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Our School Kids' Test Scores Are In Free Fall. Here's How We Fix It.

Australia has just recorded the worst labour productivity growth since records began and the worst school test results this century.

As a cornucopia of commentators have noted, Australia now underperforms plenty of nations that are poorer than us, such as Korea, Singapore and Estonia.

In reality, the test score slump shouldn’t surprise anyone. A decade ago, Melbourne University’s Chris Ryan and I showed that Australia’s test scores had dropped over the period from 1964 to 2003. NAPLAN results suggest little change in student performance from 2008 to 2019.

But it’s the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests that paint the most troubling picture. Administered every three years since 2000, they show Australian students doing worse on maths, reading and science. Every time Australian 15 year olds are tested, average scores have dropped.

(Image: PISA)
(Image: PISA)
(Image: PISA)

Forget how we’ve slid relative to other countries -- it’s enough to compare our own students with their predecessors. Year 9 students today score worse than year 8 students would have done at the turn of the century. If this was a sporting contest, we’d be running slower, dropping the ball more often, and missing more goals.

The PISA tests matter because they are designed to capture the skills that young people will need in the workplace. These tests don’t measure memorisation and rote learning -- they aim to capture the essential talents that will be needed in the labour market.

What’s behind Australia’s massive test score decline? The simple answer is that Australia hasn’t done enough to attract and retain talented teachers.

Recent work by the Grattan Institute shows that since the late 1980s, the share of teachers who scored in the top fifth of their class has fallen from 30 percent to 19 percent.

Naturally, a good player doesn’t always make a good coach. Teaching requires more than knowing the subject matter. But I’m yet to meet anyone who thinks that the decline in the literacy and numeracy of new teachers is a positive development.

Australia hasn’t done enough to attract and retain talented teachers. (Image: Getty)

One of the problems is pay. In the 1980s, teacher salary was on par with pay in other professional occupations. Today, it is substantially lower. When the Grattan Institute surveyed high-achievers about teaching, they found that successful students also wanted rigour and a chance for significant progression. As one respondent put it, teaching needs "better pay, more intellectual challenge and the ability to... move forward".

Teaching is the profession that creates all other professions. Recent US research finds that a terrific teacher can boost the lifetime earnings of each student by around US$250,000. Summed across a class of 20 or more pupils, this means that a talented teacher is literally worth their weight in gold.

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That’s why improving teacher quality is perhaps the best productivity-boosting reform that Australia could deploy. At a time when artificial intelligence and mobile connectivity are changing jobs, young Australians need more skills than ever before. We also need to prepare future generations for lifelong learning -- the ability to retrain as the labour market adapts. If you’re a 20-year-old mechanic, it’s a fair bet that the petrol-powered, human-driven cars of today won’t be the only kinds of vehicles in the workshop by the time you retire. But with the right on-the-job training, there’s no reason that that young mechanic can’t finish their career as an expert in repairing electric-powered driverless cars.

Teaching is the profession that creates all other professions. (Image: Getty)

There’s no perfect crystal ball that can forecast the jobs of the future. Technological change and globalisation can reshape occupations in sudden and unexpected ways. As a result, occupational projections are so inaccurate that they make political forecasting look positively prescient.

In an uncertain world, it’s better to be a generalist than a specialist. Basic skills, like science, reading and maths, are critical. And the need for talented schoolteachers has never been more acute. Improving educational quality is vital to Australia escaping its productivity funk, and being prepared for more technologically advanced workplaces. If the robots are coming, we’re going to need great teachers to meet them.

'Innovation + Equality: How to Create a Future That Is More Star Trek Than Terminator' by Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh is available here