Every time the PISA study results are released, media and politicians from every country, including Australia, put their hands on their heads, blaming their deeply flawed education system, and resort to high-performing countries in search of a silver bullet. Finland has repeatedly been targeted as a role model. However, there has recently been a shift towards East Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore, which have attained the highest scores in the last PISA studies. However, it does not seem an easy task to emulate these countries. What is more, is it suitable to follow these examples?
There are several studies used to evaluate the quality of education systems, but the Programme for the International Students Assessment (PISA) is perhaps the most recognized comparative test for measuring students’ performance, the education system and other socioeconomic data from 65 countries around the world, based on three two-hour-long paper-based exams in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy taken by a representative sample of 15-year-old students (Adams 2013). It is arranged by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and runs every three years.
The 2015 results showed that there has been a continual decline in Australian scores on reading, maths and scientific literacy since 2000 (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015). Australian children ranked 10th in scientific literacy, 12th in reading literacy and 20th in mathematical literacy (Thomson, De Bortoli & Underwood 2016). One of the reasons for this decline lies in a decrease in the proportion of high performers (Thomson 2011) (3% reduction) in comparison to the 5% increase in low achievers in scientific literacy from 2006 to 2015 (Munro 2016).
This ranking was led mainly by East Asian countries and regions such as Singapore, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan along with some Western countries (Canada, Estonia, Finland and Ireland). Australian students were 3 years behind students from Shanghai in maths and 1,5 in reading (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015). Furthermore, an average 15-year-old Australian student has the problem-solving abilities of an average 12-year-old Korean student in maths and science (2015).
This study has brought to light some of the main problems of Australian education system:
Australia is one of the few developed nations where studying maths is not compulsory in order to graduate from high school, this is why less than 10% of students chose advanced maths in year 12 in 2013 (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015). Likewise, the proportion of students who studied a foreign language was at historic lows in the same year, with only 8% of NSW students studying a foreign language for their HSC (2015).
Education in Australia is arranged by the State and Territory Governments instead of the Federal Government. Besides, the school curriculum has remained virtually unchanged for decades, and only recently have they implemented a national curriculum.
The pedagogical model is outdated: They continue to study different subjects in isolation, without drawing any connection with each other; place an excessive emphasis on the command of factual and procedural information; and treat learning as an individual rather than group process (Masters 2015).
Additionally, while high-performing countries recruit their future teachers from the top 30% scoring students, the proportion of teacher education students with an ATAR of less than 50 nearly doubled in the last three years (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015).
Australia’s participation in early-childhood education is amongst the lowest in the OECD countries, ranking at 34 out of 36. In fact, only 18% of 3-year-old children participated in early childhood education, comparing to the OECD average of 70% (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015). This alarming figure may be due to the low amount of government sources devoted to early childhood education (20% of early childhood education budget comes from public funds), in contrast to the OECD average of 80% coming from public sources (Munro 2016).
Whereas State and Territory Governments dedicate the majority of their resources to government schools, the Federal Government allocates most of its resources to private schools (Zyngier 2012). In fact, Federal Government funding for high-fee private schools is 6 to 10 times greater than for government schools, and it has risen significantly in the last years (2012). This is why Australian public schools are currently under-resourced comparing with most OECD countries (2012). “Australia’s per student spending as a percentage of per capita GDP is 18% for primary compared to the OECD average of 22%, and 23% for secondary compared to the OECD average of 25%” (Goss 2017). This figure compounds if the composition of the population is taken into account, since Australia has relatively more students than the OECD average (Goss 2017), reducing even more the money spent in each student. In the State level the situation has also aggravated during the conservative government in the last two years, with more than one-billion-dollar cutback in public education (2012). However, expenses on private education have remained unchanged, or even increased (2012). Therefore, it is no surprise that Australia’s tertiary fees are the fifth highest in OECD countries (Munro 2016), or that Canberra dedicates more funding to private schools than universities (2012).
Contrary to what some may believe, international and migrant students are not lowering Australian performance in PISA tests, but they are improving its attainment. In fact, the average English literacy score of students with Australian-born parents was lower than first-generation migrant students’ score, and not very different from foreign students’ (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015).
As many other countries, East Asian countries were dissatisfied with their education system. Therefore, in the mid-1990s, unlike many Western countries, they underwent a curricular reform on account of their students’ lack of motivation, inappropriate problems-solving skills and the lack of adequate material in the curriculum, which did not prepare its students for the new “knowledge economy” (Takayama 2013); and in turn introduced a student-centred, problem-solving and interdisciplinary teaching methodology. In this shift in the educational approach they have drawn largely on Western theories (Morgan 2014; Boylan 2016).
