QED

The Dumbing and Dimming of Australia’s Children

All my kids went through the public education system, but not anymore. A year or two ago, I had some concerns about the progress one of my kids was making and, after speaking with the head of senior students, I was told there was nothing the school could do to help. Instead, he advised me to vote for a particular political party which would put more funding into “education”. If I found the system lacking, my vote and a lot more taxpayer dollars would help to set it right.

Somewhat taken aback by his brazen politicking, I summed up his silliness with the rejoinder, “I don’t believe you can fix a broken system by making it bigger.” Of course, I was right. Keep reading, especially today, when the news is that Australian kids have slipped few more notches in terms of international performance ratings. It’s a genuine emergency for which I also offer some solutions.

First, the evidence of the escalating crisis in the classroom. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures 15-year-olds’ abilities in literacy, numeracy and science. In all three areas we have been trending down since 2000. Australian achievement trends, as rated by PISA, is reproduced atop this post.

Suggestions that pouring more tax-payers’ money into education will magically fix broken systems are not supported by the evidence. Between this PISA assessment and the last, an additional $20 billion has been “invested”, as the politicians and teacher unions like to say, in schools. Meanwhile, the nation of Estonia leads the world in literacy and science outcomes, yet spends just half what Australia does per student. The near-religious fervour with which Labor and unions insist that more money will solve everything is ham-fisted, designed to emotionally manipulate gullible voters who “feel” more than they think into giving power to people whose record has been one of escalating failure. The experts will disagree, but those same “experts” and their type of thinking got us into this mess. Clearly an entirely new approach is needed.

Or is it? Is the challenge that we need an entirely new approach, or that we need a return to what was working better in the last century? Let me start by addressing what is perhaps not the most obvious factor working against our children’s improved performance: federalism, and Canberra’s ongoing efforts to seize more power for itself at every opportunity. When the states resist, the High Court creatively ignores the principles of federalism on which the nation was founded, as Quadrant contributer James Allan has noted. The result has been an increasingly centralised and homogenised system replete with predictable bureaucratic waste and inefficiencies. Federal education poobahs duplicate the states’ buildings and administrators, and they do so without creating anything we didn’t already have and, clearly, without making anything better. As Professor Allan put it in 2014:

In terms of economic benefits, federalism stands or falls on its ability to create a competitive environment where different States try and do different things and there is plenty of competition. This is taken for granted in my native Canada, as well as in the US. Here in Australia it is widely seen as bizarre. Australia strikes me as the home of ‘one-size-fits-all’ thinking. Everyone in every part of the country ought to pay the same taxes, get the same services, have the same education system, and so on. So in Australia federalism has been reduced to pious talk of ‘co-operative federalism’. As far as I can see there are no benefits at all that flow from having layers of state duplication, and then a sort of forced co-operation, to achieve exactly the same outcomes. You get the extra costs of federalism without any (or very, very few) of the extra benefits of federalism.

The true power of federalism for creating a more prosperous, successful and contented nation lies in the potential of six states and two territories to each design the best systems and policies they can, compete and compare outcomes. Where outcomes are clearly inferior, informed adjustments can be made. Where differences exist merely on a philosophical or ideological level, federalism as orginally intended allows citizens of the Commonwealth to migrate to where the systems and policies on offer better align with their own preferences and values, creating more opportunity for more people to be happy with their government.

The National Curriculum experiment has completely failed. Here is its website. Pay a visit, poke around and see if you don’t conclude that it is a soaring edifice built on a shaky foundation of trendy edu-speak and political correctness. Consider, for example, this summary of the education theorists’ insistence that mathematics and science (and all other subjects) be taught with an emphasis on Aborigines and indigenous cultures. Here are two examples:

Mathematics

Students can explore connections between representations of number and pattern and how they relate to aspects of counting and relationships of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Students can investigate time, place, relationships and measurement concepts within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contexts. Through the application and evaluation of statistical data, students can deepen their understanding of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Science

Students will have opportunities to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have longstanding scientific knowledge traditions and developed knowledge about the world by:

# observation, using all the senses

# prediction and hypothesis

# testing (trial and error)

# making generalisations within specific contexts such as the use of food, natural materials, navigation and sustainability of the environment.

This fascination with indigeneity is just one aspect of  the federal Education Department’s charting of the path to knowledge and, as the latest PISA results demonstrate, it ain’t working. The solution: get the feds out of the game and let the states be what they were intended to be — sovereign and competitive. True, one couldn’t expect much of, say, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews initiatives, except more pleasuring of teachers’ unions and courses in gender fluidity etc. But some states could well tear up the old rules and start afresh. Their success would serve as proof that their approach works where others fail, demonstrating empirically which approaches to embrace and those to be abandoned.

