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September 22, 2013 / D.F.Dufty

Why Australian School Standards are dropping like a stone – and what to do about it

Last month the non-government education research outfit, ACER, issued a media release that was merely the latest in pretty much an unbroken string of bad news for Australian school quality.

“A comprehensive new analysis from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has provided evidence beyond simple international rankings that the achievement levels of Australian students declined in the period 2000 to 2012.”
In more detail they found:

• an overall decline in the reading and mathematics levels of Australian 15-year-olds
• variation in the decline in the reading levels of Australian 15-year-olds, with greater declines in Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and the ACT than in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Victoria and Queensland
• a small improvement in Year 4 mathematics levels since 1994 and a small improvement in Year 3 reading levels from 2008 to 2012, and
• a growing gap between the most advantaged and the least advantaged secondary schools in Australia.

This is on top of the annual international rankings, TIMSS and PISA, on which Australia continues to slide. This is a well known problem. Andrew Leigh, before he entered politics, wrote about it and concluded that there had been “a fall in school productivity.

ACER says more funding is needed. That was Gillard’s solution too, which is why she brought in Gonski. But lack of funding is not the problem. Australian schools did fine half a century ago with much smaller budgets.
The reason is simply that the education system has been stripped of content in the core areas of numeracy and literacy. They just don’t teach as much of it. Find yourself a maths curriculum, or a literacy curriculum, from forty years ago and see how much more was being taught in Australian schools.
Take my local primary school as a simple example. The kids do a maths class only three days a week. And those classes rarely involve practice, exercises, or times tables drills, because that’s boring and not fun and “we don’t teach that way any more.”
The effect of protecting the children from the drudgery of skills-based approach to maths and literacy can be seen in the following chart (from an ACER report):


Notice that the East Asian countries are outperforming us, Europe and North America. And by a lot. The difference is huge. Note also the percent of students who are in the “advanced” category. Those people are rare as hen’s teeth in Sweden (3 percent) but make up nearly half the students in a typical school in Singapore. We’re at 10 percent. This fits with the anecdotal evidence from lecturers on Australian campuses. University teachers in numeracy based subjects despair at the small numbers, in historical terms, of students who are highly numerate.

Starting about three decades ago, the Western education bureaucracies became overrun with ideologues. These activists had little interest empirical studies that investigate which techniques work, and which don’t. They firmly believed that drills and memorization of any kind were bad. They stripped back the maths that girls struggled with. They introduced a verbal component to maths (such as “explaining your working” – see here for a striking example ). Since boys tend to have better spatial ability and girls tend to have better verbal ability, taking out spatial skills and putting more “verbal ability” into maths tips the scales towards girls. It helps girls bridge the maths gap not by helping girls do maths better but by redefining the subject itself.
The ideological takeover that has caused the decline in standards presents a problem for any review of teaching methods, because most of the local ‘experts’ in Australia are invested in the current, failing system. (I say ‘most’…. it’s not quite all). But as the chart shows, this is across the Western world, driven by a de-emphasizing of domain specific knowledge, practice, facts, and core material; and an emphasis on learning that is more fun, self-directed, high level and cultural. The nations that are doing it right are the East Asian nations such as Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. They’re feasting right now and we are starving.
Therefore there is a simple solution. The TIMSS and PISA rankings tell us which countries are doing best in numeracy and literacy. In both cases the best performing Western nation is South Korea. We could import the South Korean curriculum and teaching methods in toto, and work from there. But Singapore is not far behind Korea, and is far ahead of us. Singapore would possibly be a better choice as there is a common language and shared cultural history.
This would of course mean that numerous committees, organizations, and advisors would become instantly redundant but they could certainly reskill to cope with the new, higher quality education system. It would also be a shock to those who think that the West should lecture and teach other nations (about, for example, democracy and global warming) but that we have nothing to learn from them.
If we swallow our pride, Asia can help us fix our broken education system.

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