How inequitable is Australian education anyway?

Australia is sometimes described as a ‘high equity’ country when it comes to education. This sounds like something we should be proud of.  However, this requires closer examination.

This ‘equitable’ description is derived from our performance in international student testing administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years they test the literacy, numeracy and scientific ability of 15-year-old students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The most recent testing occurred in 2012, with 65 world economies taking part.

Australia’s relationship between academic performance in PISA and socio-economic status was in the top half of participating countries (Figure 1). As a result, we are deemed to have a ‘high equity’ education system.

Figure 1: Student performance and equity

  Student performance and equity

Source: OECD (2014), Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education, p. 17

However, delving deeper into these results uncovers some disconcerting statistics, such as:

  • We have a less equitable education system than the likes of Russia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Qatar and Mexico.
  • Fifteen-year-olds from our poorest quarter of students are on average 2.5 years behind those from our richest quarter (ACER, 2013: p. 38).
  • Our indigenous students are more than 2.5 years behind non-indigenous students (ACER, 2013: p.37).
  • The performance of our students from Tasmania and the Northern Territory falls into the Low Quality/Low Equity category.

So despite our global standing, our level of disadvantage is both substantial and troubling.

The OECD’s report hints at some of the drivers of this inequity in Australia. The OECD recommends that to create a more equitable (and excellent) education system, countries need to provide adequate resources to address disadvantage, and to secure high-quality teaching in disadvantaged schools. These recommendations are backed by research showing that needs-based funding can close achievement gaps, and that the presence of able and committed teachers is the biggest predictor of students’ educational success.

Yet out of the OECD countries, only Mexico and the United States have lower equity in resource allocation when it comes to education (Figure 2). Even more alarmingly, out of the countries that participated in PISA 2012, Australia has the second highest concentration of teacher shortages occurring in disadvantaged schools. Out of 61 countries. Only Chinese Taipei scores higher on this measure (OECD, p.26).

 Figure 2: Systems’ allocation of educational resources and mathematics performance

Systems’ allocation of educational resources and mathematics performance

 Source: OECD (2014), Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education, p. 23

The results of PISA were not an anomaly. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) examines the reading ability of fourth grade students. In the most recent testing in 2011, Australia placed a ghastly 27th out of 45 countries. This was the lowest of all the English-speaking countries that participated. Here, Australia’s performance gap between affluent and disadvantaged schools was above the international average, and significantly larger than countries we often compare our education system against – Canada and England.

Figure 3: Student achievement by school socio-economic background

Student achievement by school socio-economic background

Source: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2011, Boston College; Page 142.

More Affluent – Schools where more than 25% of Students Come from Economically Affluent Homes and Not More than 25% from Economically Disadvantaged Homes.
More disadvantaged – Schools Where More than 25% of Students Come from Economically Disadvantaged Homes and Not More than 25% from Economically Affluent Homes

Overall, these dismal results betray Australia’s self-image of being a country of the “fair go” and one that punches well above its weight internationally. Being a small country doesn’t cut it as an excuse. Michael Clarke’s World Cup-winning cricket team would not have responded favourably to directives such as: “Just make sure you finish in the top half of the World Cup teams. So finish above the Irish. And don’t lose to any of the lowly ranked nations. Like the United Arab Emirates. And England.”

We don’t accept middling aspirations when it comes to sport, nor should we accept them for education. Like in cricket, Australia has a number of decided advantages in regards to education. We are a wealthy and stable democracy, with a culture historically steeped in egalitarianism. As such, we should be aiming to be a top performer in both academic excellence and, even more importantly, equity.

Critics charge that PISA’s methodology is flawed, and doesn’t measure the most important parts of education. They have some decent points, and it is worth keeping PISA in perspective, but they often don’t provide a better alternative. For the time being, PISA provides the best evidence of how we are performing as a nation over time. If better measures of student performance and equity are possible, we should create them. And then we should strive to be the best in the world at them too.