Australian students are lagging 3.5 years behind in maths. A teacher explains the reasons why.

This week, Australia’s education system was left a little red-faced. The results of an international learning test showed that our students are not only years behind those in top-performing countries, but are also faring far worse than a decade ago.

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test measures the ability of 15-year-olds from randomly selected schools in 79 countries to use their knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science to meet real-life challenges.

Australia’s performance was our worst since PISA assessment began in 2000.

In maths, we trailed 28 countries, including the UK, Canada and New Zealand, with the average student more than 3.5 years behind their first-placed Chinese counterparts. In science, we came in 17th. In reading, 16th. Perhaps most concerningly, across all three subjects, our students are more than a year behind where they were over a decade ago.

Watch: Things teachers never say. Post continues after video. 

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Since the results were released on Tuesday, there have been soundbites about “alarm bells” and “wakeup calls”. Fingers pointed across the political aisle. Shouts about misspent funding, teacher shortages and poor-quality training. Editorial columns and TV panels dissecting where we’ve gone wrong and where our neighbours have gone right.


Meanwhile, Australian teachers and students continued their lessons in classrooms around the country.

Because while many see value in interrogating the system, there’s another test that’s far more important to those within it: NAPLAN. And that’s precisely the problem.

“Is that what we want from our kids?”

Peter Stephens, the Assistant Principal at Parramatta Marist High School, a Catholic boys’ school in Sydney’s western suburbs, has been teaching maths for more than three decades.

He said while reports that Australian students are lagging behind the rest of the world will always be “a hard pill to swallow”, our teachers are bound to a metric far closer to home. One that values rote learning.

The standardised ‘National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy’ was introduced in 2008, with the results of each school published online to allow direct comparison.

“Teachers teach to the NAPLAN test — they do. Because it makes their school look good,” Mr Stephens said.

“I believe the reason we’re failing is because we’re driven to say to students, ‘Well, you have to learn this now. We’ve got to do Pythagoras’ Theorum…’ And that’s what the test measures.

“But is that really what we want from our kids? Or do we want kids that are innovative, that can get up and present, that can use technology, that have the ability to be able to learn?”


“There’s no gratitude anymore.”

That myopic focus on the curriculum isn’t the only substantial change Mr Stephens has witnessed over the past decade, during which Australia’s PISA performance has slid.

“There are so many other distractions that take away from time in the classroom. We’re expected to be nurses, we’re expected to be psychologists, we’re expected to do all this compliance,” he said.

“The other day, I was doing compliance on ‘safe environment’. I’m in the boardroom checking off all these things and I see two kids, one has the other in a headlock, but I’m not out there because I’m ticking boxes.”

Listen: In 2014, Gabbie Stroud broke up with teaching. Between the growing curriculum, demanding parents and standardised tests like NAPLAN, she’d begun to see her role not as a teacher, but as a data analyst.

That increased load — both practical and mental — has coincided with less appreciation for the role of teachers, he argues.

“There’s no gratitude anymore. The kids or the parents, they’re not grateful. All [that load] is just an expectation to them, it’s what teachers do,” he said. “It’s not just kids. That’s amongst the teachers as well. We should be grateful to have this job. I have some really good teachers, but there are others that make me think, ‘you should be grateful for being able to work in a community such as this.'”

There’s evidence here. A 2018 study of 35 countries by the Varkey Foundation found “a direct link” between the status of teachers in that society and PISA performance. Those that held teachers in high regard, and paid them well, achieved better student results.


In China, for example — a consistently top-performing PISA country — people identified the status of teachers as most similar to doctors. The majority of respondents in the other surveyed countries compared them to librarians and social workers.

It’s no surprise to Mr Stephens. It’s partly why he thinks we’re lacking skilled maths teachers in Australia. (The starting salary for a classroom teacher in most states is between $65,000 and $70,000.)

“All my mates left 10 or 15 years ago because they had to support their family, and a teacher’s wage is ridiculous,” he said. “They can make much more money in accounting and business because they’re sharp in their mathematical skills.”

All this adds up to results like those seen this week.

The key to success: “It’s not class sizes. It’s not resources.”

There are schools deviating from the near-fundamentalist adherence to the curriculum. Mr Stephens, for example, has adopted a unique project-based-learning model.

“The students are given a project, and they look at the question [posed by the project] and say, ‘Alright, what do we know and what do we need to know to solve the problem?” he said.

“So we might, for example, build a drone. So we need to know aerodynamics, we need to know trajectory, all that sort of stuff. And that drives the curriculum. So it’s different from most schools… The kids are not focused on what they know; we’re focused on how they learn.”

It means the school doesn’t rank particularly high on the NAPLAN table. But in the NSW HSC, it’s the third-highest performing government non-selective school in the state. And the third highest, full stop, in maths.


The key to the success of this novel approach, said Mr Stephens, is quality teachers.

“The thing that really affects kids and their learning is the teacher. It’s not class sizes. It’s not resources. It’s actually the teacher,” he said. “To me, good teaching is about how the teacher relates to the student, how that teacher relates to their subject, and how the teacher gets the student to relate to the teacher and to the subject at the same time. So those three things connecting to each other.

“If a kid comes into my class and he sees that I am passionate about my maths and he knows that I care about him and I care about him caring about his maths, then he’ll do well.”

The support of parents is also crucial. Mr Stephens urges parents to maintain open communication with teachers, especially if they’re concerned about their child’s performance.

“Whether it’s through a phone call or a note in their diary, communication is very very important. Saying, ‘My son is not doing very well in maths. What can I do to help?’ I think that’s important,” he said.

“We can’t do it on our own. I certainly need the support of the parents and the parents need our support. We need to work collaboratively to make sure that we do the best for their child.”

Feature image: Getty.