Saturday, August 17, 2013

Kevin Donnelly: The education debate heats up as the Australian election looms

In the lead-up to the 2007 election the opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, argued that if elected he would champion an education revolution directed at raising standards and making Australian students more internationally competitive.
Six years later the Australian Council for Educational Research's analysis of national and international test results prove what a failure this Labor government has been under Julia Gillard and Rudd. Finally, the penny has dropped and the education establishment is admitting that our students, especially talented ones, underperform and that something urgent needs to be done.
But don't expect things to improve. Rudd's Better Schools Plan and National Education Reform Agreement, compulsory for all schools, enforce a cultural-left, lowest-common-denominator view of education.
Funding and resources are directed at the usual victim groups, in the mistaken belief such groups are always disadvantaged and that disadvantage is the main cause of students underperforming; while the needs of gifted children are ignored.
The Better Schools Plan also discriminates financially against independent and Catholic school students, the students who achieve the strongest results and who are critical if we are to improve performance in international maths and science tests.
Additional evidence of the government's pandering to a victim mentality is the fact none of the millions of dollars wasted on the National Partnership Agreements implemented by Rudd and Gillard has been spent on improving the performance of more able students or fostering meritocracy in education.
The reasons our students underperform and why standards have declined or flatlined are not hard to find.
Those responsible for the education system, including teacher educators, the Australian Education Union and subject associations such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, have long argued against competitive assessment, the rewarding of merit and a rigorous, academic curriculum.
The philosophy is an egalitarian one, where all achieve success and all are celebrated.
Cultural-left critics also argue that the traditional, academic curriculum, where not all can do as well, is elitist, socially unjust and guilty of reinforcing capitalist hierarchies.
As a result, the overwhelming majority of students at Year 12 are given a pass grade, regardless of the fact their level of ability may be substandard. No wonder most of our universities have bridging courses and remedial classes in basic algebra and essay writing.
Unlike in the US, where the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing ranks students as basic, proficient and advanced, Australia's National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 tests students only to a basic level. This ethos also means that, unlike in Singapore, where classes are streamed in terms of ability and students face high-risk tests and examinations, Australian schools embrace mixed-ability classrooms.
It impossible for teachers to cope with the range of students in the ability spectrum; more gifted students are ignored as teachers concentrate on those less able.
It's also common at school speech nights for every student to receive a prize, on the basis that all must be winners.
No wonder Australian students, even though they are beaten by Asian students who believe they can always do better, feel they are doing well and that there is no need to work harder.
Even worse, instead of ranking students against one other or against explicit, concise standards, the belief is that learning is developmental.
This means that because children learn at different rates it doesn't matter if they are a bit slow; the expectation is they will eventually master what needs to be learned, no matter how long it takes. Many children float through primary school and enter secondary school without the required mastery of the basics.
That problem is compounded by the fact they are assessed against vague and generalised descriptors that make it impossible to identify with any precision what constitutes the required level of ability.
One needs only to see the consternation and public outpourings of recrimination when we lose to New Zealand in rugby or the English in cricket to appreciate the significance Australians place on success in sport.
It's an indictment of our cultural-left education system and Rudd's education revolution, now rebadged as the Better Schools Plan, that the same intensity to win and to support and reward excellence is not given to our education system.

Kevin Donnelly is director of Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It's Not Rocket Science.

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