Australia Grapples With National Content Standards

Political parties offer separate approaches to achieving uniformity.

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As the federal election season heats up in Australia, politicians are peddling dueling plans for improving the country’s education system. But both the current government, controlled by the conservative Liberal Party, and the opposition Labor Party agree on one thing: the need for a national framework for ensuring consistency in what students are taught.

More than two decades after the first attempt at national standards, Australian educators and officials are again debating the need for more uniform definitions of what students should know and be able to do across the country’s eight states and territories.

Like the push for national standards in the United States, the Australian debate pits the ideals of national consistency and equity against the authority of states over the content and administration of schooling. It has also revived dormant tensions over who is better suited to craft academic standards and assessments.

“The debate over national standards symbolizes the federal-and-state-relations issue, which is august because the constitution gave the control of education to states and territories,” said Susan Mann, the executive director of the Curriculum Corp., a Melbourne-based independent education support organization owned by the state and federal education ministers. “But in the 21st century, when education is so important to the economic development of the country, it is regarded as such a major national issue, yet it can’t be controlled on a national level.”

Those historical conflicts, however, are battling modern-day concerns about the equality of educational opportunity, the increasing mobility of citizens between states and territories, and the need for a world-class education system to ensure Australia’s global competitiveness.

“Where national standards used to be a very dirty word,” Ms. Mann added, “it’s certainly now something being discussed, and people are saying it’s a reality that we will have national standards.”

‘State Parochialism’

Momentum behind the latest movement accelerated last month when Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, who is challenging Prime Minister John Howard in the November elections, unveiled a plan.

Mr. Rudd has considerable support from state governments, all of which are currently run by the Labor Party.

Mr. Rudd’s proposal calls for K-12 national standards in English, mathematics, physics and chemistry, and Australian history. The guidelines would be developed by a national curriculum board with input from the states and territories, as well as representatives of Roman Catholic and independent schools, and would allow flexibility to adapt content according to state and local needs.

Julie Bishop, the federal education minister, has been more critical of the role states and territories have played in setting school standards and maintaining separate assessment bureaucracies. She is promising to set new mandates for curriculum and assessment, and to hinge federal aid on states’ compliance with them. Most education funding is provided by the central government.

“Education is a national priority, and it is too important to be left at the mercy of state parochialism and [teachers’] union self-interest,” Ms. Bishop said in an address last month. “In a country of 20 million people, why do we need to develop eight curricula in eight jurisdictions? And with an increasingly mobile workforce, why should students and teachers be disadvantaged when they move interstate from one education system into another?”

A national approach would promote greater equality in education, as well, experts argue. Less populous parts of Australia have far fewer resources to spend on devising high-quality curricula and tests than the more populous states. The Northern Territory, for example, has just 200,000 residents, and is among the lowest performing of states on international tests. The states with more resources, moreover, have greater proportions of students meeting benchmarks in math and science on international tests.

State leaders, however, are wary of detailed mandates on curriculum and assessment, particularly ones imposed by federal officials. The education ministers in New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria, the most populous states, have said they generally acknowledge the importance of having consistent and demanding content across the country, according to news reports. But they’ve warned that such an effort could undercut the rigorous frameworks that already guide instruction in their jurisdictions.

An Evolutionary Process

Considerable progress has already been made in standardizing schooling, education experts in Australia say. In the late 1980s, federal and state education ministers agreed to draft a common curriculum framework in several areas. By the late 1990s, that effort had evolved into a statement of national goals that provided guidance on curriculum content in the core areas.

The ministers again agreed in 2003 to take another stab at frameworks in core subjects.

Equity Counts

The less populous jurisdictions have fewer resources to spend on curriculum materials.

*Click image to see the full chart.

New literacy and numeracy standards for primary and lower-secondary students are now being implemented, and national assessments in those areas are set to be administered in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 beginning next year.

At the upper-secondary level, the content of core classes is similar, according to Geoff Masters, the chief executive officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research, a Victoria-based organization. Mr. Masters recently completed two government-funded studies of curriculum and assessment in grade 12 in each of the states and territories. He found that courses in chemistry and physics and some math areas are fairly consistent across the country. English and history content is significantly different, but the kinds of skills students are expected to master—such as grammar and punctuation, text analysis, and approaches to historical inquiry—are similar.

Little consistency exists, though, in grading schemes and high school graduation requirements.

“Even in a subject like chemistry, in which students across Australia are studying the same curriculum, there are seven different assessments of student mastery, and seven different grading scales,” Mr. Masters said. “We can’t say how a student in Victoria compares with a student in New South Wales in chemistry, even though they are studying the same thing.”

Standardizing math and science learning throughout the country is considered the easy part, Mr. Masters said.

Bringing uniformity to history curricula, in particular, is expected to be more difficult because of the commitment to localized content. History has also been the subject of recent national debate. Ms. Bishop, the federal education minister, has argued for a more traditional approach to teaching the nation’s past. Most states now embed the subject in thematic courses that include other social sciences.

Competitiveness Argument

While the ongoing projects to devise more common content at all grade levels nationwide continues, many observers say the growing debate is likely to push the issue along at a faster clip.

Mr. Rudd’s plan, for example, outlines a three-year implementation stage. Ms. Bishop said in a recent address that she will ask the state ministers to begin work on national benchmarks for students at their annual meeting next month.

“Twenty years ago, people were saying national standards would lead to mindless consistency and blind conformity,” said Alan Ruby, a member of the federal education ministry when national-standards efforts were launched in the 1980s. He is now a senior fellow in the graduate education program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “The forces of globalization make this global-competitiveness argument more pertinent and far-reaching than 20 years ago.”

But how the issue plays out, analysts say, hinges on the November elections.

“This is really about politics, … about constitutional versus financial power,” said Bill Louden, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of Western Australia and a member of the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy Committee. While he believes a national framework is inevitable, “I think it would take a lot of years to work through the collaboration that’s required,” he said. “A national curriculum has to be a creature of a particular set of political forces.”

Vol. 26, Issue 27, Page 10

Published in Print: March 14, 2007, as Australia Grapples With National Content Standards
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