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School improvement the key

Substantial improvements in Australian reading, mathematics and science performances will require school improvement plans focused on the things that matter most, as Geoff Masters explains.

In her address to the National Press Club in September, the Prime Minister set an ambitious goal for the nation: to be ranked as a top-five country in reading, mathematics and science by 2025. In setting this goal, Julia Gillard noted education’s ability to transform the lives of individuals and the relationship between national economic performance and the quality of a country’s educational institutions. 'To win the economic race,' the Prime Minister observed, 'we must first win the education race.'

International test results released this week highlight the magnitude of the challenge we face in achieving this goal. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) add to the publicly available information about how students in our schools are performing. The results include the first ever data on how reading levels in Australian primary schools compare with standards in other countries.

And the findings are sobering. Australian Year 4 students were significantly outperformed by students in 21 countries in reading, 17 countries in mathematics and 18 countries in science. At Year 8, Australia was significantly outperformed by six countries in mathematics and nine countries in science. With the exception of an improvement in Year 4 mathematics between 1994 and 2010, Australian performances stagnated over these 16 years. The same period saw dramatic improvements in mathematics and science performances in Singapore, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei and steady improvements in the United States, Korea and a number of other countries.

In her National Press Club speech the Prime Minister also sketched a national plan for lifting standards in Australian schools. The centrepiece of this plan is school funding reform linked to improvements in the work of schools. Although the challenge of being a top-five nation by 2025 may have grown with this week’s results, the government’s general strategy remains sound. There is overwhelming evidence that the key to lifting student achievement is to improve the quality and effectiveness of classroom teaching and, in improving schools, principals and other school leaders are pivotal in creating and driving the conditions for improvement.

But setting goals for national performance and providing monetary rewards to schools that improve will not in themselves bring significant change. Genuine and sustainable school improvement depends on old-fashioned capacity building. For governments, this means raising the status of teaching as a career, attracting highly able people into teaching, ensuring that all teachers have expert knowledge in the subjects they teach, developing teachers’ skills in using effective teaching techniques and providing career paths to keep outstanding teachers in classrooms.

School improvement also depends on building the capacities of school leaders to establish and lead improvement agenda, marshal the support of school communities, create cultures of high expectations, build and lead professional teaching teams and promote the use of effective, evidence-based teaching in every classroom, every day.

Australian school systems already understand this. Last week, education ministers endorsed a national school improvement tool developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). This tool is based on international research into the practices of highly effective and rapidly improving schools. It has the potential to focus school improvement efforts on a small set of practices to enhance the quality of teaching and learning. For the first time, all Australian schools not only will be able to measure student achievement but also will have a way of measuring and evaluating key school improvement practices.

Substantial improvements in Australian reading, mathematics and science performances will require school improvement plans focused on the things that matter most. They also will require strong leadership and coordinated efforts by governments, systems, schools, parents and local communities, as well as targeted funding to support schools to implement and monitor continually improving practices. This is a long-term agenda. School improvement across the nation will take time; improved student performances will take even longer. ■

This opinion article by ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, 12 December 2012.

RD

About the author

Professor Geoff Masters AO is the Chief Executive of ACER. 

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