The PISA Blame Game

Instead of rushing in with quick fixes to declining school results, it’s time to engage teachers in the policy debate, writes Karen Spiller, National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.

By Karen Spiller, National Chair of the Heads of Independent Schools of Australia.

The release late last year of Australia’s performance rankings in both TIMSS 2015 and PISA 2015 triggered an orgy of blaming and shaming in the mainstream media. Teachers, students and parents all suffered a relentless barrage of criticism – called to account for being inept, lazy, undisciplined or disengaged – and our schools were pilloried as substandard, a national embarrassment or a downright failure.

The stories that TIMSS and PISA have to tell about the education system in each participating country or economy are complex and multi-stranded. For example, TIMSS 2015 tells us that Australia’s average achievement in science at Year 4 level improved over the 2011 results and held steady at Year 8; Finland’s performance in Year 4 science declined. PISA 2015 tells us that the average national score of most top-ranked countries – including Finland and Australia – has declined since 2012.

Clearly these stories hold lessons for us, but it is by no means clear as yet just what those lessons might be. Even Professor Pasi Sahlberg, former director of education in Finland, is struggling to explain Finland’s declining scores given that the much-admired Finnish system has not changed. He suggests the decline may be due to the increased use of digital technologies by students.

For Principals, the TIMSS and PISA results can be a useful prompt to seek for and interrogate trends in student data in their own schools. But for system leaders and government ministers, who are at some distance from school communities, the results offer few answers to the perplexing questions of ‘why’, and ‘what do we do now’.

Australia is in good company in experiencing a decline in PISA results, so the very last thing education policy makers should do is rush in with quick fix solutions.

It is curious that governments and those with a commercial or research interest in schools tend to settle on a medical model to improve student achievement: run a series of tests on the patient and, where results are outside the expected range, apply an intervention – which might be anything from a mild dose of paracetamol to radical surgery.

Not for one minute would I advocate that we should not assess our students or schools or school systems. Assessment is the way we fine tune teaching and learning in schools. But I do wonder why governments see fit to mandate the appropriate treatment for school students but not medical patients. How is that governments trust the medical profession to decide how to treat their patients but do not trust teachers to educate their students? And why is that, when schools are forced to implement government schools policy, we so often feel as though we are suffering an adverse reaction to the medication or, worse, that it is the wrong leg that has been amputated?

No one has yet mapped Australia’s decline in student achievement against the increase in federal government intervention in what schools teach and how they operate. Yet, since Australia’s PISA achievement peak in 2001, we have seen school education strapped to the federal operating table and worked on by the blunt instruments of standardised testing and reporting and a national curriculum.

Could the ‘cure’ be contributing to the problem? One thing we do know, when it comes to schools, it is the patient who is blamed if the operation fails.

It is a credit to the aspiration and dedication that characterises the teaching profession that in spite of this barrage of blame, schools continue to be vibrant communities, eager to do more and striving to do it better.

During the summer break I re-watched the TED video of Taylor Mali delivering his now famous poem, ‘What teachers make’. Mali reminds us that, in essence, teachers make a difference, and he cloaks this truth in outrage that anyone should have failed to observe it. The raw emotion was a wakeup call.

Education policy doctors take note: teachers are passionate about making a difference, so release us from the operating theatre and try giving us a place at the policy table instead.

Karen Spiller is National Chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia and Principal of St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School in Brisbane.

Like this post? Please share using the buttons located on the right of the page.

You can also subscribe to The Parents’ Website and get regular updates straight to your inbox.