EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Dumbing down our schools
, June 5, 2004
Judging by the hostile and often hysterical reaction to the Prime Minister's comments earlier this year about why parents choose non-government schools over government schools, one could be forgiven for thinking that it must have been a very scathing attack. In fact, John Howard's remarks are perfectly justifiable.
On being asked to comment on the reasons for the growth in non-government school enrolments, he suggested that many parents "feel that government schools have become too politically correct and too values-neutral".
He's right. Evidence to support his critique is not difficult to find. The sad reality is that Australian schools, especially those controlled by government, have suffered a range of educational fads that have led to a politically correct and dumbed-down education system.
In relation to teaching civics and citizenship, for example, a 1998 federally-funded survey showed that 60 per cent of parents expressed "concern that teachers are either not well-enough trained or professional enough to teach this program [civics] without bias".
A federally-funded project looking at assessment and reporting discovered that, as a result of schools adopting non-graded, non-competitive assessment, many parents are also worried that schools fail to honestly report on student achievement.
A report of 2000 concludes: "Parents believe that advice can be 'honest' without being negative. Many considered written reports are too often 'politically correct' at the expense of honesty."
While "values-neutral" might not be the correct term to use, it is also true that many parents prefer non-government schools to government schools because the ethos and culture of independent schools are more in line with what parents desire for their children.
A survey about why parents choose non-government schools, carried out for the National Council of Independent Schools Associations, concluded that parents choose such schools because they are more likely to inculcate values, such as respect for authority and discipline, that best reflect what happens in the home.
"In addition, many [parents] see today's society lacking core values and discipline," the report says. "They want these inculcated in their children and believe that independent schools are likelier than government schools to do this."
It is also noteworthy that Professor Vinson, while strongly defending NSW government schools, states in his inquiry: "Some parents expressed doubts about the environment of such schools, the handling of unsatisfactory teachers, and whether sufficient emphasis is placed upon students' acquisition of good values".
The concern about values is reflected in the US. Educationalist Diane Ravitch argues that the impact of cultural relativism and the postmodern on state-sponsored curriculum is so intense that parents have the right to choose non-government schools.
Ravitch argues: "In the current education system, with public schools committed to multiculturalism, bilingualism, and other forms of particularism, it is difficult to argue that parents should not be able to choose schools that meet their cultural needs."
So much for the Australian Education Union's argument that the reason why there has been a surge in non-government school enrolments is because such schools, when compared to government schools, supposedly are better resourced.
But unease and dissatisfaction with what is happening in Australian schools is not restricted to parents. Our system has a long way to go before we can be considered among the best in the world or in line with what research tells us is the best way to teach.National Curriculum
Since the Keating Government's national curriculum was developed in the early 1990s, all Australian state and territory education departments have adopted variations of what is termed an outcomes-based approach to education.
It is significant that nations that perform best in international tests, such as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Singapore and South Korea, forsake outcomes-based education in favour of a syllabus approach.
Unlike Australia, curriculum in such countries is discipline-based, measurable, incorporates high stakes testing, relates to specific year levels and enforces system accountability with specific rewards and sanctions (under-performing schools are identified and successful teachers are rewarded).
Bruce Wilson, head of Australia's Curriculum Corporation and the person partly responsible for Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education, now argues that such an approach represents "an unsatisfactory political and intellectual compromise".
In a speech delivered at the 1992 national conference, Wilson argued: "Let's get beyond outcomes fetishism. The present form of outcomes has probably outlived its usefulness. Indeed, it is difficult to find a jurisdiction outside Australasia which has persevered with the peculiar approach to outcomes which we have adopted."
The flaws in Australia's outcomes-based approach to curriculum are manifold. As a result of adopting such fads as whole language, where students are taught to "look and guess" and to work out the meaning of words from their context, generations of students, especially boys, are placed at risk.
As a result of fuzzy maths, where primary students are allowed to use calculators and where basic algorithms such as long division are no longer taught, many students are unable to do mental arithmetic or to recite their times tables - the very skills most needed if students are to master higher order thinking.
Teaching history has also suffered. As a result of the culture wars, not only is the focus on teaching politically-correct values and beliefs, especially in areas such as multiculturalism, the environment, feminism and the class war, but many students leave school with a fragmented and superficial knowledge of the past.
As Monash academic Mark Peel noted in a submission to the national inquiry into history teaching: "Indeed, their sense of the world's history is often based on intense moments and fragments. The 20th century is largely composed of snatches, moments that rarely gel into a longer narrative."
By focusing on "process" instead of content and by dumbing down academic subjects to make them immediately attractive and accessible, the end result is that many students leave school culturally illiterate, unable to write a properly structured essay and with a misplaced sense of their own academic worth.
The end result of a flawed, ideologically driven education system is that standards have fallen. Not only do we now have literacy tests where students with faulty grammar, spelling and punctuation are not corrected, but academics now complain about the quality of first-year students.Standards
A federally funded project titled Changes in Academic Work
concluded that approximately half of the academics interviewed agreed that standards of first-year students had declined over time. Students are particularly criticised because of "inadequate skills in English or other basic skills", the project found.
No wonder that it is now common for universities to offer remedial courses in language skills and for academics to water down the quality of first-year courses; especially in maths, physics, chemistry and science.
Those with a vested interest in controlling Australian education, such as the Australian Education Union, left-wing academics and sympathetic governments, either argue that all is well or that the remedy for an ailing system is more money.
Ignored is the evidence that increased spending, by itself, does little to raise standards.
The most effective way to improve educational performance is to benchmark Australian curriculum against international best practice and to ensure that what happens in the classroom is based on sound research.
- Kevin Donnelly, chief of staff to federal Employment Minister Kevin Andrews and a former director of Education Strategies, is author of Why Our Schools Are Failing (published last month by Duffy and Snellgrove and funded by the Menzies Research Centre).