The other essential reform is the underwriting of freedom via parental choice and discretion. Instead of funding schools directly and empowering them to pursue flights of fantasy with indulgent educational experiments, parents must be given the funding to be spent on approved education resources as they see fit. Yes, I’m talking about vouchers. Divide the total amount spent on education by the number of students and issue those vouchers to families, which will have the freedom to spend them on any school they chose, private or public. Complete portability of funding will create a competitive marketplace, which always delivers best outcomes for consumers, in this case students.

Ending the emotional and partisan war between public and non-government schools lets tax-payers decide where they get the best value for their vouchers. Some public schools will get much more revenue as they demonstrate success, and those which see an exodus of students will be forced to find improvements through imitation and efficiency. Either that or they close.

If we are serious about improving education outcomes we have to be prepared to prune the branches which yield no fruit or bad fruit.

It is only fair that every student in Australia get equal help from the government to obtain an education equipping them to be functioning and productive contributors to society, rather than burdens upon it. Competition will raise the level for all, lifting those who can deliver what they’re paid to deliver, and sinking those that can’t or won’t.

The greatest resistance to the idea of education vouchers will come from those who realise such a return of power to parents will also empower them to choose what values and political indoctrination their child receives. Make no mistake, this is a grave threat to the anointed elites’ agenda to implement their radical vision of society by means of classroom indoctrination.

The evidence is undeniable that Australia is facing an education emergency, with no real solution offered. More of the same will yield more of the substandard same. To arrest the decline and fix the problem of a centralised, homogenised and failing system, power must be returned to parents and states. It’s as simple as A-B-C.

19 comments
  • Andrew Campbell

    The rise of homeschooling (utterly opposed by professional teachers) is an indication that some parents are voting with their feet – and paying through the nose for it, paying their taxes and paying for their children’s education. Some studies of the outcomes, and the prevalence of homeschooling would be interesting, but I do not know of many. Are governments and the teaching industry afraid that studies might show them up?

  • Alistair

    I think your first paragraph pretty well summed it all up.
    Schools are not about teaching children how to read and write – they are all about teaching children how to vote. They don’t need to know anything else. If you want to assess the strength of the modern Australian school system, instead of looking at student’s PISA scores, you simply need to poll their voting intentions.

  • Ian MacDougall

    “It’s a genuine emergency for which I also offer some solutions…
    “The greatest resistance to the idea of education vouchers will come from those who realise such a return of power to parents will also empower them to choose what values and political indoctrination their child receives. Make no mistake, this is a grave threat to the anointed elites’ agenda to implement their radical vision of society by means of classroom indoctrination. “
    .
    One skill children have been taught from primary school on in Australia, and from the year dot, is critical thinking. That is the heart and soul of education, as distinct from the ‘indoctrination’ that the author of this piece, Dave Pellowe, apparently thinks it is all about. (My guess is that he has had a particularly rigorous [Jesuit?] indoctrination himself. )
    We do not need to return to the fight between the Catholic priesthood and scientists like Galileo in Mediaeval times. We have the living proof of it much closer to home. India and Pakistan sit side by side on the Eurasian landmass as if part of a controlled experiment on the effect of religion on all the other aspects of life. In economic terms, polytheist India, where no one religion has dominant status, is an economic powerhouse, comparable to modern atheist-Taoist-Buddhist-ancestor-worshipping China on the other side of the mountains. But by way of contrast, Islamic Pakistan next door is an economic basket case. The difference, I suggest, is that Islam cannot afford to encourage critical thought, and to the extent its clergy do so, they must clearly delineate for the student the no-go areas, while expecting the student to meekly accept them, and not follow the course pioneered by Adam and Eve in the legendary Garden of Eden. (See Genesis 3.)
    I occasionally meet people who are into home schooling their kids. They are without exception fundamentalist Christians who have spent a lot of time n Bible study and do not want ideas they disapprove of made available to their children. Where I maintain that educational experiences are best if they broaden the horizons for the students, these parents want the exact opposite: ideological programming.
    That in turn is all about control. If I had control of Dave Pellowe’s supply of those basic essentials of life, air, water, food and warmth, I would have total control of him: or for that matter an animal, chosen from a wide variety of species, as BF Skinner and his students have shown.
    Likewise, if I had total control of his supply of information, I would likewise have control of him.
    The history of the world to date, and particularly of the ‘dark ages’ of times past, has been largely one of controllers and of those they could or would have liked to control, particularly with respect to information. How far this can be the story in years to come depends on a number of factors. But how teaching and learning are done will be prominent among them.

