A new report warns that Australia risks a downward spiral in school achievement unless it learns from other high-performing education systems and gives primary teachers more specialist knowledge and teaching skills.
The report, titled: ‘Australia's primary challenge: how to lift teacher quality in early school years’ – was released yesterday by education consultancy, Learning First.
Learning First CEO, Ben Jensen – who led the report – said Australian students have not improved their achievement on international tests for a decade, and are falling behind students in many other advanced nations.
“In maths, the proportion of high performers in PISA has halved to 11% over the past 14 years, and low performers outnumber high performers two-to-one,” Jensen said in a statement.
He pointed out that as public alarm over these results has grown, discussions have focused on the need to strengthen teacher skills to improve student learning.
“This report shows how four of the world’s highest-performing school systems – Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, and Shanghai – place a strong emphasis on teacher subject expertise, even in early year schooling,” Jensen said.
“In these and other systems, the most effective teachers do not just know their subjects [content knowledge] they also how to teach them [pedagogical content knowledge].”
Jensen said that acquiring both forms of knowledge “is more important and more difficult than many people realise”.
“Yet opportunities for Australian teachers to do so, particularly in primary teacher education and primary schools, are scarce,” he said, adding that Hong Kong, Japan, Finland and Shanghai are known for emphasising high standards in primary teacher subject expertise.
“This report shows how Australian systems can begin to apply similar policies to ensure that such expertise reaches our classrooms,” he said.
The anxiety factor
According to a recent report, on average across OECD countries, 59% of students reported often worrying that taking a test would be difficult, and 66% reported feeling stressed about poor grades.
On top of that, 55% of students said they were very anxious about a test even if they were well prepared.
“Students’ anxiety about schoolwork is not so much related to the frequency of tests, but rather [to] students’ perceptions about the consequences of the mistakes they make or are afraid to make,” Mario Piacentini, the principal author of the report, told The Educator.
Piacentini said that when students feel that their teachers are supportive – be it because they can easily seek help when they need it or perceive that their teachers pay attention to individual students and adapt instruction to a class’ capacities – they also report lower levels of anxiety towards tests and assignments.
“For example, students were, on average, 17% less likely to report that they get very tense when they study for a test if they perceive that their teacher provides individual help when a student has difficulties,” Piacentini explained.
A possible reason, he says, is that students with supportive teachers are more likely to realise that everybody makes mistakes, that one mistake rarely impacts a student’s career, and that there is much a student can learn from mistakes.
“Given the very strong link between school anxiety and overall life satisfaction, we also observe that schools were students perceive that teachers are supportive are also ‘happy schools’ – schools where students have high levels of life satisfaction,” said Piacentini.