Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Education establishment fails the curriculum reform test

Glenn Fahey

01 November 2021 | Financial Review

Speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies last month, federal Education Minister Alan Tudge outlined the priorities required to see Australian education “roar back” to be among the world’s best and to turn around student outcomes.

In doing so, he took aim at those who’ve long been obstacles to genuine reform: education bureaucrats, university-based education academics, and recalcitrant state ministers.

The biggest swipe was aimed at the national curriculum review, which he calls “disappointing”, and “deeply bureaucratic”. Based on the latest briefing on the curriculum’s draft, Tudge grades it a C, but demands it must be A+ to get his endorsement.

Anyone with a stake in Australian education should share this conviction.

His critique of the curriculum is justified – even if the combative delivery has rippled the education pond.

The draft proposed by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has regressed on promoting evidence-based teaching practices – especially in maths and reading.

Some elements in history and civics are woefully out of step with mainstream community attitudes and values.

Perhaps most challenging for Tudge will be reaching agreement with the states on history and civics.

And far from “decluttering and refining” the curriculum – the original intent of the review – it remains unwieldy and dense.

It’s unacceptable that the drafted curriculum had initially sought to promote teaching practices that are debunked by evidence in the first place. The research is clear: student outcomes are best when teaching is mostly teacher-led, rather than student-led.

In maths, the curriculum must not be endorsed unless it provides educators with a resource that embeds high standards and follows the educational science.

And in reading, phonics-based instruction must be clearly implemented and non-negotiable. While education ministers in NSW and South Australia have expressed similar sentiments on this, others have so far been silent.

And the quality, rather than the quantity, of words is the better goal for the curriculum, so Tudge is right to call for its contents to be pared back for clarity and relevance.

A dumping ground for pet topics

The latest draft curriculum’s length has now been halved. That will improve the work of educators and ultimately make clearer what students should know and be able to demonstrate.

For too long, curriculums have been a dumping ground for pet topics, while trimming redundant content has often proved difficult.

Not only should state education ministers support this development nationally, they should also ensure the same is reflected in their state curriculums.

To be fair on ACARA, this isn’t entirely its fault. It’s more an indictment of the education community from which ACARA has drawn input that has failed the test.

Rather than the enemy, ACARA is a victim of the education establishment that stubbornly and routinely rejects evidence-based practice and is captured by progressive influences.

Regrettably, this has made ACARA’s task more difficult than it needed to be. And, to its credit, ACARA is believed to be improving its iteration of the curriculum, with cause for optimism the finished product will be worth the wait.

The challenge is now for education ministers around the country – who must all endorse an updated draft – to follow Canberra’s lead in improving the state of the curriculum.

Perhaps most challenging for Tudge will be reaching agreement with the states on history and civics – which Victorian Education Minister James Merlino offhandedly rejected as “ham-fisted culture wars rubbish”.

A balanced perspective on Australian history – not just a progressive revisionist one – should hardly be controversial.

All efforts should be made for history in school to be as apolitical as possible. It should follow facts on the historical record, not rewrite history and offer subjective, inevitably politicised, judgment on the past.

It’s education academics, not Tudge, who risk landing on the wrong side of history on this.

The curriculum can and should provide a firm ground in civics and citizenship that endorses the Western democratic tradition. Australian students should understand how and why Australia and countries like it are freer and more prosperous than others.

Ultimately, improving the curriculum will benefit Australian students. The journey toward higher student achievement in international assessments starts – though doesn’t finish – with the curriculum that’s set.

Complemented by other items on the reform agenda, getting the curriculum review right will help to turn around sliding outcomes.

No matter the political stripes, that’s something everyone should get on board with.

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