Why even a good English curriculum should not be a monopoly curriculum

At least at first glance, the draft English national curriculum released yesterday looks reasonably good. I was pleased to see specific reference to apostrophes, and encouraged by a story in this morning’s Age that Julia Gillard is also big on apostrophes:

As a solicitor at law firm Slater and Gordon in the 1980s and ’90s, Ms Gillard would get her staff to chant: ”One cat’s hat, two cats’ hats, where do the apostrophes go?”

She told her biographer, Jacqueline Kent: ”If I got a letter with it done wrong I would draw a cat with a hat at the bottom in the hope it would come back right the next time. They all thought I was kind of strange.”

That Gillard needed to use a primary school mnemonic to teach people working in law firms how to write letters shows how badly English teaching has failed over the last generation.

Though this English curriculum may be better than those currently in use by the states, I am still strongly opposed to the idea of a national monopoly curriculum. What we should have instead is competitive curricula. Each curriculum on offer could be adopted anywhere in Australia, but none would be mandated for every school.

Though there are educational reasons for avoiding monopoly – one size is unlikely to fit all, we need better pressures than politics for innovation and improvement, etc – other stories running in today’s papers highlight the political reasons against monopoly curriculum (this is as much a criticism of the current state monopolies as the national curriculum).

From the right, we are hearing criticism that the history curriculum offers too much of the ‘black armband’ view of history. According to Christopher Pyne, ‘While there are 118 references in the document to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and culture, there is one reference to Parliament, none to ‘Westminster’ and none to the ‘Magna Carta’.

While there are basics of English and maths that every student should learn, history is a far more flexible subject. While no competent Australian school history curriculum could neglect the fact that Australia was populated prior to European settlement, or that European settlement had severe consequences for Aboriginal people, parents and teachers could legitimately have very different views of how much Aboriginal content a history course should contain. European, American, Asian and especially English history explain more about why Australia is as it is today than Indigenous history; Aboriginal culture remains peripheral to everyday non-Indigenous Australian culture.

There is no need to settle these issues politically in a winner-take-all fashion. My fellow Carlton dwellers should be be able to have a history curriculum packed with Aboriginal misery and white racism, if that’s what they think their kids should learn. Other people should be able to have a curriculum heavy on European history. In areas with large Asian populations, it would make sense to offer a curriculum strong on Asian history. Curriculum markets can satisfy many different educational preferences, and save Aboriginal history from becoming a source of white political conflict.

Monopoly curricula will always be the subject of attempts at ideological political capture. This is highlighed in an op-ed by Monash University education academic Libby Tudball. Like many left-wing academics, Tudball sees the curriculum as inherently political, as a tool to be used by the left in the service of their political agenda:

There is also a groundswell of action around the world to reorient the role of education within the sustainability agenda. This calls into question the dominant approach of educating ”about” the environment and instead reflects the need for educating ”for” sustainability, engaging young people in critical reflection on their lifestyles and actions so they can make informed decisions and changes.

John Stuart Mill had it right in On Liberty 150 years ago:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

34 Responses to “Why even a good English curriculum should not be a monopoly curriculum

  • 1
    Jeremy Sammut
    March 2nd, 2010 06:49

    As I understand it, the state monopoly on school curricula goes back to Frank Tate in Victoria and Peter Board in NSW in the early 20th century. Both were trying to raise the standards of schooling and the teaching profession by moving away from rote 3R’s learning and transforming the state schools into places that provided children with a liberal or classical education. University training for teachers and ongoing connection with the university departments was the goal. Unfortunately, the education departments that have a big say on the curriculm is stocked with PC ideologues (ah la Dr Tudball) who are jokes in the academy (ever read a education PHD? – one theory supported by 1 handout survey) and generally dispised by the teaching profession they competely underprepared for classroom duties, and because they keep reinventing the wheel and forcing stressed out teachers to ‘update’ their ‘resources’.

