Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Calling time on an untimed syllabus

Glenn Fahey

19 February 2021 | IDEAS@THECENTRE

The government’s decision to torpedo the controversial pitch for an ‘untimed syllabus’ in schools is a win for all NSW students, parents, and teachers.

An ‘untimed syllabus’ idea was the chief recommendation to the NSW government reviewing the curriculum and is motivated by the discredited ‘stage rather than age’ push.

It claims students should be tracked, not by what they know for their age and grade, but by how much more they know compared to the previous year. Effectively, it suggests students should move at their own pace, rather than each trying to meet the same bar.

Supplanting ‘absolute’ measures of student achievement with ‘relative’ measures of their progress is popular with education academics; but in practice, it’s a threat to students, parents, and teachers.

For better or worse, students’ achievement level — not their progress — is what matters for their post-school work and study prospects. Their future enrolment and employment decisions will be made on who’s the highest-achieving candidate, not who’s the ‘most improved’. The school system must better prepare them for this reality, not shield them from it.

Recording student achievement against grade-level expectations, and even compared to their peers, is an important educational task. If students aren’t at a proficient level, it signals the need for remedial efforts from teachers and parents.

Stunting that process is a recipe for a low-expectations trap, where struggling students study a syllabus years behind where they should be, rather than their schools seeking to lift them up to standard.

The dirty secret about an untimed syllabus is that it most hurts underachieving and disadvantaged students. Students who start behind risk staying behind — since their progress is tracked from their starting point, not a common end point.

But it’s perhaps teachers who will breathe the greatest sigh of relief. Teachers already have their plate full meeting the differing abilities of students across their classroom, before trying to simultaneously teach students across multiple syllabuses. As all teachers know, it’s their pedagogy that should be flexible to meet students’ needs, not the curriculum itself.

The NSW education system can be resurrected from its currently diminished status. But this will only be possible by thwarting persistent efforts to undermine academic expectations and standards.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald as Ditching academics’ fantasy a win for education.

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