Education Nation | Day One Session One – Professor Geoff Masters

We need to point out that there is much to celebrate about Australian Schools.”
-Professor Geoff Masters

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

The opening keynote for Education Nation in the Rethinking Reform stream by Brett Salakas was a very interesting and engaging start with some very interesting and valid points raised. Brett commented to me during lunch that it was very daunting being the first speaker at a new conference, and having Professor Geoff Masters (@GMastersACER) sitting front and center for the presentation amplified that.

Professor Masters’ was speaking to the title of Addressing the Five Key Challenges in School Education that Matter to You and ostensibly, he was going to be focusing on five areas. The first area that Professor Masters addressed was the declining  PISA results, both relative and in real terms, of Australian students. This, he indicated, has been a trend that has been identifiable since 2000 and.

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Photo from Professor Masters’ presentation showing the twelve-year trend (2000-2012) in Australian PISA test results.

The mathematics results are particularly disturbing, with a significant, sharp drop year on year for each iteration of PISA from 2000 to 2012. Professor Masters commented, though it may have been stating the obvious, that we need to arrest and reverse this downward trend in results. Additionally, there is a growing disparity in schools creating a situation wherein it is becoming more and more important which school students attend. Someone failed conference etiquette and asked a question mid-presentation about where the variation lies and Professor Masters acknowledged that the total variance in results can be broken into differences between schools (twenty percent) and differences within schools (eighty percent).

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Photo from Professor Masters’ presentation showing the year on year decline of Australian students for the twelve-year period 2000 to 2012. Germany ‘s year on year growth is shown to provide a counterpoint.

Disturbingly, there is also a growing number of students who are not meeting the minimum standards; fourteen percent are not meeting the reading minimum standards, twenty percent are not meeting the mathematics minimum standards. In comparison, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Korea’s rates are between three and nine percent. The point was made that not only are our results falling year on year; but that the gap between our results and the countries around us is growing each year as they continue to improve.

Professor Masters then dived into some Census data which indicates that one in five students are currently developmentally vulnerable due to being locked into a trajectory of long-term low achievement. I, unfortunately, was not quick enough to snap the photo, or write down the specific context, however, so I would appreciate confirmation or clarification if someone did note it down (I have reached out to Professor Masters on Twitter and am awaiting confirmation), but my memory is that the likelihood of someone being the one in five student varies depending on Indigenous status, gender and socio-economic status (SES).

For Indigenous students, they have (if my memory of the context in which the figures were provided is correct) a 42.1% of being the one in five, which is just over double that of a non-Indigenous student, who has a 20.8% chance. The gender data shows that males have a 28.5% chance of being the one in five compared to females with a 15.1% chance whilst SES status plays a role as well. A low-SES student has a 32.6% chance of being the one in five student which is in stark contrast to their high-SES counterparts, who have a 15.5% chance. Professor Masters noted that this data has not historically been collected and so we are unable to identify the long-term historical trends, but that those factors will bear watching over future iterations of the census.

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Statistics that Professor Masters showed us indicating the relationships between the ATAR score-bands (<50, 50-60, 60-70 etc) and the percentage of Year twelve offers made in Science (blue), Engineering (green) and Education (red).

The next issue raised was the status of the teaching profession, wherein it is now a less attractive career option, and the distribution of offers to Year Twelve students in relation to their ATAR attainment. Masters’ graph shows that for Science and Engineering degrees, offers are typically made at the upper end of the achievement scale, whilst for education, they are being made, typically, in the low to mid-range achievement bands. Professor Masters noted that in those countries regarded as having high-quality education systems vis-a-vis their performance in PISA, they have typically put in place policies to help them draw teachers from the upper bands of academic achievement and that we need to take steps here in Australia to arrest the current downward spiral of where we draw our pre-service teachers from academically. This sounds like a laudable goal, however, as I have indicated previously, Pasi Sahlberg writes that there is very little discernible relationship between the academic achievement of a student and their eventual efficacy as a teacher.

We should, perhaps, be focusing on addressing the long-term decline in the number of students electing to undertake the hard subjects such as Physics, Advanced Mathematics and Advanced English and Engineering. It was at this point that Professor Masters made a comment, the underlying concept of which, has been a common thread in each of the sessions across the various event streams and the Twitter conversations.

Is it time we rethink, entirely, the structure of curriculum?”

I want to hold the exploration of the underlying thought to a separate article, as it is a thread which makes the entire Education Nation experience, for me, a cohesive one, however he included, in that comment, a further questioning of the way in which education, especially in the secondary education sector, is restrained to silos, with subject areas being held separate, and in many schools have individual staffrooms and faculty areas, and rarely, it seems from the outside, collaborate on planning, assessment or teaching and learning. Professor Masters told the room that by the time a child is in Year Three, the top ten percent of students, academically, are approximately five years ahead vis-a-vis learning outcomes.

My over-the-back-fence-neighbour works in Early Childhood and we have had some conversations about the need for more work in the pre-Kindergarten area to identify and work with those children who have learning difficulties to ensure that when they start Kindergarten, they have the best possible chance of achieving learning outcomes, which was a sentiment that Professor Masters closed his presentation by speaking about and agreeing with.

At this point, the MC, Simon Dorrington, opened things up to questions from the floor, which were, unfortunately, rather long-winded and convoluted comments, rather than short and to the point questions. Simon closed out the session by adding to Professor Masters’ argument that we need to regain the time in the teaching day that has been lost to the extra-curricular and what he termed support activities, many of which should be the responsibility of the parents, something I personally agree with.

The first session, consisting of Brett Salakas’ and Professor Masters’ presentations, was a great launchpad for the Rethinking Reform stream of the conference. There was a lot of head-nodding going on throughout both presentations, and a level of excitement slowly developing. I would very much like to hear from you if you were also in the room for either presentation and your perspectives and thoughts on them. As always, though, thank you for reading. The next article will cover morning tea and my experiences and thoughts on The Playground.

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