FAILED SCHOOLS: by Prof Alan BarcanNews Weekly
Is there a way out of the crisis in education?
, March 13, 2004
Professor Alan Barcan
, formerly with the Education Department at the University of Newcastle, looks at the way in which social and educational theories have undermined the quality of education.John Howard was a little astray when he complained in January that the schools were propagating neutral values. For some time newspaper reports on secondary school examinations have encouraged a recognition that the curriculum in our pluralist society is both fragmented and distorted by theory or, more generally, by competing ideologies.
Paul Sheehan is a senior writer for the Sydney Morning Herald
who comments regularly on a range of social issues. At the end of December 2003 he drew attention to some social changes suggested by the NSW Higher School Certificate exam.
The "Traditional Australian Male" no longer had a place amongst the top-performing Year 12 students. Girls made up 52 per cent of the 65,311 students who sat for the 2003 exam but won 58 per cent of "honours" in the distinguished achievers list.
A clear majority of the top 800 students, 55 per cent, were young women. Six of the top 10 schools in English performance were girls' schools, three were coeducational, and only one was a boys' school, North Sydney Boys' High. One, Roseville College, a compact Anglican school for girls, deserved special notice, finishing ahead of all the much more prominent private North Shore girls' schools on the English list.
In mathematics, girls did slightly better than boys in the two-unit courses, but boys topped the higher level maths. Malek Fahd Islamic School, a large coeducational school at working class Greenacre, ranked fifth in the maths honours list.
The other clear group was students from Asia or Asian backgrounds, who, as expected, appeared in the honours lists in significantly disproportionate numbers. Among the top 800 students, 41 per cent were Asian, overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese but also an increasing number of students of Indian background.
But while governments, newpapers and some parents want schools to produce information regarding the academic performance of their students, principals and some journalists condemn publication of "league tables" as misleading.
A Sunday paper (Sun-Herald
, January 4, 2004) gave evidence of what's at stake.
Former Labor premier Neville Wran and his wife were considering removing their daughter from the classy Eastern suburbs girls' school, Ascham ($17,000 net per annum), because only 22.4 per cent of its exam sitters gained a high result, behind Sydney Girls High with 46.6 per cent, North Sydney Girls' High (53.9 per cent) and James Ruse Agricultural High (63.3 per cent), all three state selective schools.
(Successful Labor politicians have an innate tendency to send their offspring to non-state schools!)
Some people resent references to the good performance of students of Asian backgrounds as discriminatory, "racialist".
In December 2002, Paul Sheehan had written that while Irish Catholics provided a surfeit of rugby league players and journalists, "they didn't exactly dominate the elite lists of the Higher School Certificate results".
In fact, "you'd be lucky to find 25 Irish names on the list of the top 685 students".
A year later, after he made similar comments, Anne Summers, long-time feminist who had just become the grand-aunt of a girl of Chinese descent, complained that "many high scorers who happen to come from Chinese families are being accused of being insufficiently Australian. These kids work too hard, do too much home-work, get coaching, are disciplined, are fanatical" and don't play sport.
So what if Chinese students mostly do medicine and science, she asked.New choices, new theories
The popularity of subjects and the content of subjects have changed over the years. Vocational-type studies have become very important, a tendency encouraged by John Dawkins when he was Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 1987 to 1991.
A twenty-year study of students from 300 Australian schools conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that Year 12 enrolments in history, geography, most science subjects, languages and economics have declined, while enrolments in computer, technical, business, food and catering subjects have increased significantly.
Enrolments in the creative and visual arts, performing arts and music also rose. Students of Asian background were more likely than others to enrol in advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry and had a higher retention rate. (SMH
, August 21, 2003)
Some schools now include Vocational Education and Training (VET) subjects, which involve work experience and are awarded in co-operation with a TAFE College. They cover areas such as agriculture, tourism and hospitality, engineering and food retailing. Their great increase is associated with rising retention rates and the competitive needs of the economy.
