May 12th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: ANZAC DAY: A new dawn for Australian national pride

EDITORIAL: Labor's uranium policy: when 'yes' means 'no'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Has Kevin Rudd made his biggest mistake?

WATER: Water crisis: farmers' warnings ignored

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Why Kevin Rudd leads in the polls

LABOR PARTY: Australian union movement's last hurrah

STRAWS IN THE WIND: ABC's John Curtin - a missed opportunity / Labor conference a gold-plated flop / Melbourne's continuing transport fiasco / Ice man cometh

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Terror Australis - will the public ever wake up?

FAMILY ASSISTANCE: Howard's cash benefits for families

SCHOOLS: Report slams school curriculum muddle

DRUGS POLICY: $150 million campaign against 'Ice' - too little, too late

MEDICAL: Oral contraceptive link to breast cancer

HISTORY: Wilberforce's epic battle to end slavery

Plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka (letter)

Sinhalese speaking up for Tamils (letter)

Religious vilification laws (letter)

General Monash (letter)

BOOKS: BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce

BOOKS: THE OCCUPATION OF IRAQ: Winning the War, Losing the Peace

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Report slams school curriculum muddle

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, May 12, 2007
Teachers want clear, succinct and teacher-friendly syllabuses, or road-maps, in key subjects, writes Kevin Donnelly.

Has Australia's curriculum been dumbed down? Not so, according to Ms Pat Byrne, president of the Australian Education Union. In a speech given at the AEU's federal conference earlier this year, Ms Byrne argues that any talk of falling standards is simply a ploy to disguise the fact that public education, in her judgement, is under-resourced and under-funded.

Ms Byrne is especially critical of the federal Coalition, when she argues: “The Government's most recent attempts to divert attention from the critical issue of schools' funding have taken the form of linking the notion of quality to the nature of the curriculum by portraying curriculum development - in the hands of the states - as completely out of control.”


In the same way that groups like the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA) describe any criticism of Australian education as “simplistic and ill-informed” and driven by “partisan political views and media commentators pushing their own barrows”, Ms Byrne also characterises any criticism as “hysterical and mean-spirited” and driven by Prime Minister Howard's “cronies in the media”.

Evidence that Ms Byrne and ACSA are wrong is easy to find. Take last week's Louden Report on Western Australia's implementation of outcomes-based education (OBE), entitled Evaluation of the Curriculum Improvement Program Phase 2. The report involved focus groups of some 400 teachers and educators, as well as 2,368 completed questionnaires seeking views about the impact of recent curriculum change.

Notwithstanding the claim by the previous education minister, Ms Ljiljanna Ravlich, that Western Australia's adoption of OBE led to improved standards, the report concludes: “Two-thirds of teachers (66.60 per cent) responding to the survey did not agree that the Curriculum Improvement Program had led to improved student outcomes.”

While the educrats responsible for imposing OBE on schools claim that all is well and that critics are out of touch, the Louden Report, on evaluating recent educational experiments, concludes: “Teachers do not in general believe that teaching, assessment or reporting have improved in recent years” and that OBE-inspired curriculum changes in WA “cannot be regarded as a success”.

In a 2005 primary curriculum benchmarking report undertaken for the Department of Education, Science and Training, such was the overly bureaucratic and time-consuming nature of OBE, I argued that teachers, especially in primary school, were being overwhelmed.

The federally-funded primary report also concluded that the way curriculum was described was vague, couched in edubabble and responsible for promoting a check-list mentality that destroyed the joy of teaching.

Not only does the Louden Report validate such concerns - in particular, in relation to teachers being overwhelmed by an excessive workload - but the Western Australian report also recommends what I have been arguing for some years, that is, in opposition to OBE, teachers be provided with clear, succinct and teacher-friendly syllabuses, or road-maps, in key subjects.

The Louden Report states: “Nevertheless, the overwhelming concern expressed by colleagues about the content of the curriculum resources was the absence of a syllabus. The lack of syllabi was considered to have significant implications for the overall coherence of the curriculum.”

At a time when the teaching workforce is ageing and it is difficult to attract new teachers and keep them in the profession, the lack of syllabuses is especially debilitating for beginning teachers, as noted by one WA teacher:

“Access to a syllabus needs to be a priority. I work with new teachers in the school to support them with planning. They are desperate for some curriculum content.”

Ditching OBE in favour of the more traditional syllabus approach to curriculum is not restricted to Western Australia. Last year, Tasmania's OBE-inspired Essential Learnings model of curriculum development was dropped in favour of a back-to-the-basics approach, with a renewed focus on traditional subjects like English and mathematics.

In February this year, the Queensland education minister, Rod Welford, announced the development of a new English syllabus, promising to get rid of curriculum jargon and concentrating on teaching correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

As part of its education revolution, the federal ALP has promised to develop a national curriculum that is clear and explicit, based on the key disciplines of knowledge and written in plain English.

Staking out territory

It is clear that both Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith, in an attempt to nullify education as an election issue, are staking out territory previously the preserve of the federal Coalition Government.

One of the most startling observations in the Louden Report is that those responsible for enforcing OBE on the classroom - the educrats in the Curriculum Council and in the education department bureaucracy - on being surveyed and interviewed, are positive about the impact of recent curriculum change.

One wonders how long such optimism would survive if the situation were reversed and teachers developed the curriculum while bureaucrats were made to teach.

- Kevin Donnelly is director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies and author of Dumbing Down, available from News Weekly Books.

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