xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Reaping the whirlwind

Monday, 5 November 2012

Reaping the whirlwind

I believe historians in twenty years time will review Julia Gillard's performance as Prime Minister in a favourable light. Despite leading a minority party in a hung parliament,  Julia Gillard's government has already established a remarkable legislative record. The mining tax, the carbon tax, renewable energy programmes, the dental scheme and the disability services scheme are just some of the seminal programmes that will impact positively on Australian society  for many years to come.

On the other hand, it is likely the Prime Minister Gillard's policies on education will ultimately be seen to be misguided and possibly even damaging to our society. Julia Gillard, was deeply impressed by the now largely discredited standardised testing regime of the New York  school system and, as a result, as Minister for Education, established NAPLAN and Myschool in 2009.

Since that time Australian schools have been in competition with each other to impress parents with their NAPLAN scores. In some schools it has even created competition between classes and their teachers as they strive to produce better NAPLAN scores.

At the same time, a most unfortunate consequence has seen school administrators exerting pressure on early childhood teachers to drop their informal “play way” methods and adopt much more formal instruction in literacy and numeracy. As a result, in some schools, Kindergarten and Pre Primary classes are quickly becoming the new Year One and Year Two classes. A whole generation of children of 4 and 5 year olds are losing their creative and imaginative childhood by being forced to “grow up’ too quickly.

In recent statements, Ms Gillard has said that Australia needs to lift its game in education. She identifies five Asian countries as models of what our Australian education system should be. Her federal government’s education policy is now heavily influenced by the results of the international education survey known as PISA, which has placed Finland and five Asian countries at the top of its premiership table.Unlike Australia, none of these countries has an indigenous population or a multi cultural mix that includes many families from non English speaking backgrounds.

But what exactly is PISA? It is the Programme for International Assessment which was created by the OECD. PISA, based in Paris, tests a random sample of 15 year olds in a number of countries to see how well equipped they are to face the big wide world of work. It tests subjects which are easily testable like mathematics, reading and science. PISA tested maths in 2003, science in 2006 and reading in 2009. This year some randomly selected students in 30 countries were tested in mathematics plus some optional computer based assessments in mathematics and reading.

The tests are not based on any particular national curriculum, but the bean counters in Paris say PISA provides a powerful tool to influence government policies. Nobody has bothered to explain why? Indeed, nobody has even bothered to ask why?

The Asian countries that Ms Gillard has identified generally espouse  system of standarised testing akin to NAPLAN. Indeed, in many of these Asian countries many children spend a great deal of their out of school time attending special study classes to help them achieve success in the standardised test. Parents pay thousands of dollars to have their children coached in this way.

Systems that devote considerable time to stanardised testing generally promote competition instead of cooperation and produce students who lack team building skills, creativity and resilience. Japan is one Asian country that has developed an education system based on standardised testing.We would do well to heed the words of TIME Magazines’s Michael Schuman, who in a recent article on Japan, (“Doing it their way”, TIME, October 22, 2012) quotes, William Saito, recently appointed to the Japanese Prime Minister’s Council on National Strategy and Policy. Mr Saito, a U.S. born self made, wealthy entrepreneur, is worried that the Japanese education system, heavily based on  testing, has stifled risk taking and entrepreneurship.He wants a society that encourages risk taking, teamwork, cooperation and creativity. He feels that these attributes  are necessary to stimulate Japan's economic development.

“The exam obsessed education system stifles independent thinking, while instilling a highly competitive atmosphere”, observes Schuman. He quotes Saito as saying that the Japanese test based education sysytem ,”created a society that can no longer work together...students are mentally programmed to hate each other.”

Australia is not at this sad stage...yet.

However, if the misleading power of PISA continues to tilt Australia towards the Asian way of education then we will certainly be sowing  the wind and reaping  the whirlwind. Ironically, Ms Gillard did not mention Finland, another of PISA’s educational leaders.

Finland does not start formal education until children are seven years old. It has no standardised testing whatsover, except for the national end of school exams, similar to Western Australian Certificate of Education exams at the end of Year 12. The only other tests Finnish children receive throughout their entire schooling are set by their teachers. Go figure.

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