Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kevin Donnelly from Australia: Lifting student achievement

Forget the argument that non-government schools are no different to government schools in terms of outcomes – Catholic schools in particular have high completion rates and are better able to help disadvantaged students do better than otherwise might be expected.

It’s Year 12 examination time and while there are many other indicators of a student’s success at school – including sporting achievements and developing personal life skills – there’s no doubt that Year 12 results are high on the list.

Whether a student gets into university, especially high demand faculties like medicine, law and commerce, depends on their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank and how effective their school is in ensuring they get the best results.

Make no mistake, and contrary to the argument that success or failure depends on where a student lives and if he or she come from poor or wealthy homes, the type of school attended is one of the most important factors influencing success or failure.

Research proves, with the exception of selective schools like Melbourne High and Sydney’s Fort Street High, that Catholic and independent schools compared to government schools get the best academic results and get more students into university.

A 2013 study of the impact of schools on tertiary entry argues that the socioeconomic background of a student “does not emerge as a significant factor” and that more important factors include school sector, whether a school has an academic focus or not and whether it is single sex or co-educational.
While agreeing that student ability and motivation are important the study concludes that attending a Catholic or independent school compared to a government school results in about a 20% variation in a student’s ATAR.
Put simply, and according to a second paper investigating the impact of different types of schools on tertiary entry, students who attend non-government schools can achieve ATAR results between 4 to 8 points higher than students at a government school.

And while such numbers might not seem great the reality is that a difference of one or two marks can decide whether a student gets into their first choice, especially for high demand courses like law.

When it comes to staying at school it’s also true that non-government schools are more effective.  Australian research investigating completion rates concludes “Respondents from Catholic or independent schools are more likely to complete Year 12 than those in government schools”.

And the argument by non-government school critics that Catholic and independent schools only get strong academic results because they enrol wealthy and privileged students is wrong.

Gary Marks, from the University of Melbourne, argues “differences in student performance between and within schools cannot be accounted for by socioeconomic background”.

One of the reasons non-government schools do well is because of school climate and school culture.

In a paper investigating the results achieved by schools from different sectors Gary Marks argues that Catholic schools have “higher standards of discipline and greater emphasis on academic performance”.

The fact that Catholic schools achieve such strong educational outcomes explains why they are so popular with parents, especially in Melbourne’s growth corridors, and why their enrolment growth outstrips government schools.

To argue that non-government schools outperform government schools in areas like Year 12 examinations does not mean that state schools have to be relegated to second best.

And we don’t have to look to Asian countries and Finland for solutions to how best to raise standards and it’s not about investing more and more into education

Under performing schools can learn from those non-government schools that do so well.  State schools, like Catholic and independent, need to enforce a disciplined classroom environment where teachers set high expectations about student behaviour.

Instead of government schools justifying underperformance because students come from disadvantaged backgrounds they need to work on the assumption that students, regardless of background, can achieve strong results.

Schools also need to promote an academic environment where students are expected to master difficult subjects, there is regular testing and an acceptance that learning requires hard work, concentration and effort.

While most students aspire to getting into university, schools also need to appreciate that not all have the ability or interest in academic studies and that vocational education and training and learning a trade are equally as worthwhile.

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