  • 2
    conrad
    March 2nd, 2010 06:51

    I’m not sure why a national or state-wide curriculum makes any difference to your argument, since there is a monopoly either way (and presumably the few people who would otherwise move states to get away from their system would just send their kids to an IB school). Also, I doubt the curriculum is better than _all_ of the states, since Australia as a whole does really well at literacy, so someone is doing a good job somewhere. To me this is one of the biggest problems of the national curriculum — we will lose comparative data across states.

  • 3
    Pedro X
    March 2nd, 2010 06:56

    What about maths and sciences?

    Do you think that High School level Chemistry, Physics and Maths and foreign languages should be a monopoly national curriculum?

  • 4
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 07:05

    Conrad – Indeed, I did note that “(this is as much a criticism of the current state monopolies as the national curriculum).” While I doubt anyone moves states to escape a state curriculum, curriculum differences within the federation have been politicaly useful in highlighting failures and successes. In this respect, a national curriculum is worse than the current system.

    I am a critic of over-reliance on OECD comparisons. All around the world, school education is state dominated, with the predictable consequences. We may be better than other countries, but we are not good enough.

    Jeremy – There are good (or at least not silly) historical reasons for many now undesirable institutional aspects of our education system. While there were nasty sectarian reasons for public education in the 19th century, there were also pragmatic and sensible reasons, eg there was no other practical way of scaling up the system for compulsory education. But these temporary fixes became entrenched.

  • 5
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    March 2nd, 2010 07:14

    Jeremy: there is a reason why education theory is the intellectual slums.
    If a student screws up, who suffers. The student. If a teacher screws up, who suffers? The student. If a teacher trainer screws up, who suffers? The student. If a pedagogical theorist screws up, who suffers? The student. Which is why educational theory is largely driven by empty fashion and grand ideological pretensions: no connection to effects and all about status games.

  • 6
    Jeremy Sammut
    March 2nd, 2010 07:47

    Andrew – I guess what I was sort of trying to get at was that most people who become english, history, language, or science teachers love english lit, history, langagues and science. Too often, the curriculum has been emptied of content and been replaced by theory. (Or the curriculum has been ovecrowded in a misplaced quest for ‘revelance’). I don’t doubt that competition is a way of getting out of the educational slough of despond – but it is also frustrating and shocking that standards have collapsed, and teachers aren’t simply allowed to teach their subjects. It shouldn’t be this hard!

  • 7
    johno
    March 2nd, 2010 08:50

    As a parent I would really love to have a much greater say over what my kids are being taught in school. I reckon I could work with other parents and my school’s teachers to work out what the school’s curriculm should be. I would even be prepared to pay the school with my own money to ensure that I had a reasonable level of control over what was being taught.

  • 8
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 10:02

    ” would even be prepared to pay the school with my own money to ensure that I had a reasonable level of control over what was being taught.”

    It should be called sending your kid to a private school.

    Pedro X – I don’t support any national monopoly curriculum, though as previous comparisons of science curricula have shown there is less variation between curricula in areas with uncontroversial core knowledge than in more contestable areas such as English or history.

  • 9
    caf
    March 2nd, 2010 10:55

    In a menagerie of competing curricula (is that the correct plural?), would you support minimum standards that a curriculum must meet? If so, how do you prevent that minimum standard itself from becoming a de facto monopoly curriculum? If not, how do you solve the problem that a poor curriculum is not exposed to competitive pressure until it has already failed to adequately educate at least one cohort of students?

  • 10
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 11:15

    Caf – Competitive pressure can start before any student is taught. I would not mandate any minimum standards, but I would mandate publication along the lines of what has occurred with the national curriculum. This will ensure parental and public scrutiny. In addition, in a properly competitve school system the schools themselves will do their own quality assurance and assessment to demonstrate they they are the best option.

  • 11
    Robert Wiblin
    March 2nd, 2010 13:28

    Am I missing some obvious link to the curriculum in PDF form?

  • 12
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 13:59

    Robert – No, you have to sign up to get it.

  • 13
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 2nd, 2010 14:09

    ”If I got a letter with it done wrong”

    Or wrongly, as the case may be.

    “curriculum differences within the federation have been politicaly useful in highlighting failures and successes.”

