Sunday, May 07, 2006

National education certification

According to a DEST recommendation all Year 12 students in Australia will sit a national exam assessing their literacy, writing, numeracy and writing skills as part of an Australian Certificate of Education to replace all existing state qualifications in 3 years. To quote from the report:

'A widely held view among participants in our national consultations was that, regardless of where they live in Australia, students in the senior secondary school should have similar opportunities to engage with the fundamental knowledge, principles and ideas that make up school subjects. There was general agreement that students in different states and territories taking particular subjects—such as Economics or Biology—should be able to engage with those subjects in similar depth and with similar academic rigour. Some participants drew attention to disadvantages and inequities that could result from differential access to fundamental learning within a discipline.

We are recommending the identification of curriculum essentials: fundamental knowledge, principles and ideas that should be taught in a subject, regardless of jurisdiction. In the first instance, these essential curriculum elements would be developed for a number of nominated mathematics, English, science and social science/humanities subjects. They would spell out a core of common content to be taught in all states and territories, but would not determine the entire curriculum in a subject and so would not constitute a ‘national curriculum’.

We are recommending that a national ‘subject panel’ comprising subject matter and assessment specialists and members of the relevant professional subject association/ s be responsible for identifying essential curriculum content in a subject. This process should include some international benchmarking to ensure that curriculum content is consistent with international best practice in the senior years of school’.

This recommendation is supported both by the Education Minister Julie Bishop and (predictably) by the Opposition Spokeswoman on education Jenny Macklin.

Note the weasel words in this quote. Imposing uniform standards is giving 'similar opportunities' Allowing differences in curricula encourages 'inequities'. The proposal will eliminate ' 'inconsistencies’ between the states and to make education qualifications from different states comparable. The standard bureaucratic love of uniformity.

In my view the recommendation should be opposed. Even if a uniform curriculum is not imposed across the states, the idea of getting national ‘subject panels’ to determine what is ‘fundamental knowledge’ in a disciplinary area seems dangerous to me. That the process involves ‘international benchmarking’ to ensure that curricula are ‘consistent with international best practice’ makes me really fearful as I hear this latter nonsense all the time in the post-Dawkins universities. Apart from the offensive cultural cringe involved, it is unhelpful, except to bureaucrats for whom it provides potential for greater central control and regulation.

I am dissatisfied with aspects of high school curricula. But I do not favour heavy-handed centralist solutions. It is better that curricula be state and institution-based as far as possible with competition in providing education. The foolish 'outcomes-based', 'content free' Western Australian high school currulum should be publicly criticised and debated - centralisation leaves open the prospect that future national governments might impose such foolish curricula nationwide. As discussed last year, when Brendan Nelson floated the idea, Bob Carr correctly saw the move as an unnecessary Federal intrusion. Education thrives on ‘inconsistency’ and ‘non-uniformity’, Experimentation between competing approaches is essential. I do not believe employers face serious difficulties in evaluating students with different school backgrounds in Australia.

This is the sort of proposal I would have expected to come from the centralist gnomes of the Australian Labor Party in some bygone era. State Government's should strengthen their muted, cowardly opposition to this poor policy recommendation.


conrad said...

I guess part of the problem is trying to get around state stupidity (WA) and state corruption (e.g., probably Kirner), where the level of what is being taught is reduced simply to achieve higher end results. In this respect, some sort of minimum standard might be good -- although I agree with you, the federal governement is hardly likely to set a better curriculum than the state ones, and one can imagine the worst of the worst, where a uniformly bad curriculum is set.

A better idea would be to start trying to convince universities and the like that they would like to take students doing things like the international baccalureate over local students (or at least make it known that they prefer that). In this case, the local schools would be forced to fix their curriculum up and the government couldn't simply reduce standards to achieve higher pass rates.

Incidentally, if you want see how big the decline has been, you should try picking up a maths book from the late 70s/early 80s (Mathematics A and B) and compare it to what they are learning now. Its quite a disgrace, and its no wonder science is in decline -- any bright student would be bored stiff.

hc said...

The problems with the appalling WA education syllabus and the more specific stupidities of trying to understand Shakespeare from the viewpoint of Marxism are best addressed via public debate not through management by a central board.

Having worked in the universities all mmy life I have no faith in the educational vision of Commonwealth politicians and DEST at all. In fact I don't want their vision.

In Victoria the senior school maths syllabus is good. The junior school syllabus however is truely appalling. With mainly drill and little attention to problem-solving it merely forces students to hate mathematics.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Harry! This would have to be one of the most knuckle-brained education policy ideas to have come out of the feds - and, as you point out, there are a lot of terrible and centralist ideas that it's competing with. This one makes me wonder whether Bishop will be any better than Nelson. Coming from WA, Bishop may have a particular interest in problems with curricula but she should stick to letting the locals sort it out. Does anyone on either side of the house understand the benefits of federalism?? It would be great if the states would actually stand up and tell the feds to get back in their box, but that requires not just a spine but the knowledge and ability to construct decent arguments about education. All we seem to have heard is some blathering from NSW about how their apparently superior system would be dumbed down.