PISA panic and politics could really damage our schools.

In the aftermath of the OECD releasing the 2012 results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne’s declared that, “PISA shows us that our education system is high-equity where socio-economic status matters less when compared to other OECD countries”

Anyone who has spent anytime working in education would have raised an eyebrow that the PISA results could possibly indicate such a thing.

So in order to get a better idea of how “equitable” PISA showed our education system to be, I thought it would be pertinent to look at the 2012 report in some detail.

What PISA actually tells us, that for mathematics, (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“On average, students in the independent school sector achieved significantly higher than students in the Catholic or government school sectors, and students in Catholic schools scored significantly higher than students in government schools. These findings are also applicable to scientific and reading literacy.”

Or more explicitly: “When student-level socioeconomic background is taken into account, students in independent schools performed significantly higher than students in Catholic schools, and students in Catholic schools performed significantly higher than students in government schools, although the differences are reduced.”

I’m not sure how Mr Pyne misinterpreted that to mean that socioeconomic factors are somehow unimportant.

And as if we didn’t know already, the picture is even bleaker for our indigenous kids who, on average, are two and a half years behind non-indigenous students across the board.

Worrying about how Australia compares to other top performing countries in PISA seems strange, when the top performing “country” is Shanghai, and when we have such deep-seated issues in our own – rather large and diverse – backyard.

Unfortunately it appears Christopher Pyne wants to sweep diversity under the carpet by dismissing socioeconomic considerations while continuing his mantra of all the evidence showing that better outcomes are achieved by “Lifting the quality of teaching, ensuring we have a robust curriculum, expanding principal autonomy and encouraging more parental engagement.”

Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that greater school autonomy lifts performance, and his idea of a robust curriculum is one that isn’t overly focused on Aboriginal history, his view on “teacher quality” is the one that has the potential to shape classrooms more than anything else.

He is on record as saying he wants to “dismantle student centred approaches” and return to a more “rote learning” methods. Leaving academic outcomes aside, it will be interesting to assess the impact such approaches have on students’ levels of engagement and wellbeing.

But why would we want to adopt more rote learning, teacher driven techniques?

Because that’s what they do in China.

Perhaps we should also follow their lead and have Big Tobacco fund our education system.

At least that would take care of that pesky Gonski situation.


Author: Dan Haesler is a teacher, consultant and speaker at the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People seminars He is the co-developer of Happy Schools and blogs at http://danhaesler.com/ and tweets at @danhaesler