    On the contrary, it is when the curriculum is the same that failures and successes can be highlighted, because differences in outcomes are then caused by differences in teaching standards and school resourcing, not because kids are being taught different things (assuming that there are no differences in childrens’ intelligence across states, or broad socio-demographics across states. This is true apart from the Northern Territory and maybe the ACT.)

    The only argument for different history syllabuses across states is that kids in WA perhaps should learn about John Forrest (no one anywhere else would or should care); ditto Batman in Melbourne, Hindmarsh in SA; but this is small potatoes.

    And a monopoly national curriculum doesn’t mean the end of contest of ideas. There should be plenty of contestability about goes into it.

  • 14
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 14:25

    S or R – I’ve found the comparisons useful in the past. Under the dreaded Joan Kirner, Victoria had some particularly disastrous educational experiments.

  • 15
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 2nd, 2010 14:41

    If there had been a national curriculum in Kirner’s time, she wouldn’t have been able to do what she disastrously did, whatever that was.

    Andrew, your implicit assumption is that a national curriculum will be a race to the bottom. It beats me why that should be so. Of course political partisans might assume that Gillard and her advises have an agenda to lower standards, but all the evidence is the opposite. Or to make the same point a different way, apart from the pathetic whining of Christopher Pyne, the opposition to a national curriculum seems to be coming from the usual suspects, the teacher unions. If that’s not a sign that it is a good idea, what is?

  • 16
    Shem Bennett
    March 2nd, 2010 15:01

    While incorrect apostrophe usage irks me, I’m far from convinced that it is a major skill that needs a substantial part of any curriculum dedicated to it. I think there are more important skills that are neglected entirely by most school curriculum- including things like budgeting and a lot of interpersonal skills.

    That said, disagreeing with Andrew on what makes a good curriculum is one of the many reasons there should be a multitude of options rather than just one “right” option.

    I don’t necessarily think a National Curriculum will be a race to the bottom, but I do think that it’ll impose one decent curriculum on the 4 million or so school aged kids in Australia. Instead those kids could (and should, in my opinion) be learning different things based on their own needs and the desires of their parents.

    Even if the funding model never changes for education the thing I am probably most frustrated by is centralised curriculum. Competitive curriculum is the number one change I’d implement if I was in government for a day.

  • 17
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 2nd, 2010 15:19

    “Instead those kids could (and should, in my opinion) be learning different things based on their own needs and the desires of their parents.”

    There is already a market to satisfy parents who really desire alternative curricula for their kids, with Steiner schools and the like. It is very niche. There’s nothing to stop all sorts of alternative schools starting up, but it doesn’t happen, because there is little demand for it.

    The only competitive curriculum that has any traction is the International Baccalaureate. And a good thing it exists too. But it is only for kids at the elite end of academic spectrum.

  • 18
    Andrew1
    March 2nd, 2010 15:54

    One advice that academics always give to students regarding subject selection at university (and maybe to a lesser extent in some high schools) is that it’s best to pick a subject on the basis of teacher quality rather than simply on the basis of subject matter.

    Surely one of the benefits of competitive curricula is that teachers have more autonomy in teaching what they are passionate about rather than what they are required to teach. I don’t like the idea of cramming entire new subjects into the heads of teachers because that national curriculum requires them to teach it, rather than letting them focus on the areas which they specialised at university.

  • 19
    conrad
    March 2nd, 2010 16:45

    “Andrew, your implicit assumption is that a national curriculum will be a race to the bottom. ”
    .
    That’s my assumption also — here are my reasons:
    1) There’s no reason to believe Canberra will be better than the state governments. NSW had excellent education psychologists — why is Canberra going to have better ones when it is a crappy place to live, especially for well paid professors?
    2) NSW and less so Victoria already do a really excellent job (despite the complaints), so it’s hard see how you would do a better job. Ill-considered changes — and that’s what they will be because they are not based on NSW’s situation — are therefore likely to make things worse.
    3) Getting rid of state-by-state comparisons means that there is far less accountability.
    4) Getting rid of state-by-state comparisons means that it is far harder to test different ways to teach things where the outcomes are often non-obvious.
    5) Having one body in control of everything allows for fads and corruption.

