VCAA Puts the “Con” into Consultation

As we have written, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority is “reviewing” Victoria’s senior secondary maths, which amounts to the VCAA attempting to ram through a vague and tendentious computer-based curriculum, presented with no evidence of its benefit apart from change for the sake of change. Readers can and should respond to the VCAA’s manipulative questionnaire before May 10. In this post we shall point out the farcical nature of VCAA’s “consultation”, as evidenced by VCAA’s overview and questionnaire.

The overview begins by framing VCAA’s review with the following question:

What could a senior secondary mathematics curriculum for a liberal democratic society in a developed country for 2020–2030 look like?

This is peculiar framing, since it is difficult to imagine how a society being “liberal” or “democratic” or otherwise has any bearing on the suitability of a mathematics curriculum. Why would a good curriculum for China not also be good for Victoria?

One could easily write off this framing as just jingoistic puffery; neither word reappears in VCAA’s overview. It is, however, more insidious than that. The framing is, except for the odd omission of the word “suitable”, identical to the title of the Wolfram-CBM paper promoting “computer-based mathematics” in general and Wolfram-CBM in particular. This paper is the heavy propaganda gun VCAA has procured in furtherance of its struggle to liberate us all from the horrors of mathematical calculation. Though the Wolfram-CBM paper never states it explicitly, this makes clear the purpose of the framing:

“[L]iberal” and “democratic” and “developed” amounts to “rich enough to assume, demand and forever more have us beholden to the omnipresence of computers”.

The VCAA overview continues by noting the VCAA’s previous review in 2013-2014 and then notes the preliminary work undertaken in 2018 as part of the current review:

… the VCAA convened an expert panel to make recommendations in preparation for broad consultation in 2019.

Really? On whose authority does this anonymous panel consist of experts? Expert in what? How was this “expert panel” chosen, and by whom? Were there any potential or actual conflicts of interest on the “expert panel” that were or should have been disclosed? How or how not was this “expert panel” directed to conduct its review? Were there any dissenters on this “expert panel”?

The only thing clear in all this is the opacity.

The overview provides no evidence that VCAA’s “expert panel” consists of appropriately qualified or sufficiently varied or sufficiently independent persons, nor that these persons were selected in an objective manner, nor that these persons were able to and encouraged to conduct the VCAA review in an objective manner. 

Indeed, any claim to breadth, independence or expertise is undermined by the constrained formulation of the questionnaire, the poverty of and the bias in the proposed curriculum structures and the overt slanting of the overview towards one particular structure. Which brings us to the issue of consultation:

There is no value in “broad consultation” if discussion has already been constrained to the consideration of three extremely poor options.

But, “consult” the VCAA will:

The VCAA will consult with key stakeholders and interested parties to ensure that feedback is gained from organisations, groups and individuals.

Well, great. The writer of this blog is a keenly interested stakeholder, and an individual well known to the VCAA. Should we be waiting by the phone? Probably not, but it hardly matters:

The VCAA has provided no indication that the consultation with “key stakeholders” and “interested parties” will be conducted in a manner to encourage full and proper critique. There is very good reason to doubt that any feedback thus gained will be evaluated in a fair or objective manner.

The overview then outlines three “key background papers” (links here). Then:

… stakeholders are invited to consider and respond to the consultation questionnaire for each structure.

Simply, this is false. Question 1 of VCAA’s questionnaire asks

Which of the proposed structures would you prefer to be implemented for VCE Mathematics?

Questions 2-8 then refer to, and only to, “this structure”. It is only in the final, catch-all Question 9 that a respondent is requested to provide “additional comments or feedback with respect to these structures”. Nowhere is it possible to record in a proper, voting, manner that one wishes to rank the Wolfram-CBM Structure C last, and preferably lower. Nowhere is there a dedicated question to indicate what is bad about a bad structure.

The VCAA questionnaire explicitly funnels respondents away from stating which structures the respondents believe are inferior, and why.

The good news is that the manipulativeness of the questionnaire probably doesn’t matter, since the responses will be presumably just be considered by another VCAA “expert panel”.

