There is no doubt Australia has good schooling systems: we perform well on international tests and generally have high levels of participation and achievement. However, in recent years Australia's declining academic performance - relative to international peers and absolutely in student performance - has become harder to mistake.
In the 2000 OECD Program for International Student Assessment test results, Australia ranked second in reading and mathematics. In the most recent tests in 2009, Australia trailed 12 countries in mathematics and six in reading. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study test implies even greater cause for concern: in 2011, Australia ranked 27th for reading. The results from these and other internationally administered tests, together with national literacy and numeracy tests, point to the reality that Australia's school education systems - long among the best performing in the world - have stagnated.
To meet this challenge, we cannot afford to be complacent and content with only above-average results; instead, we must target the causes of poor performance.
In 2007, in response to the long-debated question of why some schools and school reform agendas succeed and some do not, McKinsey & Company studied the world's best performing school systems. Its report outlined the common features of rapidly improving and highly successful school systems around the world to demonstrate that substantial improvements in student outcomes are possible with the application of three essential practices at the system-level: getting the right teachers in place; getting effective instruction right; and ensuring the system delivers for every student.
Building on this work, in 2010 McKinsey analysed more than 20 education systems at different levels of performance to understand how a school system with poor performance becomes a good system and how one with good performance becomes great. This research found each stage of a school improvement journey - from poor to excellent - is associated with a different cluster of interventions, but a lever common to all stages is to build the instructional skills of teachers.
It is our view that although this research analysed school systems across the world, these findings apply equally within systems to individual schools. Thus, the measures to achieve significant, sustained and widespread gains in student outcomes vary based on a school's starting point.
Policy-makers often fail to grasp this nuance and frequently latch on to specific reforms as silver bullets to transform the performance of all schools, rather than aligning interventions to target performance levels.
There is no use in all Australian schools blindly following a system such as that in Finland, which is at the excellent end of the spectrum. But there is a section of Australian schools for which Finland provides a very appropriate model. The schools I work with in Cape York Peninsula are at the opposite end of the improvement spectrum from Finland, and the appropriate interventions for our schools are more like Singapore in the 1970s and early 80s - but not Singapore as it is today.
Our ambition to propel Australia into the top tier of schooling systems, in terms of both equity and excellence, requires us to improve the performance of all schools: to move below-benchmark schools to the benchmark and at-benchmark schools beyond the benchmark, and to support above-benchmark schools in maintaining their trajectory. While the overall approach should aim to improve teaching and instructional quality, this will look different for high-performing and low-performing schools. Our reform thinking in Cape York is based on this compelling framework.
For example, levels of school and teacher professional autonomy vary depending on whether your school is on the poor to fair stage of its improvement journey, or on the good to great stage. This staged autonomy model set out by McKinsey means it is as mistaken to give low-performing schools autonomy as it is to restrain high-performing schools by not affording them full professional autonomy. The international evidence tells us the spectrum moves from prescription at the starting end to autonomy at the other.
While we have our share of high-performing schools, Australia's schooling systems produce uneven outcomes. Students who begin formal education behind their peers and do not catch up in the first years of primary school, never catch up. Indigenous children, children from jobless households and children living in remote areas are much more likely to be illiterate and innumerate than non-indigenous children, children with employed parents and city dwellers. These students are less prepared for school when they commence and typically have a formal education characterised by inexperienced teachers, high teacher turnover, disrupted classrooms and poor instruction.
And because foundational literacy and numeracy skills are the building blocks of academic success, in many ways, rather than alleviating intergenerational disadvantage, our systems only serve to entrench it.
Our top students perform well relative to international peers, but there is a chasm between our best and worst performers. And our worst performers have much poorer achievement than the lowest performing students of the best systems: in reading, the bottom 5 per cent of students in Shanghai, the top-ranked system in 2009, performed at a level 23 months ahead of the bottom 5 per cent of Australian students.
This long tail of educational underachievement is not inevitable. There is much international evidence that a high-performing and highly equitable system is attainable.
The world's top performing schooling systems have far fewer students at the low end of achievement than Australia: the gap between our top and bottom 5 per cent of students in the 2009 PISA reading tests was one of the greatest of any country with above-average overall performance.
The 2010 McKinsey study found that all school systems successful in achieving sustained improvement within a given performance journey share a common set of characteristics in what they do and how they do it. However, there was substantial variation in how a system implements these interventions with regard to their sequence, timing and rollout, highlighting the importance of a system's context.
McKinsey's conclusion on the importance of teaching and instruction quality is consistent with a large body of academic research that finds the influence of teacher effectiveness on student outcomes outweighs the impact of any other school policy. Conservative estimates suggest an Australian student with an effective (75th percentile of effectiveness) teacher will learn in three quarters of a year what would take a full year with a less effective (25th percentile) teacher.
Moreover, the impact of effective teaching is cumulative. Evidence from the US shows students who had an effective teacher three years in a row outperformed students who had an ineffective teacher by 49 percentile points on school assessments.
High-quality instruction is the keystone to educational reform, and should be the central organising principle of any school. Like similar calls before us, we recognise the blame does not lie with individual teachers and advocate for a new approach to improve teacher effectiveness through high-quality and consistent instruction and a coherent, integrated curriculum. By focusing on the method of instruction, we can improve the quality of teaching much faster than improving teacher qualifications.
While there are many necessary reforms to the process of attracting, training and retaining highcalibre candidates and teachers, these are long-term and any benefit - even if implemented today - is likely many years away. We need a scalable model of effective instruction now.