dumbing down education

Students betrayed by faddish schools of thought

7 December 2019

3.6 MINS

by Kevin Donnelly, The Australian.

Editor’s Note: Kevin Donnelly puts his finger on just how Australia’s education system has fallen into crisis, and suggests how we can do better by our children, restoring sound pedagogy.
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Brian Hartzer, pressured to resign as chief executive of Westpac last week, must be wishing he worked at the top levels in school education. In business the buck stops with the chief, and in most cases there are immediate consequences for mismanagement or failure.

Not so with those career educrats responsible for Australia’s substandard education system, where this week’s abysmal Program for International Student Assessment results highlight a nation at risk.

In 2003, Australian students were ranked 10th in maths, fourth in reading and sixth in science. Fifteen years later, 2018 results released this week show state and territory students have dropped to 25th in maths, 16th in reading and 14th in science.

For those arguing the OECD’s PISA test relates only to 15-year-old students, the reality is that in other international tests, including Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, our students’ results are also abysmal. In the most recent PIRLS test evaluating reading, Australian students are ranked 21st; in TIMSS our Year 4 students are 19th in science.

As I’ve argued since Why Our Schools are Failing was published in 2004, the reasons Australian students are plummeting down the league tables are obvious.

Peak bodies such as the Australian Council for Educational Research, the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority and the Australian Education Union represent a self-serving clique.

ACER head Geoff Masters, past head of ACARA Robert Randall and NSW Education Standards Authority chairman Tom Alegounarias never face any consequences for their failures and instead, based on the Peter principle, are promoted to their least level of ability. Instead of relying on the evidence about the most effective way to raise standards, give students a rigorous and rewarding education and better support schools and staff, those in control exist in a world far removed from the realities and the practicalities of the classroom.

As a result, schools during the past 40 years have been forced to implement untested and costly fads such as “whole language”, where the mistaken argument is that learning to read is as natural as learning to talk.

Teachers also have been told, instead of providing explicit teaching, they should “be guides by the side” and that memorisation is obsolete.

Ignored is that learning to read is decidedly unnatural, explicit teaching is the most effective method of managing a classroom and cognitive research proves memorisation is vital as students need to automatically recall what they have been taught.

The most recent example of this destructive urge to take on the latest fad is ACARA’s adoption of the OECD’s Education 2030 project. Awash with the usual cliches employed by bureaucrats, the project describes future societies as “changing rapidly and profoundly”, being beset with “a growing array of complex societal problems” and experiencing “disruptive waves of change in every sector”. Ignored is that continuity is just as important as change and that human nature and emotions such as love, jealousy, fear, betrayal, ambition, joy and the existential need to find fulfilment and meaning have not changed since the time of the ancient Greek playwrights and philosophers.

Millions of dollars also have been wasted on the assumption the new digital technologies will magically improve results. Based on research carried out by the OECD, the opposite is the case.

Australian schools have one of the highest rates of adopting computers and the internet while standards continue to nosedive.

What’s to be done? The first thing is for politicians to recapture the agenda by sidelining organisations such as ACARA and the ACER to regain control.

Politicians also must stop consulting snake oil salesmen who have never taught and who always argue they have the magic bullet that will lead to higher standards.

The second thing is to implement the recommendations of the national curriculum review I co-chaired in 2014. The curriculum must be cut back to what is essential and focus on our best validated knowledge and artistic achievements instead of politically-correct gender theory and indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives. Schools must be freed from provider capture, where school leaders and teachers are drowned in red tape and paperwork that takes time and energy from educating students. Research proves that giving schools the autonomy and flexibility to manage themselves leads to stronger outcomes.

It should not surprise that, based on international tests, Catholic and independent schools outperform the majority of government-controlled schools even after adjusting for the impact of a student’s home background.

We also need to identify the characteristics of stronger performing overseas education systems and, where possible, adopt such practices locally.

While the Confucian respect for learning and authority figures might not translate easily, characteristics such as setting high expectations and ensuring disciplined classrooms are obviously transferable.

Based on past experience, the greatest danger is that in a week or two the public and media furore over these latest PISA figures will have dissipated and nothing substantial will have changed. Even worse is the intention of education ministers to force schools to adopt the retrograde recommendations of the Gonski Review to “achieve educational excellence”.

Getting rid of year levels and summative assessment in favour of personalised learning and progression points is a recipe guaranteed to lower standards even further and commit generations of students to under-performance.


Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of A Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide, available at kevindonnelly.com.au.

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