Michele Bruniges on improving individual student achievement

By David Donaldson

December 15, 2017

There is plenty of data around to guide education policy and teaching practice but putting it to use is still a “work in progress”, says Commonwealth Education Secretary Michele Bruniges.

“I do think we need to turn a much greater attention to evidence,” thinks Dr Bruniges, who conducted her doctoral research in educational measurement.

“Coming from a measurement perspective, having the right scales to be able to look at the data we’re collecting, look at the validity and the reliability of data that we have before us, to rely and form strategic partnerships and alliances with the university sector and third party providers who do have a great deal of evidence and to link that evidence up to inform policy discussion — to me it’s absolutely critical,” she told the University of Melbourne’s Policy Shop podcast.

“I look across the Department of Education and Training here at the Commonwealth level and we have a lot of data in early childhood, in the schooling sector, in the tertiary sector including VET and higher ed and international. What we need to do here is to be able to link that data and to be able to use it better to inform policy positions and options for government.

“So to me that’s still work in progress right from the Commonwealth department’s level, right to forming strategic partnerships and alliances with universities to be able to research and help us understand what the data is telling us.

“What we aren’t good at is turning research into practice and being very clear about what it is that teachers need to do differently…”

“Right down at the classroom where every teacher in every classroom should be keenly tuned in to knowing where students are at and making decisions about indeed what they need to do next based on the very best of research. I think we’re really fantastic at doing a lot of research. What we aren’t good at is turning research into practice and being very clear about what it is that teachers need to do differently as a result of that research.”

Not just theoretical but based on practicality

A lack of common understanding between the tiers of government has been a frequent criticism of Australia’s education policy space. Bruniges crosses this divide having worked in Australia’s smallest jurisdiction and its largest jurisdiction, and now the Commonwealth.

“I’ve drawn many a time on my invaluable experiences working in the New South Wales government and the ACT government in bringing that experience and depth of knowledge to the Commonwealth,” says Bruniges.

“I’ll often say to my staff: when was the last time you were in a childcare centre, when was the last time you visited a school, when was the last time you were in a university, when’s the last time you you’ve been in a registered training organisation to ensure that you’re in sync, so when you’re providing the best possible policy advice to the government of the day that you have a reach and a scope that’s not just theoretical but based on the practicality of what’s happening in each of those settings.”

Progress is needed in Australian education

Standardised test results show we have fallen behind nine other OECD countries, including Japan, Canada and Singapore.

According to the PISA test, Australian students’ reading, maths and science abilities have declined steadily since 2000. In maths and science, for example, on average an Australian 15 year old has the problem solving skills equivalent to a 12 year old Korean pupil. Interestingly, we are declining more at the top end of the range than the lower end.

“That brings questions about how indeed we support all children in all classroom settings and all types of schools to be stretched and to be able to do the best they possibly can,” says Bruniges.

Countries like Singapore, Finland and Canada can teach us a lot about where Australia’s education system could improve, such as taking teaching seriously as a profession and seeing it as a life-long commitment requiring regular professional development and learning.

“There are many lessons that we need to take stock of from our colleagues in high performing countries. Some of the research that are done in places like Singapore, like Finland, actually look at the nature and structure of the day. They look at the high value of teaching as the status of the teaching profession which is incredibly important.

“They look at principalship and the importance of school leadership. They look at how to best use teachers in schools. Sometimes that means bigger class sizes, sometimes that means smaller groups, to ensure that they’re meeting the needs of the students,” she thinks.

“So many, many lessons we can learn.”


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