Sunday, November 21, 2004


Prince Charles's penchant for memo-writing caught up with him today when his uncompromising opinions about the state of education in Britain found their way onto the front pages. "What is wrong with everyone nowadays?" wrote the 56-year-old heir to the British throne to a member of his staff in March 2003 after a secretary asked about prospects for job promotion. "Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?" the Prince of Wales continued. "This is to do with the learning culture in schools as a consequence of a child-centred system which admits no failure.

"People think they can all be pop stars, high court judges, brilliant TV personalities or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having natural ability. "This is the result of social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically and socially engineered to contradict the lessons of history." The memo concludes: "What on earth am I to tell Elaine? She is so PC (politically correct), it frightens me rigid." "Elaine" is Elaine Day, who served as a secretary for the prince's household, helping to organise his activities and helping to write speeches, from March 1999 until last April

More here


For an understanding of why our teaching of literacy is under attack, turn to history, says Kevin Donnelly

The genesis of today's debate about literacy standards can be traced back to the late 1960s and early '70s - a time not only of Woodstock, moratoriums and flower power. Radical educators such as the Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire and the English sociologist M. F. D. Young argued that the then education system preserved the power of society's status quo. Approaches to learning that stressed examinations, traditional subjects such as history, literature and science, and the authority of the teacher were criticised as obsolete and instrumental in oppressing so-called disadvantaged groups. This idea built on the works of US educational theorist John Dewey, who died in 1952. Dewey was more interested in learning by doing than rote learning and instruction.

At the same time, across the English-speaking world, more traditional approaches to teaching English were attacked as ineffective and the preserve of the elite. Freire argued that literacy could no longer be restricted to the ability to read and write. Children had to be empowered as individuals by being taught to be socially critical and to deconstruct language and texts in terms of power relationships. American writers such as Donald Graves and English educators such as James Britton argued that teachers should free students to be creative and that self-expression was more important than learning correct spelling, punctuation and grammar.

This whole-language approach was based on the assumption that learning to read was as natural as learning to speak and that all teachers needed to do was to immerse children in a rich language environment and success would follow. Subject associations such as the Australian Association for the Teaching of English became staunch advocates of the new orthodoxy. Overseas gurus, including Graves and Britton, as well as Freire, were invited to Australia and their texts became compulsory reading in teacher training courses. Radical teacher unions such as the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the NSW Teachers Federation argued that it was wrong to test students or to assume that standard English was superior to a student's own language use.

A more recent variant of the progressive approach of the new status quo can be found in the work of the Australian Council of Deans of Education. Those responsible for managing teacher training, in New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education, argue that teaching correct spelling, grammar and punctuation is obsolete (because spell-checking programs remove the need for correct spelling). The deans also argue that there are no right or wrong answers and that what the report describes as good learners, in the jargon much loved by educrats, "will not come to any situation with preordained, known answers. Rather, they will come equipped with problem-solving skills, multiple strategies for tackling a task, and a flexible solutions-orientation to knowledge."

The result? In Australia, England and the US, many argued that standards fell and that the new approaches had failed. Many parents also voted with their feet in favour of non-government schools as these, compared with government schools, were seen as more academic.

Today it's claimed there is a literacy crisis in our schools. Those defending the new educational status quo argue that all is well and Australian students are performing at the top of the table, based on measures such as the OECD's program for international student assessment test and the results of recent national literacy benchmarking tests. Unfortunately, not all agree. Earlier this year 26 literacy researchers wrote to Education Minister Brendan Nelson arguing that Australia's whole language approach to teaching was flawed and, as a result, thousands of students left school illiterate. There is also the concern that, if the PISA test had, as well as testing reading, also corrected faulty spelling, grammar and punctuation, most Australian students would have failed and, according to the Australian Council for Educational Research, about one-third of Year 9 students lack adequate literacy skills.

