Thursday, April 5, 2007

So - what if Standards are Slipping?

Hardly a day goes by during which we are not told by someone that standards of one description or another are slipping. Basically, things are not as good as they used to be. Whether it’s the absence of values in public schools , a decline in civility in the general community , school-boy antics in parliament , increasing criminal activity on the streets or race riots at Cronulla, according to many commentators, Australia is inexorably doing away with many of the standards of civilised behaviour we once cherished.

However, it is informative to explore what exactly we mean by “standards” and the alleged descent associated with them. Here I will examine the question as it relates to K-12 education in Australia by looking at three interpretations of the “Standards are Slipping” mantra followed by some suggested responses. It is commonly assumed that there must be an agreed set of knowledge standards against which students performance must be measured. I will argue that the assumption is inherently flawed and that adherence to a single set of such standards depresses student performance rather than encouraging excellence.

Case 1 - The curriculum is dumbing down
In February this year, Colin Lamont, a former Liberal state MP and Queensland chairman of the Australian Council for Education Standards claimed that that standards are slipping in Queensland schools. By way of evidence, he produced a scholarship paper from 1955. This test was not a scholarship as the term is commonly used today – quite the opposite in fact. All students who wished to gain entry to secondary education had to pass this test. Lamont claimed that most of today’s 13 year olds would fail the test, and that therefore standards had slipped.

It is interesting to note the UK had a similar controversy when The Spectator published the 1898 entrance exam for 11 year olds to King Edward’s School, Birmingham. The questions covered Latin, British history, grammar and maths. They included grammatical parsing and analysis of fairly complicated sentences and difficult arithmetic calculations such as finding the square root of 5 185 440 100 (sans calculator). That fact that many (adult) readers had no idea what the questions even meant was supposed to show that educational standards had declined.

Colin Lamont’s claim that many students would struggle with the 1955 paper is objectively testable and seems plausible, but the conclusion that he draws from this is less objective. He claims standards have slipped, while education authorities claim that standards have changed. The typical response to claims such as Lamont’s is that children now learn other, more relevant skills and that they excel at modern-day activities such as computer programming which would be beyond the average student of days gone by.

Literature is an area in which the “standards are slipping because the curriculum is dumbing down” cry is heard most often. Here it is taken to mean that children don’t learn the classics as they used to. As with all controversies there are (at least) two sides to the argument. The pro-classics camp believes that certain books are inherently superior to others. They believe that this is not just a matter of taste or of opinion but an objective fact. They argue that children growing up in Australia need to read about the great classics of Western culture such as Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton et al in order to appreciate the society in which thy live. This view of literature is based on the belief that certain texts deal with key issues which lie at the heart of the human condition, issues which must be faced and resolved by every person if he or she is to lead a contented, happy and fulfilling life.

One alternative to this view of literature is the post-modern view which currently dominates many state educational curricula in Australia. Proponents of this view claim that no text is better or worse than any other and that no text encapsulates objective truth about the human condition. Their view is rather that all texts are equally worthy of study and that Homer Simpson is a good as Homer’s Odyssey.

Those who believe that the classics are an absolute good certainly have reason to claim that standards are slipping. For example, the prescribed texts for the common content of standard and advanced 2006 HSC English courses comprises fourteen texts only two of which could be called classics, Shakespeare’s Tempest and a selection of poetry by Coleridge. The new Year 12 leaving exam in Western Australia allows students to write answers based on a poster for the film Spider-Man 2 and to analyse one of their own compositions. They can even draw answers to questions and, if they do choose to answer the question in English, they are not required to use correct grammar, punctuation or spelling.

Those who believe that the classics are outdated, irrelevant, written by dead white males, perpetuate the hegemony of a ruling elite and are downright old fashioned have much to celebrate. The rise of media studies within the English curriculum and the victory of pop over high culture would give them good reason to rejoice.

Again the fundamental distinction between standards which have changed and standards which have slipped is highlighted. Your solutions will differ according to the way in which you frame the problem (if you see a problem at all).

Colin Lamont didn’t suggest a solution to this problem but Queensland Education Minister Rod Welford said the government would undertake reforms which would “target reading, writing and spelling skills.” This is essentially an admission that standards in these areas have slipped and that they need to be addressed. But is he right? Perhaps standards have simply changed and Welford is making the mistake of retreating to previously esteemed values which are no longer of worth. Rod Welford sitting in his office on Level 18 of the State Law Building on Ann St does not have the answer to this problem. He may think he has, and he certainly feels that he needs to have the answer, but neither he nor any other individual does. It’s not that the sort of question which can be answered by a single person, a single committee or a single government program.

