Want better productivity? Start by ensuring our kids can read

The trouble with our economy is that there are so many things needing to be fixed, it’s hard to know where to start. And so many of them are urgent we don’t have time to fix things one at a time. But since the economy consists simply of all the workers and all the consumers – that is, all the people – one of my guiding principles is that governments should manage the economy for the many, not the few.

This may seem obvious but, during the decades of “neoliberalism” from which we’re still emerging, it became far from obvious. Neoliberalism is the doctrine that what’s good for BHP is good for Australia. We got used to listening with rapt attention when the top 100 or so chief executives told us what needed to be done to improve productivity.

Illustration by Andrew Dyson
Illustration by Andrew Dyson

It took us too long to realise that their idea of a well-functioning economy was one where their incomes grew considerably faster than ours. They’re still at it, not having realised that we’ve stopped listening.

They’re arguing again that the most important thing we need is major tax reform – which, when you inquire, turns out to mean they’d pay less tax while we paid more.

No. I’m far more persuaded by this week’s report from Dr Jordana Hunter and Anika Stobart of the Grattan Institute, arguing we should start at the bottom, not the top, and make sure all our kids become confident readers as early as possible in their time at school.

If you’re building a house, you start by laying a firm foundation, and education should work the same way. Hunter says that in no area of education is improvement more urgent than reading. “Reading proficiency is a foundational skill that unlocks the broader curriculum and empowers young people to grasp opportunities for themselves,” she says.

One in three Australian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently.
One in three Australian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently.Credit: iStock

Stobart says, “When children do not read fluently and efficiently in early primary school, it can undermine their future learning across all subject areas, harm their self-esteem, and limit their life chances.”

Students who struggle with reading are more likely to fall behind their classmates, become disruptive, and drop out of school. They are more likely to end up unemployed, or in poorly paid jobs, we’re told.

Advertisement

Why are they telling us this? Because last year’s NAPLAN testing results show that one in three Australian primary and secondary students cannot read proficiently. For Victorians, the news is better, sort of: a mere one in four.

But for Indigenous students, students from disadvantaged families, and students in regional and rural areas, it’s more than half. (Which makes you wonder why Barnaby Joyce and his National Party mates don’t have a lot more to say on public school funding.)

This appalling deficiency hasn’t just happened, it’s been going on for years without anyone making a fuss about it. Why is it happening? Hunter says the reason most of those students can’t read well enough is that we aren’t teaching them well enough.

“A key cause,” the report says, “is decades of disagreement about how to teach reading. But the evidence is now clear. The ‘whole-language’ approach, which became popular in the 1970s, doesn’t work for all students [including someone in my family years ago]. Its remnants should be banished from Australia’s schools.

“Instead, all schools should use the ‘structured literacy’ approach right through school, which includes a focus on phonics in the early years. Students should learn to sound out the letters of each word.”

Now, let’s be clear. I like teachers – especially those who tell students they must read my columns. So this is no attack on our hard-pressed teachers.

“The real issue here,” Hunter says, “is, are governments doing enough to set teachers up for success? The challenge is making sure best practice is common practice in every single classroom.”

But a key improvement is regular classroom testing, to ensure kids who are struggling get identified early and given extra help to catch up.

That, of course, takes extra money. But federal Education Minister Jason Clare is renegotiating the school funding agreement with the premiers. “The reading wars are over. We know what works,” he’s said. “The new agreement we strike this year needs to properly fund schools and tie that funding to the sort of things that work. The sort of things that will help children keep up, catch up and finish school.”

Economists often worry that the things you could do to make the economy fairer come at the expense of the economic efficiency that improves productivity. But ensuring our kids get off to a good start in life – including through early education, two years of pre-school and good literacy and numeracy – ticks both boxes.

It gives our kids better lives, it makes our workforce better skilled and more valuable, and it saves the budget a bundle in having fewer people who need special help.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

Ross Gittins unpacks the economy in an exclusive subscriber-only newsletter. Sign up to receive it every Tuesday evening.

Most Viewed in Business

Source: Thanks smh.com