Pasi Sahlberg’s diagnosis and cure for Australia’s ailing education system


Pasi Sahlberg has been opining about the Australian education system again. To summarise his thesis, back in the early 2000s, the PISA results of a group of countries including Australia caused education systems around the world to look to those countries for guidance. Since then, we have fallen from international grace. We are no longer seen as ‘progressive and future-looking’ but ‘conservative, ineffective and outdated’. This is not, apparently, due to our declining PISA scores, but because of the inequity of our system.

Sahlberg’s answer is to splash the cash with measures that include, “high-quality early childhood education as a basic right for all children, preventive support for children and families in their health and wellbeing, allocating money to schools to offer individualised help to all children, and investing in teacher collaboration and professionalism to advance school improvement.”

It is hard to establish the evidence base for Sahlberg’s claims. Who is it exactly who viewed us one way and now views us differently? If we knew, we could perhaps look at some data. There must be some data, after all, for otherwise how would Sahlberg know we are seen differently? Surely this is not anecdotal?

And why the pivot from PISA? If PISA results initially caused us to be seen a certain way, and if perceptions have changed, why would that change in perceptions have nothing to do with our PISA decline? How does Sahlberg know this? It would seem to be the most obvious reason for a change in perceptions. And if, as Sahlberg acknowledges, the issue of equity in Australia’s education system ‘is not a recent finding’, then why does he think it is the cause for a change in perceptions?

Indeed, rising inequity is not a recent trend in Australian education. According to this OECD document, the gap in reading performance explained by student socioeconomic status stayed pretty much the same between 2009 and 2018. And in another document, we find the same story for science performance between 2006 and 2015. Everywhere you look for the data the disadvantage gap for Australian students seems to be pretty close to the OECD mean and stable over time.

Is it more plausible that a stable, middling relationship between socioeconomic status and performance has caused a change in international perceptions of Australian education than a large decline in overall performance?

Yes, passions rage in Australia about state funding of independent schools, selective schools and many other issues and people are entitled to express their views about this. However, that does not give us license to imagine cause-and-effect relationships where they do not exist.

Sahlberg has obviously noticed something in the wind. At one point, he worries about reforms where teachers, “should be allowed to use only evidence-proof teaching methods,” alongside better founded concerns about performance-related pay and superstar teachers. What are these strangely named ‘evidence-proof teaching methods’ and why, if they are somehow based on evidence, would we be worried about them? Is it that they may perhaps replace teaching methods that don’t have much of a basis in evidence but that fulfil the ideological need to be ‘progressive and future-looking’?

An example of such a teaching method hails from Sahlberg’s home country, Finland. Finland introduced ‘phenomenon-based learning‘ in 2017. It does not seem to be supported by much in the way of evidence and is unlikely to arrest Finland’s relentless PISA decline, a decline that Sahlberg also attributes, perhaps inevitably, to rising inequity. If all you have is a hammer then I suppose everything looks like a nail.

What of Sahlberg’s solutions for Australian education? Well, more money is always welcome and it would be great to have expanded access to early education. However, as was the case with Britain under Blair and Brown, you can spend massively on education without shifting the dial on performance. Does that matter if children have better wellbeing? Well, for one thing, wellbeing is linked to academic performance so setting the two up in opposition to each other seems strange.

Teacher collaboration and ‘professionalism’ is definitely a good idea, but exactly what does Sahlberg have in mind? Teams working on formative assessment? Teachers co-planning lessons? Learning walks? Instructional rounds? Without the specifics, it just sounds like something to say and it has the added bonus of being impossible to critique. After all, who is making the case that teachers should not collaborate and should be unprofessional?

And money for individualised help? If we are talking one-to-one tuition then that would probably be effective if the tutors used a mastery learning approach but it would also be incredibly expensive. If it’s just about more exhortations to differentiate then it’s likely to be pointless.

In sum, Sahlberg has diagnosed the wrong problem while suggesting a cure that is simultaneously vague and expensive.

5 thoughts on “Pasi Sahlberg’s diagnosis and cure for Australia’s ailing education system

  1. one thing we have seen in the last couple of decades in Australian education is that shifting a lot of kids into the private system has not resulted in better academic performance. Overall, parents are not getting their money’s worth by spending up on school fees. Pasi is right to say we should look further than teacher quality when designing policy to improve education, because teacher quality is only one part of the formula. maybe all the money that has been wasted trying to give people choice, and in private schools could be better spent. There is no sane reason that the federal government should be giving money to private schools that an afford concert halls and swimming pools, when many public schools cannot afford a decent IT system, library, or playground

    1. Much as I broadly agree with you about private school funding, the calculus isn’t that simple unfortunately. I’ve worked far too long in the public system to think that any sort of windfall would be put to particularly good use.

      1. There are multiple issues here. Pasi talks about inequities in inputs. My take on this is that governments should aim to get the best value for the money they spend. It seems that the current policy settings thta encourage people to send their kids to private schools, by providing substantial funding to these schools, does not result in improved academic outcomes overall. So that money could better spent in other ways.

        If you choose to spend more at public schools you would apply the same criteria, how do we spend it to get the best bang? Spend it badly and the money will be wasted

    2. Private schools save the government money.

      If a student leaves the private sector, the whole cost of that student’s education falls to the state. It would be a financial disaster if the state had to pick up all the private students. The cost of the buildings alone would be immense.

      That’s why politicians of all parties continue to subsidise the private sector (as they do in NZ, England etc). They often are strongly opposed on political grounds (e.g British Labour) but the costs of not doing so are to much to bear.

      1. Not true. The independent school lobby, religious zealots, and entitled middle class-welfare recipients are too much to bear.
        In Australia, with our close to 100% subsidy means that private schools save very little taxpayer money. If the Government actually wanted to save money in this space they would target these subsidies first as they would easily make back any costs of students returning to the public system.

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