to improving literacy and numeracy standards.

Our reforms ensured that every school was required to produce a plan for improvement and to report against it regularly. Of course, these plans require buy-in from the school community. Once money is flowing into schools, those in charge must have the autonomy to invest it where it is needed: principals must be empowered to make decisions about their own schools.  Teacher quality is crucially important too, as is engaging parents more effectively in their children’s education and school community. I strongly believe that if we fail to implement the Better Schools Plan, we forfeit our opportunity to improve educational quality and equity in Australia.

In Australia we also face very specific challenges in ensuring that our first Australians receive just as high a quality of education as all other children. As PM, I knew that Indigenous Australian children need extra assistance, but I did not want this to be seen as an acknowledgement that these kids would not be brought up to, or could not reach, the same literacy and numeracy standards. Extra resources did flow, and will need to continue to flow in a way that is targeted and benefits children in achieving a high-quality education.

Critically, achieving equity in Australian schooling does not start at the school gates. We know that high-quality pre-school can play a huge role in ensuring that they start their formal education on an equal footing. The improvements to staff-to-child ratios and early childhood workers’ qualification requirements implemented in Australia in 2012 will go some way towards greater equity, but more investments must be made if we are to close the equity gaps before our children get to school.

GM: The story that PISA tells should be of concern to all of us. Since 2000, Australia has made unprecedented efforts to lift literacy and numeracy levels in schools. These efforts have included new levels of national collaboration around NAPLAN and My School, and significant investments in literacy and numeracy partnerships and programs, including for Indigenous students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The 15-year-olds tested in 2012 were three-year-olds in 2000, and so spent most of their lives in school during this period. And yet literacy and numeracy levels declined in Australia while levels in many other countries improved.

If we investigate the policies and practices of high-performing and rapidly improving school systems, one clear lesson is that they give a high priority to building the capacity of their teaching workforces. They have been successful in raising the status of the teaching profession and in attracting highly able people into teaching; they focus on building teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge; and they ensure that excellent teaching occurs throughout the system – itself a prerequisite for raising quality.

Among English-speaking countries, efforts to lift standards have included stronger performance and accountability arrangements, including the introduction of better measures of student outcomes, greater public transparency, performance pay linked to test results, increased school autonomy to compete for students, rewards and sanctions tied to schools’ performances, and increased parental choice. The countries that have been leading with these policies, however, are also the countries that have seen the greatest declines.

A pivotal question for Australia is whether current policy settings will reverse recent declines and lead to greater quality and equity in our schools.

[rd]: In what ways is the GPE contributing to efforts to meet these challenges?

JG: Our mission at the GPE is to address both challenges of access and quality in the education systems of the world’s poorest countries. Our approach is different because we convene partners and build consensus on education issues – at the global and country levels – to help countries develop effective education sector plans, and we promote aid that is coordinated, more efficient and aligned with these plans.

Our partners include governments, civil society, international organisations, teachers and the private sector who together help developing countries gain access to technical and financial resources, and global and local expertise to achieve real results.

Our convening power and funding drive: increased domestic funding to education; more efficient spending of education budgets; more effective education systems, which address critical issues of equity and quality as well as access; better coordination between humanitarian response and development work for education; more aligned external financing for education; and greater accountability through the collection of comprehensive data.

With stronger education plans, countries can make progress on promoting equity for girls’ education and children with disabilities. They can put in place and sustain systematic approaches to education, making domestic financing and donor funding more effective. All these elements make possible a meaningful and lasting change for children.

The efforts of the GPE are paying off. We are on track to have almost 16.8 million children, 8.1 million of them girls, in primary and lower-secondary school between 2011 and 2014 alone. The primary completion rate for our developing country partners is on track to increase from 73 per cent in 2011 to 78 per cent in 2014.

[rd]: In what ways is ACER contributing to efforts to meet these challenges?

GM: In 2013 the ACER Board of Directors established four strategic centres, each tasked with leading research and development in a key area of ACER’s work. Together, the four centres aim to make a significant contribution to improving quality and equity in school education. 

