The lessons for Australian schools from PISA are very clear…

We should be optimistic about the prospects for Australian school education. We have a long track record of equipping our students with the attitudes, skills and reasoning abilities to have successful careers.

The most important lesson from the results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), is for everyone involved in education in Australia to reinstate excellence as the central binding value to guide and measure all the innovations we try.

Using mathematics as a focus, here are some clear and easily understood facts from our results:

  • Our top students are declining in performance
  • Our bottom students are declining in performance
  • Our middle students are maintaining their performance, but going backwards relative to their peers in other countries.

Declining performance - PISA results, Australia.

We should be challenging our best students to excel relative to the best in the world, our middle students to aspire to be up with our best, and to set an expectation for our bottom students that they should not carry an Achilles heel of poor maths ability into their adult lives.

Students sitting exams

Our community has to value students aspiring to higher levels of mathematics, in the same way we value great sports people.

Our university admissions formula should have a more accelerated weighting formula for harder mathematics, that rewards competence at these higher levels, rather than incentivising students to drop down to easier mathematics levels.

Our national curriculum (The Australian Curriculum: Mathematics) should be judged on our absolute PISA scores, underpinned by excellence as the guiding light. By absolute scores, I mean the raw score of our students, rather than where we rank versus other countries.

Our students ability in mathematics will be challenged in the coming years, as the reading performance of students in the younger years (as measured in the PIRLS) has seen a dramatic decline in the last 5 years. We know from many academic studies, that there is a very high correlation between reading ability and mathematical literacy and when this cohort of students sits the PISA exams in 8 years time, they will carry this additional burden into those tests.

Sue Thomson, in one of her many insightful articles (Declining PISA outcomes: Time to stop the slide) goes to one of the challenges; the declining equity in education. We’re not providing the same opportunities for students, regardless of their gender or background. The gap between our top and bottom performing students is amongst the widest in the OECD.

We need to identify the top performing schools and pair them with lower performing schools in close, continuous mentoring partnerships.

There is no silver bullet, no magic solution. It is continuous, determined innovation, with excellence as the guiding light.

Tim Power

Managing Director (and father of four), 3P Learning