Slippery slipping standards


Attention has recently been drawn, yet again, to the spectre of falling skills standards in Australia. This time, several commentators from inside and outside academia have picked up on a newly-released report by the Australian Industry group claiming that employers are loudly complaining about their workers’ literacy and numeracy skills.

The AIG report contains the results of an employer survey – termed the Survey of Workforce Development Needs – in which employers could flag one or more of a number of possible problems that were being `affected’ by a lack of literacy and numeracy. Some 42% of respondents flagged the problem of `poor completion of workplace documents / reports’, and several other problems got votes of over 20% (`teamwork / communication problems’, `material wastage / material errors / non-compliance’, and `time wasting’).

The AIG report also shows the position of Australia relative to peer nations on the OECD’s `Survey of Adult Skills‘ for both literacy and numeracy, and proceeds to ring the following alarm bell: `It is clear that a major literacy and numeracy problem persists in the general population and the workforce.’

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

Around the merry-go-round…again

There is a strong element of deja vu about this. The fear that Australia is turning out a next generation that is under-prepared to succeed in the global economy is a perennial public hot button, because it calls into question the potency of the country on the world stage.

Heated conversations (e.g., here, here, here, and here) over the past several years about NAPLAN, teacher training, bureaucratic incentives, classroom management, monolingualism, the Gonski program and so on have demonstrated the public concern for the quality of education in our country.

Concerns about slipping standards in higher education have also been a popular theme in recent times, with fingers pointed at university incentives, student cheating, international students, and university governance.

These discussions have pointed to myriad possible ways we could try to improve the education provided to students studying in Australia, from primary school to university. But did all of these previous discussions miss something big that the new AIG report unearths?

The AIG Report

Let’s consider exactly what the AIG report is saying. The focal question posed of employers is as follows (lifted from here):

Is you business affected by any of the following problems due to a lack of literacy and numeracy skills? Check any that apply
Poor completion of workplace documents / reports
Time wasting
Potential for workplace injuries or unsafe work practices
Material wastage / material errors / non-compliance
Staff lack confidence / unwilling to take on new work
Financial miscalculations
Recruitment difficulties
Teamwork problems / communication problems

Leaving aside the grammatical error in the question itself, the `problem areas’ listed have been significantly widened compared with the analogous `problem areas’ listed in the previous version of the report, reproduced below:

Inadequate completion of workplace documents or reports
Time wasting
Material wastage
Staff unable/unwilling to take on new work
Staff lack confidence
Financial miscalculations
Recruitment difficulties
Ineffective work teams
Not applicable

Far fewer `yes’ boxes were ticked in this previous (2012) survey. The shock 42% of employers complaining about errors in document preparation in the most recent results was only half that size in the prior survey’s results. Was there a true 100% increase over three years in employer-reported document and report completion problems laid at the feet of poor basic skills? It seems more likely that fewer employers would agree that employee skill problems caused `inadequate completion’ than that they caused `poor completion’, because `inadequate’ is a subset of `poor’.

The report also does not make explicit where the `over 90%’ scare figure comes from that is picked up here. Further, while declaiming about the poor state of basic adult literacy and numeracy demonstrated in the OECD survey data, the reports fails to mention that Australia is actually ranked fifth best – between Sweden and Norway – in the OECD adult literacy league table, and only just below average (slightly above Canada) in adult numeracy. We may be bad, but then so are our friends it seems, at least on these measures.

More broadly, the AIG as an institution has every incentive to design surveys so as to highlight workforce problems for which industry cannot be blamed. Doing this successfully makes it easier for the AIG to lobby for more money to be spent on government programs to fix those problems, whether they are argued to be the fault of schools or poor (dare one say inadequate?) subsidies for post-school training programs.

And, exactly in line with these incentives, calls for more money for training programs (`national provision of foundation skills programs in the workplace’) feature prominently in the AIG report’s conclusions.

What’s news?

If the facts here broadly consist of old wine in new and somewhat leaky barrels, then what can we take away from the AIG’s investigations of workplace skills?

What this report makes me wonder is where exactly our literacy and numeracy skill inadequacies, to whatever degree they exist, are coming from. From a long-term policy standpoint, there are two distinguishable sources: inadequate formal education, or inadequate training for workers who did not attend formal education in Australia.

If the problem is the former, then Australians’ robust discussions around how to improve school and university performance, some of which are linked to above, are hitting the source of the problem on the head. We should be experimenting with different mechanisms, from meritocratic teacher compensation to flipped classrooms to foreign-language immersion from kindergarten to university governance shake-ups, with the goal of isolating a few potent levers and them implementing them on a broader scale. The policymaker concerned with getting everyone over minimum thresholds in basic literacy and numeracy before they enter the workforce should focus particularly on innovations that can be implemented in failing schools, rural schools, and those that serve disadvantaged populations and children whose first language is not English.

If, however, the problem is inadequate basic skills of people arriving here after their formal education has been completed, then a very different long-term policy prescription would be written. One would then want to see more government investment into cultural assimilation programs, English training programs, and workplace numeracy programs – much more in line with what the AIG report’s writers call for. Countries that welcome immigrants who do not possess the skills to succeed in their new country, yet are not offered affordable and accessible training in those skills, do so at their peril.

Is this a description of Australia?  While the AIG report writers did not disaggregate their results by type of respondent (schooled abroad or schooled in Australia), they could contribute more to the public dialog on this question by doing so in the next iteration of their survey – while keeping their focal survey questions identical across waves.  It may be considered un-PC to ask directly whether Australia-raised or overseas-raised residents are more under-skilled, but it is arguably bad for the country – and for all its residents – not to ask it.  Without good data, one cannot design good policy.

3 Responses to "Slippery slipping standards"
  1. Excellent post!
    Educational policy is discussed world wide among countries and local governments and good quality data is essencial to improve the policies.
    Hopefully, next time AIG’s report will discriminate such important information for the Australian context.

  2. AIG might have a tad more credibility here (but only a tad) if it wasn’t a booster for skilled migration to keep wages down – such migrants, of course, will typically have considerably less English fluency than the natives.

  3. “with the goal of isolating a few potent levers and them implementing them on a broader scale”

    A big problem with the discussion in Aus is that most of what I’ll call “economic” suggestions for convenience, which is what the debate generally revolves around, have very small effect sizes (vouchers, teacher incentives, etc.). So people are not looking for the right potent levers (excluding foreign languages from early on which I agree would be a good idea, but no-one wants to pay for it or do it properly — but this is not an economic suggestion).

    For example, just looking at Australia, apart from more kids in private schools, most of the economic effects are more or less the same as 30 years ago. Alternatively maths score have dropped a lot. Similarly, across states there a big differences in outcomes in both literacy and numeracy, but little differences in culture or economic effects. So there is something else going on.

    The most obvious of these and the biggest free thing that can be done is to fix what is being taught. But the problem is that the edu(ma)cation departments and the people employed to measure stuff (notably ACER) is that they appear to have no idea what should be taught in areas like early numeracy and to a lesser extent literacy (things like phonics were only stuck back in relatively recently due to public pressure). So you not surprisingly you lose out. There is also a lot of gaming at the end of high school, but governments are too afraid to fix this due to pressure from schools that want students to get high marks even if they have not learnt what they need.

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