Teacher quality key to better schools

12 December 2016

This opinion article by Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Advertiser on Monday 12 December 2016.

The latest figures showing Australian schoolchildren have further slipped down the global education rankings would have sounded alarm bells for a lot of parents.

It’s troubling that our students are increasingly being outperformed, and these results should jolt our political leaders to take stock and start mapping out a plan to ensure students can get ahead.

Australian students are losing their competitive edge in the world and we need to understand the scale of the problem.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report showed results for Australian students have flatlined. They are now ranked 14th for science, 16th for reading literacy and 25th for maths – a drop of six, nine and 12 rankings since 2006.

The 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores were even more grim, revealing students’ average scores for maths and science have plunged 26 and 17 percentage points since 2006.

Science and maths pervade our lives and many careers require a strong grasp of maths and science knowledge and concepts. But both surveys indicate a growing number of Australian students cannot apply basic maths and science knowledge to simple situations.

In PISA, 22 per cent of maths students and 18 per cent of science students were deemed “low performers”, meaning they could not demonstrate competencies that will enable them to actively and effectively participate in life situations.

These sorts of findings will predictably prompt calls for more funding, but Australians deserve a much deeper conversation about all the issues.

Governments have significantly increased investment in schools. In the decade to 2013, federal government payments to the states for schools grew by 5.5 per cent annually, in real terms. If lifting our results were only about funding levels, then surely we would have seen an improvement by now.

One important aspect of the TIMMS study that hasn’t received enough attention is the impact student attitudes have on performance. Students are more likely to do well in a subject they like.

However, 27 per cent of Year 4 students and half of Year 8 students said they did not like learning maths, while 29 per cent of Year 8 students did not like learning science. It’s no wonder we’re falling behind.

If we want to lift school performance and keep students interested, we need to focus on the quality of what we teach, how we teach, and who teaches it.

We need to move away from the traditional teaching model and adopt new approaches that cater to diverse learning styles which will allow teachers to better engage with students. For example, inquiry-based learning challenges students to find and use information, rather than remembering and repeating it. Improvements won’t come from keeping to just one style of teaching. A combination is needed.

High-quality teaching is the biggest in-school factor determining student outcomes, so it’s vital that governments increase focus on teacher quality.

Lastly, we need to look at the curriculum we’re offering. No matter how good a teacher is, students will not be engaged if the teacher is limited by a boring and irrelevant curriculum.

Let’s move with real purpose to implement these actions and test their impact, rather than calling for more funding when it has not solved our educational performance to date.

I’m sure any aspiring scientist or mathematician would agree that this hypothesis is worth testing.


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