The point to be drawn from this example is that no single curriculum will satisfy any of the warring parties, nor will any single government intervention solve the problem. While there is a single state curriculum, no matter how brilliant it is in eyes of some people, a large proportion of the population will not be happy with what their children learn at school.

The solution is not to improve the curriculum. As I have argued elsewhere, the solution is to allow schools and school systems to introduce alternative curricula and to give parents the means to choose between them. Parents would then be able to put competing claims to excellence to the test, and they will be more able to find a form of eduction which best suits their children.

Case 2 – teaching methods are not what they used to be
A second interpretation of the statement “Standards are slipping” is that although the material being presented to children is just as good as it was in the past, the teaching methods used are substandard and therefore children are not learning as much well as they used to. Here the debate revolves around so called progressive teaching ideologies which focus on teaching children processes rather than facts. For example, the elementary mathematics teacher or curriculum designer in the “facts first” camp would have children learn basic number facts such as the times tables, and simple formulae by heart in the belief that having such facts at one’s finger tips is conducive to progressing through the subject with a good understanding of more abstract concepts and processes at a later date. On the other hand, a person who subscribes to the “process first” school of thought would attempt to teach children how to work out their times tables, using skip counting, concrete materials or a calculator and not insist that the children commit all the tables to memory. When it comes to formulae, the process of deducing the equation may be taught without insisting that the equation itself be committed to memory.

Some commentators claim this shift from facts to process is a dumbing down of the curriculum while others reckon it is the best way to equip students with the skills they need to survive in the modern world. They argue that teaching children mere facts dulls their creativity and limits their curiosity.

Opponents of the progressive argue that, in order to learn a process, you must first have certain basic facts upon which to work. They claim you need a certain basic level of knowledge and certain fundamental facts at your finger tips with which you can reason. It is very difficult to engage in higher order thinking and abstract reasoning without a firm basis of facts which have been committed to memory at a young age and which are so well known they become second nature. In history for example, having a basic framework of dates, names and important events in memory and easily accessible gives the student and basis upon which to discuss historical matters. Without such knowledge, a cloud of unknowing covers the discussion and the significance of certain events cannot be recognised. Process certainly have their place, but they must be based on a large body of thoroughly memorised basic facts which, much like the scales of the musician, form the underlying material upon which further work can take place.

The debate over slipping standards in this context differs somewhat from the previous two examples because, in theory at least, there is no government monopoly on teaching methods. While the leaving certificates of each state, and therefore the content of the curriculum is determined by government bodies, teachers are in theory free to teach the prescribed material in any way they see fit. This freedom is curtailed somewhat by the fact that the majority of courses in Education department, once described by former Federal Education minister Brendan Nelson as “quasi-sociology departments” are dominated by ardent proponents of progressive teaching methods and that many teachers trained in the last ten years or so will not be familiar with anything else. Nevertheless, if my assertion that competition will allow parents to choose a better option, schools which employ more effective teaching methods should be streets ahead of their competitors and parents should be flocking to them.

And flock they do. In 1995 across Australia, non government schools educated 29% of all students. By 2005 that figure was 33% and is predicted to be over 50% by 2026. This trend only highlights those parents who have the means to choose a non government school. Many other parents would make the move if they could. I In 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned an AC Nielsen poll which found that 34% of government school parents would not choose a government school if they could afford to go private. Parents choose non government schools for many reasons but one important reason is that they tend to be more conservative in their approach to pedagogy. This example is illustrative because it shows that when schools are allowed to compete on a number of factors such as teaching methods, school discipline and class size, parents prefer the educational product offered by the private sector.

Case 3 – Employer, university and parental dissatisfaction is on the rise
A third interpretation of the “standards are slipping” mantra is that student, parent and university dissatisfaction with K-12 schooling is on the rise. A number of recent reports indicate that this view of falling academic standards in schools is widespread. Fiona Mueller, Melinda Grose and Elizabeth Grant conducted a study examining the writing skills of students at the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2005. They found that many students struggled to write clearly and logically and did not have a grasp of basic English grammar. The study concludes that “A majority of the students experience some difficulties with English language use as it relates to the requirements of the Military Communication Program; English language deficits are reported and demonstrated by school leavers from across Australia; High achievement at the end of secondary school is not an adequate indicator of levels of competence in English [and] many students have not previously been required to generate lengthy written pieces that demand linguistic dexterity.”

An earlier study, conducted in 2002 by the Department of Education, Science and Training received submissions from 2000 academics from 12 Australian Universities. The study found that “more than half of Australia's academics believe the academic standard of graduates has declined and almost half say the quality of incoming students has fallen.”