In Australia, a 1996 national survey of reading. initiated by the Howard Government against the wishes of teachers unions and the AATE, discovered that 27 per cent of Year 3 and 29 per cent of Year 5 students failed to reach the minimum standard. It should be noted that concerns about literacy are not restricted to the school sector. A study in 2000, Changes in Academic Work, found that almost half of the academics interviewed agreed that standards had fallen over time.

In California, after the introduction of whole language in the late '80s, student performance, as measured by national tests, also plummeted. Such was the angst that, in 1996, the Board of Education ruled in favour of phonics and against whole language. In Britain as well, such was the concern about falling standards, especially among boys, that the Blair Government at the beginning of 1998 stipulated that schools had to adopt a structured and systematic phonics approach to literacy learning.

In opposition to whole language, a phonics approach argues that learning to read is decidedly unnatural and students have to be taught phonemic awareness - that is, spoken words and syllables are made up of elementary speech sounds. Instead of looking at a word such as dog and guessing how it might be read, students should be taught to sound out the individual letters. d-o-g. Students also need to memorise the alphabet and be taught the relationship between letters and sounds and clusters of letters. Contrary to whole language, the argument is also put that teaching students to skip words or to guess their meaning leads to illiteracy.

Again and again, research suggests that children must be taught how to read in a structured way. In the US, a study titled What We Know About How Children Learn, carried out by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in the words of Bonita Grossen, concluded: "This lack of phonemic awareness seems to be a major obstacle to reading acquisition. Children who are not phonemically aware are not able to segment words and syllables into phonemes. Consequently, they do not develop the ability to decode single words accurately and fluently."

The US study, involving more than 100 researchers over 30 years, also concluded that many of the tenets of whole language - that learning to read is natural and that children will learn to read when they are ready - are misplaced and counterproductive. The US study is supported by comments made in an Australian paper titled 100 Children Turn 10. Recent research is described as concluding that: "The level of phonemic awareness ability in preschool [is] a powerful predictor of reading and spelling performance in school."

Such is the overwhelming case for teaching phonics that even wholelanguage advocates argue that their approach was never meant to exclude the more structured and systematic approach to literacy learning. Is this true? First, how extensive is whole language? Based on the 1992 House of Representatives report, The Literacy Challenge, the answer is that whole language is widespread. The report, after hearing teachers and experts across Australia, concluded: "The current approach to literacy learning in Australian schools focuses on the whole language or natural learning approach. It has gained Australia-wide support and virtually all curriculum guidelines on primary school literacy are based on this approach."

As to whether whole language, in fact, includes phonics, the answer is less clear. At the level of Australian education departments, the House of Representatives 2002 report Boys Getting it Right concluded that the answer is no: "The research supporting the more explicit teaching of phonics, especially in remedial literacy instruction, does not appear to be receiving sufficient attention by most education departments." It is also certainly the case that an examination of English syllabuses and frameworks prepared across Australia during the '80s and '90s reveals a failure to treat phonics in a comprehensive and systematic way.

At the level of teacher training it is also true that phonics is underrated and many teachers enter classrooms, through no fault of their own, without a proper grounding in the subject. As noted by Ruth Fielding-Barnsley in her research looking at 340 Queensland-based teachers and how successful teacher preparation is, most teachers showed "poor knowledge of metalinguistics in the process of learning to read".

In 2002 US President George W. Bush introduced a $USl billion program titled "Reading First" in an attempt to address literacy problems. An essential part of the program is that, to be funded, literacy programs must be based on sound research and be proven to be successful. One can only hope, as a result of the proposed inquiry planned by Nelson, that Australian authorities will adopt the same requirements.

This article originally appeared in "The Australian" newspaper of November 13, 2004. The author, Kevin Donnelly, is director of Melbourne-based company Education Strategies and author of Why Our Schools are Failing (which was commissioned by the Menzies Research Centre)


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

Comments? Email me here. For times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site (viewable even in China!) here


No comments: