The new national school curriculum should be celebrated

Australia’s educators and policymakers now have a less cluttered, clearer, and more knowledge-based school curriculum, following agreement at Friday’s meeting of education ministers.

This (belated) settling of the curriculum should be welcomed by the sector.

It saves the curriculum from becoming further politicised during the coming federal election campaign. It also means educators will soon have some certainty on what the curriculum will look like in classrooms from next year.

Educators will applaud the major decluttering effort. The overall length of curriculum has been cut by at least 20 per cent. That means more clarity for teachers and more opportunity to focus on the essentials.

More fundamentally, the latest reported revisions to the draft maths curriculum will reverse earlier concerns about downgrading expectations – and rebuff earlier efforts to elevate evidence-free teaching approaches.

While the final destination of the review may be right, it hasn’t been a smooth ride to get there.

The proposed new curriculum has been the source of much controversy – particularly with implications for teaching of maths, reading, and the study of Australian history. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA) – charged with drafting the document – has repeatedly been tasked with significant changes.

It’s also divided education ministers.

Speaking at the Centre for Independent Studies in October, then education minister Alan Tudge called the curriculum review “disappointing”, and “deeply bureaucratic”. He graded the draft at the time with a C, while demanding it must be A+ to get the government’s endorsement.

Queensland and Victorian education ministers have been at odds with the federal government on content and process of the curriculum review. Victorian minister James Merlino had rejected Canberra’s emphasis on Australian history as “ham-fisted culture wars rubbish”. At a special meeting in February, Western Australian Education Minister Sue Ellery divided with Canberra on rigour in the maths curriculum.

Getting maths standards right is of special concern, given that this is the most striking source of Australian students’ educational decline. The average Australian 15-year-old is now 14 months behind their counterparts from the early 2000s.

Of particular note, a push for students to learn their multiplication tables later has been quashed. This is among a range of content areas that threatened to delay arming students with foundational skills.

But the truth is that the sooner students are introduced to key foundations, the sooner they can master them and progress with their learning. Without knowing the mathematical rules, procedures, and operations, students can quickly become out of their depth when attempting problems. The supposed alternative – to develop a range of general problem-solving, ‘thinking’ skills -is no substitute.

Education science has long shown that students become more proficient as they build up their knowledge. A greater focus on building students’ knowledge – not the watering down of it – is key to lifting student outcomes.

Implications for how to teach have also divided educators.

Policymakers have resisted pressure to give a greater role to student-led learning approaches. In effect, the original draft would have required teachers to spend more time as facilitators – rather than directors – of students’ learning.

Recent CIS research has warned that many new maths teachers are not properly trained in teacher-led instruction practices, recognised as critical to students’ successful learning. Instead, many mistakenly believe they should focus on having students lead their own learning.

While accomplished maths learners can complete more sophisticated types of problems, all learners need to be properly and systematically introduced to new content. Our best teachers know that students learn best when teachers lead the learning.

There’s little doubt that a lack of teacher-led instruction in Australia has contributed to declining student achievement in maths. It’s estimated that the average 15-year-old would be around 10 months ahead of where they currently are if they received mostly teacher-led instruction, with only occasional student-led practice.

Curriculum can – and should – play a role in helping direct teachers’ practices and expectations. With curriculum improvements, there’s promise for a reversal in the dismal trajectory of student achievement.

Despite the delay, the national curriculum will be more knowledge-based and high-quality one. All policymakers should unite behind that aim.