International Reads: News from the Top-Performing Education Systems

New Coalition Government in Australia 
Tony AbbottAfter several years of leadership by Julia Gillard, first as education minister then as prime minister, a new coalition government has taken over in Australia.  New Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott is recruiting indigenous leader Noel Pearson to help fix low-performing schools across the nation through implementation of direct instruction.  Pearson developed a strategy for improving schools that allows increasing amounts of autonomy as schools improve, but requires that teachers in low-performing schools use direct instruction.  Direct instruction provides scripted lessons for teachers so that the content is clear and students only move on when they have mastered each lesson.  Pearson used this approach with three low-performing schools for indigenous children in Cape York, Queensland.  Abbott is hoping to use the approach nationally with low-performing schools serving both indigenous and non-indigenous children.

In his first week in office, Abbott also suggested that the national history curriculum be revised to reflect more “Western” history and said that “…unions are mentioned far more than business.”  He said that there is “…too great a focus on issues which are the predominant concern of one side of politics.”  Abbott’s Coalition government has said it would stay with the new national curriculum but “…review its content.”

Ben Jensen, the school education program director at the Grattan Institute, urged the new government to continue federal reforms of the schools, in an opinion piece in the AustralianHe suggests the government give immediate attention to clarifying the status of the funding reforms put in place by the previous Labour government and to making clear the benefits of the new national curriculum and the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).  He also urges the new government to replicate successful local programs, improve the content of teacher education (not just tighten availability of spaces), focus on school principal training, and change the tax code to allow philanthropists and businesses to make donations to government schools.

Addressing Issues of School Equity
Across the globe, countries are struggling with how to provide an equitable education to all students regardless of income or ability level. New Zealand is currently re-evaluating the effectiveness of its school rating system that awards funding based on the proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Meanwhile, China is working on building stronger education policies in support of students from rural areas and students with disabilities.

BackpacksSince 1995 all schools in New Zealand have been given a decile rating indicating the extent to which it draws students from low socioeconomic communities.  Decile one schools are the ten percent of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, whereas decile ten schools are the ten percent with the lowest proportion of such students.  These deciles determine, in part, how much government funding each school receives with low-decile schools receiving more funding than high-decile schools.  However, over the past several years the system has come under fire. Many educators and parents claim that the rankings do not give a fair or realistic picture of the varied student demographic within schools.  Geoff Shepherd, principal of Kuranui College in Greytown, said the decile tool was no longer fair or useful, “We’re a decile five school and have kids from so-called decile one homes and decile ten homes, so we get hardly any funding. There’s nothing extra for our disadvantaged kids.”  Education Minister Hekia Parata says the ratings, though well intentioned, are “really clumsy”, and has asked the ministry to explore new options for funding in order to better target high-needs students within schools.  New Zealand School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr welcomed a review and said it was time parents stopped associating deciles with the success of a school.  On the other hand, Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins feared any government changes could lead to “poor kids getting a rough deal”.  Read more at Stuff.co.nz

The Chinese Ministry of Education and Finance has announced that it is granting allowances to rural teachers, especially those working in impoverished areas, according to China Daily.  Currently about 600 counties provide allowances to more than 1 million rural teachers.  Around 6.2 million primary and middle school teachers work in rural areas of China, accounting for 70 percent of the total number of teachers working in compulsory education (from primary to high school), according to statistics from the Ministry of Education.  Xu Tao, the director in charge of teacher’s affairs with the Ministry, states in the article that these teachers face far more difficulties than their urban peers (larger class sizes, harsher working and living conditions, etc.) and that these teachers should receive the same or even higher salaries than their urban peers.

While China has been allocating more funds into building special education schools to guarantee the equal right to schooling, they still have a long way to go.  Twenty eight percent of school-aged children with disabilities in China still cannot enroll in school because there are no schools to accommodate them, according to a new report from the China Disabled Persons’ Federation.  Last school year, this amounted to 91,000 disabled children remaining outside of the State education system. In an interview with chinadaily.com, Beijing Union University Professor Xu Jiacheng says, “Especially in less developed areas, parents and teachers still think there is no need to educate children with disabilities.” The central government offers two options for students with disabilities: mainstream schools and special education schools.  Mainstream schools do not always have the facilities and teachers trained in special-education needs, however. Read the full story here.

Bridging the Higher Education to Workforce Gap
Two decades ago, a higher education degree almost guaranteed a spot in the workforce. The latest employment/educational attainment numbers from Japan add to the mounting pile of evidence proving that this is no longer the case.  And in Ontario, government officials are working closely with its higher education institutes to reverse this trend.

The number of graduate students who completed a doctorate program this past spring and are working on a non-permanent basis or otherwise not holding a steady job rose to 40 percent, according to Japan’s education ministry’s School Basic Survey.  The Asahi Shimbun reports that the number of students entering Ph.D. programs increased by 150 percent over the past two decades, a trend that was encouraged by the Japanese government.  In 1991, the government predicted “a rapid increase in demand at companies and research institutes accompanying advancements in research and industrial technology” and then established policies to increase the number of graduates to reach a goal of “approximately doubling the current number of the next decade”.  However universities, the main employers of Ph.D. holders, did not keep up with the influx in the market or offer enough new positions for these job-seekers.

University in OntarioOntario’s government developed a plan to require universities and colleges to offer programs that meet local labor market needs.  The strategy is an attempt to curb spending on higher education after a decade of massive growth and record deficits.  The government plans to use “tools” like funding, curbs on student spaces and approval authority for new programs to steer higher education in the province in this direction.  The draft framework proposes metrics in eight areas to assess universities strength and progress, including student employment statistics and private sector partnerships as well as student satisfaction surveys.

Interventions for Low-Performing Schools
New Zealand Education Minister Hekia Parata has warned that schools where children are failing exams could be taken over by the government, citing the needs to hold staff accountable for students’ performance.  School interventions in New Zealand usually happen only after major staffing, safety or financial issues arise, but according to Minister Parata, “It’s interesting that we are not putting in interventions when learning is not occurring … I think we need to be moving much closer to that.”  Ms. Parata says that better data, mostly through the National Standards program, will make it easier for the ministry to know when such intervention is necessary.  Secondary Principals’ Association president Tom Parsons said the message would be a “frightening scenario” for many teachers and principals.  He suggests that such information should instead be used to help facilitate collaboration between high and low performing schools.  Ms. Parata said that data from National Standards would not be used alone in making decisions about possible interventions but would form a case together with Education Review Office reports and other information.  Read more at The New Zealand Herald.