As I have previously opined, the “rorschach test” that is the OECD PISA results tells us (perhaps) as much about the commentators and the narratives surrounding their agenda, as it does about the comparative performances of the world’s fifteen year-olds.
In to this milieu, I would like to add the rarely considered notion of PLACE. Yes, geography matters. It matters at all scales; the national, state and particularly the local levels!
Consider the Australian context:
Between 1980 and 2008, [pre GFC] the richest 1% of Australians saw their share of total national income almost double, from 4.8% in 1980 to 8.8% in 2008 [OECD 2011] The richest 0.1% rose from 1% to 3%. At the same time, top marginal income tax rates declined markedly, dropping from 60% in 1981 to 45% in 2010.
We also know that during that last decade or so, enrolments in non-government schools have reached approximately 34% of total enrolments. This is a function of Federal Policy.
This is occurring in the context of what I call the “lines crossing“, a policy conundrum that sees the PERCENTAGE of young people as a proportion of Australian society falling, but the absolute NUMBER of young people is rising?
Yet during this same time period, we are seeing a steady decline in student achievement?
The often quoted nigerian proverb, used in many education circles suggests:
it takes a village to raise a child
If this is the case [which I believe it to be], then it would seem natural that when we consider such results as those provided by International comparative assessments, we avoid the simplistic, singular narratives of time, personnel or resources [while valid] and try to develop the meta-narrative. A more holistic, systemic view.
Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat.
Headlines include: Why Australia’s PISA results are a catastrophe, or Australian schools are in ‘absolute decline’ globally or PISA 2015 brings more bad news for Australia or Australian school students two years behind world’s best performing and still others also seem to delight in seeing the ‘mighty fall’, Finland schools, model for the world, slip in rankings
Certainly well-worn “aggregate” narratives about “failing schools” [State schools ‘failing Aboriginal kids’ or ‘Ludicrous’ education system failing gifted children ] and “poor teachers” [ Government may import maths, science teachers to raise standards ] or “hi-jacked curriculum” [Donnelly disses ‘dumbed-down’ curriculum ] all suggest common-sense solutions are obvious, yet little energy, time or “column-inches” seems to be devoted to the complexities of interpreting such data, let alone making CAUSAL connections between a stated result and its explanation.
The joy of rankings… Politicians and Editors best friends…
Don’t get me wrong, I am a supporter of data-led, evidence-based planning and genuinely find coherent attempts to make comparative assessments a useful / indispensable public-policy tool, however, the predictable, prepared and overly dramatised singular narratives obscure [perhaps intentionally] the deeper methodological problems of identifying what is occurring between assessment years and WHY?
What do we know? – Australia
- If you are from a low socio-economic background you are highly likely to perform poorly at school.
- We now have more low-performing students and fewer high-performing students.
- Low performing students grew from 12 per cent in 2000 to 18 per cent in 2015.
- High performing students fell from 18 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent in 2015
What do we know? – Victoria
Of course the aggregated national results tell us very little. The disaggregated state-by-state results begin to give us a better understanding of PLACE but may not necessarily give us any better understanding of WHY there are differences?
- There has been no significant change in the maths literacy of 15-year-old Victorians between 2003 and 2015, students’ reading skills have flatlined since 2000, and their achievements in scientific literacy have remained stable since 2006.
- Nationally, Victoria jumped from fifth place in maths and science to third, after the ACT and Western Australia.
- Every other state experienced a decline in their performance.
There is little confusion as to why these declines are occurring WHERE they are occurring [equity], because PLACE MATTERS. Social and economic disparities are increasingly exacerbated by confused Federal policy implementations.
Around 40 per cent of Indigenous students are classed as low performers compared to 17 per cent of non-Indigenous students in both scientific and reading literacy. In mathematical literacy, virtually half of the Indigenous students failed to meet the OECD minimum standard compared to one in five non-Indigenous students. The score differences in all subject areas between the two groups puts indigenous students more than two years behind their non-Indigenous counterparts. [Dr. Sue Thompson ACER ]
The rural/urban divide
Students outside of metropolitan areas are similarly performing at a lower level than their city cousins. Across science, reading and mathematics, there is a lower proportion of high performers and a higher proportion of low performers outside metropolitan areas. The difference between students in metropolitan schools and those in remote schools is around a year-and-a-half of schooling. [Source: Dr. Sue Thompson ACER ]
What do we know – Sector
This is one of the “touchstone” issues in National policy. The pre-2000 world of education and the post-2000 world of education in Australia is very different.
