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Why are Australian students lagging behind Canada?

PISA national project manager Sue Thomson said a key difference was Canada had focused on lifting the performance of its disadvantaged students.

A similar percentage of teachers in both countries hold master’s degrees (less than a quarter), but in Canada there is a smaller gap between how many of those teachers work in advantaged and disadvantaged schools. And while the reading gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students in Australia is on par with the OECD average (about three years), Canada’s performance gap is 20 points below average.

“We need to look at how we lift the performance of kids in the lowest socio-economic quartile [in Australia], because they’re the ones really lagging behind,” Dr Thomson said.

The Grattan Institute’s school education program director Peter Goss said Canada was more structured in how it spreads expertise among teachers.

“Their federal government has virtually no role in school education. Each province is finding their own and different way. In Ontario, they have much more well established networks to share effective practice than most parts of Australia,” he said.

Ms Mitchell said the state government was seeking to learn from Canada after a study tour of the country this year.

“Witnessing firsthand the emphasis they have placed on maths and their improved results helped inform our recent decision to make maths compulsory to the end of Year 12,” she said. “There are other areas of reform that we are looking at in terms of early childhood, Indigenous education and rural and remote education.”

State-based results leave experts puzzled

NSW this week recorded the greatest decline in science and reading of all states and territories since PISA global testing began, as well as the largest six-year decline in mathematics.

Dr Goss said he was surprised to see the state showing “such big drops over time”, particularly in comparison to Victoria.

He said NSW and Victoria had improved in NAPLAN over the last decade, with NSW performing slightly better. “That’s clearly not the pattern we see in PISA and it poses an important question,” he said.

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While NAPLAN tests basic skills, PISA tests higher order thinking and asks students to apply their learning to demonstrate a preparedness for life. “Different parts of Australia seem to have a different balance of explicit teaching and inquiry learning that may be associated with who’s done well and who hasn’t,” Dr Goss said.

Inquiry-based learning emphasises processes and problem-solving, while explicit instruction is geared towards teaching to specific outcomes. “A balance of both teaching methods delivers the best outcomes,” Dr Goss said.

Dr Thomson said other states needed to look at why Victoria’s steady results spanned 15 years and successive governments.

“I can’t identify what they have been doing,” she said. “The fact the answer is not clear indicates we need to stop and press pause on the whole thing. Let’s unpack this and learn from what’s going on in different states [without] rushing into quick solutions.”

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