Education Pundits, and Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Earlier this week, Ben Jensen‘s Learning First released a report on Australia’s science curriculum. Their report was strong, with a clear and simple message: the science curriculum has too little science, too incoherently presented. The reporting on Learning First’s research was very good. The punditry was not.

The easy work for an editorialist is to reiterate Learning First’s conclusion, embellished with suitable adjectives, that Australia’s science curriculum is dysfunctional. Almost as easy is to amplify Learning First’s implication (and the reality) that the curricula for the other subjects are also dysfunctional. The harder work is to propose what can sensibly be done to remedy this and, as a foundation for any such proposal, explaining how the Australian Curriculum got so bad. It is in this explanatory work that the punditry has failed. Except for one ironic instance.

We’ll ignore Learning First’s own editorialising, here and here; sensibly, Learning First sticks closely to the facts of their report. Beyond Learning First, we may as well begin with the worst, which, predictably, is Peta Credlin and her blowhard guest, Kevin Donnelly. Credlin begins by declaring,

… it isn’t the lack of money that’s the problem, it’s how we train teachers and what those teachers teach, and how they teach that is the focus of this new damning report …

No. Credlin can talk about these things, as if anyone has a hope of stopping her, but it is her focus, not Learning First’s. Credlin then introduces Donnelly, who zeroes in on the flaws of the Australian Curriculum:

… it’s all very woke, it’s all very politically correct … it’s all very new age, it’s all about 21st century learning …

A few familiar slurs rather than any analysis, and that’s it. Credlin and Donnelly are then on to bashing “Palestinian activism in schools”: worthy of a bash and entirely irrelevant.

Almost as bad is the Australian’s unsigned editorial. Titled Students need richer curriculum, whatever that means, the editorial begins,

The Australian school curriculum, The Australian wrote in February 2014, must prioritise “rigour and quality teaching”, not social engineering and political correctness.

And off they go. The same pointless, predictable tripe.

Only marginally better is the Australian’s Wise Old Man, Paul Kelly. Kelly’s opinion piece is titled Curriculum crisis a tale of politics over performance. Kelly himself is of course above politics. Kelly properly assigns some blame to ACARA but has to add his own spin:

The real significance of the Jensen project is that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, the independent statutory authority, has not done its job during and after the development of the Australian curriculum during the Rudd-Gillard era.

To be fair, there have only been three Liberal prime ministers over eight years since “the Rudd-Gillard era”, so it’s not like the Coalition has had much of a chance for education reform. And it’s a minor detail that the current science curriculum, the one that Kelly is joining Learning First in trashing, was waved through by Liberal idiot, Stuart Robert. So, yeah, let’s go with “the Rudd-Gillard” era, and let’s look to the Liberals as saviours:

Shadow minister Sarah Henderson is focused on the school crisis … 

If Sarah Henderson is your ace in the hole, it’s time to fold.

When not being a Liberal stooge, Kelly is slightly more insightful. He repeatedly refers to “evidence-based research” but without any backing substance: it is little more than barracking. Kelly also considers the “politics” to which his title was intended to refer, to the many competing interests in the national curriculum:

The politics of education is about pacifying the many institutional stakeholders – these are professional groups, with the teacher unions top of the list. State education ministers, bureaucrats and organisations such as ACARA function to manage stakeholders, offering concessions here and there, to minimise political trouble. Politics not performance is the priority.

Yes and, much more, no. Teacher unions are a disaster, a constant source of distraction and idiocy, but they are not close to “top of the list” in the blame for the Australian curriculum. Also, ACARA and the state ministers and the state bureaucrats are not the beleaguered appeasers that Kelly suggests. The perverting effect of compromise is real, but the education authorities are much less mediators, are much more conscious actors. And there are others. Kelly doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Lastly in the Australian is Education Editor, Natasha Bita, who evidently led the Australian‘s coverage of Learning First’s report. Bita’s editorial is written in that excruciating one-sentence-per-paragraph style, and she says little of substance, but at least she’s not pushing a stupid barrow. And at least she’s not now the Bita from last year, parroting ACARA’s gaslighting garbage.

The other newspaper that went hard on Learning First’s report was the Australian Financial Review. Apart from straight reporting, the AFR had an unsigned editorial and an opinion piece by National Affairs Correspondent, Jennifer Hewitt. The two have a similar focus, echoing Kelly’s overstated concerns about compromise. From Hewitt’s piece,

… given the need to finalise agreements between different state systems and governments, the national answer seemed to be to apply the lowest common denominator to produce worse outcomes for the majority.

And from the editorial,

… a poor quality, dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator national curriculum makes the case for competitive federalism, and for allowing the state governments that actually run school systems to set the curriculum, so that jurisdictions could learn from the best-performing states.

Again, not really. It is less a case of federalism choosing the states’ lowest common denominator than the states sharing the same low denominator. The states cooperatively embrace mediocrity much more than anyone appears to recognise.

So, why? Why do the educational powers happily agree to such mediocrity? There’s much to unravel there, about who are the powers and the sources of their agreement, but some genuine insight can be gained from one last article.

Two education academics have written an opinion piece for the Conversation, titled, The Australian Curriculum is copping fresh criticism – what is it supposed to do? The academics go on to discuss other, genuine, issues with Australian education, but begin with a defence of the Australian Curriculum:

Importantly, as education experts note, the curriculum was never meant to be prescriptive and nor should it be. Teachers should be able to tailor lessons to particular classes, situations and students.

