ABC needs lesson in education reporting


If there is one subject that highlights the disconnect between ABC journalists and those from the commercial world it is the ­debate over school education standards.

Reporters from the publicly funded broadcaster where money is no object — at least compared with those from the financially stressed private-sector media — have long seen all problems in school education as a matter of funding. Like primary schoolers, their pre-programmed response every time a new international study shows Australian students sliding down international league tables is to chant a single word: “Gonski”.

We saw a perfect example last week on ABC radio’s AM program and in interviews on Radio National after The Australian splashed Wednesday morning’s edition with a story showing our students had fallen further in international comparisons in maths and science.

The four-­yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study of year four and eight students showed Kazakhstan, Slovenia and Hungary had leapfrogged us, and we were ranking only in the ­middle of the 49 countries surveyed, despite high outright spending increases per student.

Labor education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek was given free rein to blame the poor performance on the government’s failure to fund years five and six of the Gonski reforms. Those would be the years former Labor treasurer Wayne Swan backloaded into his unfunded forward projections.

Whatever the inequities in school funding between public and private sectors (and I am not a Gonski supporter but would need five times this space to explain why), the fact remains Australia has dramatically increased its ­investment in schools from federal, state and private sources over the past two decades and the ­results are going backwards. Teacher unions, the ALP and social activists will argue this is a conservative assessment, but it is nevertheless factual, supported by data from the Productivity Commission, the OECD, international education studies as well as the work of the now federal Labor frontbencher and former ANU professor Andrew Leigh.

The government’s 2014 Reform of Federation white paper No 4 shows that despite a real 37 per cent increase in funding ­between 2002-03 and 2012-13 ­literacy and numeracy standards flatlined or went backwards across all sectors in Australia.

A 2016 OECD report said: “In PISA (Program for International Student Assessment tests) 2012, there was no OECD country where larger proportions of low-performing students attended schools with better educational resources (than Australia).”

In a paper produced with academic Chris Ryan, Leigh found that around the world, increased spending did not improve the productivity of education services. Leigh, the Labor assistant treasurer and spokesman on competition, wrote: “We find no evidence that the test scores of Australian pupils have risen over the past four decades.” This was despite higher average IQs during the ­period and sharply increased real spending over the four decades of more than 70 per cent.

This newspaper has invested a lot in reporting and analysing school education during the past decade, under former education editor Justine Ferrari and with ­researchers Jennifer Buckingham, Ben Jensen and Kevin Donnelly. A few markers stand out.

Teacher quality is imperative and long-term teacher mentoring is a feature of the high-achieving systems in Shanghai, Singapore and Finland. While high levels of maths and science skill are not necessary in primary teaching, they most certainly are in years 11 and 12 where too many teachers have little background in these disciplines.

Into this feeds the low tertiary admission scores now available for people wanting to study education. Some NSW universities admit candidates for a bachelor of education with tertiary admission scores as low as 50. Teacher training has been affected by the same veneer of intellectualism as ­journalism training. Postmodern theories of knowledge and power abound in both, yet one sandstone university vice-chancellor ­famously told Q&A a few years ago that his university was not in the business of training teachers.

Education degrees were separate from teacher career paths. This was news to many students accumulating HECS debt in the hope of a career in teaching.

Many older educators see this as proof the Hawke Labor government’s late-1980s decision to merge the binary system of universities, colleges of advanced education and teachers’ colleges into a single universities system destroyed regular hands-on teacher training with students working closely with experienced teachers in front of classrooms.

Other critics cite conflicting goals in education curriculums, such as the injection of indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives into subjects once ­regarded as pure disciplines, such as maths and science.

The role of modern parents is often mentioned by teachers as a problem in educating children. Many parents see school as child minding and do not enforce basic disciplines at home let alone ­engage at homework time.

Teacher union industrial campaigns have made many problems worse. Closely affiliated with the ALP, which receives financial contributions from the state and federal unions, teachers have driven too much of the increase in spending on education into ­reduced class sizes. Research now shows these have little positive ­effect on outcomes. As a strategy this has served to increase teacher numbers, and therefore union power, as well as fees to Labor, but really only boosted costs.

Kevin Donnelly points to a New Zealand decision in 2011 to allow Charter Schools to hire teachers with specialist qualifications but without teaching degrees as a sign the system may in fact be better without many of the attitudes of modern teachers. There is strong evidence that a return to ­direct instruction techniques like those advocated by Aboriginal ­reformer Noel Pearson — and even rote learning in junior years — can have positive benefits.

And around the world there is evidence of big gains available in freeing up headmasters to hire and fire teachers. Little time is spent mentoring, and teachers spend more time on managerial paperwork tasks than ever before.

That is a key difference in Singapore and the countries doing best in international comparisons. And for reporters, there is very little to be gained from ­constant carping about Gonski.