    • Roger Franklin

      Dave Pellow writes in response:

      “It is an exceptionally rare occasion to hear anyone credit the public education system with producing critical thinking, let alone from primary school – hilarious, in fact! Such an assertion locates whatever follows as a reality-detached diatribe founded in prejudicial fundamentalism of a different shade to that which Ian unreliably perceives everywhere else.

      Reality is that ceding “control of the supply information” to the government is an act of faith and fervent devotion, and a foolhardy one given the history of the corrupting effect of total power. Conversely, to retain one’s power over education of one’s children is not unequivocal evidence, as Ian insists, of a desire to exclude informed debate of “unapproved ideas” from education or to “program” their children.

      The “fundamental Christian” philosophy of public education – long before governments got in the business of indoctrinating future voters – was the exact opposite of Comrade Ian’s conspiracy theories: a conviction that the best strategy to guard against delusion was literacy.

      With vigilance against “controllers”, a competitive free market of education and ideas is the surest protection against historical tyrannies repeating.”

  • Ian MacDougall

    “It is an exceptionally rare occasion to hear anyone credit the public education system with producing critical thinking, let alone from primary school – hilarious, in fact!”
    “Reality is that ceding “control of the supply information” to the government is an act of faith and fervent devotion, and a foolhardy one given the history of the corrupting effect of total power.”
    .
    And Pellow’s ignorant rant proceeds downhill from there.
    One critical thinker and product of the NSW public education system is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Michael Kirby. In the interest of enlightening Pellow, I would draw his attention to an article by Kirby published on December 4, 2012:
    “It would be hard to imagine a more noble aspiration than the original idea of public education in Australia. The young William Wilkins came to this country to head up colonial education with knowledge of the new national schools in Ireland. The young Henry Parkes drafted the first Public Schools Bill. It passed into law in NSW in 1867, against powerful opposition from the churches and the new University of Sydney. They wanted to keep education in private and religious hands.
    “Suddenly, the notion of creating public schools across continental Australia grasped the infant country’s imagination. Quality education was to be available to every Australian child. We would be the first continent on Earth with a legal right to schooling. There were three core principles: it would be free, compulsory and secular. Only the scattered communities in the United States aspired to anything like it. Look at any established town and suburb in Australia and it’s next to certain that you will find a public school building with ”1888” or ”1896” carved over the entrance. And as Parkes hoped, these schools would accompany and stimulate Australia’s moves to federation and nationhood.
    “When I was at school I was raised in these ideals. Learning the alphabet from Miss Pontifex in Class 1A at Strathfield North Public School in 1945. Learning about the new Declaration of Human Rights from Mr Redmond at Summer Hill OC class in 1949. Striving for success at Fort Street High in 1951. My later schools were ”selective”. But the ideals we were taught were exactly the same. Egalitarian. Democratic. Excellence. Secular. Religion, apart from a one-hour optional period, was a private matter. Never did I hear homophobic propaganda or classist superiority. We were proud of our teachers and quietly confident about the superiority of public education.”
    I could say much the same about my own 100% public education.
    So how Pellow-via-Franklin gets from what I wrote above to ‘Reality is that ceding “control of the supply information” to the government is an act of faith and fervent devotion, and a foolhardy one given the history of the corrupting effect of total power’ (which is something I have never been in favour of) beats me.
    I was taught the three Rs by a variety of teachers, the most memorable of which was a Gallipoli veteran who had copped a Turkish bullet at Anzac Cove. He gave us kids eyewitness history regarding the Dardanelles Campaign far more vivid than anything you could get from a book, and absolutely invaluable stuff, given that Australia was then about to head into the Korean War. (That did not stop me getting offside of him on more than one occasion, and he could still wield the cane to pretty devastating effect.)
    My own view is that, as with education in Ancient Greece, education in Australia should be at least 50% sport and PE, with an option for more until the age of 15. (The Greeks, who produced no mean civilisation, did not bother teaching their kids to read until age 15. Till then they had 100% sport and PE in a place they called The Gymnasium.) We should also make it easier for students to integrate into the workforce as part of their school experience. Better still, incentivation: once you have achieved certain skills and grades in core subjects, you should have the option of leaving and joining the workforce, whether or not you have reached the age of 15. I think that would concentrate some young minds wonderfully.
    But that is another story.

    https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/we-need-look-only-to-australias-past-to-give-public-education-a-future-20121203-2ar6w.html

  • DG

    Kirby was a critical thinker because he had knowledge. ‘Critical thinking’ (an undefined and parameter-free quality) to the extent that it can be observed is domain dependent and requires knowledge and experience to work. I refer to the work of Willingham as an example. The impression I get is that children are being fed a new orthodoxy, and not critical thinking…not even basic graph reading to compare climate models and observations.

