For top-tier students, teachers have to go back to school

IF THE Gonski committee entrusted with inventing a new funding model for Australian schools had known then what we know now, its 2011 report would have had a more pointed and urgent focus.

Rather than just searching for the Holy Grail of school funding, the committee would have had to take account of some new realities and new data.

First, they would have had to deal with an uncomfortable fact we discovered only just before Christmas 2012. In the fundamental skill of reading, year 4 students in Australia are not just being jostled and outranked by the Asian tigers but are 27th in the world. That makes us dead last of the English-speaking nations, behind Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Canada, the United States of America and New Zealand.

This is big news because it was only in 2011 that Australia's year 4 students took part, for the first time, in the test known as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The federal Minister for Schools, Peter Garrett, dubbed it a "wake-up call" for Australian education. As yet, it has hardly woken up anyone. It's easier to press the snooze button.

In 2011, the same Australian year 4 students also took part in another international test, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) survey, where they ranked 25th in the world. As the Gonski report noted, the 2007 TIMSS results in maths and science were worrying enough, with year 4 Australian students lagging behind the US and England.

If Gonski had had the 2011 TIMSS results for year 4 that put Australia in 25th place, combined with 27th in reading, the report would have been forced to look way beyond how to right the imbalances between Commonwealth and the states in the present funding of schools.

Having sufficient resources allocated equitably across the nation is one thing; being honest about how best to spend them is another.

Australia is on a crusade, to use Prime Minister Julia Gillard's word, to become among the world's top-five nations in reading, maths and science by 2025.

By the international standards to which we now aspire, Australia has only 76 per cent of its year 4 students performing competently in reading.

In the absence of any international data on reading in Australian primary schools, the Gonski committee had to rely on the year 3 and year 5 NAPLAN, which reassured it that more than 90 per cent of Australian students were performing at or above the national minimum standard. The NAPLAN benchmark obviously provides a false sense of security.

Second, if the Gonski committee were starting now, it would have to deal more directly than it could in 2011 with the data coming from the new Australian Early Development Index (AEDI), which assessed kindergarten students in 2009 and 2012.

The ensuing results clearly illustrate how unequal students' potential for learning already is on the day they start school. No serious crusade for improved student performance can afford to ignore the preschool years. So, there would have to be a greater emphasis on early-childhood education. But where does that figure in the 2025 strategy? Nowhere yet, it appears.

Third, a 2013 Gonski report would have to focus more systematically on what we now know enables nations as different as Finland and South Korea to rank so high. It's less about resources and more about the organisation of teaching, expectations and school culture.

Currently, every last ounce of political and public-policy energy is justifiably being expended on finalising the new schools funding model.

Once complete, we will need to gird our loins for the next urgent task: what to do with the resources we now have?

The reality is the students who are expected to drive Australia into the top-five nations by 2025 are already at school. They are the kindergarten class of 2013. Throughout their schooling, they will be taught mainly by teachers already in the classroom, not some hypothetical generation of superior and supposedly better-educated professionals.

Between 2013 and 2025, ministers and governments will come and go but teachers and students will remain as 2025 creeps ever closer.

So the abiding challenge for the new crusade is ensuring today's teachers become even more professionally sophisticated. Teacher development needs to become our number one focus and our number one investment.

We might begin by blowing the dust off two neglected Australian reports that emphasise the importance of pedagogy and evidence-based practice: the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005) and the National Numeracy Review Report (2008).

Although ignored by the Gonski review, they should be required reading for policy-makers because they argue the value of specialist literacy and numeracy teachers in primary schools, stress the importance of diagnostic assessment by teachers, promote research-based pedagogy and the importance of explicit instruction.

It's a steep climb to top-five status by 2025 from where Australia now finds itself. This is no time for us to be reinventing the wheel.

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