That’s the academics, what about the parents? To my knowledge there has been no longitudinal study of parental satisfaction with Australian schools so we cannot tell whether or not standards are slipping in this sense of the term. What we can tell is that parents who send their children to private schools are the most satisfied. In a 1998 study the Institute of Family Studies asked 1600 Australian families how satisfied they were with various aspects of their children’s education. The survey found that “private school parents tended to express the highest satisfaction with their children’s school as a whole and with most aspects of their children’s school, while government school parents appeared to be the least satisfied.”

These finding are backed up by recent research conducted in America. University of Nebraska professor Kevin Smith recently conducted an exhaustive meta-study of school choice programs and the benefits they claim to provide. He assessed each program on its rigor, its transparency, its impartiality and on whether or not its findings had been replicated by other researchers. In short, he attempted to apply best practice scientific methods to the assessment of school choice programs and to eliminate the ideological bias so often found in these studies. He found that “higher satisfaction levels are reported across different types of choice programs, as well as among private school parents. This finding is consistent regardless of methods, indicators of motivation, path to publication, and the survey instrument used to assess satisfaction. Between 36 and 56 percent of voucher parents award their schools an A, whereas only between 25 and 30 percent of comparable public school parents award an A.”

The implications are self evident. If we wish to improve parental satisfaction with schooling it is necessary to introduce as much choice as possible. Being presented with a single school curriculum to which there is no alternative is a cause of frustration for many parents. In theory, independent schools are free to offer alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate. In practice such exams are suitable only for a small proportion of academically gifted students and are consequently offered by very few schools. Equally, it is frustrating for parents to have their children stuck in an under performing school and to be unable to move them to a private school because of the cost involved. A school voucher or tax credit would alleviate this problem and increase parental satisfaction. It would also address the issue of university and employer dissatisfaction. Parentals opinion of competing school systems would reflect the satisfaction levels of employers and universities. Parents want an education for their children which will help them find gainful employment and or entry into university or other tertiary educational institutions. If these “end users” of the school systems are not happy with the level of knowledge and skills of student graduating from school, the reputation of the school will suffer and parents will go elsewhere.

How should we respond?
Having examined four scenarios in which it could be conceived that standards in Australian education are slipping, it is informative to consider what options are available to parents who wish to improve their child’s education. Parents can lobby their local state MP for changes they deem beneficial and they can work through the Parents and Friends associations or national bodies such as the Australian Parents Council to endeavour to have a positive influence on the department of education in their state. But to many parents this seems a hopeless task. The monolithic state education departments, while espousing consultation and community ownership, are oblivious to the voice of an individual parent. Consequently, only very few parents comment on proposed curriculum changes.

Imagine the difference if we had an education system run on principles of demand side financing. If funding followed the child via a school voucher or tax credit, parents would be empowered to have their voice heard when standards decline. Furthermore, if there was competition between curricula, individual schools, or school systems could devise responses to arrest the decline in standards. These responses would be judged by the market and could succeed or fail on merit.

Recent developments in aboriginal eduction show that when the situation is dire, school funding and management turns towards curriculum differentiation and demand side funding. St Andrews Cathedral School is planning to build a school for aboriginal students in Redfern. It will have a curriculum which meets the NSW state curriculum as well as emphasising Aboriginal culture and history. It will be funded by donors, both private and public, who will sponsor individual children. In small way this is an example of demand side financing. If the child leaves the school, the school loses the funding. To remain successful the school will need attract and retain students.

In the face of falling standards and the inability of government to reverse these tends, it is time to recognise the deadening effect of single set of standards across the state and to harness the power of the market to innovate, differentiate and drive excellence in K-12 education.

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4) Giles, D., ‘Dumbed down’, The Sunday Mail, 12th February, 2006,,5936,18118155%255E902,00.html
5) The Spectator, 27 November 2004,
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13) and
14) ‘Australian Independent Schools’,
15) Mueller, F., Grose, M., and Grant, E., ‘Remedial or rhetorical English? Tertiary students’ perceptions of their competence in English and their preparedness for tertiary study’, Military Communication Program
Australian Defence Force Academy, 22 July 2005, p 31.
16) Illing, D., ‘Standards are Slipping’, The Australian, 23 October 2002
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18) Smith, K., ‘Data Don't Matter? Academic Research and School Choice’, Perspectives on Politics, Volume 3, Issue 02, Jun 2005, pp 285-299.
19) Edwards, H., ‘A college of dreams’, Sydney Morning Herald, May 21, 2006,

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