ALTHOUGH the controversy about NAPLAN testing has aired the pros and cons of public data on student and school performance, the tests’ potential to reveal differences among state education systems hasn’t appeared on the radar. In Inside Story, Chris Bonnor has highlighted the value of the My School website and NAPLAN testing in opening up new angles of enquiry such as differences among types of schools around the country – so why not also tease out the differences among states? Just as teachers place the greatest value on the tests’ diagnostic use, education policy-makers should be using these and other data for system diagnosis.
The COAG Reform Council’s analysis of 2008 NAPLAN results throws up a conundrum. The state that holds most strongly to traditional education conventions comes out in front of, or at least is neck and neck with, the state that has the stellar international reputation for reform. Yes, it’s the familiar New South Wales versus Victoria story, but with a twist. While commentators have a field day denigrating the NSW public sector and its drag on the national economy, a closer look shows that the state excels in school education, but without the suite of characteristics that are usually touted as essential in a high-performing system.
Could we be missing something of value on our own doorstep? The chair of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, seems already to have ruled out any insights from the success of New South Wales. In a speech on “Advancing Australia’s Human Capital Agenda” last month he argued that while New South Wales achieves the same results as Victoria it bears the significant additional cost of a “more highly centralised and bureaucratised system.” But at a time when a massive additional injection of around $6 billion, not including the $16 billion in the facilities stimulus, is being invested in improving school education, we should be scrutinising our diverse systems a little more closely than this. We need to do the hard evaluative and policy work to see where the payoffs are from different administrative cultures, school practices and funding formulas and how the outcomes might be boosted for different groups as well as for the whole student population.
Indeed, my reading of COAG’s analysis is that New South Wales exceeds Victoria’s performance when you take the population characteristics of the two states into account. Both states are above the national averages for most outcomes agreed by COAG in 2008 and are assessed by the COAG Reform Council as more or less equivalent for literacy and numeracy; but New South Wales has a higher participation rate for the NAPLAN tests – which usually means a wider range of student capabilities are included. Victoria does have an edge with regard to Year 12 or equivalent attainment among twenty to twenty-four year-olds.
But it is not a level playing field when it comes to those population characteristics that have a major impact on education outcomes. In particular, “closing the gap” for the 45,000 Indigenous students in New South Wales is a significantly greater challenge than in Victoria, where there are around 9000 Indigenous students. Similarly, the task of boosting outcomes for the most socioeconomically disadvantaged is different in the two states. In New South Wales 15.4 per cent of the population lives in disadvantaged locations – around a third higher than in Victoria, which also has a higher proportion in the most affluent locations. The size of the rural and remote population also differs (New South Wales’s 0.5 per cent is significantly higher than Victoria’s 0.1 per cent) and New South Wales has one of the highest proportions of students with a language background other than English. New South Wales also has a higher proportion of its student population in the government system rather than in private schools.
The conundrum to unravel is how it can be that the two largest school systems in Australia have virtually equivalent outcomes but fundamentally different practices and culture. And does this difference negate in any way the internationally popular directions for education system reform? Michael Barber, one of the authors of the McKinsey & Company 2007 benchmarking study, How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top, has recently expanded on his view of what the top-performing school systems do. Assessed against a three-part analytical framework – standards and accountability; human resources; and organisational structures – his evidence shows that clear curricula and standards and the use of data enable teachers to know what to do and how all children are progressing; that top systems recruit the best to be teachers and provide great school leaders to support and guide them; and that devolution of authority to the school and local level is crucial to success.
Victoria fits the template for a highly effective system pretty well. It is known as one of the most highly devolved systems in OECD countries, particularly for designing the curriculum, using funds, designing facilities and hiring principals and staff. A scan of publicly available NSW documentation shows a very different picture of a centralised system in which the idea of devolution of authority to the school and principal is only now being tested in a few schools. New South Wales has fail-safe prescribed curriculum syllabuses and assessment tools and extensive student performance data. Competitive examinations are still conducted in Year 10, and the NSW Year 12 examinations are regarded as the gold standard in the country for rigour and quality.
The effects of the differences between these systems deserve a closer analysis. The deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, has astutely sold the idea that improving educational outcomes improves productivity and is as essential to the national economic agenda as it is to the social agenda. The sober reminder from the COAG Reform Council report is that while our performance is adequate we are not keeping pace with the education powerhouses of Finland, Canada, Korea and Hong Kong, to name a few. Indeed we may be regressing as much as they are improving.
On the spectrums of centralisation and devolution, school-based and externally administered examinations, curriculum frameworks and curriculum syllabuses, and a host of other key features of system administration, the optimal practices for Australian education systems are still to be identified. •