The “touchy” bit comes when we consider a simple question.
Do private schools deliver better results for students? It is certainly not clear according to PISA.
- Sector level data suggests students in Independent, Catholic and Government schools across Australia have all seen their results fall, while the gap in achievement between each sector has grown to a year worth of schooling.
But that is not the whole story. We need to go deeper still.
Choice – Even if it hurts?
This, on the surface, would suggest where you send your child to school is important, both at the national level and the school level. However, this may true for reasons that are less intuitive… Be careful what you wish for! A “good” teacher in a “good” school.
The OECD remarks:
Enrolling in a particular type of school can have implications that go beyond the benefits or drawbacks for an individual student. For instance, if enough middle-class families leave the public school system, and the concentration of disadvantaged students in particular schools grows as a result, Ed: As it has in Australia] public schools may enter a vicious circle of fewer students, less funding and deteriorating quality; and education systems could become less socially cohesive (Renzulli and Evans, 2005; Schneider, Elacqua and Buckley, 2006; Sonstelie, 1979). It is thus important to examine how enrolment in public and private schools is associated with student performance at the country level.
The devil in the detail
Earlier work  by Chris Ryan from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, looked closely at the question:
I do hope this is replicated for the 2015 PISA results.
The 2013 work encourages nuanced consideration by all when considering the notion of achievement decline and thus the implications for [multiple] policy responses.
This study finds that these declines were widespread in the student population, affecting both males and females. However, the decline in reading literacy occurred throughout much of the achievement distribution, while the decline in mathematical literacy was more pronounced at the top of the distribution (there were fewer high performing students in 2009 compared with 2003). Declines in both literacy domains were apparent across the entire distribution of schools, however, the falls in school performance were more apparent in private schools than in the government-run school systems in Australia. The declines were not associated with many other characteristics of schools, including many factors that might have been thought to be associated with school performance.
In other words, when all other factors are accounted for, falls in school performance were more apparent in Private schools than Government run schools.
If this simple data-point could enter the public and policy debate we may move some-way to understanding [if not arresting] these pronounced slides in student achievement.
Such detailed findings and the increasingly “balkanised” educational policy landscape in Australia appear at polar-opposites. Some have even pointed out that “the more federal Politicians get involved with Education, the worse we perform“!
There is no doubt that achievement is falling, but great confusion remains as to WHY this is. Not according to many politicians though…
Whilst I don’t purport to have have the answer[s], [although I do have very strong intuitions, based on the evidence before us all], I do believe the growing trends are symptomatic of what now appear to be self-imposed “non-negotiable” policy decisions made over a decade or more ago. This seems ridiculous, but is certainly the case. Harmonising jurisdictions, based on the best evidence, with autonomy that allows regional, economic, social and geographic differences to be catered for should not be that hard, but embedding populist commitments such as “no school will be worse off” or “teachers need to improve”, ignores the greater reality of PLACE and the role of the broader economic, social and labour-market conditions being experienced across the country.
The Whole Picture
As stated in detail here, the overwhelming focus of education policy debate in Australia for well over a decade has focused on the 32% variation in student achievement not explained by student social background. This is the bit that school systems [ and most Politicians] think [and rightly so] that they can [should] “fix”. The problem becomes if that is all they do, or more importantly, if that becomes the sum of the total policy debate [which it increasingly appears it has?].
This still leaves us with 40% of the variation between schools that relates to student social background and 28% of the variation that is explained by the social background of schools.
This is the meta-narrative. Policy has to look at the “whole village”.
Understanding that economic conditions and a world of “no growth”, [ four unemployed for every job vacancy], the decline of real wages, the underutilisation of workers, shifts from full-time to part-time work and the closure of industry sectors such as the automotive industry have generational implications for specific places, is critical. The wider economic context of “jobless growth” and growing inequality has specific geographic manifestations that have less to do with school sectors [overall] or the “right to choose”, yet Federal policy rarely seems to approach this.
Can communities, regions or states put aside the individual and the parochial for the strategic?
Can we plan for the whole village?