Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts on the Education Revolution - Why We Are Going In Circles

The Rudd government’s “Education Revolution” has now progressed through a number of phases.

1. The Big Sell

This was the pre-election “look at us, we have the answers” phase, where Rudd waved about a laptop and promised to spend a billion dollars giving every Yr 9 students a similar laptop. This ‘largesse’ certainly pleased a lot of people (particularly journalists) who thought it sounded like a nifty, forward-thinking idea but who couldn’t be bothered to do the sums and work out that one billion dollars was well short of what would really be needed to follow through on the promise. And it seems that few people have stopped to consider how this promise was meant to pan out over the long term, or what sort of money is really needed to provide the maintenance and infrastructure to go with providing students in senior high school years with laptops.

2. The Big Spend in the wake of the Big Crash

Well, not quite that big a crash (if you look behind you, you’ll see Wayne Goose Swan jumping up and down, saying “Thanks to me! I spent lotsa money and made it all better! Me! It was me!” and a little behind him you’ll see Nassim Nicholas Taleb shaking his head and tutting), but it gave Rudd and Co. licence to spend even more money “building the Education Revolution”, which was code for building several thousand Julia Gillard Memorial School Halls and not giving a rat’s rear about whether the money was actually spent effectively (which in many public schools it apparently hasn’t, if the commercial news channels are to be believed).

3. The Big League Table

Julia Gillard declared the MySchool website a huge success, apparently on the basis that a lot of people logged on to see what the fuss was about. The air was heavy with buzzwords like "transparency" and "informed parents", but mention league tables and you could expect Ms Gillard to keep you in at recess for a good haraguing.

But let's be honest - what is the MySchool website but a digitised league table on steroids, reducing schools down to a small set of numbers and then drawing up a set of dodgy comparisons based on badly flawed socio-economic measurements.

4. The Big Curriculum

The government has released the Draft National Curriculum - or, to be precise, about one-third of one. Rudd and Gillard have described it as “back to basics”, which in the English components means more phonics, phonetics and grammar, but less literature; in the Mathematics components, we apparently will now be using calculators from Kindergarten, but not teaching the 7 times tables. (What the...? An oversight, surely. Would you believe...?)

But what has really been achieved?

The laptops have arrived in most schools, which are now dealing with issues of management, networking and maintenance (and the budgetary headaches that come with that), as well as needing to inservice teachers in how to use them in the classroom. The Federal government has 'generously' decided that the States need to deal with these issues (and the money).

There are schools all across the country in various states of chaos as building projects grind slowly on, quite a number of them apparently not what the schools really wanted or needed, and many apparently costing far more than they ought to.

Journalists and politicians have fallen over themselves about the MySchool website, enthralled by having ready access to something they can understand - "this school's better than that school, because the numbers say so". Sadly, some parents appear to be falling for this dreck as well.

The curriculum is set to be introduced in 2011 - whether schools and teachers are ready or not. And the indications are - not. The various teachers’ unions have publicly raised the issue, but the government still hasn’t talked to them. How do you introduce a curriculum and not talk to the people you expect to implement it?

Is it a curriculum for the 21st century? By my reading, not really. It’s still firmly welded to the 20th century, in keeping with a federal government that still clings to the ‘factory’ model of education and regards it as essentially a tool for increasing economic productivity.

(Interestingly, Edward de Bono has commented on the curriculum, criticising it for not including thinking skills. Yes, this has been de Bono’s soapbox for nearly two decades, and thus his criticism is hardly surprising, but in the era of the Internet, could anything be more critical than thinking skills?)

Looking at what has been put in place, and comparing it to what governments have done in the area of education over the last three or four decades, the only significant difference is that in this instance, it’s been a federal government rather than a state one that has delivered an unbalanced set of resources, mismanaged taxpayers’ dollars and implemented curriculum changes that don’t quite hit the mark.

Round and round we go.

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