Sunday, December 18, 2016

Kevin Donnelly from Australia: How Swede it is - a good education

Given Australian students are going backwards in the inter national TIMSS and PISA tests, where we are now out performed by more than 20 countries including Kazakhstan, England, the United States, Slovenia and Portugal, something must be done.

One approach is to remove the dead hand of bureaucracy and adopt a market-driven model. Around the world, cutting-edge reform involves giving parents financial help to choose where their children go to school, and schools are given the freedom to manage themselves.

Giving parents vouchers means the money follows the child, whether they're enrolled in a Catholic, independent or government school, and freeing schools from being micromanaged means they have a better chance of raising standards.

But does a market-driven model work? Based on research quoted this week about what has happened in Sweden the answer is "no".

Since the early 1990s Sweden has pioneered school choice by introducing vouchers and freeing schools from government control. But critics argue it "has led to a decline in academic standards" and that the "pro-market pursuit has not lifted standards".

Wrong. As argued by Swedish education expert Gabriel Heller Sahlgren in a report to Canada's Fraser Institute, the reasons why Sweden's academic results failed to improve have nothing to do with vouchers.

Sahlgren argues results are worse because of the "rise of progressive education" practices such as childcentred learning, where teachers are no longer in control, getting rid of formal examinations and reducing "teacher-led instruction".

Swedish expert Tino Sanandaji also blames schools being made to adopt "progressive" theories instead of "traditional teaching methods".

Sanandaji argues "rote memorisation and repetition are viewed as old-fashioned relics", "grades have been abolished" and children "take responsibility for their own learning".

Sound familiar? The very education fads and experiments that bedevil Australian education. Stronger performing counties, such as those in Asia that are always in the top 10 in international tests, teach the basics and that's why their students succeed.

The fact school choice is the best way to raise standards is proven by the fact Australia's Catholic and independent schools outperform government schools.

School choice means parents can choose schools that best meet the needs of their children, schools know if they underperform they'll lose enrolments, and schools have the freedom to innovate and adopt best practice in relation to the curriculum and what happens in the classroom.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down. He co-chaired the Review of the National Curriculum.

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