As Australia’s Wu-flu infection rate goes down, Scott Morrison and Reserve Bank Governor Dr Phillip Lowe both say it’s time to embark on a comprehensive and innovative reform agenda to ensure the nation’s future prosperity. And there’s no doubt school education must be front and centre as a priority. Despite the additional billions of dollars invested over the last 20 years educational outcomes continue to plummet. Whether measured by their performance in international tests and NAPLAN or the reality that so many students leave school culturally illiterate and lacking in the skills needed for success in life and work, it’s clear more of the same is not the solution. Reports and reviews over the last ten years have identified weaknesses in academic standards, curriculum design, teacher training and student assessment and reporting practices. In fairness to future generations – particularly children experiencing disadvantage – policy reforms must address all of these.
Education must be central to any reform agenda on the basis that what happens in schools has a dramatic and long-term impact on economic efficiency and productivity, social cohesion and every citizen’s ability to lead a fulfilling and rewarding life committed to the common good. As argued by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, authors of The Knowledge Capital of Nations, one of the key drivers of individual and national productivity is education. Based on an analysis of stronger performing economies they suggest ‘knowledge is the key to economic development. Nations that ignore this fact suffer, while those that recognise it flourish’. After comparing the success of East Asian countries including Singapore in international tests and improved productivity compared to Latin American nations they conclude ‘the cognitive skills of the population are the most essential to long-run prosperity’.
Given the record debt now faced by governments across Australia as a result of the Wu-flu, it is no longer feasible to continue to commit over $60 billion annually to school education without ensuring it is well spent. Piecemeal policy will not do and there is justifiable scepticism about whether those responsible for the decline – such as the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its state and territory counterparts, the Australian Council for Educational Research and the Australian Education Union – should be part of the solution.
For example, the Australian Curriculum produced by ACARA which guides learning in Foundation to Year 10 is riven with politically correct ideology and taught and assessed differently in schools across the country. No national mechanism exists to ensure the curriculum is academically rigorous and challenging and to track student achievement in transparent, accountable ways. ACARA is leading a review of that curriculum in 2020, but it is hard to see improvements on the horizon when a major influence comes from the untried and untested ‘21st century learning’ agenda associated with the OECD’s Education 2030 initiative.
The proposal to rewrite the curriculum as a series of learning progressions and replace standards-based, year-level assessment with ad hoc formative assessments that measure individual students’ growth is yet another experimental, costly fad that will do nothing to raise standards and restore rigour. NAPLAN, currently the only nationwide test instrument, measures children’s progress in literacy and numeracy in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, but the tests are set to unhelpfully low standards. Too many Year 10 students, as noted by employers and vocational education providers, demonstrate inadequate English language and mathematical knowledge and skills. This is particularly worrying for students – including the high proportion in regional areas – who leave school before finishing Year 12.
What’s to be done? Under the Australian Constitution the states control school education, not the commonwealth government. The first step based on the concept of competitive federalism is to reduce duplication and waste by abolishing ACARA and AITSL, and to dramatically prune the Commonwealth’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment. States and territories should have the freedom and flexibility to manage their own affairs with the commonwealth taking the role of analysing and evaluating the effectiveness of what is being achieved, or not being achieved, in terms of educational outcomes.
Teacher training also needs an overhaul. The prevailing orthodoxy is based on constructivism, meaning that teachers are told that explicit, teacher directed learning, memorisation and mastering essential knowledge, understanding and skills are old-fashioned and irrelevant to the digital natives of the 21st century.
Once again, the commonwealth’s role instead of financing the national teacher body AITSL should be to monitor and evaluate the various approaches adopted by the states and territories. The commonwealth should also have a role in evaluating teacher training courses.
Senior secondary education also needs major reform. High-performing overseas systems have high expectations of students’ knowledge and require students to attempt a set of final examinations in core subjects. The trickle-down effect to earlier years of schooling then sets the academic tone and underpins aspiration to succeed. Australia has no agreed national standards for Years 11 and 12 and the assessment of school leavers’ knowledge and skills varies so greatly that parents, employers and tertiary institutions can make very few assumptions about young people’s readiness for further study or the workforce. While states and territories need flexibility to cater for their students’ educational needs including a proper balance of academic, vocational and other pathways, an efficient and accountable national body would ensure the various approaches are academically rigorous and effective in lifting student performance and enabling young Australians to compete confidently with their international peers.
Globalist rhetoric will not fix longstanding educational deficits or provide policy solutions for young Australians who deserve the best teaching and learning that taxpayers can afford. Post Wu-flu education reform based on evidence about what is most effective now needs to go hard and fast. We have neither the money nor the time to keep experimenting with children’s futures based on failed educational theories and practices guaranteed to dumb down the curriculum and further lower standards.
Kevin Donnelly and Fiona Mueller are the authors of the Page Research Centre’s 2019 School Education Policy Paper.
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