Australian students still lag behind – and it's time for a new approach

Why education needs an evidence base.
Published in Neuroscience
Australian students still lag behind – and it's time for a new approach

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According to the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report, released last week, Australian student performance has barely changed since 1995 – despite a significant increase in government funding in the same period.

TIMSS compares the performance of Year 4 and Year 8 students internationally in maths and science. In this study, Australian students were outperformed by East Asian countries, including Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, who have steadily improved, as well as other countries such as Northern Ireland, Ireland, England and the United States.

The poor result is a headache for educational policymakers; Federal government funding for education has increased significantly since 2013. Given our stagnant educational performance, where and how the money is being spent is of key concern.

Education funding in Australia has traditionally followed the same tracks: pay teachers more, invest more in STEM subjects, spend more on schools. But a recent Australian Centre for Educational Research (ACER) report found that “levels of national expenditure on schools are generally not correlated with measures of student performance or equity.” What does make a difference, is “how resources are used” (emphasis mine). Improving Australia’s educational performance requires investment in innovative and evidence-based strategies to improve teaching and learning.

Even Australia’s Education Minister, The Hon Simon Birmingham, has publicly emphasised that a new approach is required, one that involves drawing from evidence-based practice. The Productivity Commission has released a draft report on its “public inquiry into the further development of the national evidence base for school and early childhood education”, which also called for research to develop a base of evidence.

It’s a view that the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC), of which I am Director, also advocates. The SLRC has been funded since 2013 as a Special Research Initiative of the Australian Research Council (ARC) and was established with the vision to improve learning outcomes through scientifically validated learning tools and strategies. The Centre brings together eight Australian universities and ACER to deliver research across neuroscience, psychology and education with the aim of understanding how people learn and then developing strategies and tools for effective learning.

The Centre involves leaders in our three disciplines, including renowned education expert Professor John Hattie at The University of Melbourne, author of landmark research on the impact of a range of factors on educational outcomes. Geoff Masters, CEO of ACER, is a member of the SLRC Advisory Board.

The SLRC was established to focus on precisely the problems the TIMMS rankings data exposes – that despite increasing spending on education, Australian school-based education outcomes are not keeping pace with other nations. The SLRC has funding for one more year of activity, to the end of 2017, with no funding beyond that time yet identified. Given the importance of an evidence-based approach to improving education, the SLRC has a major role to play in future improvements.

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