Australia: Scant return for billions spent on education

Australia/Agosto de 2017/Fuente: The Australian

Resumen: Una vez más, un nuevo conjunto de resultados del Programa Nacional de Evaluación – Alfabetización y Numeración demuestra que gastar miles de millones de dólares extra no es garantía de elevar el desempeño de las clases, especialmente en habilidades básicas como la escritura que son la base de la educación. La falta de un corolario de este tipo no es una novedad; hemos hecho muchas veces lo mismo en la última década. Sin embargo, es más pertinente que nunca en la actualidad, dado el compromiso del gobierno de Turnbull de gastar otros 23.500 millones de dólares en sus llamadas reformas de Gonski 2.0 desde el próximo año.

Yet again, a fresh set of results from the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy proves that spending billions of extra dollars is no guarantee of lifting classroom performance, especially in basic skills such as writing that are the foundation of further education. The lack of such a corollary is not new — we’ve made the same point many times over the past decade. It is more pertinent than ever at present, however, given the Turnbull government’s commitment to spend another $23.5 billion on its so-called Gonski 2.0 reforms from next year.

The slowest learners of all, unfortunately, are politicians. Faced with the news that South Australian students’ results in writing had gone backwards and that the state was last or second last in 16 out of 20 NAPLAN categories, yesterday’s knee-jerk response by the Weatherill government was predictable. It will spend another $70 million. How it spends it could make or break the academic, career and life chances of countless children. Federal opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek showed the same utilitarian thinking that has created the current malaise. Her spokesman claimed the Coalition was “holding Australian schools back — they are giving schools less funding and have no plan to improve them”. Not true. But Labor has promised to spend even more, another $17bn on top of the government’s needs-based reforms. In the real world, however, the vast sums already spent, $5bn over six years, have brought patchy improvements at best in reading and writing.

What has been well established by the most rigorous educational research is that the quality of classroom teaching is the greatest influence on student achievement. For that reason, the focus of reform and further investment should be on improving the expertise of trainee and qualified teachers in “the basics’’ of reading, writing and numeracy, especially in early years when foundations are set down for life.

The NAPLAN scores, and the reactions of different stakeholders, raise interesting issues. Yet again, the Australian Education Union showed how far removed it is from parents’ expectations when it claimed that placing excessive emphasis on the results was “simply a waste of time’’. We disagree, as do most parents, especially if their children can’t read, write or add up proficiently. Independent Education Union federal secretary Chris Watt was more constructive, raising legitimate concerns about non-academic learning crowding the school day such as “bike education, pet education … bushfire awareness’’ and much else. The Safe Schools and Respectful Relationships programs should be chopped for a start.

On the positive side, the progress (from a low base) of Year 3 and Year 5 children in the Northern Territory in reading, spelling, grammar and numeracy is encouraging and needs to be maintained as they progress through school. The fact that only half of the Territory’s Year 9 students meet minimum writing standards, however, demands urgent attention if the students’ chances of avoiding severe disadvantage in adult life are to be cut.

Across all states, the slump in writing scores at a time when children are texting and tapping more, from a young age, and handwriting less, raises questions about whether the move away from pencil and paper has impacted on their ability to put together sentences, paragraphs, a simple story or argument. Research is limited. But US studies show that handwriting in the early years helps in developing communication skills.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham is right to urge educators to look at what can be learned from high-achieving schools and applied in others. That goal should drive the government’s review into academic standards that will determine how the next $23.5bn in extra funding will be spent. Kevin Donnelly nailed the issue recently when he wrote: “It’s rare that a private business will invest billions without an idea of where or how the money will be spent. Not so with Gonski 2.0.’’ Australia cannot afford a re-run of the costly educational failures of recent years.


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