    Then we have the deference to indigenous ‘science’. While aboriginal techne is properly studied in, say, geography, it is not science. I wouldn’t think that a group that couldn’t invent the wheel has much going for it scientifically.

    Third point. Harrison in his interesting book on the rise of modern science notes that the seed bed of modern science was belief by its players in the Genesian creation account. This freed them from the shackles of Aristotelian authority, pagan imaginings, and animism’s dead hand.

  • Ian MacDougall

    DG:
    “The impression I get is that children are being fed a new orthodoxy, and not critical thinking…not even basic graph reading to compare climate models and observations.”
    .
    And I get the impression here that you are alluding to the teaching of science, in the process of which it is usual to begin with an aim to find out something and proceed from there to a conclusion.
    That is in contrast to both religion and to Coal Shill Science, in which we do the exact reverse: start out with the conclusion we want and work backwards from there. Examples abound, even just on this site.
    However, your use of the word ‘techne’ so intrigued me, that I did a bit of googling around. As science is included in philosophy, it did not surprise me to happen upon on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where we read:
    “Epistêmê is the Greek word most often translated as knowledge, while technê is translated as either craft or art. These translations, however, may inappropriately harbor some of our contemporary assumptions about the relation between theory (the domain of ‘knowledge’) and practice (the concern of ‘craft’ or ‘art’). Outside of modern science, there is sometimes skepticism about the relevance of theory to practice because it is thought that theory is conducted at so great a remove from the facts, the province of practice, that it can lose touch with them. Indeed, at the level of practice, concrete experience might be all we need. And within science, theory strives for a value-free view of reality. As a consequence, scientific theory cannot tell us how things should be — the realm of ‘art’ or ‘craft’ . So we must turn elsewhere for answers to the profound, but still practical, questions about how we should live our lives. However, some of the features of this contemporary distinction between theory and practice are not found in the relation between epistêmê and technê.”
    .
    One definition of ‘science’ is “systematised knowledge in general.” (Macquarie).
    The ‘Aboriginal science’ so heavily sneered at around here fits that well. Of course, while they took stone-age technology about as far as it can go, the Aborigines had no domesticable grasses as were to be had in the ancient Near East, in Asia and in the Americas. And as necessity is the proverbial mother of invention, neither did they have granaries, metallurgy of any kind, and the military technology to defend themselves from raids from outside using modern weapons. Nor did they have domesticable animals. While their weapons for use in tribal warfare were pretty formidable, they had no need for wheeled vehicles, grain carts, hay carts etc drawn by animals.
    So Dave Pellowe’s dump above is irrelevant. The first thing young people need is confidence in their own abilities to learn and to reason, which includes respect on their part for the reasoning abilities of their ancestors as displayed inter alia in the ancestral tradition. This in turn has to run counter to a European settler tradition of economic exploitation of them (vide such events as the Wave Hill strike involving the Gurindgi tribe) massacres where considered necessary by settlers, and monumental sexual exploitation resulting in there being no ‘full-blood’ Aborigines anywhere in Australia save the far North. I think that it is in that light that we should read Pellowe’s quote below:
    “Science
    Students will have opportunities to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have longstanding scientific knowledge traditions and developed knowledge about the world by:
    # observation, using all the senses
    # prediction and hypothesis
    # testing (trial and error)
    # making generalisations within specific contexts such as the use of food, natural materials, navigation and sustainability of the environment.
    This fascination with indigeneity is just one aspect of the federal Education Department’s charting of the path to knowledge…
    .
    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/episteme-techne/

  • Doubting Thomas

    This is hilarious. Keep it up, Ian. The Monty Python knight scene re-enacted in print.

  • wayne.cooper

    The essential problem is that all the money thrown at education is wasted on toys – it is like seeing a 10 year old showing up for a cricket match with a bespoke $2,500 bat who has no idea how to score a run. Rudd’s idiotic ‘tool-box of the 21st century’ comment about a very-soon-to-be-obsolete lap-top is a paradigm case in point. Pythagoras, Euclid and even Isaac Newton managed (somehow) to eke out an education which enabled them to make giant strides without today’s techno based post-modernist “critical studies” curriculum or Gonski spending levels. A piece of slate and some chalk along with a decent teacher is all you really need, but the “decent teacher” is the missing element in the modern world.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Did anyone else watch Sky News last night? Did you notice the film clips of the children (apparently) taking tests? The bizarre ways in which some of those kids were holding their pencils told this former teacher about all he needed to know about the quality of teaching in this country.

