ACARA’s Illiterature Review

A few weeks ago we wrote about ACARA‘s review of the Australian Curriculum. The mathematics component of ACARA’s review appears to be at least partially in the hands of some loose cannons – the Center for Curriculum Redesign – which ACARA seems now to regret having hired. CCR is still on our to-whack list, but ACARA’s general documentation for their review is also worth scrutiny, particularly the document we consider in this post. In all, it makes a fine example of how hundreds of pages on best practising and evidence-basing and world benchmarking can amount to little more than manipulative blather.

The main webpage for ACARA’s curriculum review consists of overview: welcoming videos, motherhood declarations, the terms of reference, a timeline and the like. The substantive basis for the review then appears on a separate page, Program of Research. It is the documents on this PoR page that we’ll be analysing.

The PoR provides links to six documents. Four of these documents are long “comparative studies” of the current Australian Curriculum with other curricula: in turn, British Columbia, Finland, Singapore and New Zealand. A fifth document then attempts to summarise these four comparative studies, indicating the “key findings”. We intend to write about the Key Findings and the Australia-Singapore Comparative Review in future posts.

The subject of this post is the sixth and final PoR document, a “Literature Review“. Listed first and subtitled “contemporary approaches to comparative education research”, the Literature Review purports to give the theoretical grounding for the application of the substantive curriculum comparisons that follow. The Literature Review begins

“This paper explores developments in the field of comparative education research, including references to methodological approaches that may inform the design and focus of ACARA’s program of research and international comparison (2017-2020)”

And, the Literature Review closes with a final, one-sentence paragraph:

“A critical consideration is the fact that curriculum is only one part of the educational equation.”

Ignoring the questionable grammar, how did the Literature Review get from A to Z, and what does it mean? The Review is dense with jargon and name-dropping, as literature reviews tend to be, and we’ll attempt to give some sense of the Review below. But already ACARA’s main, double-barrelled message is pretty clear:

Regardless of what other countries are doing, ACARA has license to do what they want and, whatever subsequently happens, it is not their fault.

That is bad enough, but things are much, much worse.

The Literature Review begins by noting that international comparisons are all the rage, in education and everything. In particular there are major international tests – the ridiculous PISA, and the not-ridiculous TIMSS, and PIRLS – which invite such comparisons, and which tend to be the focus of media reports, and of subsequent social and political reaction.

The Literature Review continues by discussing this trend, meandering from authority to authority. There are few endorsed conclusions but there is plenty of gaming, with the Review hovering around two implied concerns. Firstly, and presumably the central purpose of the Review, it is suggested that more general national differences make educational comparisons fundamentally difficult:

This area of research has become increasingly contested, however, insofar as there are perceptions of a focus on systemic improvement without a concomitant appreciation of socio-cultural (and other) context, philosophy of education and capacity to effect change. The risks posed by inadequate consideration of local issues are raised in discussions of the ‘rationality and irrationality of international comparative studies’ (Keitel & Kilpatrick, 1999).

Secondly, the focus upon international tests may result in an excessive focus on “literacy and numeracy”, narrowing the comparison of curricula:

… some researchers [claim] that ‘international comparison bolsters an evaluation mandate that promotes a superficial global awareness while stifling originality by displacing the core objectives of education’ (Hebert, 2012, p. 18). This reflects a view that comparative research must move beyond mere comparison of scores (e.g. PISA), and that more studies are needed in areas such as creativity, talent, ethical sensibilities and also in relation to values and attitudes more relevant to the needs of 21st century students (Hebert, 2012).

This leads to a consequent concern, that a “league table” focus on international comparison can result in pressure to “teach to the test”, thus narrowing the curriculum itself:

“In rejecting evaluation mandates, Hebert (2012) observes that literacy and numeracy often overshadow other education objectives (e.g. creativity, ethics, knowledge of history, etc.) central to educational systems as a consequence of ‘unbalanced policy-making’.”

