SCHOOLS: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Educrats trying to change their spots
, September 14, 2013
It takes chutzpah to denigrate the curriculum you developed, but it isn’t surprising that educrats such as Tom Alegounarias and bodies such as the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) are experiencing a road to Damascus moment.
Evidence of falling standards because of Australia’s dumbed-down curriculum can no longer be denied. Primary school students are ranked 27th in the world in literacy, and standards in maths and science have failed to improve. Add the fact the Coalition’s education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has argued for more traditional approaches such as direct instruction, and it’s understandable why the educrats have been whistling a different tune.
Alegounarias now argues generic skills and 21st-century competencies, such as accessing information, are secondary to being taught traditional academic disciplines. Yet Alegounarias, was a board member of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. His profile at the University of Sydney said, “With regards to the National Curriculum, Mr Alegounarias’s role has been significant. Since 2008 he has served as the NSW representative on the National Curriculum Board and has helped oversee the development of a rigorous world-class national curriculum for all Australian students from kindergarten to Year 12.”
The national curriculum embraces an inquiry-based approach to learning, where content is secondary to children directing their own learning, and every subject must be taught through indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives. English, science, history and maths also must embrace the “skills, behaviours and attributes that students need to succeed in life and work in the 21st century”.
Examples of these skills include using new technologies, being a creative and critical thinker, and developing intercultural understanding — a situation where common and agreed values give way to cultural relativism based on diversity.
ACER also now argues in a recent report, Measure for Measure, that “the achievement levels of Australian students (have) declined in the period 2000 to 2012”.
Contrary to the usual plea from vested interest groups such as the Australian Education Union, ACER chief executive Geoff Masters states that school-funding reform will not raise standards unless “the application of those funds is effective”.
Add the admission in the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education report, Focusing on the Learner, that “there is a sense of national urgency about addressing the educational challenges Australia faces”, and it appears Australia’s education establishment is finally admitting that fears about falling standards are well founded.
Yet the track record of those controlling education — ACER’s Geoff Masters and Tony Mackay, head of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School leadership, and groups such as the Deans of Education — is that any recent conversion to academic rigour is more about politics than substance. At the height of controversy about outcomes-based education, these educrats argued there was no problem.
At the Australian Curriculum Studies Association conference in 2006, a who’s who of educrats claimed that public concerns about standards were “overly negative” and based on “clear misconceptions and the negation of facts”. Masters argued that educational professionals had to recapture the debate as their expertise was “undervalued in Australia and our voice is not heard above those who seek to manufacture a feeling of crisis in education”.
At a second conference, in part organised to counter the then Howard Coalition government’s push for a more traditional curriculum, educrats said: “We have a conservative backlash in the media which is really pushing us back to fixed syllabuses and a didactic curriculum which conservative government forces are helping to promote.”
Many who attended the conferences in 2006, arguing that schools must resist a more traditional view of education, are the people agreeing with Pyne today.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of and Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science! (available from News Weekly Books). This article first appeared in The Australian.