Education policy should be based on evidence and worthwhile goals, not on borrowed fads

Fiona Mueller

31 August 2019 | The Australian

This week has seen the annual commotion around Australia’s standardised testing regime, the National Assessment Program —  Literacy and Numeracy.

Once again, despite huge increases in taxpayer funding, there is little to give parents, employers and the public any confidence that students are mastering the essential knowledge and skills they need for success in life and work.

The reality is that NAPLAN cannot deliver the improvements we seek unless it — like the other elements of the so-called national education architecture — is rebooted in purpose, design and operation to establish the highest possible national standards of teaching and learning, from kindergarten to Year 12.

In this vast country with its small, dispersed and diverse ­population, smart national solutions not only make sense; they also are crucial.

At present, NAPLAN is national in the sense that it is administered to most students in most schools across the country. But given that the national curriculum is not delivered in a nationally consistent way across Australia — and because the Australian curriculum’s achievement standards lack precision — the alignment with NAPLAN is dubious.

There are no agreed national standards for school-leavers because each jurisdiction has its own Year 12 credential. The national minimum standards to which NAPLAN is set are so low that more than 90 per cent of all students meet most of them most of the time, yet Australian 15-year-olds clearly are far from ready for the literacy demands of international assessments such as the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment.

Nation-building is apparently “so last century”, especially in Australian education. In the new millennium, the theme has virtually disappeared from the curriculum, other than to explain sociopolitical history or economy-boosting projects. But given the disappointment of this year’s NAPLAN tests, ­perhaps it should be at the forefront of the current review of the Melbourne Declaration, the nationally agreed framework that has informed Australian school education policy and practices since 2008.

Otherwise, we risk filling the intellectual and pedagogical vacuum with more fads, despite knowing that many of these are to blame for the current situation. Waffling policy documents, weak academic standards and unrealistic expectations of teachers and students will not improve education outcomes in a nation that once aspired to cleverness.

A little more than 100 years ago, the end of World War I put a spotlight on the need to build the nation. Compulsory education began to expand into the post-primary years of schooling; a move that was directly related to the intellectual and practical efforts involved in bringing a fledgling country to life. Australian participation in the tragedy and terror of international conflicts inevitably led to future-focused debates about defence, sovereignty, social progress and economic prosperity.

By 1952, Year 6 students in NSW were reading a book called Social Studies for Australians (1952). It posed three key questions and the national focus was clear: what is life like in Australia; what has made your way of life in Australia just what it is; and how can we improve the Australian way of life?

That national focus seems to have evaporated in the 21st century, replaced by fundamentally different — and overtly globalist — assumptions about schooling that sit beneath the “what” and the “how” of learning. The federal government is wrapping up its review of the Melbourne Declaration, the two overarching educational goals of which are to promote “equity and excellence” and to create “successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens”.

According to the declaration, “major changes in the world … are placing new demands on Australian education” and “in the 21st century Australia’s capacity to provide a high quality of life for all will depend on the ability to compete in the global economy on knowledge and innovation”.

In 2008, the declaration asserted that a national commitment to “world-class curriculum and assessment” would enable all young Australians “to take advantage of opportunity and to face the challenges of this era with ­confidence”. The preceding Hobart Declaration (1989) and Adelaide Declaration (1999) both claimed to be statements of national goals for schooling, but they made little attempt at nation-building language.

Meanwhile, the deadline for the interim report of the NSW Curriculum Review has also been reached. At the top of its list of tasks, the review is supposed to “articulate the purposes of the school curriculum, including underpinning philosophies and principles”. Adding to the complexity, Australian educators and policymakers are caught up in the OECD’s Education 2030 Project. This calls for “a global effort for education change” that “contributes to the UN 2030 Global Goals for Sustainable Development, aiming to ensure the sustainability of people, profit, planet and peace, through partnership”.

The 21st-century skills agenda includes magic bullets such as “learning progressions” and “online formative assessment” tools. These are being given significant taxpayer funding, despite the lack of solid evidence to support their efficacy.

Should we be concerned that globalist goals may blind us to the nation-building role of schooling? Could we end up (again) merely talking about — but not actually doing anything meaningful to improve — the educational opportunities and outcomes of young Australians?

Many Australian students leave school without a sound grasp of this country’s sociopolitical evolution or how their education can position them soundly for adulthood as well-educated citizens of a nation and the world.

One high-performing country leaves no doubt about national ­objectives for education. In ­Singapore, as part of “instilling deep values and building foundation for learning”, a fundamental goal is to “cultivate values and commitment to Singapore and fellow Singaporeans”.

According to the Ministry of Education, the Singapore curriculum philosophy is to ensure that students “are future-ready, have a strong sense of national identity, and are equipped to contribute in a globalised world”. From kindergarten to Year 6, character and citizenship education helps students to “understand their roles in shaping the future of our nation”.

Underpinning high school studies, the four desired outcomes of education include developing “a concerned citizen” who “will grow to be proud of Singapore and understand our country within the global context at the post-secondary level”.

Singapore’s path is one that should inspire Australia, and today it is clear that we need to make changes that will restore public confidence in our school education.

Can an updated Melbourne Declaration be the “national aspirational declaration on Australian education” to do this?

Whatever happens, a clever Australia must address our distinctive schooling challenges using evidence and worthwhile goals rather than borrowed fads.

Fiona Mueller is director of the education program at the Centre for Independent Studies and a former director of curriculum at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.

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