Although containing a kernel of truth, there is plenty to criticise in ACARA’s statements, not least the disingenuous “some people say” framing. What, indeed, is the purpose here of a “literature review”? The only value for such preliminary documents is to determine the basis of the curricula comparisons to come, and a sequence of unsubstantiated claims from unendorsed authorities cannot possibly provide a proper basis. If ACARA has determined the basis of their curriculum review, which of course they must, then they are obligated to take their stand and to state it clearly. The implausible deniability inherent in ACARA’s literature review is ridiculous and cowardly.

As for ACARA’s concerns, well, yes, and no. Sure, there are good reasons for rural Peru to not compare themselves too critically to South Korea; it is much less clear, however, why Australia, with about the same GDP as South Korea and with half the population, should flinch from such a comparison. And true, the league tables don’t necessarily make even a superficial comparison easy; if South Korea is ranked third on some test with a score of 607 and Australia is tenth with a 517, that of itself tells us nothing. If, however, only 61% of Year 8 Australian students can figure out the fourth, very easy angle of a quadrilateral, while 86% of Korean students can do the same (p 181), that suggests something. And, if the same relative failure occurs question after question, that suggests a lot.

On ACARA’s concerns about the narrowing of the curriculum and of curriculum comparisons, one can only wish it were so. ACARA’s “values and attitudes more relevant to the needs of 21st century students” is undefined and undefinable; it is meaningless twaddle. And, whatever the place of “creativity” and “ethical values” and so forth in a curriculum, it can only be meaningful coming on top a solid foundation of reading and writing and mathematical sense. The deep and proper teaching of the three Rs, and establishing the necessary classroom culture in which to do it, is the critical basis of any coherent curriculum, as it has always been.

Ironically, while ACARA’s conscious undermining of international comparisons is strained and weak, ACARA also fails to raise other, much more substantial concerns. To begin, ACARA doesn’t even consider the possibility that international tests can intrinsically, on their merits, be awful; this is regrettable, since the only rational response to the question of how to use PISA scores for international comparison, or anything, is “Don’t”. Further, even if the test is not awful, it is not automatic that using the test results for comparison is necessary or particularly enlightening. What, for example, if less than half of Year 8 Australian students can give the prime factorisation of 36 in answer to a multiple choice question (p 6)? What if less than half of the same cohort can rewrite \boldsymbol{\frac{4}{14}} as \boldsymbol{\frac{\Box}{21}}, again in a multiple choice question (p 14)? Does one really need to look to how Korean kids are doing to recognise that something is seriously screwed up in Australia?

It is arguably worse than that. International comparisons, even those based upon intrinsically good tests, may not be just unnecessary but also misleadingly optimistic. What if, as there is reason to believe, the tests are getting dumber? What if, as there is reason to believe, the entire World is getting dumber?  Australia coming a constant tenth in a dumbing world is not a constant; it is a decline, and possibly a steep decline.

ACARA’s simultaneous failure to grasp the clear benefits and the genuine flaws of international comparison education is entirely predictable. It stems from ACARA’s inability to contemplate, let alone declare, a simple, objective basis for a coherent and productive school curriculum. If ACARA had any such ability then they would realise that, rather than current Australia being compared to other places, it should be compared to other times, to other centuries. If one wallows in a nonsense-swamp of 21st century idolatry, it is impossible to contemplate that anything might have been done better, and much better, in an earlier time. Such is ACARA’s blinkered thinking and such is Australia’s fate, and the fate of the World.

We could go on. ACARA’s Literature Review contains much more, and almost nothing. We could point out further, monumental flaws in the Review, but there is probably no need. We’ll simply note that nothing in the Review could assist in making useful international comparisons of education. And, much more importantly, there is nothing in the Review that could assist in the creation of a simple, coherent and productive school curriculum.

ACARA’s review of the Australian Curriculum is destined to be a disaster. The review will undoubtedly leave Australia with the same bloated, baseless, aimless idiocy that it has now. ACARA, and the educational authorities with which they consort and upon which they rely, are congenitally incapable of anything else.

17 Replies to “ACARA’s Illiterature Review”

  1. So, in summary (for those who don’t have the time, or perhaps the will to read the source documents):

    “Regardless of what other countries are doing, ACARA has license to do what they want and, whatever subsequently happens, it is not their fault.”