  • 20
    Jeremy
    March 2nd, 2010 17:12

    ”If I got a letter with it done wrong I would draw a cat with a hat at the bottom …”

    Good, she knows her apostrophes.

    Now she can go away and work on her adverbs.

  • 21
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 18:05

    S of R – The point of this post wasn’t that national curriculum would be a race to the bottom, but that we don’t have consensus on what the bottom or top actually looks like – and that we have no compelling reason to believe that there is one ‘best practice’ curriculum for all students that can be identified by wise bureaucrats. A curriculum project headed by Julia Gillard is certainly a far more attractive one than a curriculum project headed by Libby Tudball. But what reason do we have for thinking that Gillard has all the answers, or that the likes of Tudball won’t get hold of a future national curriculum?

  • 22
    Andrew Norton
    March 2nd, 2010 18:13

    “While incorrect apostrophe usage irks me, I’m far from convinced that it is a major skill that needs a substantial part of any curriculum dedicated to it.

    I’m also far from convinced it needs a substantial part of the curriculum dedicated to it. Indeed, that’s the pity of it all. The mistake breaks a very simple rule that shouldn’t take more than a few of the thousands of hours kids spend at school to learn. The people making this mistake already understand the idea of a plural word, because they are adding the ‘s’. So all they need to remember is not to put in an apostrophe. It’s really, really simple.

    Understanding the slightly more difficult concept of the possessive will help them understand when they should use an apostrophe.

  • 23
    mattb
    March 2nd, 2010 18:39

    As I understand things, they have taken some inspiration from Finland where the national curriculum takes the perspective that teachers know their students and will decide what, when and how to teach – with broad guidance from the curriculum frameworks. To me this makes more sense than a free market for curriculum at one extreme or a highly prescriptive regime at the other. My objection to a competitive curriculum is that it might allow fundamentalist schools of any dimension to set a curriculum that meets the needs of their belief system. In some cases females may have no need to study anything. In others English may be irrelevant. I’m all for freedom of choice, but I think that there is a duty for society to provide a mechanism that would enable every child to get an education that enables them to make their own choices.

  • 24
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 2nd, 2010 20:00

    Conrad, it is interesting that you say that Victoria is doing slightly less than excellent. You are always complaining that your tertiary students are virtually innumerate.

    Andrew, Gillard herself will no more decide what is in the curriculum than Nicola Roxon decides what drugs are in the PBS. Smart ministers act on advice from people who know what they are talking about.

    Rather than all this hand wringing about the principle of a national curriculum it would be more productive to see what is actually in it.

  • 25
    Michael C
    March 2nd, 2010 20:00

    The great late-nineteenth-century individualist English philosopher Herbert Spencer asked:

    “For what is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people? Why should they be educated? What is the education for? Clearly to fit the people for social life — to make them good citizens? And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge. And who is to say how these good citizens may be made? The government: there is no other judge. Hence the proposition is convertible into this — a government ought to mold children into good citizens . . . . It must first form for itself a definite conception of a pattern citizen; and having done this, must elaborate such system of discipline as seems best calculated to produce citizens after that pattern. This system of discipline it is bound to enforce to the uttermost. For if it does otherwise, it allows men to become different from what in its judgment they should become, and therefore fails in that duty it is charged to fulfill.15”

  • 26
    Michael C
    March 2nd, 2010 20:01

    The twentieth-century American individualist writer Isabel Paterson declared:

    “Educational texts are necessarily selective, in subject matter, language, and point of view. Where teaching is conducted by private schools, there will be a considerable variation in different schools; the parents must judge what they want their children taught, by the curriculum offered . . . . Nowhere will there be any inducement to teach the “supremacy of the state as a compulsory philosophy.” But every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine [p. 131] of state supremacy sooner or later, whether as the divine right of kings, or the “will of the people” in “democracy.” Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property, and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey.

