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.

26 thoughts on “A curriculum market

  1. The whole issue is quite bizarre – Andrew you’re spot in in the weakness of centralising education curriculums in that it makes it ripe for exploitation by idealogues. What I don’t understand is why we need this strange strawman argument about Chairman Mao. How long has this been happening and why do voters keep voting for conservatives if it’s true? If you don’t like or agree with the subjects or the way that they are being taught, getting involved with the P&C association of your school might be a better way of fixing it rather than handing it off to a bunch of centralised beaurocrats. The policy as stated is bizarre, flawed and divisive.

    We already have a competitive curriculum – it’s called the private school system, they are relatively free to emphasise or de-emphasise subjects (and readily do it) as long as the kiddies can pass a few mandated tests.

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  2. Spot on Andrew. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve enjoyed the predicable fireworks from The Age and the ABC. And the rejoicing from The Oz. But, as you point out, what is truly depressing is that Bishop’s proposal is worse than the problem she is seeking to solve.

    Can you provide more material on competitive curriculum and how you could make it work within the State school system? I’m on my kid’s School Council (like David Rubie suggests), but I have found that there is bugger all you can do about changing the curriculum in state schools.

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  3. Johno – Apart from the Ross Farrelly article you get to when you click on the ‘competitive curriculum’ link I have not seen anything written on this. Indeed, that’s why I asked Ross to write it. Within the state system, one way it might work is for the state to permit different curriculum to be taught at the discretion of individual schools, distributing the current central budget for curriculum development to schools for the purposes of buying it themselves. Existing curriculum development bodies would be privatised. The initial competition is likely to be between the privatised former state curriculum authorities, but I imagine the Catholic systemic schools would want to be players, and new players, perhaps based on consortiums of private schools, would develop.

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  4. If you want to do a market based school curriculum, having different bodies getting funded in toto by schools using them is not very practical. Put a proper market in place – schools should be given the range of subjects mandated by federal and state policies, then education providers can develop subjects and schools could license them individually (i.e. pick and choose).

    That is a market – best developed/best value subjects win and schools with less money can pick cheaper courses to give. In fact, you could leave the public sector curriculum development in place as a baseline with their funding wholly dependent on how successful they were at continuing to attract users of their subjects. Not quite privatised but at least guaranteeing a minimum of educational standards at the level we currently have (which, by external accounts, seems pretty good anyhow).

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  5. Last night at the extended family bbq, everyone except me thought federal control was a wonderful thing – even after I pointed out that the Liberals won’t be in government forever. While everyone agreed that the end of Liberal government would be the end of civilisation as we know it, they still supported Bishop’s proposal.

    People weren’t quite clear, or consistent, as to why this was the case. It did seem to revolve around distrust, even hatred, of the Bracks government, the view that state and federal governments can be expected to behave differently, and the benefits of a consistent, national curriculum. I’m not sure how representative my relatives are, but there is some support for the Bishop model.

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  6. wpd – Thanks for the information about state schools, but as for the commentary on the general post I would draw attention to the comments policy, which you are just on the acceptable side of. It’s quite possible to correct the errors David and I made while maintaining a civil tone.

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  7. Sincere apologies for the agro. Won’t happen again.

    Julie Bishop has a point when she says there is unnecessary duplication. Some efficiencies are possible and acceptable if she is talking about the development of ‘curriculum frameworks’. If she is trying to get into minute detail and ‘teacher proof’ the curriculum(s), she is way off track.

    Frameworks are then fleshed out at either the district, school, local school department or individual level.

    What must be considered also is that teachers consider they ‘own’ the current arrangements and the resultant product. I should imagine it would be roughly the same in universities.

    By the way, it is virtually impossible to determine what happens to the curriculum in the classroom when the teacher shuts the door.

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  8. The debate is getting rather confused; sometimes it sounds as if we are talking about certain minimum standards, with discretion to go above that and vary considerably on the detail; other times we are talking about actual consistency so that students face the same course in the same year throughout the country, and Bishop has mentioned a ‘model’ curriculum. If I read Jenny Macklin’s statements correctly she supports the former but not the latter, and that is her disagreement with Bishop. I oppose both.

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  9. If it is the case that (1) independent boards rather than State bureaucrats develop school curricula and (2) these board are comprised of representatives from all interest groups and (3) existing curricula are unsatisfactory to universities and/or parents and (4) private schools use the same curricula as government schools, this suggests something is not working (to perhaps state the obvious). Do independent schools use the same curricula because universities expect uniformity and cannot handle entry qualification comparisons between different too many different school curricula? Is it that government (ie Cwth) funding to private schools is contingent on them following the same curricula as government schools? Is it that these ‘independent’ boards are systematically captured by particular interests groups (teachers’ unions?) and individual parents find it difficult to encourage their school to opt out of the State curriculum? Or is it that universities’ and parents’ complaints about schooling have more to do with the quality or standard of education rather than the curriculum?

