What if the national curriculum was Victoria’s?

The ABS literacy levels by state data published today confirm what the OECD PISA study released in December found – that young Victorians’ literacy levels are well behind what their contemporaries in other states are achieving.

Victoria 15 to 24 year olds are a full 10 percentage points behind (51%/61%) their equivalents in New South Wales in achieving levels 3, 4 or 5 in prose literacy. As I noted when the summary literacy report came out last month,

…level 3 skills [are] regarded as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’.

The Victorians are also behind the Western Australians (57%; WA was slightly ahead of NSW in PISA), the Queenslanders (53%), and are about level with the South Australians (who round from the other direction to be also 51%). Only the Tasmanians on 49% are lower, but they have the excuse of a relatively low SES population.

Victorian educational policy is sometimes compared favourably with that of NSW in matters such as reporting school-level performance, but the positive effects aren’t evident in these results. I was told that a better curriculum explained why NSW did better than Victoria in PISA, but I have not followed the curriculum wars in enough detail to explain the differences re teaching literacy. But it seems plausible that curriculum is a major factor.

There are potential lessons here for the two big school education ideas current in Liberal politics at the moment.

For the centralists, led by former education ministers Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, it is a reminder that in choosing a national curriculum you are taking a big gamble: that you will pick NSW or Western Australia rather than Victoria or South Australia. The national curriculum people might get it right first time, because they will have this evidence to draw on, but once a national curriculum is in place these decentralised experiments will be lost. A monopoly national curriculum is a seriously bad idea and should be dropped completely.

For the voucher advocates, a reminder that demand-side initiatives such as more information for parents and more scope for moving kids between schools (Victoria abolished strict zoning long ago) won’t do much good without supply-side reforms as well, such as competitive curricula. Student choice is necessary but not sufficient if we want to seriously improve our schools.

28 thoughts on “What if the national curriculum was Victoria’s?

  1. Andrew, what do you mean that Victoria abolished strict zoning long ago? I though government schools still give people in catchment zones first priority? Last time i checked there were were still catchment zones around Uni High, Balwyn High, and McKinnon Secondary.

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  2. Brendan – ‘Strict’ was the qualifier. Schools have to take kids within their area, but can take others (and will be funded to do so) if there is room. It means that there is scope to move kids from bad public schools. But not to move to a school with a different curriculum.

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  3. Andrew —

    1) I’m not sure of the reality of moving from good to bad schools, since the good schools are essentially overwhelmed by people moving into the area simply so their kids can get in (I wonder if this true of primary schools?). I know McKinnon has a priority list for kids, but since so many people move into the “zone”, it means that in case you are not in it (which may still include having McKinnon as the closest school), you still won’t get in, no matter what priorities 2,3, and 4 are. I therefore think the “scope” is more restricted (it would be interesting to know what that would mean for moving from one less prestigious school to another less prestigious one).
    2) I was under the impression schools in Victoria could essentially teach whatever they wanted (the IB and a few variants, for example, are done in some high schools). I imagine the problem is getting the teachers, especially in primary school, which does not exactly attract the smartest group of people on Earth, and nor is it likely to given the pay. You can have whatever curriculum you want, but if you have idiots teaching it, thats where the problem will come.

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  4. Andrew, this is all very interesting to someone who has only recently moved to Victoria and has a daughter about to enter Year 11.

    My daughter, who is thankfully fully literate and an avid reader, was a little taken aback last year when a main activity of her English Literature class was to discuss and analyse the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, rather than an actual book. Even though I understand that the film is based on a book, I’m fairly sure that no reading was involved.

    I don’t know whether this was an issue of curriculum or simply an acknowledgement by teachers that these days relatively few kids, apparently across the intellectual spectrum, actually read books.

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  5. BG: At least in Australia and HK (and much less so France), I can tell you that the problem of students not reading afflicts the university sector too, not just high schools (and its not like I’m teaching pure mathematics…) — I’ll just blame the high school system for that. These days I deliberately pick short articles for student assignments (preferably less than 10 pages). Even the philosophy guys where I work seem to have given up, and don’t expect students to read more than short predigested summaries. Its really only in 4th year that we expect them to read extensively (the wonders of competition). Personally, if I was an employer, and wanted literate graduates that could think through a problem that wasn’t already done in a textbook, I’m not sure I’d ever want to look at the 3 year degree pool.

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  6. So what is literacy like in France? Don’t they have this rigid national curriculum where every child is learning history at 10.00am on a Tuesday morning, or something like it?

    If their national curriculum produces OK results then we don’t need the expense of all these state curriculum producers. If we don’t rate well compared to other countries we could copy their curricula.

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  7. Andrew, the curriculum wars were mainly about teaching at advanced levels – years 11 and 12. While I can see them making some marginal difference to level 4 or 5 attainment, the differences in achieving level 3 would seem to be related to the primary and early secondary years. While I think BG is right to criticise lack of reading in class, it seems to me to be a symptom of poor year 11 literacy, rather than a cause.