Several ideological currents have helped reshape the curriculum. Critical theory, often obscurely-expressed and jargon-ridden, filled the gap when neo-Marxism became discredited in the late 1970s and 1980s.
In unsophisticated hands, this theory provided a simple dogmatic guide - all knowledge is socially constructed, truth is relative (there is no single absolute truth), reactionary capitalists exercise hidden control.
As J. P. Diggins, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Left
, puts it, for critical theory "the challenge was to unmask concealed power wherever it could be spotted. The challenge was to spread suspicion."
Social justice doctrines permeate many school subjects. This simplistic sociological concept seeks to champion the so-called special interest or disadvantaged groups (but are they all disadvantaged nowadays?) in a multicultural, pluralist society.
The aim is to ensure that Aborigines, women, ethnic groups, the lower classes, the handicapped, homosexuals and so on receive favourable attention and sympathy in the content of subjects. This form of "identity politics" usually overlooks the needs of the Anglo-Celtic groups.
Postmodernism is a very fluid concept sometimes applied to education. It provides a blanket term for most post-1967 changes, including the view that truth is relative, that it is a "social construct", that different groups interpret different events in different, all equally valid, ways.
It rejects the rationalism and belief in the advance of knowledge characteristic of the "modern age", which dates from the 18th century Enlightenment or even from the 14th-15th century Renaissance.
But apart from its rejection of "grand theory" (broad general explanations) and its scorn for "consumerism", postmodernism is not easily applied to the curriculum, though it can be used to criticise educational literature, such as documents about the curriculum.
Some teachers and some schools still defend the humanist-realist or Judeo-Christian culture, associated with a concept of liberal education dominant for some hundred years from 1860 or even earlier.
In New South Wales, Bob Carr re-energised curriculum revival after he became Premier in March 1995. He insisted that traditional grammar be returned to primary schools and wanted to see a chronologically-oriented narrative history in the junior secondary years.
Earlier, the Education Reform Act of 1990 had specified the curriculum for NSW schools and had created a Board of Studies to set syllabuses and control assessment.
Six Key Learning Areas were prescribed for the primary school: English; mathematics, science and technology; human society and its environment; creative arts; and personal development, health and physical education. A Basic Skills Test to assess literacy and numeracy is held every August for children in Years 3 and 5 in government, Catholic and some other non-government schools. Year 6 students who wish to enter one of the 17 academically-selective high schools take the Selective High Schools Test, in English language, mathematics and general ability.
In secondary schools, the curriculum for Years 7 to 10 is divided into eight Key Learning Areas, resembling those in the primary school. The main addition is Languages Other than English.
The School Certificate, awarded at the end of Year 10, includes externally-set tests in four subjects - English; mathematics; science; and Australian history, geography, civics and citizenship. The School Certificate also records the grades awarded by the school for all subjects taken in Years 9 and 10.
Bob Carr commissioned an investigation into the Higher School Certificate (HSC). Since its establishment in 1967 the retention rate to Year 12 had increased from 16 per cent to more than 70 per cent; the number of subjects had increased from 29 to 79; and subject syllabuses had "evolved almost beyond recognition".
In 2001 a new Higher School Certificate course started, the changes being intended to up-grade standards and reduce the number of subjects. At the end of Year 12 candidates had to present for an externally-set exam in at least four subjects. The range of subjects still remained far wider than for the School Certificate (SC).
In each subject a school assessment contributes 50 per cent of the result. A remarkable concession to multicultural, ethnic interests is the tremendous number of languages examined, 64 courses in 39 languages, many of them taken by only a few candidates.
The primary school tests and the SC and the HSC exams provide the only assurance that the syllabuses are, in fact, being followed. They also suggest the content of the subjects studied from Years 9 to 12. The Humanities
Humanist subjects are very allergic to ideology. How have the traditional humanities fared? One ideological feature is an anxiety to dwell on the social context of traditional subjects. A second is to encourage pupils to discover theoretical explanations of the content of these subjects. A third is a struggle to sustain a more objective factually-based, traditionally-humanist curriculum.
