News

Asia not all it's cracked up to be in education



5 September 2012

Are we really focusing on the right goal, Prime Minister? Yes, of course we want our children to perform well in education and fulfil their potential. Both equity and economics support the achievement of that goal: the former in the interests of social justice; the latter in the interest of the full development of the nation's human capital.

But politicians of all persuasions tend to focus on simplistic international league tables, berating the Australian system for apparently falling behind east Asia in recent years.

What neither the Prime Minister nor the opposition spokesman, Christopher Pyne, mentions, however, is the great stresses that system imposes on anxious parents and children because of the examination fever that has long afflicted their schools.

In South Korea, the nation stops when students sit their college entrance exams: flights are delayed and military exercises halted. In Japan, South Korea and China, middle-class parents routinely send their children to after-hours cram schools in an effort to boost test performance.

This over-emphasis on test results, and the pernicious effects on children's physical and emotional wellbeing, is leading to increasing pressure for reform in South Korea and China. More and more parents are pressing to reform the long-standing cult of test performance. Educational experts in those countries are proposing a more rounded form of schooling, with less emphasis on a single, hit-or-miss test score. Would we really want such a single-minded focus for our children?

Where we can all hopefully agree is that we want all Australian schoolchildren to perform to the best of their ability. And certainly, taking education a bit more seriously wouldn't hurt. But a narrow emphasis on international league tables obscures a far more important problem. On the whole, Australia's recent performance on those Programme for International Student Assessment tests is still quite strong - our overall performance is more than comparable with the countries and systems we normally compete with.

The real and persistent problem we have is the large gap between average performance levels and those of disadvantaged children - the Indigenous, families in poverty, recent migrants of non-English speaking background, rural and remote students.

Canada and Finland are two examples of countries that manage to marry a high average attainment with substantial equity. Australia, by comparison, leaves far too many children behind, representing both a failure in equity terms and a continuing weakness in our economy, as a result of failing to develop the full potential of a significant proportion of our young people. This doesn't just stunt their educational performance but has flow-on effects in later life: in poor employment, income and welfare outcomes.

If we really want to substantially improve our schools' performance, that is where most attention should be focused. The Gonski report has pointed the way, with the promise to deliver more resources to (mostly state) schools that cater to the greater concentrations of disadvantage. If state and federal leaders can hold their nerve, and rise above narrow, short-term political interests, it might be possible to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime reform to our schooling system that would lift the performance of the substantial number of children now falling through the net.

The Prime Minister's commitment to improving equity in education and ensuring that all children get the chance to fulfil their potential is commendable. Less commendable is her narrow focus on test results as a proxy for quality and improvements, when clearly they are not - as research here and overseas demonstrates.

And it's not just in east Asia where you see evidence of the pernicious effects of an over-reliance on testing. More and more data emerging from the US and Britain shows teachers teaching to the test, children learning but not understanding, and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Surely, we would not want to mirror such effects here.

But if we can come together as a nation to support much-needed reform in school funding, with the potential to deliver ground-breaking results, with benefits to schooling performance, equity and our economy, we will have made real strides towards a goal that we could all be proud of. A legacy for all our children.

Here's hoping.


Anthony Welch is a professor of education in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.


Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Jacqueline Chowns, 02 9036 5404, 0434 605 018, jacqueline.chowns@sydney.edu.au