What do schools teach? It’s surprising how little we know

May 3, 2019


It’s election time again, yet while every election matters, it’s hard not to feel that no matter who wins, the big questions facing Australia will not be answered in the coming campaign. One of the biggest of these is school education. Few areas of life and public policy do more to shape our long-term social and economic well-being. While some good changes are under way around the country, overall the problems in Australian schools are strong, persistent, and may be getting worse.

Every three years the OECD PISA program tests students in reading, mathematical and science literacy. The tests that students sit are crafted to focus on the type of problem-solving that OECD countries believe their students most need if they are to succeed in the 21st century. Australia’s performance on international test doesn’t make pretty reading. Changes over time show that:

  • On average, performance is declining: The average Australian student in 2015 performed at a level in maths that is 12 months below the average Australian student in 2003
  • We have less students performing at the top levels; At the top of the performance spectrum, in 2003, 18 per cent of Australian students reached the top category of performance in reading. By 2015, that had fallen to 11 per cent of students, barely one in 10. In maths, the proportion of high performers almost halved – from 20 to 11 per cent – between 2003 and 2015.
  • We are not pulling enough students off the bottom. In 2015, 18 per cent of students failed to reach the minimum proficiency levels required for reading and scientific literacy. This percentage of low performers has risen since 2006.

To make matters worse, these problems have developed alongside significant growth in expenditure. The Mitchell Institute showed that school education expenditure increased strongly over the past decade or so – by $10.4 billion in real terms, or 30 per cent, from 2005-06 to 2015-16. Private school fees have hit record highs, with growth in school fees easily outstripping wages growth.

These statistics will have a real impact on our future. The OECD and the World Bank have published numerous studies in recent years showing a country’s performance on PISA tests make a more significant contribution to a country’s economic performance than simply the quantity of education.

This research represents a significant shift in our understanding of the role of education in economic performance, yet we have struggled to translate this new knowledge into effective policy reforms. Politically, it is always much easier to sell the quantity of education – more years of education, more children staying longer in education, and more programs focusing on particular subjects – than to focus on lifting the quality of school education to improve performance.

The business sector has long held an interest in school education and tried to support the sector in many ways. Historically, national and state peak industry bodies have supported individual initiatives and tried to shape the school education policy agenda. Business has also got behind philanthropic foundations that have made serious investments in school education.

But in recent years, this involvement has changed. The business sector has grown wary of involvement in school education. It has seen investments produce little and it’s cautious about getting entangled in the politics of education reform, particularly if it has anything to do with school funding or the public versus private school debate. In recent years, leading philanthropic foundations focused less on school education. The Business Council of Australia has not released a comprehensive report on school education for over a decade.

Yet when there is a viable way forward, business sector support can be large and productive. Schools Plus is a national charity founded in 2013, with the goal of reducing the impact of disadvantage on students’ education. It connects businesses with schools and enables them to donate to government schools on a tax deductible basis, and to help build schools’ capacity to develop strategic projects and philanthropic partnerships. In a short period of time, Schools Plus has connected business investment worth more than $13 million to 600 schools and nearly 140,000 students in disadvantaged communities.

Schools plus doesn’t tell schools what to do with the money. Instead, they require schools to identify priority areas of need that are not being met by the system. They complement government investments rather than stepping on top of existing government programs. This strategy has helped Schools Plus to quickly establish a quality reputation in both the business community and in schools.

Schools Plus shows how a more nuanced approach to supporting school education can yield benefits for individual charities, and for the wider system. But the business sector at large needs to go further and renew its interest in the broader health of our school education systems. Three important areas merit such focus.

Firstly there is the performance of the system, which drives economic growth and social well-being. Second is the issue of equity in schools, which impacts broader social cohesion and economic performance. Finally there is the curriculum; what schools teach.  This affects both performance and equity, while also developing the specific skills of individuals that businesses can use to lift their performance.

Governments, with varying degrees of success, are already undertaking many initiatives to improve the first two areas; performance and equity. Opportunities to support new education programs in specific schools or to target particular groups of students will always exist. But these are all crowded fields and it can be difficult to find effective ways of working alongside huge government investments..