  • Ian MacDougall

    DT: And when you were a teacher, did you encourage your students to converse in generalities, or specifics?
    Anyone can waffle on the way you do. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
    .
    Wayne: “A piece of slate and some chalk along with a decent teacher is all you really need, but the “decent teacher” is the missing element in the modern world.”
    You have a wonderful business opportunity staring you in the face right there. Announce that you are opening The Pythagoras, Euclid and Isaac Newton Memorial School, sole student requirement apiece of slate and a pencil (and a cut lunch and playlunch). In the first year, take out say a $20 million loan (interest rates are low right now) with say, a budget of $1,000 per week to rent some building somewhere, and the balance of the loan paid to you as your well-deserved annual salary, in line with other executive packages. Set the fees accordingly. See how you go.

  • Julie

    Ask any child under the age of 18 what is half of one and a half and most will look at you as if you are speaking a foreign language – 1 in 5 will venture “0.75?” and not necessarily always the one with the Asian background. I ask them “Do you ask for half a sandwich or 0.5 of one?” Students are no longer taught the basics from which all else follows. Several years ago in certain public primary schools in the Northern Territory, Noel Pearson oversaw the implementation of ‘Direct Instruction’ where children are taught the three Rs through – horror of horrors – drilling and repetition! Hallmarks of a classical education no less.
    Apparently these schools are currently outperforming academically all other like schools across Australia. Schools where teachers can’t spell or add up without a calculator and are passing these drawbacks on to their students. Schools where teachers are more concerned with toeing the party line and advancing political agendas over enhancing literacy and numeracy skills. ATARS for entry to education degrees plummeted to not much more than 50 at one stage. Universities are reluctant to fail students, even so cheating is rife. Sweeping generalisations (the irony is not lost on me), narrow thinking and blind faith must be the fashion in our science faculties. Critical thinking skills are developed by critically examining ALL sides of an argument not just the side that may have contributed to ruining your particular life. “To err is human, to forgive divine” said the wise Alexander Pope (from “Essays on Criticism”). Don’t get them mixed around. At least Ian stops short of suggesting all books be burnt.

  • en passant

    Never answer or acknowledge the troll. It will drive him mad as he craves our attention and company.
    I haven’t read his comments, but note they are now longer than the original essay.
    Enjoy: https://www.cfact.org/2019/12/01/can-we-adapt-to-pre-fossil-fuel-era/

  • lloveday

    Julie, ask them what 20*20 equals. My sad, albeit limited, experience is that all but one I have asked got it wrong.

  • btola

    This publication is looking more and more like Extinction Rebellion has glued itself to its pages.

  • Ian MacDougall

    Julie,
    “Sweeping generalisations (the irony is not lost on me), narrow thinking and blind faith must be the fashion in our science faculties. Critical thinking skills are developed by critically examining ALL sides of an argument… ”
    Could not agree more.
    Progress marches on. Even to the point where Eyn Pyssant’s scroll down key is working again. Fantastic!
    But for how long?

  • ianl

    As you see, when you engage with the trollster, you arer served unwiped verbal diarrhoea. Still, if this amuses …

  • Ian MacDougall

    ianl (or whatever your real name is): Quadrant’s mission statement reads in part as follows: “Quadrant accepts unsolicited, previously unpublished articles that fit within its general profile of a journal of ideas, essays, literature, poetry and historical and political debate. Although it retains its founding bias towards cultural freedom, anti-totalitarianism and classical liberalism, its pages are open to any well-written and thoughtful contribution….”
    I can understand if if “well written and thoughtful contribution“ lands you and eyn pyssant in a spot of bother, both of you being more used to plonking down mindless one-liners, and resenting anything different. Still, ‘if at first you don’t succeed…’
    .
    But then, on the other hand, perhaps its time you both pulled your venomous heads in.
    .
    https://quadrant.org.au/submissions/

  • whitelaughter

    would be worth knowing what % of Australian public school teachers send their children to private schools. In the USA it is twice the nation average, and up to 4 times in some places:
    https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/why-do-public-school-teachers-send-their-own-children-to-private-schools-at-a-rate-2x-the-national-average/

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