Friday, June 3, 2005

Learning lessons on education from ancient Greece

Published by Online Opinion, June 3, 2005. A footnoted version of this article is vailable on request.

Voters could be excused for being confused about the missed message coming from Canberra concerning K-12 education policy. While the Howard government generously funds private school, (a semi school voucher by any other name), his education minister has recently commissioned ACER to analyse and report on the leaving certificates in each state and territory and overseas examples of centralised Senior Secondary Certificates with the aim of establishing a “nationally … agreed system for assessing the academic standards of students completing year 12”.

This could well be a foot in the door for Nelson to move towards a national curriculum. In 2003 Nelson was actively promoting a the concepoy. He said that, “Australia suffers because of curriculum inconsistencies between the states, by virtue of the states independent education systems” He has also raised the issue with the Defence Force. A 2003 press release from Dana Vale reads, “Children of Australian Defence Force (ADF) members will benefit from the Federal Government’s proposal to introduce a national school education system. The Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs recently supported an initiative proposed by Federal Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson to undertake a national project to develop common curriculum outcomes in all schools across Australia in English, Maths, Science and Civics and Citizenship.” 

Labour are even more keen on the idea. Kim Beazley recently clarified the ALP’s position on centralised Education. “Before you get anything national - national testing, national teaching standards, national whatever - you have to start with a national curriculum.”

Nelson seems to have realised that a national curriculum is not yet feasible and has stepped back from that position to a less controversial proposal for a national leaving certificate but it is noteworthy that his justification for this is not to improve the quality of the English, maths or science learned by students. In fact he mentions nothing of educational significance when announcing the next step in his centralising drive.  The sole reason he gives for the need to centralise the curriculum is that it will make it easier for defence personnel and other families to move interstate – hardly reason enough to make a change of such significance. He doesn’t even make mention, as Kevin Donnelly does, of the economies of scale which would result.

Surely the motivation for making such a radical change to the education system should be to improve student achievement. When will Nelson start to provide evidence that eliminating all curriculum competition from schools across the Australia and the imposition of a uniform leaving certificate will actually improve student achievement?

Nelson’s obsession with centralising control of education in Canberra runs counter to a vast body of respected international academic research which shows that curriculum competition, market forces and an education system which encouraged innovation and rewards success is the best means to improve student achievement.

For example, a new report published by the  The Institute for the Transformation of Learning in the US surveys all the current literature on school choice. Its conclusion on the efficacy of school vouchers, which have the effect of wrestling some of the influence over the school system away from a centralised bureaucracy and placing it into the hands of parents, reads as follows: “A growing body of evidence suggests strongly that vouchers: improve academic performance, especially among African American students; increase parent satisfaction and involvement; and appear to have a positive impact on student achievement in public schools.”

It is not just the latest research which indicates that any moves towards centralising the school system will be detrimental to student achievement. Ancient history also shows us this as well. Compare the two predominant education systems of classical Greece, those of Athens and Sparta.

Education in Sparta was the sole responsibility of the state. A single military curriculum was prescribed by that state, teachers (or trainers as they would be better described) were state appointed and parents had no say in which schools their children attended or who taught them. The result was a decline in culture, learning and what we would generally now regard as education and learning. School become brutal, and a class of boys was referred to as ‘boua’, the same word which as used to denote a herd of cattle. The head teacher went by the name of ‘paidonomus’ meaning ‘boy-herdsman’. Obviously centralisation of the education system was not the only factor contributing to cruelty and brutality of Spartan society, however it is interesting to note that it was a means by which such a society could perpetuate itself.

Athens on the other hand had a very different education system. It was a completely free market. Anyone could teach anything they liked, but only those who could attract sufficient paying customers were able to make a living from their teaching. The free market Athenian education system (if it can be called a system) produced a remarkable number of innovations as teachers vied with one another to attract and keep students. Games were introduced to keep children’s interest and reduce the need for corporal punishment. A great variety of teachers sprang up. They were able to teach material which was contrary to accepted wisdom; after all, as long as a teacher to attract enough pupils to make a living he or she was in business. 

For example in a climate which favoured men as teachers and frowned questioned the need to girls to be educated, Aspasia, a female teacher born in neighbouring Miletus, was able to set up shop in Athens and promote the liberation and education of women, much to the displeasure of the ruling class. She was extraordinarily successful, so much so that it is said she attracted such luminaries as Plato and Pericles to her lectures and Socrates referred to her as his “excellent mistress in the art of rhetoric”.

5th Century Athens is synonymous with learning, culture and intellectual creativity. No one would suggest that its free market education system was not solely responsible this flourishing of the intellect. Nevertheless, it is significant that such a society, comprising as it did some of the wisest and most original thinkers in the history of mankind, was conducive to a free market approach to education.

If Brendan Nelson wants to move in the direction of a centralised education system, he must be able to come up with a justification based on sound educational research. But it will be very difficult for him to do so, because, as history shows, no good reason exists.

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