May 26th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd still in front

EDITORIAL: East Timor: end of the Fretilin era?

HOUSING: Soaring house prices give illusion of wealth

LABOR PARTY: Sir Rod Eddington, Labor's business guru

PRIMARY INDUSTRY: Vital issues in wheat single-desk decision

OPINION: Family First takes on Howard's workplace laws

DRUGS CONFERENCE: Reality check needed on illicit drugs

SCHOOLS: Choice would be eroded by centralisation

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Shssh - don't mention the war!

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION: Politics could worsen global health pandemic

QUARANTINE: Drought used as excuse to relax quarantine standards

STRAWS IN THE WIND: No kangaroo meat - thank you very much / Tony Blair - a class act / Vladimir the Cruel / Turkey - between a rock and a hard place

UNITED STATES: US Supreme Court bans partial-birth abortion

WORLD AFFAIRS: Islam: the questions which must be answered

States more accountable than Canberra (letter)

Problems facing Brisbane-to-Melbourne rail-link (letter)

News Weekly informative, timely (letter)

The media and freedom of speech (letter)

CINEMA: A luminous film of great beauty

BOOKS: WHAT'S LEFT? How Liberals Lost Their Way, by Nick Cohen

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Choice would be eroded by centralisation

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, May 26, 2007
Although on the right track, the Federal Government's approach to education is too bureaucratic, writes Kevin Donnelly.

It's hard to criticise the raft of budget initiatives directed at school education. After all, many of the programs - including literacy and numeracy vouchers, giving bonuses to those schools that raise standards and re-skilling teachers - are directed at strengthening learning outcomes. Making the system more accountable and open to market forces is always welcome.

And in arguing for a more academically rigorous curriculum and higher standards, the Federal Government has reaffirmed education as a key election issue. It has successfully reclaimed the territory lost to Opposition leader Kevin Rudd and his education and training spokesman Stephen Smith as a result of their so-called education revolution.

All good so far. But some concerns remain.

Take the idea of introducing a Year 12 aptitude test to decide tertiary entry, a system similar to the SAT tests used in the US to decide college entry.

Flawed method

Many in the US consider intelligence tests a flawed method for preparing and selecting students for tertiary study. By measuring so-called generic skills and competencies, such tests undervalue the importance of subject-specific knowledge and lead to the situation where learning is reduced to preparing for the test, as opposed to mastering a range of subjects over a two-year period, as happens in Australia.

Such were the concerns about introducing a SAT-like test that the 2005 Department of Education, Science and Training-funded investigation into developing an Australian certificate of education - carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research and detailed in Australian Certificate of Education: Exploring a Way Forward - argued against adopting such an approach in the final years of schooling.

Both main political parties have signalled the need for a national curriculum and, as expected, the federal budget includes provision for developing what are termed core curriculum standards and nationally consistent standards in key subject areas across years 10, 11 and 12. What ever happened to simply writing a syllabus, detailing what needs to be taught?

Unlike the Labor Party, which has promised to work in collaboration with the states and territories, the Coalition Government has decided to impose greater national consistency in curriculums across all schools by linking acceptance to continued federal funding. Such an approach represents an overly bureaucratic, intrusive and centralised model of developing public policy.

A national curriculum is not the only area in which the Federal Government is seeking to unilaterally impose a standard. The list includes reporting school and student performances against national benchmarks; introducing performance-based pay for teachers; including external assessment in Year 12; and introducing national teacher-training and registration standards.

One of the justifications for imposing a national approach to curriculums is the need to ensure greater consistency in what all Australian students learn. The intention to allow states and territories to develop their own syllabus and materials appears contradictory and in opposition to developing a unified approach.

An added concern is the educational jargon. Although descriptions such as “core curriculum standards” and “nationally consistent standards” sound impressive, a curriculum based on such edubabble quickly unravels the closer it gets to the classroom.

In the US, standards refer to a model of curriculum development that is based on the academic disciplines, relates to a specific year level, includes high-stakes testing, is internationally benchmarked, and is written in a concise, easily understood and teacher-friendly way.

If the proposed national core curriculum standards embrace the US model, there may be a chance of Australian education improving. But based on past experience and the prevalence of outcomes-based education, this is unlikely and the danger is that teachers will have to go through yet another round of exhausting and wasteful curriculum renewal.


Much has been made of the need to improve teacher quality through teacher-training and ongoing professional development. The intention to develop national teacher training and registration standards and to pay teachers $5,000 to attend 10-day residential programs during the summer holidays appear worthwhile.

Again, though, a closer examination reveals flaws. Much of Australian education suffers from provider capture, where subject associations, deans of education and educational bureaucrats are more concerned with defending self-interest and promoting ideological fads, such as whole language and fuzzy maths, than assisting students.

Giving such groups $5 million over two years to develop what will most likely end up being an overly abstract, jargon-riddled and educationally-correct national framework for teacher-training and registration is wasteful and counter-productive.

Spending $101.7 million over four years and rewarding the so-called best teachers with $5,000 for attending 10 days of professional development - plus travel, accommodation and other costs - appear to be good ideas at first sight. After all, teachers are doing it hard; why not reward the high-flyers?

But research suggests that such short-term professional development programs have little effect. Common sense suggests that a better option would be to subsidise those teachers willing to undertake postgraduate qualifications over an extended period.

Greater accountability

The Federal Government's education initiatives display a willingness to innovate and to open education to greater choice and increased accountability. Better rewards for excellent teachers, giving principals increased autonomy in how they manage schools and employ staff, and encouraging more selective high schools is commendable.

But by mandating a national curriculum and a centralised, bureaucratic system of teacher-training and registration, controlled by the usual suspects, there is a danger that the gains represented by increased flexibility and choice will be lost.

- Kevin Donnelly is director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies and author of Dumbing Down, available from News Weekly Books. This article first appeared in The Australian (May 10, 2007).

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