In contrast, the third area set out above – the curriculum taught in schools – offers new ways for the business sector to become involved. This would not entail telling schools what to teach, or advocating for a focus on new areas of learning. Rather, the emphasis would be on supporting schools to teach the existing curriculum which is, in most systems, the Australian Curriculum. Many school leaders and teachers are seeking support in this area and governments have, over the years, moved away from this space.

The curriculum that’s taught in schools has long been a focus of some elements of the business sector that want to influence the skills and capabilities of a future workforce. It’s important, however, to recognise the limitations and dangers of adding more to what is an already overcrowded curriculum. Moreover, research shows that we will benefit more by going deeper into key learning areas than by broadening the curriculum and adding more programs.

For example, if a business or a foundation is concerned about climate change then the understandable instinct is to look at ways of providing students with new programs and learning opportunities about the issue. But international assessments have shown that the students who best understand climate change are not those that have completed new programs specifically about this topic, or environmental studies projects, but, rather, are those that do better at science overall. In other words, if the business sector wants to promote understanding of climate change, it is not new programs that are needed but improved teaching and learning of the core science curriculum.

Financial literacy provides another example. In 2012, the OECD assessed the financial literacy of students across 18 countries. Shanghai students came out on top. Australia ranked somewhere between three and five. After the findings were released, I spoke to the leader of Shanghai education, Dr Minxuan Zhang. He said that Shanghai educators were surprised at the result as they had never taught financial literacy in their schools. What their students were very good at, however, was mathematics and they were able to take a deep understanding of these core skills and apply them in other areas – in this case, financial literacy.

We should always be cautious about asking schools to teach something new. Introducing new curriculum content into a school is expensive, and brings a big opportunity cost. There is clear evidence that considerable investments are needed to support and develop the teaching of mathematics and science in our schools. So if we shift investment to new programs, maths and science teachers are unlikely to get the resources or professional development they need to improve their teaching. Instead, these resources are replaced by professional development on how to teach the curriculum content of the new areas.

Another cost of any new classroom intervention is time. While states and schools vary, a school year has about 1000 hours of instruction. Already, many schools are outsourcing parts of the curriculum as they don’t have the resources, time, or sometimes simply the physical space, to teach everything. So if you want schools to focus on different things, then either identify what to take away from the teaching load, or realise that kids will get even less of core instruction.

Instead of getting schools to teach something new, we can do better to support schools to teach the existing curriculum. A vital way to do this is to provide resources and support to enable schools to access quality curriculum and instructional materials.

New research shows these materials have a bigger impact on student achievement than many other more common interventions – and at a lower cost. This research also shows that investments in curriculum supports that enable teachers to improve student performance also have a significant impact on equity.

There is a common belief in education that all students, regardless of their background, should have access to the same quality curriculum and associated materials that will provide them with the skills and knowledge to succeed in life. But often expectations are lowered for disadvantaged students, and the learning tasks, assessments and broader curriculum they are taught is changed. Disadvantaged students can be taught with materials that are several years behind the normal expectations of the grade level. Over time, this exacerbates inequality, as poorer students are trapped in a cycle of low expectations and poor outcomes. In effect, these students become disenfranchised from the education offered to the rest of society. This should never be allowed to happen.

OECD research on excellence and equity in its 38 member and 31 partner nations notes that the most equitable countries expose all students, not merely those deemed “gifted”, to high-level mathematics. Similarly, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found in its analysis of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments that a critical in-school factor in low-income students’ success was “an environment of high academic achievement”. The Netherlands and Alberta, Canada, fund a diverse number of schools (from Catholic to Montessori), but require all of them to follow the same, sequenced curricula. These two school systems are among the world’s most equitable.

Many Australian educators also believe that all students have the right to access high-quality curriculum that can enable them to succeed in life. Countless numbers of teachers advocate for this right as essential to public education. But the subject has not been a feature of the public debate in the same way as in other countries. And this has created problems that manifest in various ways.

