Article author Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of The Culture of Freedom.
In 2004, in Why Our Schools are Failing, I argued Australia’s competitive academic curriculum was being “attacked and undermined by a series of ideologically driven changes that have conspired to reduce standards and impose a politically correct, mediocre view of education on our schools”. Three years later, in Dumbing Down, I repeated the claim, arguing that Australia’s cultural left education establishment, instead of supporting high risk examinations, teacher directed lessons and meritocracy, was redefining the curriculum “as an instrument to bring about equity and social justice”. At the time the Australian Curriculum Studies Association organised two national conferences involving leading education bureaucrats, professional organisations, teacher unions and like-minded academics to argue all was well and that critics such as the News Corp’s newspapers were guilty of orchestrating a “black media debate” and a “conservative backlash”.
The Australian’s campaign for rigour and standards in education, especially its defence of classic literature and teaching grammar, was condemned by one critic as a “particularly ferocious campaign” that was guilty of wanting “to restore a traditional approach to the teaching of English”. Fast forward to 2016 and it’s clear where the truth lies. Despite investing additional billions and implementing a raft of education reforms, Australia’s ranking in international tests is going backwards and too many students are leaving school illiterate, innumerate and culturally impoverished. In the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Australian students were ranked 22nd; in the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, Australian students were ranked 20th in mathematics; and in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, our Year 4 science students were outperformed by 17 other countries.
Australia’s national curriculum, instead of acknowledging we are a Western liberal democracy and the significance of our Judeo Christian heritage, embraces cultural relativism and prioritises politically correct indigenous, Asian and sustainability perspectives. Instead of focusing on the basics, teachers are pressured to teach Marxist inspired programs such as the LGBTI Safe Schools program where gender is fluid and limitless and Roz Ward, one of the founders, argues: “It will only be through a revitalised class struggle and revolutionary change that we can hope for the liberation of LGBTI people.” What’s to be done? It’s rare that those responsible for failure are capable of choosing the right way forward. Organisations such as ACSA, the Australian Education Union and the Australian Council for Educational Research are part of the problem, not the solution.
Instead of education fads and a command and control model mandated by such bodies, where schools are made to implement a one size fits all curriculum, assessment, accountability and staffing system, schools must be freed from provider capture and given the autonomy to manage themselves. As argued by Melbourne based Brian Caldwell: “There is a powerful educational logic to locating a higher level of authority, responsibility and accountability for curriculum, teaching and assessment at the school level. Each school has a unique mix of students in respect to their needs, interests, aptitudes and ambitions; indeed, each classroom has a unique mix.”
The reason Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools is not because of students’ socioeconomic status, which has a relatively weak impact on outcomes, but because non-government schools have control over staffing, budgets, curriculum focus and classroom practice. In a paper this year The Importance of School Systems: Evidence from International Differences in Student Achievement European research Ludger Woessmann identifies “school autonomy and private competition” as important factors when explaining why some education systems outperform others. Instead of adopting ineffective fads such as constructivism where the emphasis is on inquiry based discovery learning, teachers being guides by the side and content being secondary to process it is vital to ensure that teacher training and classroom practice are evidence based.
Not so in Australia, where the dominant approach is based on constructivism. In opposition, and when arguing in favour of explicit teaching and direct instruction, NSW academic John Sweller states that “there is no aspect of human cognitive architecture that suggests that inquiry based learning should be superior to direct instructional guidance and much to suggest that it is likely to be inferior”. American educationalist ED Hirsch and Sweller argue that children must be able to automatically recall what has been taught. Primary schoolchildren, in particular, need to memorise times tables, do mental arithmetic and learn to recite poems and ballads. After citing several research studies, Hirsch concludes: “Varied and repeated practice leading to rapid recall and automaticity is necessary to higher order problem solving skills in both mathematics and the sciences.”
Even though Australia has one of the highest rates of classroom computer use, our results are going backwards. A recent OECD study concludes “countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science”. At a time when Australia’s education ministers are deciding a new school funding model after 2017, it is also vital to realise investing additional billions, as argued by the AEU and former NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, is not the solution. Australia has been down that road across 20 years and standards have failed to improve. The debate needs to shift from throwing more money after bad, a la Gonski, to identifying the most cost effective way to use resources to raise standards.
As noted by Eric Hanushek and Woessmann in The Knowledge Capital of Nations , the focus must be on “how money is spent (instead) of how much money is spent”. And here the research is clear. Stronger performing education systems embrace competition, autonomy, diversity and choice in education, and benchmark their curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning against world’s best practice and evidence based research. Teachers set high expectations with a disciplined classroom environment, students are taught to be resilient and motivated to succeed, there is less external micromanagement, and parents are engaged and supportive of their children’s teachers. As argued in the Review of the Australian National Curriculum I co-chaired, it is also vital to eschew educational fads and new age, politically correct ideology and ensure what is taught is based on what American psychologist Jerome Bruner describes as “the structure of the disciplines”.