Australia consistently outperforms the US in education. In math, science, and reading, Australian students rank 17th, 8th, and 10th, while US students rank 27th, 20th, and 17th respectively according to the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. I had the chance to probe into Australian schools by participating in EduTech in Brisbane and visiting six schools across the country to see how they differ.
The basic structure of the Australian education system is similar to the US model with grades K-12 divided into primary (ages 5-12) and secondary (ages 13-18). Even though our concept of middle school for ages 11-13 is less common there, they do see value to grouping 9th with older students rather than younger. Two-thirds of Australian students attend government schools. About 20% of students are in Catholic schools and the remaining attend independent schools.
After primary school many attend tertiary or higher education institutions. These institutions include universities, technical and further education (TAFE) colleges, and vocation education and training providers/VET providers. Significant funding for higher education comes from the Australian government as defined in the Higher Education Support Act 2003 (HESA). In fact, tuition for higher education was free for Australian citizens prior to 1989. Now bachelor’s degree tuition ranges from about $12,000 to $26,000, but the country’s income-based student loan repayment system is a model that would play well in the US.
The primary and secondary school curriculum is centrally set by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), an independent statutory authority. ACARA runs the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), which all students must take in years 3, 5, 7, and 9. Currently, the tests are administered via paper and pencil, but plans are underway to move the NAPLAN tests online. During my visit, I could detect no quarrel about this central curriculum management, unlike the uproar to the Common Core State Standards initiative in the US.
That is not to say that education in Australia is without controversy. Despite outperforming the US, Australia feels they are falling behind in education. In 2010, a panel commissioned by the Australian government and headed by businessman David Gonski recommended increasing school funding by $5B per year. Since then schools have received “Gonski funding”, but continuation of the program is a hot topic in each national election.
To understand how the Australian style of education differs from others, I spoke with Lyn Jobson, principal at Alamanda K-9 College in Point Cook, Victoria. Lyn describes how the US and Australia are both implementing personalized learning to achieve student competency or mastery in core subjects. The difference is that in Australia, students are not required to achieve full mastery in all elements before they move ahead. The idea is that full mastery can come later as the student is exposed in different ways to the subject content. Teachers insure that prerequisite foundation competencies are mastered, but different students assimilate content at different times and in a different order. In the US, we are more likely to hold a student back until all subjects are sufficiently mastered.