Literacy, Numeracy and School Funding

I spoke in parliament today on a motion relating to Australia's literacy and numeracy performance, and funding for schools.
Australian Educational Performance, 3 March 2014

I thought I would start with a quiz: ‘Joe had three test scores: 78, 76 and 74, while Mary had scores of 72, 82 and 74. How did Joe's average compare with Mary's?’ You are not responding immediately, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am sure that the answer you have in your head, as other members do, is that both Joe and Mary have the same average. This question was asked on successive tests in Australia from 1964 to 2003. In 1964 88 per cent of students answered correctly; in 2003 just 68 per cent answered correctly. A fifth of students who were able to answer it in the 1960s could not answer it in the early 2000s.

Behind this motion are a truth and a falsehood. I want to focus on the truth first, that Australian literacy and numeracy performance has failed to rise over a very long run, a much longer time frame that even discussed in the motion. Work that Chris Ryan and I published in the journal Education Finance and Policy found a small but statistically significant fall in numeracy from 1964 to 2003 and in both literacy and numeracy from 1975 to 1998. Work that Chris Ryan published in the Economics of Education Review last year looked at the change in PISA scores from 2000 to 2012. It found that mathematical literacy fell at the top of the distribution and reading and literacy fell throughout it. It found that declines in school performance were most marked in private schools. Work that Chris Ryan and I have done on teacher aptitude, which was referred to by the mover of the motion, also found declines in literacy and numeracy of new teachers relative to those within the same class. From 1983 to 2003 the share of teachers in the top fifth of their class halved and the share of teachers in the bottom half of their class doubled.

That is the fundamental truth of this motion, but the falsehood is that money does not matter. To see that falsehood we know you need only look at the previous Liberal Party speaker's speech, where he finished by pledging an increase in funding on behalf of the Tasmanian Liberals in the next election. Money is not a guarantee of better outcomes but it is a necessary condition for better schools. That is why under Labor in government we not only brought down the Gonski review but also put in place national partnerships which see literacy and numeracy coaches in so many of Canberra’s most disadvantaged schools. We put in place the MySchool website which those opposite had talked about for many years but had never been able to deliver. And we put in place unprecedented investment in school infrastructure, which has improved educational outcomes. For example, at Amaroo school in my electorate classroom partitions allow team teaching and allow teachers to share skills.

So nothing in the research body supports a broken funding system, a system which was always designed to be a temporary arrangement in the early 2000s but which was backed by the now education minister as recently as a year ago. The education minister has in the past described it Gonski report as ‘Conski’, and it appears to me that he has not made his way through it. That is indicated by the strong focus on school reform that you see within the Gonski report itself. Chapter 5, Building Momentum for Change, include sections focusing on the great teaching profession, empowered schools, developing and sustaining innovation and engaged parents. We need to focus on this suite of school reforms alongside fixing a broken funding system.

As Amanda Ripley notes in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, making education systems work is a confluence of factors. It requires great teachers, engaged parents and a funding system which supports school reform. All of those things were in place under the former government, and I am disappointed to see that the opposition is allowing states to take money out of schools as fast as the federal government puts it in, rather than making a guarantee that no school will be worse off under the National Plan for School Improvement.

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