tests and the Rudd education revolution

Today the Prime Minister of Austalia, Hon Kevin Rudd delivered a speech at the National Press Club on the education revolution. I received a transcript of the speech which for me had several highlights:

While Australian schools stand up reasonably well in international comparisons, our competitors are quickly catching up. A 2006 OECD study shows Australia’s average performance in reading literacy worsened between 2003 and 2006, primarily because of a decline in the percentage of high-performing students.It shows that in scientific literacy, 40 percent of Australia’s Indigenous students, 27 percent of students in remote schools and 23 percent of students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile performed below the OECD baseline.Australia also has relatively low levels of Year 12 completion by OECD standards.

Conversely, the evidence shows that each additional year of schooling increases individual earnings by around 10 per cent. Another recent study found that increasing a country’s literacy scores by 1 per cent against the international average is associated with an increase in living standards of 1.5 per cent of GDP per capita.

Research shows that nothing at school influences student outcomes more than excellent teaching. It has measurable impacts on cognitive, affective and behavioural development. Studies suggest that the quality of teaching accounts for something between 30 and 60 per cent of the outcome across these areas. A McKinsey report on the world’s best performing school systems last year highlighted the importance of recruiting the top university students into teacher training.

In Korea, those recruited into teaching are in the top 5 per cent of students; in Finland, they are recruited from the top 10 per cent and in Singapore and Hong Kong, the top 30 per cent.I believe our teachers are our greatest economic asset.We need to re-establish in Australia that teaching is a great profession and a great calling for the best and brightest of our university graduates.

We must insist on teaching excellence in every school.

And insist that school leadership is strengthened, particularly in schools where the learning needs of students are most acute. To establish new national standards to reward both principals and the best performing teachers. To provide additional funding to encourage school systems to invest in teacher recruitment, development and excellence.

I want school principals to have the autonomy to make more staffing and salary decisions at the local level, to tackle local problems like poor literacy and numeracy. And I want teachers spending their time doing what they do best – and that’s teaching – not losing their valuable hours in paperwork or on tasks better handled by support staff.

But it is not unreasonable to expect that schools with a similar mix of students and similar starting points should do equally well. What parents most want to know is what difference a school is going to make – in other words, the extent to which it is adding value to the results of their students.

We should not tolerateunder performance. It damages the students irreversibly. It fails their families. And therefore it must change. Where it is clear that individual schools are not up to the mark, we need to be prepared to invest money and effort to lift their performance. And where despite best efforts, these schools are not lifting their performance, the Commonwealth expects education authorities to take serious action – such as replacing the school principal, replacing senior staff, reorganising the school or even merging that school with other more effective schools. Tough action is necessary if we are to achieve real change. And it’s tough action that our reform payments will reward.

Much of what the prime minister said rang true. However my hope is that national tests will not form all of the data sets used to measure school performance otherwise what is happening in the States might happen here – teachers and students valuing the test rather than authentic learning. Teachers at Elsternwick this week debated notions of pressure and stress as we tried to raise the achievement bar  and close the education gap.

The video stresses the importance of getting validated rich assessment tasks rather than pencil and paper tests. Take heed Prime Minister or we might end up dumbing down real learning in favour of what can be easily tested.    



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