Friday, December 09, 2016

Australian education: the leaning tower of PISA

“Today’s PISA report goes further than last week’s Trends in Maths and Science report, this year’s NAPLAN results and the OECD Education at a Glance report in terms of not just showing a plateauing of results in Australia but that it shows a clear decline from year to year in Australia’s education performance,”  Australian Federal Education Simon Birmingham.
The Minister was commenting on the release of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. You will find details of the Australian country report here. The Minister's remarks were illustrated with this graphic.

Australian performance is also recorded by school system., broken up into independent schools, Catholic schools and the Government sector. Here the independent schools released a very helpful summary of the differences between the sectors. In summary:
  • In reading literacy where Australia ranked equal sixteenth, Australian independent schools ranked first, Australian Catholic schools ranked equal seventh, while the Australian public school system was below the OECD average
  •  In scientific literacy where Australia ranked fourteenth, Australian independent schools ranked second, the Australian Catholic system tenth, while the Australian public school system had fallen below the OECD average
  • In mathematical literacy where Australia seems to have ranked  21st, Australian independent schools ranked equal fifth, Australian Catholic schools equal 17th, while public schools were well below the OECD average. . 
Note the use of the word seemed in the last point. There was a conflict in the data presented that I didn't have time to resolve. In any event, the overall point - relative performance - is not affected. 
The release of the TIMSS 2015 report attracted much media and political attention .... because of the way it suggested that Australia is falling behind in maths and science performance at school. ... Looking at the results, I had real difficulty in understanding just what TIMSS told us and what we might do about it. 
I wrote this on 1 December. A key reason for my difficulty lay in the existence of correlation among the variables measured. The results suggested that there was a positive correlation between academic performance and the social economic status of the families measured by books at home, the educational attainment of parents and access to learning supports. No surprise there.

The results suggested, too, that kids in metropolitan areas were likely to do better than kids in regional areas who in turn do better than kids in remote and very remote areas. Indigenous kids performed less well than non-indigenous kids. No surprises in either case,

Now consider this pattern. Regional areas have fewer higher income families and a smaller proportion of higher educated people. That feeds into lower academic performance. Indigenous people have lower incomes and academic attainments too and are also more likely to live in regional areas. So the measures are interrelated.

The graphic on the right shows the PISA 2015 performance gap for Australia by various measures. The thing that is quite startling is the performance by economic status. The gap between the highest and lowest performance measure in this area is three years, noticeably larger than the performance gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, recognising that these students have a weighting towards lower socioeconomic status. The gap is so large that it suggests that socioeconomic status has become the dominant determinant in determining relative performance.   

On average, students going to private schools come from significantly higher socioeconomic backgrounds, those going to Catholic schools somewhat higher. Increasingly, those going to public schools come from the lowest socioeconomic groups outside those going to selective schools

