Australian schools are not producing results that put them as world's best
IT takes a lot of chutzpah to have a history of arguing one thing and then to argue the reverse with a straight face and expect to be believed.
Geoff Masters, the head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, expresses shock and disappointment at Australia's unsatisfactory results in this week's Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.
Sounding like editorials in The Australian during the past 10 to 15 years and conservative education commentators like me who have warned about the parlous state of our education system, Masters argues our children are at risk. In an ACER media release Masters states
"to say the results are disappointing is an understatement. It's surprising to see how many countries have outperformed us"
and argues we now face "an enormous challenge" to lift performance.
Masters is also, quoted as saying "he could barely believe it" in response to the PIRLS results ranking Australia's Year 4 children 27th out of 44 countries in reading ability.
Backtrack to a meeting of education mafia in February 2006, at the height of debates about the impact of Australia's dumbed-down Outcomes Based Education model of curriculum, and Masters argues a very different case. Instead of accepting the public's concerns about falling standards and a curriculum lacking rigour, Masters argues that it is unfair that the expertise of professionals is undervalued and that
"our voice is not heard above those who seek to manufacture a feeling of crisis in education".
Masters is also on the public record, in a paper defending OBE, arguing there is little, if any, research to support concerns about under-performance. As evidence, he cites results in the 2000 and 2003 PISA tests where Australia did well and the fact that between 1994 and 2003 results in the TIMSS tests did not decline.
This was a time when public disquiet about standards was widespread as a result of controversy in Western Australia about extending OBE to Years 11 and 12, fears about Tasmania's Essential Learnings and the Howard government's concerns about literacy and the teaching of history.
Instead of accepting there was a problem, those academics, professional associations and teacher unions responsible for managing the state and territory education systems met to orchestrate a campaign arguing all was well and the critics should not be believed.
Speakers at the February 2006 meeting, organised by the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, condemned The Australian for promoting a "black media debate" and argued the Howard government's conservative political agenda was "overwhelming the educational one".
An executive member of ACSA, Alan Reid, argued that media and public fears about falling standards were
"overly negative" and guilty of promoting a sense of "crisis".
At a second ACSA meeting held in August the same year, Reid continued his critique of papers such as The Australian by arguing:
"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."
Notwithstanding the argument by academics such as Masters and Reid that fears about falling standards represent a manufactured media crisis, this week's international test results highlight that there is a problem.
Add the fact that our universities now have remedial classes in algebra and essay writing, that primary students enter secondary school ill equipped and, as argued by the federal member for Fraser Andrew Leigh when a researcher at the Australian National University, that literacy and numeracy standards have flat-lined, then it's clear the critics are correct.
As to whether standards will improve and Australian students, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard has promised, will be achieving among the top five nations by 2025, I have my doubts.
The Gillard government's approach to education is highly centralised, statist and inflexible, while overseas research suggests that autonomy, diversity and competition characterize stronger performing education systems.
By imposing a national curriculum, national testing, national teaching standards and its National Plan for School Improvement the government is denying schools the freedom to manage themselves and drowning teachers in red tape and a command-and-control model of educational delivery.
Even worse, many of those responsible for the parlous state of Australia's education system are the very so-called experts being employed to design and deliver the commonwealth government's agenda.
There is an alternative and we don't have to look overseas. Australia's Catholic and independent schools outperform government schools, even after adjusting for student home background, and many achieve world's best results.
The best way to raise standards is to properly resource non-government schools, give more parents the ability to choose such schools via vouchers and give government schools the same autonomy to best reflect the needs and aspirations of their communities.