A curriculum market

Julie Bishop’s speech on national curriculum is certainly attracting criticism, not just from Labor states protecting their power but also from former elite private school principal Judith Wheeldon, in today’s Weekend Australian .

The problem with this debate is that it is between two alternatives that are nearly as bad as each other: national centralised curriculum and state-based centralised curriculum. Each means (or would mean) that most parents have no effective choice and that the bureaucracies that create curriculum have weak incentives to be responsive to parents. Bishop complains that state curriculum setting has fallen into the hands of ‘ideologues’, but how much easier would that be if they only had to capture one bureaucracy rather than six, and disgruntled parents had to run a national rather than just a state campaign to protest?

The debate we should be having is not State versus Commonwealth curriculum, but centralised curriculum versus competitive curricula. Competitive curricula would bring us diversity as well as competition, reflecting the variety of student needs, aptitudes, and interests. We have the start of this in the International Baccalaureate program, already taught in a number of schools. It is too demanding for some students, but excellent for those planning to continue to university. This kind of innovation should be the model for the future.

Competitive curricula could get around the sole argument for national curriculum that has any merit, the difficulties faced by students moving interstate. Since there are clear economies of scale in creating curriculum materials, I expect that curriculum creators would sell their programs around the country, so families that move between states would be able to enrol their kids in a school teaching the same basic material as the school they left.

A market in curricula would fundamentally change the incentives facing curriculum creators. Parents could withdraw their kids from schools that offered dubious curriculum (because their children were semi-literate and numerate, because they were studying Big Brother instead of Shakespeare etc) without moving interstate. This would give schools an incentive to change curriculum providers, who would need to improve or go out of business.

There are three curriculum options – markets, federal, national. Julie Bishop is advocating the worst of the three, and the state governments the second worst. The best, alas, is not even on the table.