The VCAA overview gives no indication how the responses to the questionnaire will be considered and provides no commitment that the responses will be made public.

The VCAA overview goes on to provides outlines of the three structures being considered, which we’ll write upon in future posts. We’ll just comment here that, whereas Structures A and (to a lesser extent) B are laid out in some reasonable detail, Structure C looks to be the work of Chauncey Gardiner:

What is written about Structure C in the VCAA overview could mean anything and thus means nothing. 

True, for a “detailed overview” the reader is directed to the Wolfram-CBM paper. That, however, only makes matters worse:

A 28-page sales pitch that promotes particular software and particular commercial links is much more and much less than a clear, factual and dispassionate curriculum structure, and such a pitch has absolutely no place in what VCAA describes as a “blue-sky” review. By giving prominence to such material, the VCAA fails to treat the three proposed structures in anything close to a comparable or fair manner. 

If there were any doubt, the overview ends with the overt promotion of Structure C:

The distinctive proposal … contain[s] aspects which the Expert Panel found valuable … There was support for these aspects, indeed, many of the invited paper respondents [to the 2018 paper] independently included elements of them in their considerations, within more familiar structures and models.

Nothing like putting your thumb on the scales.

It is entirely inappropriate for a VCAA overview purportedly encouraging consultation to campaign for a particular structure. A respondent having “included elements” of an extreme proposal is a country mile short of supporting that proposal lock, stock and barrel. In any case, the cherry-picked opinions of unknown respondents selected in an unknown manner have zero value. 

Though woefully short of good administrative practice, we still might let some of the above slide if we had trust in the VCAA. But, we do not. Nothing in VCAA’s recent history or current process gives us any reason to do so. We can also see no reason why trust should be required. We can see no reason why the process lacks the fundamental transparency essential for such a radical review.

In summary, the VCAA review is unprofessional and the consultation process a sham. The review should be discarded. Plans can then be made for a new review, to be conducted in the professional and transparent manner that Victoria has every right to expect.

29 Replies to “VCAA Puts the “Con” into Consultation”

  1. Interesting to see that VCAA won a Wolfram “innovation award” in 2017, accepted in person by a representative of VCAA at the Wolfram 2017 Conference, in which he also presented……..

    https://www.wolfram.com/events/technology-conference/innovator-award/area/education/

    “Mathematical Methods Computer-Based Exam System Team, Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority
    Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority

    For the last six years, the VCAA has conducted a trial aligning the use of computers in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. This trial involved a number of schools and several hundred students to develop effective methodologies for combining the use of Wolfram technologies and teaching. The trial was successful, resulting in a widespread acceptance of computer-based examinations with 700,000 Victoria students and teachers now having access to Wolfram’s educational-focused tool suite.”

    Self serving????!

    1. Same VCAA member who spoke at the 2018 Australasia Wolfram Technology Conference [https://www.wolfram.com/events/technology-conference-au/2018/resources.html].

  2. Hi Marty & others,
    Yes interesting observations. I haven’t yet responded to the survey, but it certainly does seem stacked. I agree that the Wolfram paper simply reads as commercial propaganda and I am amazed that it can be promoted by a government organisation. The very notion of handing over the keys to our state curriculum to any corporate institution seems to me something more appropriate for a Phillip K. Dick novel or some such other dystopian sci fi. Are you aware that the MAV is hosting an information session on this next Wednesday evening? I plan to attend that before completing the survey. Will you be attending? If not, are there specific questions that you would like me to ask?

    1. Thanks, Brian. There’s also a similar “independent schools” meeting tomorrow (29/4). I haven’t decided about attending, and I’m honestly not sure what I would ask given the opportunity. Is there a point? Whatever one were to ask or to say, is there any reason to think it’ll make one iota of difference?

      1. I’m afraid that I was unable to get to either of these meetings, but I’d like to here from anyone who did attend. In particular, was the MAV supportive/critical/angry/agnostic about Option C? Was the information that they presented any different to what is on the VCAA’s website? And what was the general mood of the room? Thinking about where the curriculum is heading leaves me fluctuating between feeling angry and ill, but I genuinely don’t know how the proposal is being accepted by other teachers throughout the state.

