Here we go again 2

06 Dec

Repetition is no guarantee of truth, so when you read yet again here, here, and here:

One only needs to look at the parlous quality of state and territory curriculum to know where the true explanation lies for falling standards. Literature, especially classic texts, is no longer pre-eminent as students are asked to deconstruct SMS messages, graffiti and movie posters. Across Australia, many students are able to complete Year 12 English without ever reading a substantive novel or play.


Professional associations such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, faculties of teacher education and the Australian Education Union are also to blame for students under-performing. Not only have such groups forced a dumbed-down approach to curriculum on schools, but their argument that standards will only improve if more money is spent, based on overseas research, is wrong.


What can be done to raise standards? The question is more than academic, given Labor’s promise to address falling standards and develop more effective curriculums. Identifying the characteristics of better-performing education systems provides one avenue to strengthen our system(s). Countries that outperform Australia emphasise competitive external examinations; the curriculum is academic-based and there is a greater emphasis on effective classroom practice; students are streamed in terms of ability; and there is a differentiated curriculum, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.


Ms Bishop said teacher unions and professional associations had some responsibility for falling educational standards. “Over the past 20 years, the influence of the education unions on school curriculum has led to the embrace of fads and political agendas rather than on the core skills of literacy and numeracy,” she said.

You could really scream, having read such things for the past thirty or forty years. There is nothing about the OECD’s latest results in the Program for International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds in 57 countries that would make me want to change one thing in What is literacy? or Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis or in any of the posts tagged “education” or “literacy” or “English studies” that pepper my various blogs.

First, the decline is hardly catastrophic.

Second, the ACT is the “best” (according to figures in the print edition of The Australian) despite the fact the HSC was abolished there thirty years ago and there are no “set texts”.

Third, whatever the politics you might make of it, the fact is the “decline” measures for the first time the performance of students who received all their education during the Howard years. In even more “dumbed down” times we appear to have done better.

Fourth, Finland does very well but Finnish is a highly regular language in its orthography, as is Korean whose Hangul writing system is, some say, the most logical of any extant. Nonetheless “Finland, Phonics, and Whole Language: Beginning Reading in a Regular Letter-Sound Correspondence Language” apparently argues:

that teachers in English-speaking countries can learn from problems Finnish teachers face and vice versa. Finds that, despite a highly regular writing system, Finnish teachers find that a heavy phonics emphasis does not solve their reading instruction problems.

See also:

Reading Finland is a priority project of the Finnish National Board of Education implemented in 2001-2004. The objectives of the project are to improve the reading and writing skills of pupils in basic and general upper secondary education and to increase their knowledge of literature. The responsibility for reaching these objectives is considered to fall on the entire school, all subjects and every teacher.

Although the results of the PISA 2000 study showed in spring 2001 that the reading skills among Finnish youth are easily the best in the OECD countries, about a fifth of the pupils perform alarmingly inadequately in relation to nationally set objectives according to national evaluations of mother tongue skills. There are significant individual discrepancies, boys perform worse than girls especially in their knowledge of Finnish, and it seems that pupils especially have problems in deductive and critical reading. In an information based society like Finland, there is a need for even better and more versatile reading skills. Good reading skills also prevent social exclusion and are the most significant factor in academic success.

Fifth, some areas such as Hong Kong and Korea do not, or have not, put great value on originality or critical reading and writing, or on creativity.

It was all said two years ago anyway: Go back to basic for literacy program: report. Fourteen years ago when I conducted a local study of the teaching of reading for the Disadvantaged Schools Program (before Howard ditched it) people were saying much the same. Fourteen years before that people were saying much the same…

It is also worth mentioning that last year’s PISA test was in Science literacy, so exactly what the number of classic texts studied in English has to do with that only God knows…

PISA Report 2007 (PDF)

Do download and read it carefully. Note how the figures were generated. Note what they might actually mean. Note that 2000, 2003 and 2006 were measuring different things* using different tests! Note further how they may well be misappropriated by people with other agendas.

* The Australian muffled this:

AS evidence that there is no crisis in education, groups such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English and the Australian Education Union point to the results of our 15-year-old students in the PISA 2000 literacy test, where the nation was ranked second only to Finland.

Such optimism is misplaced given last year’s PISA results just released, in which Australian students dropped from second to sixth, and the fact the fall was caused by a decline in the students performing at the high end of the scale.

That Australian students were ranked fourth in terms of scientific literacy…

That article (the first linked at the top) did go on to discuss another set of figures, the Trends in International Science Study tests, due for completion in 2008. The latest figures available from that test refer to 2003. On these various tests see Wikipedia.


Australian Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2

Literacy controversies on English/ESL 7 December 2007

Written — otherwise I would never have bothered with this latest outbreak of public stupidity — because Adrian Phoon asked me what I thought…

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5 responses to “Here we go again 2

  1. Jim Belshaw

    December 6, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Neil, there are some issues here that need to be discussed. The linked OECD stats do show a decline in “performance” in the 15 and 15-19 cohorts. As you note, what this means is unclear. If you are not clear on the cause, you cannot be clear on the solution, if indeed there is a problem.

    Let me take one issue in isolation. The stats attempt to measure “standards” across a whole population. As defined, it may be that Australian performance has peaked simply because of the size of the socially disadvantaged school age group. If this were to be the case, then what appears to be an educational problem may in fact be a social policy problem.

    I do not have time to argue this tonight, its Clare’s breaking up. Maybe later.

  2. frodo441

    December 8, 2007 at 6:51 am

    Phonics is a drag on otherwise precocious school children and everyone has known that since 1970…learning to read one way and then learning to read and write the correct way a few years later…lets many children loose their peers…this causes an isolation within many children that somehow they learn to adapt to…being older than their new peers…

    Quantifiable, traditional IQ tests were always based on the most readily available data of select groups in society rendering one or another socio-economic classes at a disadvantage not being familiar with the specific means of acquisition…

  3. frodo441

    December 8, 2007 at 7:01 am

    sounds like you blokes are up against the delivery of services to an increasingly rural population…

  4. ninglun

    December 8, 2007 at 7:57 am

    sounds like you blokes are up against the delivery of services to an increasingly rural population…

    Delivery of services to remote communities has always been an issue in Australia. increasingly rural population… Not really; in fact there is a decline in that population relative to the cities. Mind you, Oz has been highly urbanised for a very long time.

  5. Jim Belshaw

    December 18, 2007 at 9:24 am

    Hi Frodo, if you look at my blogs you will see that delivering better, sometimes any, services to country people is a bit of an obsession of mine.

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