NSW’s Great Backward Leap Forward

A couple days ago the Sydney Morning Herald had a report and an editorial, on changes to New South Wales’s mathematics curriculum. The SMH combo is weirdly contradictory. It is difficult to make any proper sense of the story, and it appears the SMH writers tried but didn’t quite succeed.

The unsigned editorial is titled,

Maths revamp could pave way for student excellence

The editorial begins,

A sweeping overhaul of the state’s mathematics curriculum will be rolled out in all NSW schools from next year as part of a major drive to channel more students into calculus-based advanced and extension HSC courses.

OK, so the goal is to get more kids to be doing the (very good) advanced senior mathematics subjects. Excellent. And how is this to be done? Well, the companion report, by education reporter Christopher Harris, is titled,

End of streamed classes: High schools grapple with maths overhaul

Uh, what? They’re gonna get more kids ready for advanced senior mathematics by ending streaming? Yeah, sounds like a plan. An incredibly stupid plan.

Harris’s report begins,

A major redesign of the state’s maths curriculum will abolish the current three-tiered course structure in years 9 and 10 in favour of a single “core” unit of work which teachers will top up with additional content to stretch students.

So, the current structure, which is pictured above, is to be replaced:

… a decade-old three-tiered system will be ditched for a single “core” unit of work that is designed to give more teenagers the critical foundational skills needed to attempt higher levels of maths later in their schooling.

Why are they doing this? Well,

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) says the new “Core-Paths” structure … means year 9 and 10 students will no longer be locked into rigid pathways …

The rewritten maths syllabus aims to scrap rigid pathways …

The new structure was a bid to abolish the rigid pathways …

“The flexible new Core-Paths structure means students will no longer be locked into rigid pathways …” a NSW Education Standards Authority spokeswoman said.

Yep, the key phrase is “rigid pathways”. Offering students a proper preparatory course for advanced mathematics is being rigid.

But, maybe this new Core has something to offer:

Eddie Woo … said the core section of the new curriculum had more content than the minimum students must cover in the current … 5.1 course.

Moreover, this new Core has an emphasis on “critical foundation skills”. What does that mean? Well,

Under the new syllabus, Woo said there would be greater emphasis on the connections between concepts rather than learning mathematical skills in isolation.

This is NESA’s grand plan to increase enrolment in advanced mathematics: don’t teach mathematical skills “in isolation”. A plan with which Eddie “Too Much” Woo seems fine.

How can this possibly work? Of course it can’t, but it’s OK, since schools are already figuring a way out of the mess:

The changes to the maths syllabus … have prompted some schools to warn students entering year 9 that they require outside tutoring to prepare for higher-level HSC mathematics.

Yep, NESA embarks on some equity binge, and the schools just give up, waving Good Bye and Good Luck. But, not all schools:

Several schools say they are planning to run streamed classes next year, with some flagging those in the standard tier will be able to attempt advanced mathematics in the HSC but will require additional support.

So, the schools that haven’t lost their minds will replace streaming by streaming.

What a mess, and what a mess of reportage. It all smells as if it were intended to be a standard puff piece, prompted by some NESA publicity push: throw in a few smiling quotes, add a little colour and there’s your story. Then, it slowly dawned on the SMH guys that NESA’s plan is maybe a little more nuts than presented, and the reporters got tangled. They couldn’t quite frame the story as the standard puffery but they weren’t quite clear-headed and/or brave enough to report the proper story: NESA screwed up.

A hint to education reporters, everywhere: the story of modern education is Harrison Bergeron. Always.

19 Replies to “NSW’s Great Backward Leap Forward”

  1. They lost me at Eddie Woo…

    Parts of this plan actually sound half decent though, assuming that they actually work.

    I’m all for flexibility and allowing the curriculum to be “topped up”, but I do wonder if this was not already being done in a lot of schools… anyone here have NSW classroom experience that they would care to share?

      1. It seems (I am willing to be convinced that I’m wrong) that there is some attempt to improve the rigor in Years 9/10.

    1. It depends on the availability of teachers to do the “topping up.”

      Where I used to work, we did a lot, but then the school had both the teachers and the students for it.

  2. I teach in NSW and the new curriculum won’t really change anything. Whatever schools were doing before, streaming or not streaming, they can continue to do with the new curriculum.

    Each topic was split into 5.1, 5.2 and 5.3 before. These were just tiers of depth and difficult you could go into a topic. There were some topics that where only 5.3 and optional (but not if you wanted to do Advanced or Extension 1 Mathermatics). Streamed classes were usually split along these tiers or over two tiers.

    The new curriculum just combines 5.1 and parts of 5.2 into the mandatory part, “core”, everyone has to do. Previously only 5.1 was mandatory (though most students in the state did 5.2 at minimum). The new curriculum just renames the parts of 5.2 that are not mandatory and 5.3 as “paths”. These “paths” have attached to them whether they relate to Standard, Advanced or Extension 1 Mathematics in year 11. You can map these new “paths” to the old 5.2 and 5.3 tiers.

    Nothing really has changed and you can stream students all you want like before. The new curriculum states teachers can choose how much of each “path” to do. All NESA are doing is renaming things and shuffling around some topics so someone can add a dot point to their CV.

    1. Thanks. I assume that government schools may see a change but most private schools will just keep doing the same thing… is that a fair assumption?

      1. What NESA says is compulsory goes for all schools and the Department of Education will then make specific directives for public schools. I don’t think streaming will go away in public schools as the Department has created academically selective streams (students sit a test to get in) in more and more comprehensive schools over the past decade. This is effectively streaming.

        1. Thanks again. Of course this is all more thoughtful than VCAA. I don’t believe there is any institutional guiding to streaming in Victoria, nothing like 5.1/5.2/5.3. All schools seem to make up their own thing, in a less or more considered manner.

    2. Thanks, Potii. I kind of gathered that. Even if there’s no real change, and I question that, I don’t see that it makes the reporting of this any less self-contradictory or any less confused.

      I understand that the shoring up of 5.1/Core is intended to keep alive Advanced maths as an option for longer for more kids. Even though I doubt it’ll have more than negligible effect, that seems ok. But, the message that 5.1/Core kids are gonna need extra tutoring is pretty weird. And Too Much Woo’s comments about “connections” and whatnot sounded pretty ominous.

      1. I think schools are just tempering the incorrect message from NESA that the core will be enough for Advanced. Students would have to also do all the Advanced “paths” to be prepared. The core topics do have many topics found in year 11 Advanced but not in sufficient depth (e.g. from what I saw there is no factorising quadratics in core). It is dishonest of NESA to claim the core will be sufficient for Advanced. That is quiet disappointing and bizarre.

        As for what Woo said, the dot points in the curriculum do not particularly suggest anything about connections but list content. They are similar to the previous dot points if not a bit more concise. The “aims and rational” in the curriculum documents does talk about what Woo says but this is not binding for schools to follow – only the dot points. Though Woo’s influence maybe be the greater impact on change than the new curriculum.

  3. I remember when my high school “removed” streamed classes. It was about when I was in year 9.

    Interestingly students still tended to have the same classmates from one year to the next. One particular class just happened to contain all the students who went on to do Methods 3/4 while in year 11. Another class contained the rest of the students who would also complete Specialist… and so on.

    But at least the classes weren’t streamed, because that would be awful.

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