        1. Hi Guys,
          I did get to the MAV meeting and, to be fair, I think our Peter Sellers friend was reasonably well balanced in what he presented. There was reflection on past & current curriculum and view towards the future, for which he said Structure C was mainly there to just stimulate discussion at this stage and that he would not be wanting to implement such a thing in the short term. My interpretation of the feeling in the room at that stage is that there was general relief. At that point some teachers also expressed concern about the infrastructure failure of computer based exams (presumably they may have been involved in the trial for that). Some also expressed concern about the timeframe required to respond to curriculum changes. I thought the mood may have been turning a little hostile at that point, but I think really more constructively critical. We then broke into smaller groups to analyse all 4 models listing PMI for each. I think this was a valuable exercise and stimulated enthusiastic discussion. The mood was definitely not agnostic. Members of my group acknowledged merit in the general direction of pie-in-the-sky Structure C, but that it had severe logistical shortcomings and we were certainly opposed to outsourcing curriculum to a commercial interest. Structure A, model 2 gained most support from my group. The MAV took a paper ballot from us all. It wasn’t mentioned how/when we may get feedback on this or indeed how/when we may get feedback from the VCAA survey.

  3. Not that it is at all related, but a third of the US population didn’t think their vote would make a difference in 2016… so didn’t vote.

    I filled out the survey and if it goes awry from here, I will have to see about migrating. I hear NSW is still sensible.

    1. Hi RF, the third of the US population was correct. I don’t think the argument for voting is that it makes a difference, since it almost never does. I think the argument for voting is that it feels good. And, my reply to VCAA’s Question 9 felt good.

  4. Fair enough.

    To borrow another US analogy, I feel VCAA has reached a 3-0 count with this latest offering. At 4-x where x<3 I plan to walk, as is the rule.

    To where I don't know yet.

  5. Oh my gosh I’ve found a current and active blog on teaching mathematics in Victoria. Great article, thanks for posting.

  6. Brian, thanks very much for your report of the MAV meeting, above. I have many thoughts in response, but I’ll hold back. May I just ask, what did your table consider to be the merits (or the relative lack of demerits) of Structure A.2?

    1. Quoting from my notes:
      – addition of Foundation U 3/4 would better cater for a significant student cohort
      – the tight structure would facilitate student movement between schools
      – this model closest to the National Curriculum
      – renaming “Further Maths” to “General Maths” better terminology
      – “mathematical investigation” component

      1. Thanks again, Brian. I have no strong sense or much experience of Further/Foundation. There are other aspects of A.2 that seriously concern me, but everything is relative.

  7. For what it is worth, the IB introduced an investigation task a few years back. It replaced a different type of internal assessment that, as an IB examiner who marked Northern Hemisphere tasks, the better schools had become very good at gaming in their favour. It has a few positive points, but caused more angst than anything else in practice.

    1. Thanks, RF. I know of the internal essay and extended essay in IB, but I’m not sure what you’re referring to. The issues with any such investigative component are: 1) fairness in assessment; 2) Having the teachers and examiners sufficiently competent to approve/compose/propose/guide and to assess such investigations. In the small and biased sample I’ve seen of IB, there’s been great stuff that was graded well enough (but not great). In VCE, this investigative aspect is already a pseudomathematical farce, and I can see no way that the fundamental issues can be resolved.

  8. The issue is not with the current IB model but the internal assessment model that came before it and took many, many years to get right. I’m sceptical that a VCE investigation type task will be any good at first and given how much effort the IB was putting into it all…

  9. Actually, they could…

    …change their name (done before, not sure it worked)
    …change their membership/staffing (see above)
    …adopt a model, say from from NSW that actually works (unlikely due to the amount of humble pie that would need to be eaten)
    …just give up and hand back control to the university of Melbourne (or someone else who knows what they are doing)

    They could. They won’t.

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