    A question though, do you have data on literacy levels by state for students under 15? That is, can we identify when different states begin to diverge.

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  8. Russ – We do (big pdf). Years 3, 5 and 7. However these are are only on meeting a benchmark, which can’t be very high as 90%+ students are getting it. ABS has a higher standard – whether it is too high I do not know.

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  9. One of my concerns, as someone who works in a profession where writing is the main activity, is that kids (and adults for that matter) who don’t read mostly can’t write.

    On the other hand, I can see that trying to get kids to read when they don’t want to could be an uphill battle at best and a complete waste of time at worst. Much as I hate to say it, it probably comes down to parents inculcating a reading culture at home from a very early age – how to encourage kids to read when their parents don’t, I really don’t know. My kids have always watched a lot of TV, but they read books as well, so I don’t think it is necessarily a question of on or the other.

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  10. Russell: Its hard to compare literacy in France, because the groups poor on those measures are not poor because of the curriculum. As for why our mainly middle class universitiy students seem to read more (thats just an observation — I could be wrong), I’ve no idea why, but people just seem to read more in general (you see it on the trains, in bars etc.). Perhaps it is because they don’t speak English and have 5 woeful TV channels, or perhaps there are just cultural factors (i.e., being proud of French literature). There are certainly enivornmental factors (French is easier to learn to read, so you can get further more quickly).

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  11. Ah sorry if i came off a bit rude. I don’t think I’m old enough to remember a time when zoning was any different to how it is now and I thought most states’ policies were similar to Victoria’s.

    On the discussion about reading – I’m not sure about everyone else, but I generally didn’t like reading in all my primary and secondary years. I think the reason might have been that in primary and secondary school all they do is push fiction novels on you, and if you don’t like it, then tough. I can safely say that in all my years of schooling I have never read a fiction novel other than the ones required by the school. I just never saw the point in spending time reading fictional stories and it seemed that the schools/teachers did not even entertain the slight possibility that children might prefer non-fiction instead. It was really only until I commenced my university studies in law and economics that I started reading a lot more and I don’t just mean the required readings for the subjects either (there is a ridiculous amount of reading required for law subjects compared to other disciplines for some reason).

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  12. Brendan – how did you avoid history, geography, biology etc.

    Did you read outside of school ? – for my generation it was Biggles novels, Mad Magazine and of course the forbidden Playboy (I was reading the articles). You could have found something to interest you at your local public library ??

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  13. We didn’t even have history, geography or biology as distinct subjects when I was in school. I recall there being SOSE (Studies of Society and the Environment) and General Science from grade 1 til grade 10 inclusive. It was probably around year 10 that i started to gain an interest in economics and finance, and so I started borrowing those kinds of books from the local public library, but the range and selection was very very limited. I remember doing a book review in year 10 in front of the class, it was a non-fiction book on finance. You would think that the typical year 10 student would be bored out of their mind listening to me talk about the wonders of finance, but they looked genuinely interested and one of them even came up to me after class to ask me about the book and where i borrowed it from so they could read it themselves. I should add that the English teacher was very reluctant in letting me do a book review with a non-fiction book and everyone else did their book review on a fiction novel. I still keep a healthy aversion to fiction novels to this day. I just don’t see the point with fiction – there are simply better things to do with one’s time.

    Furthermore, I think some people are hoping that children will just read for the sake of it. Personally, that’s not how i work – I must always have a purpose or goal behind everything that I read. Some kids might actually read for the sake of reading, but for those who were like me, who are disinterested in reading in general, and simply do not see the point in reading, the key for parents and teachers is to find out what the child is interested in (whether it be cars, science, whatever) and to encourage them to read about those subjects.

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  14. “I just don’t see the point with fiction – there are simply better things to do with one’s time. ”

    Brendan – So you never watch soap operas, dramas or comedies?

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  15. Oh no I love comedy, I just don’t like fiction books. I never made that connection between books and entertainment. It was always books => learn something.

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  16. Brendan – There is a huge market in books for enternainment, even if you don’t go for literary fiction. Sure, you have to imagine the visuals yourself, but many people enjoy that.

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  17. Brendan, I can certainly relate to you re the early interest in economics although I did read a few novels as well. Please indulge me as I digress… I remember reading a chapter entitled “What’s economics?” in a ’70s edition of the Childcraft “How and Why” Encycopedia. The chapter started with the story of a boy on a tree trying to work out whether it was worth going further out on the limb to pick an apple. Man – I was hooked! It was so much more interesting that growing copper sulphate crystals or trying to finish “The Hobbit”. Then followed the famous deflowering episode of Family Ties, which stimulated an interest in Milton Friedman. But I had to sit through several boring years of geography and “commerce” before economics was taught as a subject in year 11. If I could, I would replace geography with economics after about year 8 – what is there to know when you have learnt the names of different types of rock?
    As for novels, I remember most set class texts as being quite dull. It was only when I got into non-English speaking authors that I really got into reading. The classics (and modern Australian and British fiction) are generally too austere for my taste. I challenge you to pick up a Murakami and put it down before you finish.

