June 19th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The legacy of Ronald Reagan

Remembering Reagan

CANBERRA OBSERVED : Coalition, Labor split widens over Iraq

TRADE: Behind Iraq's $700 million wheat debt

FEDERAL: Labor Left hopes to pigeon-hole Marriage Bill

RELIGION: Costello attacked over thanksgiving speech

QUEENSLAND: Labor makes push for ethanol-sugar vote

OPINION: Coalition defends its sugar package

POLITICAL IDEAS: Samuel Taylor Coleridge - Conservatism's radical prophet

QUARANTINE : Biosecurity inflames fire blight fears

CHILDREN AT RISK: Protecting children from Internet porn

DRUGS: Redfern riot linked to heroin trade

CANADA: Health care primary focus in Canadian election

INDIA: What went wrong with the BJP?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Drums on the Congo / The next moonlight state?

DEMUTUALISATION: Credit unions an endangered species

Britain and Palestine (letter)

Worker co-ops (letter)


BOOKS: Taking Sex Differences Seriously, by Steven Rhoads

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by John Smith (reviewer)

News Weekly, June 19, 2004
What parents need to know about Australian education

By Kevin Donnelly

Duffy & Snellgrove
Available from News Weekly Books for $22.00 plus p&h

Almost every aspect of primary and secondary education in Australia has undergone significant change in the last four decades.

Kevin Donnelly is a former teacher, educational consultant and currently adviser to Federal MP, Kevin Andrews. Donnelly draws on his extensive research and experience and argues that much is awry in our educational system, going so far as to imply that the system is in crisis.

As the subtitle suggests, this book is written not so much for the educational establishment, as for the parents of students. Much of Donnelly's thesis is based upon a comparison between the Australian educational system and those of overseas countries.

Flawed system

Donnelly argues that one of the significant flaws in the current system is its curriculum/outcomes-based approach and lack of comprehensive testing at various levels.

Before the mid-1960s, each of the State education departments issued clear syllabi for each subject, which detailed knowledge and skills that students were expected to attain at each year level. Teachers had to teach to the syllabus and students were examined on both their knowledge and skills. Inspectors were employed by the various departments to ensure that this process was observed.

Students who failed to meet the minimum required standard had to repeat the year level, and testing was used as a means of monitoring the effectiveness of instruction. This approach was abandoned for one in which the emphasis was on listing the competencies students should develop during certain blocks of years in their schooling (e.g., Years 9 and 10). The teacher is given a wide latitude in writing the syllabus. Accompanying this change was the introduction of a range of educational techniques such as open classrooms and whole-language approach to teaching English, many of which have since been discredited.

These changes, according to Donnelly, have been integral factors in the decline of standards. Research conducted in 1996 indicated that in Year 3, 27 per cent of students did not meet the minimum standard and 28 per cent the minimum writing standard. Students with poor skills were allowed to be promoted to the next year level with the result that foundational literacy and numeracy difficulties were not addressed.

By contrast, those overseas countries which have either retained or have re-introduced rigorous testing are the ones which achieve better numeracy and literacy results.

Donnelly cites the example of Britain where improvement in these areas has been the result of the Blair Government's initiatives in education, namely regular testing, school inspectors and league tables that publicise schools' performances.

Given the freedom allowed by the curriculum approach, some students will still leave school, having read significant works of English literature and with a fair knowledge of the narrative of world history.

Others, however, will leave school having studied little more than pop culture such as Neighbours, The Simpsons or reality TV and with little knowledge of the key events in history, thus leaving them culturally illiterate.

Too many students are presented with an education that is pervaded with left-wing ideologies, such as Marxism, feminism and postmodernism. For example, Australian history has become a deprecatory litany of the evil deeds of white settlers, and geography a thinly disguised promotion of extreme environmentalism.

This is consistent with a left-wing view which sees education, not so much as a means of developing individuals and preparing them for their role as adults in society, but as a catalyst in the struggle for equality and social change - or, at its most extreme, as a means of "smashing the capitalist system".

Lack of values

Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of parental dissatisfaction with government education is the significant rise in the numbers of parents who have abandoned government education for independent schooling, with many citing a lack of values in the government system as a significant reason.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to argue that in many cases parents object to the approaches to education that are taken, for example, prohibitions on teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet because it defines heterosexuality as the normal sexual orientation, thereby marginalising gay and lesbian students.

It may also explain why a growing number of families are choosing to homeschool their children.

Why Our Schools Are Failing presents a controversial challenge, not only to parents but also to governments, educational bodies and teachers' unions.

The recent $700 grant offered to parents whose children are experiencing numeracy and literacy difficulties can be interpreted as an acknowledgement by the Federal Government that the current educational system is not providing for the needs of these students.

Donnelly's thesis deserves consideration. A solution to high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy is needed to prevent many of our youth from being condemned to a life of unemployment and poverty.

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