    Yep. Pass the vodka.

    Although, to be fair… the simple fact that a review is taking place *could* be interpreted as some level of admission that things are not as perfect as ACARA would like us all to believe…? No, it is the schools that are at fault… or something.

    1. No one in their right mind should attempt to read the source documents. And yes, I understand what that implies. On the other hand, I hope my critique of the source document is readable and worth reading.

      Yes, the red is the summary of the message ACARA wishes to (subliminally) convey with the Literature Review. Clarifying that is what I had in mind when I started this post (two weeks ago). However, I think the implicit message of ACARA’s review is way worse, and that is what became the main the main point of this post.

  2. If textbooks from 1950 compared to 2020 are any indication… the world is getting a lot dumber.

    But I can only speak for the English speaking world. The other 90% may well be getting smarter, I just don’t have the skills to realize it.

    Or, perhaps priorities are shifting. Not saying for a moment they are shifting in the right direction nor that I am any authority on what said right direction is – I just have a very strong feeling that ACARA, VCAA and many other institutions are not heading in a direction I would ever refer to as “right” (except, perhaps politically – but that is another story)

    1. Yes, a telling example. Try to tell these people that a 50 or 60 year old text is preferable to current texts, and see the reaction. In fact I’ve seen it happen.

      In the 90s at unimelb some big shot spoke to a large and full theatre of teachers and maths ed people. He made that exact point about old textbooks and there were literal howls of objection from the audience. He didn’t care, stood his ground. I don’t know who he was, this was before I was involved with whatever it is I do. But it was memorable.

      1. I don’t admit this to many people, but one of my “research” papers at university (and I use the word research very loosely as I was only a very recent post-graduate at the time and see now that my 3000 words compared to the literature review forming the basis of this post was… quite insignificant) was actually looking at 1970s v 1990s textbooks.

        One of the more interesting things I discovered was how frequently books are being “updated” in the modern era. I came to the conclusion that it was probably due to publishers trying to destroy the second-hand book market and therefore increase their profit margins.

        If a curriculum hasn’t *really* changed in 10 years, why are there 3 different “editions” of the same textbook, all with different page numbers and exercises in a different order, except to push sales of the latest book?

          1. I was just looking for it. No luck yet (was 5 or more hard drives ago…) but I’m pretty confident it wouldn’t take long to repeat the findings. It shouldn’t be too difficult, for example, to find a list of all Mathematics textbooks for Years 7 to 10 published since 1950 and go from there.

            The real challenge is finding actual copies of the good ones that are well and truly out of print. Comparing the quality of the worked examples, the number of review exercises and the relative difficulty of said exercises is in itself an interesting study that I would be quite happy to repeat when time presents itself.

            1. Thanks for looking. I have a bunch of texts from the 70s, and some classic English texts from the early to mid 20th century. I have very little sense of what texts were like in Australia (or anywhere) from about 1950 to 1970, and they seem to be unavailable. Victoria’s Matric exams were difficult, so some students were expected to learn sometime, but I have a feeling that before 1970-ish, Matric students used English texts.

              1. I’ve actually got the 1966 exam papers for Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry somewhere (got them for free when the person throwing them away couldn’t imagine why anyone would want them…) I might scan a few pages and send them to you for comparison.

                If I recall, the 1980s saw set theory have a bit of a resurgence, but whether that was just down-under or world-wide I’m not sure.

                  1. OK – check for an email early to mid next week.

                    Send me one yourself to remind me if I haven’t done so in a week from now.

            2. “”The real challenge is finding actual copies of the good ones that are well and truly out of print.”

              Indeed. Once upon a time you could rely on libraries, particularly university (and usually education faculty) libraries to source these things. But the Education Faculties are throwing out all this stuff and going digital. Unfortunately there are no digital copies of these old books. I don’t blame the libraries, I blame the idiots who do not understand that a lot of these old books are:
              1) Still very relevant, and
              2) Historical documents.

              These days, once things go out of print, they’re gone.

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