Australia has been ranked among the best places in the world to be during the coronavirus pandemic and to move to after it is over, according to international media. This is not by chance but a result of a particular way of dealing with the most dangerous global health crisis of the century.
The key theory of managing the coronavirus crisis is simple: go strong early on with prevention and insist on active testing, contact tracing and isolating possible infections. Making the decision to act this way was not political or ideological but based on the best available evidence and advice from epidemiologists and health experts.
While we may be leading the health pandemic recovery, it seems Australia has an education epidemic it is not treating effectively. Two decades ago, Australia was one of the leading education nations in the world. The OECD used to hold Australia as one of the best in class in education. But not any longer.
Despite frequent school reforms, performance has not been improving. Indeed, it has been in decline compared with many other countries. The OECD statistics reveal system-wide inequity that is boosted by education resource gaps between schools that are among the largest in the world. UNICEF has ranked Australia’s education among the most unequal in rich countries.
Often, the inspiration for education reforms are imported from the US and Britain. Yet, the evidence to support many of these grand policy changes here is weak or non-existent. For instance, research shows that market-based models of school choice, test-based accountability, and privatisation of public education have been wrong strategies for world-class education elsewhere.
So, what should we do instead? Success in fighting the health pandemic is a result of relying on best available science and expert knowledge to maximise the effectiveness of treatments while minimising their side effects. We should follow that principle in education, too.
Evidence-based education policies use research to link treatment and expected outcomes, but they almost always ignore possible harmful side effects they may have on schools, teachers or children. Take NAPLAN, for example. Those who advocate the necessity of national standardised testing back their views by positive consequences of high-stakes testing while ignoring the associated risks: narrowing curriculum, teaching to the tests and declining student motivation, just to mention some.
Education and health are important contributors to a better life. During the pandemic, we have seen what evidence-based public health policies look like. But unlike medicine, education operates on the basis of ideology, politics and consensus.
In early December, Australia’s plans of having a home-grown COVID-19 vaccine were ruined when the University of Queensland research team found that participants in phase 1 trials tested weakly positive on HIV tests. These side effects made Prime Minister Scott Morrison terminate a $1 billion deal with UQ.
If education was like medicine, many controversial policies, including NAPLAN, MySchool and school funding models, would have been terminated during trial phases.
If we have learnt anything in 2020, it is that we need to act in education more like we act in medicine. We should stop claiming there is extensive evidence behind suggested treatments such as the School Success Model without being sure about their side effects.
More importantly, it is unfair to expect schools to base their pedagogical decisions on solid evidence unless the policies behind these expectations are based on best available science and professional practice.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5th January 2021