Since these reforms, the quality of their education has improved strikingly, while seeing their students rank consecutively at the peak of international education assessments. Their education system has become more centralised, integrated, coherent and well-funded (Hogan 2014). In Shanghai and South Korea, for example, the education program is planned and directed nationally, and all curriculum materials used at schools have to be approved by the government. Furthermore, there is more uniformity in the entry criteria of teacher education and less diversity of types of schools (Boylan 2016).
As for the teaching methodology, it has become more pragmatic, highly-scripted and uniform (Hogan 2014). In fact, ‘The Teaching Gap’ study revealed that lessons in Japanese classrooms are more explicit, clearly structured and coherent, along with the extended belief that all students can succeed if provided with proper tools (Donnelly 2014).
Besides, teaching is a respected profession in East Asia, teachers are drawn from the top students, and they have longer training periods and constant professional development (Boylan 2016). In Japan, they implement ‘lesson study’, a process which involves teachers’ planning carefully designed lessons, observing each other’s teaching, and gathering in order to evaluate and reflect on the lesson’s outcome and adjust them respectively. This allows them to research on pedagogic methods and learn from each other (Boylan 2016).
In the light of the overwhelming results, many policy makers advocated for the implementation of the East Asian reforms in Australia, based on the wrong assumption that East Asian academic success was chiefly thanks to their education system and teaching methods, and that these changes could easily be put into practice. What is more, they missed the key point that East Asian academic success lies in their culture (Morgan 2014).
In fact, the geographic distribution, the composition of the population, the socioeconomic level and the linguistic and cultural background, which vary significantly between Australia and East Asian countries, have a significant impact on the results (Donnelly 2014). Comparing to Australia, these countries are geographically smaller and more linguistically and culturally uniform. Furthermore, there is a culture of ‘meritocratic achievement’ (Hogan 2014), underpinned by the belief that success is possible through motivation and hard work (Donnelly 2014). They have an instrumentalist understanding of education; namely, a mean for achieving a better life. Additionally, the Confucian values, which stress the respect for the authority (Donnelly 2014), have a strong influence on these countries. Most of them are highly urbanized and the population is assembled around cities (comparing to the scattered population in Australia), which tends to coincide with a higher socioeconomic level of the families.
In addition to the cultural factors, the advocates of the East Asian model overlook the negative aspects of this system: Firstly, the instruction remains highly authoritative (“teaching is talking and learning is listening” (Hogan 2014)) and accordingly, classroom talk is teacher-dominated. Secondly, most of these countries have national high stakes examinations at the end of primary and secondary school, which classify students according to their results and determine what school they will enter (Wise 2016). With that in mind, teaching is primarily focused on the coverage of the curriculum, the transmission of factual and procedural information, and preparing students for these examinations (Hogan 2014). For that matter, most students attend private after-school tuition and devote long hours to self-study. For instance, 40% of pre-school, 80% of primary school and 60% of high school students from Singapore receive private tuition (Wise 2016). As a result, many of them have reported high levels of stress and a great pressure to succeed (Boylan 2016), whilst another study reported an epidemic of myopia in the high-scoring East Asian countries (around 80% of students completing secondary school are short-sighted (Morgan 2014)).
Another fact that challenges the contention of East Asian model advocates is the recent discovery by the University of London, according to which Australian-born children of East Asian heritage scored as high as the average students from top-performing countries (605 points on the PISA 2012 maths test (Jerrim 2014)) and they outperformed their peers with Australian-born parents in mathematics by almost three years (Morgan 2014). Therefore, the East Asian education system may not be decisive to Asian students’ success, as Australian students with Asian-born parents perform as high as the average East Asian students within the Australian education system (Jerrim 2014; Morgan 2014).
These high attainments are the result of the combination of East Asian culture (namely, the importance of education and the ‘hard work’ ethic) and the high investment in private tuition. This proves without doubt that East Asian success does not lie in their education system, and therefore, there is no point in trying to emulate it, let alone the fact that the unique cultural and geographical features of Australia make it impossible to do so. Conversely, it is necessary to delve into the key points that have already been identified by experts: Greater investment in childhood education, earlier identification and intervention of disadvantaged students, raising the status of teaching in order to attract more skilled students (Masters 2015), earmarking more resources to the most disadvantaged government schools so as to reduce the inequality between educational centres, restrict the segregation caused by socio economically or academically selective schools (Wilson, Dalton & Baumann 2015), centralisation of school management and implementation of a standardised curriculum among states (Takayama 2013) combined with a greater freedom for the heads of schools, creation of high-quality teacher training courses and development of a culture of collaboration, mentoring and feedback among teachers (Grattan Institute 2012). Finally, we must be aware of the limitations of the PISA study and the risks of drawing too much information from a series of closed-response tests. Therefore, it would be a huge mistake to glorify or underestimate an education system basing solely on these results. On the contrary, it is necessary to take into account the broader cultural and socioeconomic context of the country.
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