Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Big is not best in education

Comment by the guided Messel, an eminent Australian educator -- emeritus professor of physics at the University of Sydney

How many students do you have now?" This is the question that is inevitably asked as soon as one mentions university, with the stress on the word "many". The thrust of the question is usually obvious: only large numbers of students indicate success, while small numbers are equated with failure. The insinuation is that a university that does not have, and never will have, large numbers of students, 10 deputy vice-chancellors and 20 pro-vice-chancellors, lecture halls to hold 1000 disenchanted students and so on, must be a second-rate institution. The opposite is usually the case.

Now, I can understand the above reasoning on the part of torchbearers for egalitarianism, for mass education and its concomitant mass mediocrity. In Australia, Canada, the US and more recently in Britain, they have, over the past 20 years, had one victory after the other, bringing tertiary institutions down to a common low standard not witnessed before. They can feel proud that a first degree from many universities is becoming an almost meaningless piece of paper, that they have managed to dupe the parents and betray the scholars into believing that just going to any university and getting a degree will ensure them a meal ticket. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It matters a great deal which university you go to and the quality of the education provided by that institution.

It is accepted generally that mass education and quality are a contradiction in terms, especially in the tertiary field, and normally mass education and mediocrity appear to be natural bedfellows. Yet we see many educational practitioners arguing vehemently to the contrary, extolling the virtues of almost free mass tertiary education for all, with its lower standards and paying lip-service to excellence. Their motto seems to be equal opportunity for all to be mediocre rather than equal opportunity for all to strive for excellence.

My remarks are based on 54 years' experience in university education in Australia. During this period there have been major transformations in secondary and tertiary education which, unfortunately, have close counterparts in Canada, Britain and in an increasing number of European countries. Thus my remarks often apply with equal force to these countries, which have determined that they have the sovereign right to make similar mistakes to Australia. In all instances we are viewing an essentially nationalised, struggling tertiary education sector as it passes from an elitist system to a system of mass education and, finally, a universal one.

It is evident that tertiary education is undergoing dramatic changes worldwide. One should not be surprised by this. The world is in the midst of an information technology revolution, which is proving to be the most dramatic revolution in its history. Governments appear bewildered and at a loss as to how to respond in the information age. One response has been to encourage secondary and tertiary education for all. This has placed enormous pressure upon educational institutions to provide university entrance for all qualified secondary school students, which almost automatically ensured a significant decrease in standards, while increasing dramatically the number of students completing secondary education. This, too, was often achieved at the expense of quality.

Australia must seriously question whether it should continue to spend a couple of thousand million dollars a year on a school system which appears to be turning out an ever increasing number of undisciplined, irresponsible, greedy, often near-illiterate, lawless individuals who don't give a tinker's curse for the country, their mates or anyone else.

It appears that Australia is on the road to turning its school system into poor-quality child minding as both parents, in thousands of households, have been forced to take up jobs in order to eke out an existence. One outcome is that universities now often have to teach what was formerly taught at the senior school level. The value of a bachelor's degree from many institutions has been devalued and often fails to impress employers. Students who wish to get ahead now require a higher degree or several degrees or to go on to a second university.

Education must be deregulated and strong diversity among institutions encouraged. Students must be provided with a wide choice and at varying levels. As an opener, cut the management staff of universities by 50 per cent or more. This would slow - but not stop - the paper war which is going on at present. It should also put an end to all this nonsense about total quality management, quality assessment and various other time-wasting "processes". Let us get back to what universities are best at doing, namely teaching and research.


Education reform: A clarion call for the sake of Australia's kids

There is a sleeping issue at the next election for a political party with intellectual courage-the corruption of the social sciences curriculum in our schools. The article published in The Weekend Australian by Professor Ken Wiltshire from the University of Queensland (In defence of the true values of learning) should become a clarion call for vigorous intervention by the national government on behalf of the interests of parents and children.

There is a golden lesson from the History Summit held in Canberra several weeks ago-once the truth of what is happening in our schools is documented and tabled on the bar of public opinion, the reform is irresistible. There is no substitute for transparency. Most state governments surrendered this responsibility many years ago. In some cases this retreat assumes epic proportions. As Wiltshire says, Western Australia's experiment in outcomes-based education has failed and Queensland has "absolutely no external assessment in the entire preparatory year to Year 12 spectrum". This means they have "no way of knowing what standards their schools are achieving".

The decision from the History Summit was that history should be re-established in schools as a core academic discipline. This is anathema to progressivist education philosophy and the decision will be fought by the progressive lobby. Yet history should be the start not the end of this cultural conflict, pivotal to the way children are taught. Addressing the impact of the critical literacy movement in the English curriculum, Wiltshire says: "Key aspects of their mantra include deconstructing texts; no longer considering texts to be timeless, universal or unbiased; focusing on the beliefs and values of the composer; and working for social equity and change".

In his assessment of what this movement is providing Australian school students, Wiltshire says: "There is not much of a positive nature in this line-up: it is at best negative and at worst nihilistic. School is for basics and knowledge, certainly accompanied by critical thinking, but not in a milieu where all is relative and there are no absolutes for young people who do not have the intellectual maturity to cope with the somewhat morbid rigour of constant criticism and questioning of motives. If you go on deconstructing for long enough you will become a marshmallow or a jelly".

At heart, critical literacy theory is an ideological construct. It is politics disguised as education. It is rationalised as assisting students to become "active participants in a democratic society". The truth about the critical literacy agenda was exposed 18 months ago when the President of the NSW English Teachers Association, Wayne Sawyer, said the Howard Government's 2004 election win showed that teachers were failing in their mission. The issue here is an ideological disposition that has no place in the schools (nor does any conservative agenda with the same rigidity). The reality is that critical literacy theory survives in the English curriculum only because it is not subject to the transparent analysis valued by a democratic society.

Over the past several years the Federal Government has proposed a series of curriculum changes. It needs to redouble those efforts and propose new mechanisms to review and reform school curriculum. The State Governments are the guilty parties and they know this. The discredited defence mechanisms that this is about Canberra's interference or John Howard trying to impose his own values just won't wash anymore. This is about our kids and it should be treated with urgency and on merit.



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.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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