Speculating on the way HSC English has changed over the past 30 years, the Sun-Herald
compared 1969 with 2003. The 1969 exam was about King Lear
, prefixes and suffixes, and long-deceased English poets such as Chaucer and Milton. The class of 2003 studied newspaper articles, speeches, websites, CD-ROMs and movies. "Students still read traditional texts, such as novels and poems, but some academics fear they now have to study so much that they can only do so superficially. They argue that, in making English more relevant to today's teenagers, we have 'dumbed down' the syllabus."
To lend colour to its story, the paper conducted a well-worn "experiment". Eight 2003 candidates attempted a modified version of the 1969 exam. Not unexpectedly, each student scored lower than in the current HSC.
An academic suggested two reasons: they were not prepared for what was a more academic and more structured exam; and although modern students had a far broader knowledge base, they were not drilled in the basics of grammar.
The students suggested a third reason: the current exam was very predictable. A theme was set every year, for instance "change", and it was easy to think up a story line in advance.
Another explanation of lower achievement is the great expansion in the number of candidates. In 1969, 25,143 sat for the HSC; in 2003, 62,110. This implies a wider range of ability.
Like the Higher School Certificate, the School Certificate at the end of Year 10 emphasises contemporary "relevance". The English exam, taken by 82,849 students across the state, "drew on a variety of modern-day, non-traditional texts drawn from the internet and television."
Some students and teachers commended the exam for presenting contemporary social issues. In 2002 it had concentrated on racism. This year the paper tested comprehension by using an interview with Silverchair singer Daniel Johns.
Students analysed a biography of the scientist Sir Gustav Nossal, a newspaper report about young people in a drought-stricken town, and a short story about a father who built a flying fox carrier.
But did it attempt to transmit any of the cultural heritage?
History is another ideologically-sensitive subject. It encourages some appreciation of ideas. Forty years ago it was heavily weighted towards politics. Then social history received some attention. Yet it is true that history books often neglected women and the lower classes. The lower classes came into history mainly through peasant revolts, urban revolutions, and the industrial revolution. Feminist ideology ensures that today women get more attention; and politics has returned, but of a different sort.
But the old history, when well-taught, was imbued with a sense of progress and optimism. The emphasis on great figures may have diverted attention from the social context, but it did provide models for character development, presenting individuals worthy of imitation or warnings of what to avoid.
As the English educationist, Fred Clarke, suggested in the 1920s, schools might not be teaching real history, which is a study for adults; but nonetheless, they were conveying something valuable under the name of history.
In 2002 New South Wales became the first region in Australia to introduce mandatory state-wide tests in history, geography and civics for Year 10 students. In the School Certificate exam that year, only 13 per cent topped 80 per cent in history and 15 per cent in geography, compared with 31 per cent in English.
The poor results in history and geography reflect their previous neglect in the schools. For their part, teachers blamed an over-crowded syllabus and teenage boredom with modern and local history.
The Education Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald
described the Australian history and geography paper of November 2003, taken by 82,800 Year 10 candidates, as "politically contentious."
Questions touched on conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, a recent debate about ethanol in federal parliament, Aboriginal policies, the use of dictation tests to exclude certain migrants, under the White Australia Policy, and the changing role of women after World War II when, they were told, women gained financial and "sexual independence" and were not prepared to become once again "obedient little wives".
The 2003 HSC Ancient History paper seemed, on the surface, more objective. Yet due attention - perhaps undue attention - was given to women, who in the ancient world were rarely prominent.
Candidates were invited to identify the contributions of the Egyptian queens in the times of Amenhotep III and Ramesses II (sic
), or reflect on the constitutional position of Augustus. "The power women exercised had to be so clandestine", a girl from Abbotsleigh School told the Sydney Morning Herald
(October 24, 2003). "But Pericles lived with a woman, Aspasia, who (sic
) he treated as an equal, which was just extraordinary for that time." Yet surely the hetaerae
of Greece, like the geisha
of Japan, were an accepted part of society.
Studies of Religion is a subject, like history once upon a time, likely to suggest a philosophy of life. In November 2002 a researcher for the National Church Life Survey stated that the current generation of school-age children was the first with no residual memory of the church they were rejecting.
The Sydney Morning Herald
of 11 November 2002 quoted a comment by a religious education teacher at a state school that Jesus was "better known by her class as a profanity than a deity". The Uniting Church moderator in Melbourne found that they know little of Moses or Adam and Eve, "but they are very interested and willing to learn."
Particularly in Muslim and Catholic schools Studies of Religion has grown notably since 2676 students sat for the first HSC examination in that subject in 1993. In 2003 11,072 students sat for the exam, making it the fifth most popular subject.
The paper included questions on Aboriginal belief systems and media perceptions of religion. A teacher who was also a committee-member of the Association of Studies of Religion attributed the surge of interest to the prominence of religion in current affairs.
Another explanation was the philosophical associations of religion. A teacher at Marist College North Shore, in North Sydney, pointed to its philosophical associations: the course dealt with "the big questions in life, like why do we suffer?"
One of his students said: "The everyday life stuff is what I find most interesting. Looking at the ordinary lives of, say, a Jewish person or a Hindu or a Muslim, it's more relevant to us young people than history and stuff."
Critical theory is discretely hostile to religious belief. (Its progenitor, Marxism, was openly antagonistic).
Social justice doctrines, imbued with ideas of equity, imply tolerance of a variety of religious beliefs, all equally worthy of consideration.Science and Mathematics
Science has steadily declined in popularity since the 1960s. According to one student, HSC candidates feel that to do Chemistry and Physics you have to be bright. If you don't feel confident you take Biology. His teacher agreed. "Students see Biology as the easy option, and associate it with the human body, which most of them have an interest in, of course." (SMH
, November 7, 2003)
Some teachers suggest that, in an attempt to make physics interesting or "relevant" to lower ability pupils, the Board of Studies was "dumbing down" the subject.
According to the head of Senior Science and Physics at Sydney Grammar, the brightest pupils were "bored rigid by it". We've got a course, he said, that isn't Physics at all. "It's an appreciation of Physics - a course for interested non-scientists."
The new-look HSC Physics was introduced in 2000-2001 to halt the exodus of students scared off by the course's reputation for difficulty. But one school principal argued that the Board of Studies had made a mistake in approving the new one-size-fits-all syllabus. According to an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of NSW, the new syllabus was producing many first year university students who were incapable of handling the complex maths required at tertiary level. The history, politics of science and contextual discussions introduced into the HSC course had been at the expense of analytical reasoning and mathematical rigour
The president of the Board of Studies responded that the new syllabus retained, indeed strengthened, the discipline's basic laws while addressing contemporary developments and perspectives.
A Sydney University professor saw the new Physics as "a sensible compromise" to suit the whole range of students. But a study commissioned by the University of Sydney found that almost one-third of first year Physics students of average ability were ill-prepared for tertiary study.
Interest in the social context of science is nothing new. In the 1930s, it engaged the energies of a cluster of writers, many of them left-wing. In his 1941 book The Social Relations of Science
, J. G. Crowther traced science in its social context from primitive man's invention of tools and discovery of fire to the conditions aiding or frustrating scientific research in the 1930s. But while he concluded that scientists should support "major social forces", he rejected the idea that scientists should become politicians.
Some examiners and curriculum designers seem to support direct politicisation of students.
It must be stressed that this early literature on the social context of science was based on lengthy historical surveys. The contemporary fashion is merely to assert theories of social conditioning, supported, if at all, by contemporary sociological theory.
Discussion of the social context should be an extra, for students with a sound grounding in science, not an alternative. It should come late in the study of science.
The decline of science, general across Australia, has had its impact on universities.
A report, Is the Study of Science in Decline?
prepared by science faculty chiefs, found that over the last five years the study of basic sciences at universities had continued to decline. According to the Sydney Morning Herald
(November 20, 2003) the number of teaching and research staff in science, maths and computing fell by 730 between 1991 and 2000.
Between 1989 and 2002 the number of students studying physical and material sciences fell by more than 31 per cent; the number in chemistry fell by almost 5 per cent; and in maths by 2 per cent. "Women now made up 55 per cent of enrolments across all science and maths but their lack of interest in maths and physics was of great concern", said the report.
Mathematics is also in trouble, despite being the most popular of the optional courses. In 2003, as in the preceding year, more than 3000 students failed the easier mathematics course. This was a failure rate of 10.4 per cent.
The President of the NSW Board of Studies said the course would be reviewed. The poor maths marks contrasts with the results in English (the only compulsory subject), where less than one per cent of students were placed in the lowest band.
What this difference says about the relative severity of the two exams is an open question. The trouble may be that while English examiners are willing to assess thoughts and feelings ("What aspects of the prescribed text had the greatest impact on you?"), this is hardly an option in mathematics.
As part of the 2002 effort to raise standards in the HSC the bottom course, Mathematics in Practice, was scrapped. The next higher course, Mathematics in Society, was changed into General Mathematics but made more difficult, i.e., more abstract. The problem of catering for lower ability students detained at school by a variety of pressures remains unresolved.
The advent of theory into the school curriculum deserves special comment. Theory arrived in the universities in the 1960s. In the next decade these institutions, in an effort to differentiate themselves from colleges of advanced education, began to over-emphasise the importance of research. Theory and research have joined creativity as over-played concerns for secondary, and even primary, schools.
Cultural studies originated in the universities as the strange offspring of English and sociology. Now secondary school English finds itself with its own sibling bearing a marked resemblance to cultural studies.
School students are unqualified to understand or conduct meaningful research. Creativity, in any serious sense, is something only relatively few of them possess. One may go so far as to say that most university students, and even some of their lecturers, lack the ability to find their way in Theoryland.
A retired academic may be excused for quoting his own daughter. In an address to the Cultural Studies Association (reprinted in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies
, 2002) Ruth Barcan recalls a quip of an American academic, Wallace Martin: "In pathology, a crisis results from a disease. In criticism, it is a sign of health." But one of her own dicta
serves my present interests even better: "Our undergraduates are among the first who've grown up with issues-based, social problem-based thematic teaching from the primary school curriculum onwards, as well as having had the dubious benefit of knowing more about world problems than most of the people who have ever inhabited the globe." Closing thoughts
In the late twentieth century a cultural tradition which had endured, with periods of recession and recovery, for some 3,000 years came under extreme challenge. The universities, and the schools, were engulfed in the vortex, though the schools for some decades escaped the worst of the storm. The content of humanist subjects suffered erosion, to be replaced by a melange of the students' impressions, feelings and thoughts, supplemented in some cases by over-simplified, half-understood theories.
The sciences became increasingly unable to produce students of sufficient quality and in sufficient numbers to serve a sophisticated economic system.
Although this survey concentrates on the secondary curriculum, the deterioration does not flow simply from changes in the secondary school. Too many primary schools have become accustomed to neglecting their function as preparation for secondary education.
Many specific elements underlay the shift. The increasing proportion of lower ability students in the senior years encouraged change. Teachers' unions also pressed for change.
University academics often transmitted the new fashions in theory and sociology to teachers-in-training and to sub-committees devising curricula. During the 1990s serious efforts were made to restore standards and content. This encountered considerable resistance; but efforts at retrieval continue.
There is no simple single solution. Individual politicians and their advisers, school principals, and classroom teachers can have some effect. A school system based on small specialised schools such as existed a century ago, would aid standards. In schools of more than 800 pupils, the child is in danger of becoming anonymous, the power of the peer group grows.
In non-specialised schools, academic subjects will suffer from the competition of less academic ones. But all types of school need a common core curriculum.
Separate examination systems would reinforce the various curricula.
As has always been the case, education begins in the home. Fortunately, some families still honour their educational responsibilities.