The partially implemented Gonski reforms were intended in part to address the socioeconmic gap by equalising the resources available to schools, increasing the resources available to poorer schools. However, that was never going to be a complete answer. The problem in the debate actually is answer to what?  
“While our school systems remain above average among developed economies we must acknowledge the reality that our performance is slipping. Given the wealth of our nation and scale of our investment, we should expect to be a clear education leader, not risk becoming a laggard. We must leave the politicking at the door and have a genuine conversation that is based on evidence about what we do from here.  
“Commonwealth funding for schools has increased by 50 per cent since 2003 while our results are going backwards. I’m not suggesting that adequate funding is not important, of course it is vital, but as the OECD notes Australia ranks as spending the fifth highest amount on education in the OECD and once you get to that level there is little value in just increasing spending, the harder task is to invest in the areas that the evidence says makes a difference." Minister Birmingham
This is actually slightly slippery stuff. To begin with, how do we know that our performance is slipping? What do we mean when we say that Australia should expect to be a clear education leader? What, indeed, is the purpose of education?  If we are going to use evidence based approaches, what evidence and for what purposes? There is a real risk that our approaches to education have now become so mechanistic, so based on a narrow range of indicators, 
"While the overall decline in the achievement of Australian students is of concern, there is evidence of a drop in performance across the OECD." Independent Schools PISA summary
"Success in PISA rankings and other global league tables are an important part of the Singapore “brand”. Singaporean academic Christopher Gee calls this the “educational arms race”. Highly competitive schooling is the norm." Professor Amanda Wise, The Conversation 
Australia is not alone in struggling to maintain, let alone improve, PISA rankings. The global competition based around the PISA scores is quite close to a zero sum game in the sense that competition requires more and more effort with limited result. Every dollar spent to achieve better test results is a dollar that could have been spent on something else. There is in fact no evidence that I know of  that shows a clear connection between PISA rankings and economic performance, a central Government concern. 
"Public discussion in Australia around why we are not doing as well as the Singaporeans is largely focused on what goes on in that country’s schools. 
Yet there is one thing missing from the reporting on Singapore’s success: the role of private tuition (private tutors and coaching colleges) and the part it plays in the overall success of students in the tiny city-state." Professor Wise
We have to be very careful in comparing school systems. Professor Wise quotes these school numbers from Singapore::
  • 60% of high school, and 80% of primary school age students receive private tuition.
  • 40% of pre-schoolers receive private tuition.
  • Pre-schoolers, on average, attend two hours private tuition per week, while primary school aged children are attending, on average, at least three hours per week.
As Professor Wise notes, these are remarkable numbers. You will find the same type of pattern in Australia for families competing for entry into selective schools. Do we want to adopt it generally in order to compete in the PISA arms race?  
The Strauss piece is the simplest description of the Finnish system that I have found. If I had to draw a single lesson from it, it's the relative simplicity of the Finnish system, the absence of controls, the grant of autonomy to schools and teachers, the apparent absence of prescriptive measurement, that goes to the heart of performance. 
Finland is another country often used for comparison purposes, something that I explored in Monday Forum - what lessons does the Finnish education system offer? The piece contains a link to the Strauss piece referred to above. Again, Finland is very different from Australia. I should note that Finland has dropped behind a little in the latest PISA scores if still scoring better than Australia.  
Three themes in Australian education: national efficiency, citizenship and social advancement
Looking at the history of education in Australia, three themes have dominated although the weighting has shifted over time. .

The first is education for national efficiency. This became popular in the lead up to the First World War especially in technical education because of the competition between the British and German empires. 

The second is education for citizenship, the idea that a functioning society required an educated population. 

The third is education for social advancement. Education provided a path for an individuals to improve their social position, to advance. 

For much of Australia's history, practical considerations have greatly influence weighting. The challenge was providing primary education for all, then secondary education, then tertiary education. While quality was always important, the real issues lay in ensuring mass delivery. 

Today, national efficiency dominates. The other two themes are there, but are subsumed in the focus on education for  the purposes of economic development, for maximising the country's global competitive position. It is, if you don't mind me saying so, just so 1914!  
I didn't send my daughters to school to achieve a standard
Today we live in a standards based world dominated by education's role as an economic contributor. I didn't send my daughters to school to achieve a standard or help the country achieve a standard. I didn't give a damn about PISA rankings. NAPLAN results were interesting as a rough measure of their comparative academic performance, but were largely irrelevant in a practical sense.

I sent my daughters to school to get an education that I hoped would be as good as the opportunities offered to me, recognising that I was unusually privileged. I wanted an education that would make them rounded, that would allow them to compete in an increasingly competitive environment but, most of all, I wanted an education that would help them to think, to be interested in new things, to enjoy life. 

Did I get that? I think that I did. So don't expect me to be sympathetic to much of the current "education" debate. I am modern enough to be aware of all the current issues, to know how my daughters fared, to know the opportunities offered. I am old fashioned enough to believe in the value of education in its own right. I am both modern and old fashioned enough to believe that equality in educational opportunities, however unachievable, should be central.