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  10. I have a different opinion as to why the private schools still use the government curriculum — this being

    a) in some of the states, the curriculum isn’t all that bad despite all the rhetoric. One might also want to question the assumptions of the rhetoric even in the worst cases — I doubt, for instance, the average 17 year old is going to learn a whole lot more analyzing, say, Death of Salesman vs. watching Big Brother;

    b) I presume it is quite difficult to get teachers who are experienced at teaching subjects in the IB (or for that matter, some of the other internationally accepted Year 12s out there).

    c) The level knowledge neccesary for the hard sciences have declined along with the proportion of students doing them. This has probably more to do with cultural differences than the curriculum — with many students presumably just taking an easier alternative. Thus, switching from a state-based (say) chemistry course to a harder IB one might be counter productive in getting students to do these subjects, and it might be counter productive in terms of teaching students something at a level which they are likely to understand.

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  11. Commonwealth funding for private schools begins to flow when the private school has been approved by the State.

    Independent schools who want their students to receive a particular ‘certificate’ must follow that course of study, broadly defined.

    Individual parents don’t want schools to opt out, in part at least, because they want their children to receive that piece of paper.

    Membership of Boards is determined by the legislation. Very difficult (impossible) for any individual group to overcome the legislated numbers. Beneath the Boards are numbers of subject committees where the heavy lifting and complex debates occurs. Subject associations play hard and heavy at this level.

    With respect to declining numbers in various subjects. When I went to school more than 40 years ago, I studied English. Maths1 Maths 2 Physics Chemistry and History. There was little choice. Now in QLD there are more than fifty (50) subjects from which to choose. Of course not all schools offer all subjects. The proportions change because the choice is greater and ‘fashions’ change. In my time there was no Biology, Computer Science, Film and Television Music and so on. You could do Latin and in some schools you still can.

    Curriculum development if done properly takes a long time and is expensive. It must be ‘piloted’ ‘trialled’ and modified along the way. The English syllabus documents provided to the ‘best’ schools and the ‘worst’ schools are exactly the same.

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  12. WPD, if you think it is partially the parents choice as to why they want their children to collect a State certificate, then what we really need then is the IB (or whoever) to market their year 12 degrees a bit more (and it doesn’t take much — it is much more widely available in some countries), since you are far better off having an IB than a final year certificate from a state government. (I should know — When I did year 12, I got a mark out of 400 + 10% for each subject you did greater than 4 — I can imagine trying to explain that to a university administrator in another country) I can imagine that if some of the universities stuck IB in a preferred category, then there would be huge demand for it. Personally, I think parents send their children off to do the standard year 12 more out of ignorance than the desire to get a State approved Year 12 certificate.

    Also, the decline in the core subjects isn’t just due to greater choice. A reasonable choice of subjects has been around for a long time in some states (including biology and computer science), but there has been a decline nevertheless. If there was no alternative, I presume more students would simply drop out (which would have been the case 40 years ago).

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  13. Conrad I don’t disagree with what you say. IB is being offered more widely, but I am not up on the detail of what is involved.

    Certainly, there is a ‘decline’ in the ‘hard’ subjects but these ‘hard’ science subjects are also less popular at the university level. Even fee paying students from Asia show more interest in ‘business’ related subjects than science.

    But isn’t it the case that the IB direction is the exact opposite to ‘competitive’ curricula.

    In QLD, the local Universities seem happy with the present arrangements because they have such a significant input into curriculum development

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  14. Andrew, I’m not sure why you think a centralised curriculum is worse than state curricula, unless it’s that any problems with a centralised curriculum affect more people than with a state curriculum. In theory, having state curricula means that you can see how the effects on learning of different curricula and learn from them. A similar thing could happen with a centralised curriculum if there was scope for variations eg from region to region.

    If the choice is between regionalised and centralised curricula, I’m not sure that having 6 (or 8) replications of the curriculum development process is necessary. I would have to be convinced as to its advantages.

    By the by, in my work I’ve attempted to interpret some of the South Australian math curriculum documents. I am not trained as a teacher and perhaps that’s the problem, but it’s not unusual for statements in the documents to be quite unclear.

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  15. Sacha – That is why I think a Commonwealth curriculum would be worse than the existing multiple state-based curricula. Take them partly as creating a larger learning process (you can’t copy good ideas if nobody else is generating them), partly as risk management (stopping failed experiments spreading nationwide).

    Bishops says that the curriculum development process costs $180 million a year – expensive duplication. Or another way of looking at it is that on a $30 billion annual investment in schooling, this is a cheap way of looking for changes that might get better outcomes.

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  16. Ah – thanks Andrew, that makes sense. BTW the point against regional curricula that people from different states are taught different things leading to problems in further education has never struck me as very strong. It’s not that difficult to deal with (eg people can learn the material they don’t yet know).

    In Qld, kids are taught matrices in Yr 11/12 but aren’t in NSW. They have to learn about matrices in 1st year uni in NSW but don’t in Qld (except for those who have moved). While it might seem a bit of a mismatch, it’s hard to know whether it’s better to teach kids matrices at school or at uni.

    I read that in the furore about the new WA curriculum, that people were upset that kids doing music at school weren’t going to have to learn an instrument, and previously they had to. I finished Yr 12 in Brisbane in 1990 and did music all through high school, and we never had to learn a specific instrument, although I think that probably everyone did anyway. Differences across states are ok unless there are some “core” things that people must know and aren’t being taught. Perhaps there’s a role for “core” things to be common to all states.

    In any event it’s important that standards be high.

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