The link is to a 2021 Conversation article, titled, First, it’s not an instruction manual: 3 things education ministers need to know about the Australian Curriculum. The first of those “3 things” is that the Curriculum “is not a set of instructions” but, rather, “a map”. The second of those 3 three things is that the Curriculum “can’t ‘fix’ every social issue”. Sure, although one would assume deficiency in the three Rs is one of the social issues that a curriculum might seek to (no scare quotes) fix. Which leads us to the third of the three things, on 2014 proposals that the curriculum focus more upon the three Rs:

These [2014] recommendations weren’t adopted, and the current [2021] proposed curriculum doesn’t reflect these ideas either. But there are still calls to focus on the so-called ‘basics’ of literacy and numeracy in the early years.

These are misguided.

“So-called ‘basics’ “.

When “education experts” say the stupid things out loud, it pays to listen.

16 Replies to “Education Pundits, and Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

  1. I have written about this for my weekly Curios post that comes out tomorrow and I am a little nicer to the pundits that you are, although I do take your main point. I guess that I am just grateful for people taking the time to write about education, even with their prejudices on display — and I did not watch the Credlin/Donnelly thing so I’m not commenting on that.

    You absolutely nail it with this:

    “Again, not really. It is less a case of federalism choosing the states’ lowest common denominator than the states sharing the same low denominator. The states cooperatively embrace mediocrity much more than anyone appears to recognise.”

    The weird idea that states will compete with each other and learn from each other is a neoliberal fantasy. State politicians are not elected on education policy so they don’t care about it. State education ministers often run it alongside other portfolios as they knife and jostle for the top job. The real people who run education are bureaucrats and they seem to have signed up to the same agenda, whether in Brisbane, Perth or Adelaide. They listen to the experts and education is cursed with the absolute worst experts.

    This is not a local phenomena. Look at Scotland run by the single issue Scottish Nationalists. If the competition idea worked, they would look to the now more successful English education system for inspiration and change course. But they can’t do that because they are Scottish Nationalists and they ritualistically hate the English.

    1. Thanks, Greg. I agree that the reporting on Learning First’s work was very good, and it was very welcome. It’s also been suggested by others that I might be nicer to education journalists. But I find it really hard to be nice to these pontificators.

      The education media screwed up royally in 2021, when the new Curriculum was being debated. So, to hear them only now preach how bad the Curriculum is, well it’s still welcome but it’s also pretty nauseating. Beyond that, they are all too willing to swallow whole some idiotic media release, if it means an exclusive and a cheap story. And beyond that, they really don’t understand the fundamental problems of education.

      Other than that, they’re doing a great job.

      1. One of the astonishing things that made me reflect that I am getting old was reading an article in The Australian about education and thinking it was correct – originating from the Centre for Independent Studies no less. In my day, the CIS was purely a right-wing blowhard but they seem to have lifted their game in education at least. (Of course the opinion pieces you quote just show what a rag 99.9% of the Oz is).

        More generally bureaucracies do have ideologies and that does seem to be driving this, but it’s not just the bureaucracy – there are a substantial number of maths teachers and organisations that seem to be captured by this ideology. Changing that is very hard and very slow.

        1. I still don’t like CIS. They think of themselves as great, dispassionate scholars, and they’re not. But, yes, the majority of other stuff is way worse.

            1. No, I think you meant CIS. They have improved dramatically. But they’re still right wing shills. IPA is as loathsome as ever.

              Don’t understand “Marking the Role”: was that responding to Greg?

    2. These so-called ‘experts’ are self-proclaimed (or disciple-proclaimed) experts. Their expertise is nothing other than self-promotion. That’s why education is cursed with them.

        1. There are also circles within circles.

          People’s willingness to speak up (and perhaps their view of the problem/lack thereof) can markedly change when they move from one circle to another as well.

          How many principals seem to have forgotten what it is like to be a teacher?

    3. The issues between Scotland and England run more deeply than education issues. When Elizabeth II became queen, post boxes across Britain displayed ER II. Bombs were placed in a few post boxes in Scotland because some locals felt strongly that she was ER I.

  2. I am not qualified to teach science, and have no wish to teach science, but I have often wondered: What sort of qualifications should a science teacher have to be well-qualified? One can get a science degree with no physics, or with no chemistry, or with no biology. But as far as I can see, a science teacher might be expected to teach all these subjects maybe not at advanced level. Suggestions welcome.

    1. Science is regarded as a distinct ‘Teaching Method’ in Pre-Service degrees. Typically a teacher with either a Physics, Chemistry or Biology major should expect to teach that subject plus Science (and possibly mathematics). The most advanced level of teaching Science is Year 10.

      I have known teachers with Geography, Psychology and Geology majors who taught Science. I would consider the first two teaching slightly out-of-field. In my experience (having taught Science due to having a Physics background), the main trouble is the practical work. Dissection of a bull’s eye … scarred for life.

    2. Did science method based on second year Physics (and had first year Chem). My sense is that science is a way of analysing the world (maths is its own way of seeing the world). Never was anything wrong with being one lesson ahead of the class (in my case having last done Biology in Year 10), provided that you have the overall scientific foundations.

      Of course, the more you do, the more you realise that science is a very very human endeavour and that anyone who claims to do ‘evidence-based’ (as an oncologist once explained to me) doesn’t understand science very well and its limitations.

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