This Sydney Morning Herald piece (Falling school standards are taking a toll on Australia's wellbeing) rather captured everything I was complaining about with the misuse of PISA. I quote from the introduction:
The deterioration in the performance of school students has slashed billions from Australia's economic wellbeing. 
The release of data this week showing Australian teenagers are falling behind many of their international peers has cut the value of the Fairfax-Lateral Economics wellbeing index, which puts a dollar figure on our collective welfare. The index uses reading scores from the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to measure Australia's human capital, or collective knowhow. 
The latest PISA result, released on Tuesday, showed Australia's reading score dropped from 512 to 503 between 2012 and 2015. 
"This worsening of the PISA reading scores has negatively impacted the level of economic wellbeing," the index report said. 
That deterioration has sliced $15.2 billion from Australia's wellbeing since 2012.
This is quite simply absurd. Australia's collective wellbeing has not declined by $15.2 million as a consequence.

In an ABC piece cross posted from The Conversation, Stewart Liddle and Bob Lingard argue in part::
 It is unhelpful to use the single country ranking to determine how we are going as there are significant variances between states/territories and school sectors (government, independent, Catholic).
Instead, we need to carefully disaggregate the data and consider the social and economic factors that influence performance across states, between schools, as well as the correlations between gender, Indigeneity, class, race, geographical location, and so on. 
Australia has one of the widest ranges of student achievement, with what can be described as a long tail of underachievement...... 
There are competing tensions in the agenda of social efficiency and social equity, which is evident in how PISA results inform global and local education policy-making. This includes the emphasis on competing within a global knowledge economy. 
It is worth noting how the economic rationalisation for greater educational equity plays out in the global policy field, particularly through testing regimes such as NAPLAN and PISA. 
The challenge for policymakers, schools and teachers is how to respond to increasing pressure to lift test results on PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN, while also addressing systemic inequality in order to ensure that every Australian student is given access to a meaningful education.
While there are parts of their analysis I would agree with, there is still the same focus on the importance of certain shifts in PISA and other test results, the thing that I am challenging. 


Anonymous said...

I quite agree Jim. Education is about far more than numbers and standards. We are stepping into dangerous territory when we depersonalise what children, parents and teachers are able to achieve together.

These figures do not take into account the challenges that individual children face (very basic examples: learning difficulties, socio-economic disadvantage, location or lack of parental engagement in education or just in general).

What may be seen by disengaged bureaucrats as a poor test score may actually be a major improvement (read: win) for an individual child.

Luckily children don't read these statistics.

Unfortunately some parents do, but in an uninformed fashion. This is why I have major problems with NAPLAN and published league tables which are sometimes used to cherrypick the "right" school. We have situations where parents will choose a certain school based on past results, not on where their child will be happiest and where they are likely to thrive, whatever their academic ability. In my view is the only measure to be used, presuming that you have some choice.

Added to this we have schools which will not allow a student who is less able for whatever reason, to sit for NAPLAN or to apply for an ATAR, so as to make the school's "achievement" figures more attractive for parents and to retain funding and/or prestige.


2 tanners said...

I recently read an essay by George Orwell about his school days. Although this enabled him to escape poverty and go to a good university, the school itself sounded horrific. My younger son attended, at some expense, a private school which did well on the league tables, but we sent him there because you could live there and we let him stay because his friends were there. He was an indifferent student, but has come out of the system well rounded, intelligent and inquiring.

With you all the way, Jim, especially in comparing systems and the zero sum game comment, and in what we want an education to provide for our kids.

Anonymous said...

Hi 2T,

I hope that you don't think I was criticising. I understand your motivations and your young fellow seems to have gone well.

A bit the same with us, or maybe not. With the older child, a boy, we had history with a particular school. That didn't stop me looking at every school from every system withing a 10k radius of our home. (Yes, right now you would be justified with calling me a control freak) It turns out that the school my husband went to was exactly the right one for my son. I have always worked, and would call the kids when I was sure they were home from the first day of school. Questions were typically, and unimaginatively: Who is your teacher? Where is your room? Who did you play with today? What was exciting about today? Answers previously: Don't know, Don't know, No one. Nothing.

When we switched schools to my husband's old school, my son kept me on the phone for an hour gushing about what he had done.

This is not especially relevant to Jim's argument, just trying to soften my comments from before.


Jim Belshaw said...

GL, as I read it, you and 2t seem to be in agreement!

2 tanners said...

I think we all three are in agreement. I certainly found no criticism in your remarks, GL.