The Centre for Global Education Monitoring is tracking the provision and quality of school education around the globe. The centre’s aim is to support improved educational policies, programs and practices, leading to better educational progress and outcomes for all learners. Key activities of the centre are the systematic and strategic collection of data on educational outcomes, and research into the factors that influence outcomes.

The Centre for Assessment Reform and Innovation is promoting new thinking about the role and purpose of assessment in education, creating new metrics for assessing and monitoring the development of 21st-century skills and attributes, and investigating and applying advances in technology to the collection of richer and more useful information about student learning.

The Centre for Education Policy and Practice is exploring and promoting the interconnections between research, policy and practice in education. The work of the centre is organised around three themes: effecting teaching; effective institutional leadership; and effective system leadership. At each of these levels, the centre undertakes research to identify evidence-based practices and disseminates its findings to policy makers and practitioners.

The Centre for the Science of Learning is pursuing research into basic learning processes and the conditions that support successful learning. In collaboration with the Queensland Brain Institute and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, the centre’s research focuses on the role of motivation and attitudes in learning, self-esteem, learning difficulties and special needs, student disengagement, and the impact of contextual factors on learning success.

[rd]: How important is quality data to the goal of achieving educational quality for all?

JG: Having quality data is essential at all levels: for teachers to monitor the progress of their students, for school leaders to monitor the performance of their schools, and of course for decision makers to monitor the efficiency of the system.

In the classroom, assessing how much students are learning is a core activity for teachers, and formative assessment is critical to improve learning. In developing countries, however, many teachers lack training in formative assessment. More efforts are needed in this area.

The welcome shift toward a greater focus on learning has opened our eyes to the lack of learning data in developing countries, particularly at the system level. Approximately 40 per cent of developing countries do not have large-scale national assessment systems in place, a number do not participate in regional assessments and, in those that do, the quality and relevance of the data obtained varies and the use of that data to inform policy remains limited.

Having quality data is essential to develop better evidence-based policies and enable more effective monitoring of the implementation of these policies with the goal of improving learning. It is clear that an important international effort is needed to support this.

This is why the GPE is working closely with partners at the country and global levels, including ACER, to fill the gap of learning data. Firstly, we integrated in our operational processes a systematic focus on learning. The availability of learning data is now a requirement to access GPE funds, and countries can obtain support from the GPE to address learning data issues. In addition, part of the GPE funding is linked to learning results, since we have adopted a results-based approach as the core of our work.

The GPE also supports the Learning Metrics Task Force focus on the learning agenda, and is currently leading a discussion in the Task Force on the development of an international initiative to support countries to improve measurement of learning and the use of the data to improve policy decisions. This last point is critical: having more quality data is not enough, using these data to improve learning outcomes is the ultimate goal.

Finally, the GPE’s education datahub visualises key education indicators – such as the rate of out-of-school children, the primary school completion rate, the percentage of trained teachers or the youth literacy rate – in our partner countries. Making education data more transparent and available is a core component of our data strategy.

GM: Having quality data about student learning is essential at all levels of educational decision making to: clarify starting points for action; investigate details of student performance; monitor improvements over time; evaluate the effectiveness of educational interventions; motivate effort; and encourage self-monitoring.

Teachers require good understandings of where students are in their learning to target teaching on students’ levels of readiness and learning needs. School and system leaders require good data – including data that can be compared with other, similar schools or school systems – to design and monitor programs and policies to improve student outcomes.

Having quality data is also important for diagnosing and understanding details of student performance. In classrooms, this includes information about individuals’ misunderstandings and difficulties. At the level of a school, system or nation, it includes information about whole curriculum areas in which students are underperforming. It also may include the identification of subgroups of the student population requiring special attention.

Finally, quality data allow progress to be tracked over time. Teachers require measures of progress to evaluate student growth and to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching strategies. And school and system leaders require measures of progress to monitor trends in performance and to evaluate the impact of educational programs and initiatives.

In all these ways, quality data play an essential role in informed educational decision making, improved learning and better student outcomes. ■

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