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  18. “If I could, I would replace geography with economics after about year 8 – what is there to know when you have learnt the names of different types of rock?”
    Well, I could tell you how an ox-bow lake is formed.
    .
    Geography and economics were the two easiest and most tedious subjects I had at school. Both of them could be interesting – I’ve just bought my nephew (12 and not bookish) a big jigsaw of the world, together with an atlas which has not just maps but lots of good colour pictures for each country. Surely there are ‘educational’ computer games where kids have to read clues in order to get to the end of an adventure, or something like it. A good topic for older kids would be, where would you plan for a new city in Western Australia – they’d soon start thinking of geographical factors!

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  19. Russell, I’m glad I managed to fire up someone to defend Geography! But really, ox-bow lakes (c’mon, billabongs!) are grade 5-6 material. The same goes for countries and capital cities. Economics provides a useful framework for thinking about the world whereas Geography (as taught at school) is just rote learning.

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  20. Perhaps it would be easier to teach kids to read and write well if they were allowed more choice in what books they read at school. But in the end, I expect it is not the books you have to read at school that really make the difference (I can’t remember really being blown away by any of the ones I had to study), but whether you grow up reading for pleasure (whatever kind of book you prefer). My daughter can probably count on one hand the number of friends she has who also read for pleasure.

    I liked Brendan’s anecdote about his book review. My daughter did one for school on the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and the one comment her teacher had was that her book review was too long – no comment on the substance since I expect he or she had not read the book. Daughter’s view was that since her book was probably twice as long and way more sophisticated than any of the books her classmates had probably read, she was probably entitled to spend a few more words reviewing it.

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  21. thanks Andrew (just to divert the topic backwards). A further note though: the PISA (a state by comparison of which is available at ACER) and ANR benchmark statistics are completely contradictory with respect to Victoria versus NSW outcomes. Victoria is consistently 5 points higher on pass rates than NSW in the benchmarks at year 7 level, and consistently lower (it is harder to tell by what, but they have fewer students getting to level 3+ and more not reaching level 1/2) for 15y/o students (year 10 I guess). Even comparing the same cohort (12y/o benchmark students in 2003, 15y/o PISA in 2005), the gap between the two states reverses itself over those three years.

    Any thoughts? Comparing students attaining the benchmark versus level 1/2 isn’t a great methodology, but it still seems strange that they’d be inconsistent like that.

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  22. Russ – It is hard to compare the two surveys, though I did notice that the fluctuating results in the Years 3, 5 and 7 tests. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about what these tests actually ask or how they relate to curriculum or teaching methods to offer meaningful theories.

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  23. Rajat, I would hardly say that geography under the NSW curriculum was rote learning. Maybe it was a country thing, but geography was one of the more interesting subjects I did in senior primary and junior high school. this could be because for a number of kids in my class, the state of the land and the state of their economic affairs were very closely linked. We did a lot on land degradation – erosion, dryland salinity, water quality, good land management practice, mine rehabilitation; as well as atmospheric issues – greenhouse and ozone.
    These are topics important to anyone following the current green debates, indeed I still come across people today who confuse the greenhouse and ozone issues (the latter which appears to be resolving itself).

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  24. PISA is an international test, yes, and so wouldn’t relate to state curricula?

    Comparing results in one test with results in another test may be an interesting process. My understanding is that it’s an art.

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  25. iamspam, interesting perspective, but I think it highlights that a lot of geography is about disseminating information rather than providing a framework for reasoning or problem-solving. I think kids do need to go through a stage of rote learning to ensure they have a basic level of factual information at their disposal and so I support teaching subjects like geography early on. It’s really a question of degree: I would think that by years 9 and 10, kids should know about things like erosion and the greenhouse effect and school should focus on improving their understanding of these phenomena (which we did in science) and getting them to think about the normative framework they should use to address them (which should include economics). Incidentally, it seems that three-quarters of the contents of Radio National’s Science Show is about environmental matters, and if it’s anything like that in years 8-10 school science, I don’t see the need for students to get a double helping via geography.

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  26. Victoria also has one of the highest private schooling rates in the country. People typically explain this by reference to norms, but at mischevious moments, I do wonder whether it might be a reaction to the public school system’s performance (though we’d like to be able to separate out the private school results to be sure of this).

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  27. All this talk of standards and literacy levels are worrying for those of us doing teaching degrees. What is even more alarming is the little amount of actual training in the importance of grammar, reading, writing etc. Forget about the low standard of student outcomes in secondary, what about raising the bar for incoming teachers. Having said that I completed an undergrad with the possibility of doing honours and looking down the barrel of a career in teaching, I feel confidant to teach. However, I feel the current system and culture of education contributes to the ‘blame’ cycle. Parent’s don’t and won’t parent, kids have more problems than you can poke a stick at and why bother with kids that don’t want to learn anyway. There are no easy answers. I think society as a whole needs to take a good hard look at how things are going for family’s and schools. To me it does not look good, nor is it getting any better.

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