For example, many players in curriculum debates have advocated for more variety and choice in what is offered to students. Over the years many Australian states have introduced a greater range of elective subjects from which students can select. Offering students more choice can bring many benefits, including greater engagement in their schooling, yet this engagement can come at the expense of equity. Research has shown that schools in poorer communities are more likely to offer a greater range of elective subjects than schools in wealthier areas. Yet many of the newer electives that have been introduced are not pre-requisites for further study, and are not as highly valued by many employers as, say, a Year 12 mathematics qualification. This can lead to early streaming of disadvantaged students away from further education.

Another theme often raised in curriculum debates is the need to teach “21st-century skills”. In order to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, schools are told they must teach creativity, collaboration, ethics, entrepreneurship and so on. Once again, they are pressured to teach new things and add even more to the curriculum. But they receive little help in how to teach these new skills. There is growing evidence that teachers are struggling to keep up with the new skills and capabilities they are already supposed to teach. They feel confident to teach the areas they are trained in, but struggle when new, often ambiguous skills and capabilities are introduced.

That is entirely understandable. For all the talk of 21st-century skills, there is a distinct lack of curriculum supports for school leaders and teachers. In recent decades, especially with the school autonomy push that began in Victoria in the 1990s, governments have stepped away from providing these supports. They are also much less willing than in the past to be specific about what should be taught in schools. For political reasons, they are wary of telling teachers what they must teach.

Teachers should not be dictated to but that doesn’t mean they would not appreciate more support and guidance when it comes to effectively implementing the curriculum.

The movement of government away from curriculum implementation issues has been so extensive that it is now quite shocking how little we know about what is taught in our classrooms. System leaders are unlikely to be able to tell you what is, say, taught in Year 8 English – that is, the extent to which the curriculum is actually being implemented. In many schools, subject areas and year levels, we don’t know how students are being assessed. Over the years, we have handed more and more of these curriculum decisions to schools and now we simply don’t know.

Some governments are trying to better understand curriculum decisions made in schools, but this is an area in which the business sector can improve support to schools, thereby improving both performance and equity without stepping on the toes of government (at least not too much).

School principals and teachers are crying out for support in this area. They don’t want to be told what to do but they want access to high-quality resources and instructional materials to help them teach the set curriculum.

How can this be done? As usual, there are no simple solutions, and throwing cash at the problem won’t help. Because schools are already inundated with private sector firms trying to sell them low-quality curriculum materials, simply providing money may exacerbate, rather than solve the problem.

Instead, we need to first better understand and then support the curricular decisions being made in schools. We need to understand what exactly is being taught in schools: the texts, lessons, learning tasks and assessments being developed, purchased and implemented. Second, we need to better understand the decisions schools make that lead them to teach what they teach. Are teachers just told what to do by school leaders? Are they handed the textbook that has always been taught in the school and told they must teach that? Or are they left alone with little support?

Once we better understand these things, we can identify what varying support, resources and advice would benefit teachers and school leaders. Some teachers won’t need any support at all. Others are already asking for help and not receiving it. For years, we have totally underestimated the time and expertise required to develop curriculum materials in schools. Many schools complain of having to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the fundamentals of a curriculum. Many teachers talk of hunting for curriculum materials and lesson plans on the Internet the night before a class.

In some countries, philanthropic organisations have funded rating systems of curricular materials to help guide schools in their decision-making. Support could also target opportunities for expert teachers to develop quality curriculum materials that can be shared across the system. The Canadian province of British Columbia, one of the world’s top-ranked education systems, started its curriculum reform process with networks of teachers developing quality materials to be used across schools.

No single approach will solve this problem. Nor is providing curriculum resources the panacea to all the problems of our schools. Nevertheless, the research is clear that it matters. It has been missing from our education debate, and governments have generally vacated much of this space. This provides the business sector with a real opportunity to renew its involvement in schools, and to make a powerful difference to the performance and fairness of school systems, and to the lives of young Australians.

Ben Jensen is CEO of  Learning First. 


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