    A tax-supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state.16″

    http://mises.org/rothbard/newlibertywhole.asp#p119

  • 27
    Andrew Norton
    March 3rd, 2010 04:03

    “Gillard herself will no more decide what is in the curriculum than Nicola Roxon decides what drugs are in the PBS. Smart ministers act on advice from people who know what they are talking about.”

    Smart people she has appointed, and who act according to Ministerial Council on Educaton directions, which she dominates.

    I do know how government works (I worked for an education minister) – obviously ministers do not do the detail work, but they do control (in varying degrees) the people who do. She wanted grammar, and ACARA delivered grammar.

  • 28
    conrad
    March 3rd, 2010 04:58

    “You are always complaining that your tertiary students are virtually innumerate.”
    .
    Yes, that’s because mathematics is the worst of the big areas for students in Australia (i.e., maths, literacy, science). In addition, I don’t think the decline in mathematics is due to the curriculum (or at least it isn’t a huge factor — and even in terms of what is related to the curriculum, I think a good chunk is probably caused by the primary school system, which hardly gets a mention ever) since I believe it’s basically happened all over the rich world (excluding a few East Asia countries and I think the Netherlands). Thus I think it’s bad because I’m a grumpy not-quite middle-aged guy and remember the good old days when most kids did far more maths :), not because compared to other countries it’s bad. Actually why there has been such a decline is a good question.

  • 29
    Andrew Norton
    March 3rd, 2010 05:40

    “Actually why there has been such a decline is a good question.”

    While I sometimes can’t resist answering it myself, it isn’t a good question. The right question is not whether we are better or worse than we were in the past or compared to some other country, but whether we are giving people the skills they need now and in the future.

  • 30
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 3rd, 2010 06:18

    Andrew, it’s true that Gillard wanted grammar, but so did a lot of other people, mostly education traditionalists. If Gillard had wanted the life and times of Rosa Luxemburg, and that appeared in the curriculum, then you would have a better case.

  • 31
    Andrew Norton
    March 3rd, 2010 06:43

    True, Gillard is a politician who knows there would be strong resistance if she tried to pursue silly ideas, and support if she pursues good ideas. But educational traditionalists have been complaining for 30 years about the school English curriculum. What’s changed is the concentration of power in people, and particularly a minister, who agrees with them. This power can be used for good or bad. We rely not on the system to protect us, but the ‘right’ people being in the top few jobs. To me, this is too risky.

  • 32
    conrad
    March 3rd, 2010 06:47

    “While I sometimes can’t resist answering it myself, it isn’t a good question.”
    .
    Yes it is, because the answer to it might tell you why we are better or worse than in the past, and hence ways you might go about fixing problems or teaching skills. For example, we may be worse at reading graphs in the in the past because lots of stuff that promotes early visual-spatial skills isn’t taught anymore. Knowing this allows you to work on strategies so that kids can learn how to read graphs again. I also assume you’re thinking of cross-country comparisons, where I agree with you that the results are far less meaningful.

  • 33
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 3rd, 2010 07:16

    There will still be some checks and balances in the system. For one thing, the states have to sign on, and they can sign off if the curriculum gets captured by Dr Evil.

    Admittedly, this would be difficult. In a larger sense, what we are seeing is more of the inexorable shift of power from the states to the Commonwealth, which has been happening since Federation. Why? Because the Feds have the money; therefore they call the tune. Hospitals may be next. (Speaking of which, I see Tony Abbott thinks it would a shocking thing if the Commonwealth Government took over hospitals. This, from the man who as Health Minister in 2007 tried to take over the Burnie Hospital to save a seat in Tasmania. Abbott has even less shame than Rudd.)

  • 34
    Andrew1
    March 7th, 2010 09:10

    mattb says,

    “As I understand things, they have taken some inspiration from Finland where the national curriculum takes the perspective that teachers know their students and will decide what, when and how to teach – with broad guidance from the curriculum frameworks.”

    The Finnish national curriculum can be found at http://www.oph.fi/english/ and from the looks of things it seems they are much more flexible than the Australian design.