National Curriculum Inching Forward

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 21, 2009 7 min read
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Whether in the business center of Sydney and its suburbs to the east, in the mining and agricultural communities of the remote Kimberley region in the northwest, or elsewhere, most of Australia’s 3.3 million K-12 students share the customary features of schooling—from physical structures to academic schedules.

The content also has a common structure across the country, but there are often vast differences in what and how well students learn, depending on where they live.

Now, as parents and policymakers Down Under recognize that young Aussies will need to be competitive not only with their counterparts in the commonwealth’s six states and two territories, but also with students around the globe, officials have undertaken an ambitious plan to standardize the system to improve equity and raise the country’s standing on the world stage.

“In this globalized world, people are paying less attention to national comparisons than the international comparisons, and our international competitors aren’t standing still,” said Barry McGaw, a researcher at the University of Melbourne who was appointed to head the National Curriculum Board last year.

In a country where states have sovereignty over and funding responsibility for schools—much like in the United States—Australians have long embraced a hands-off attitude when it comes to the federal role in education. With each state and territory crafting its own education policies, curriculum, assessments, and graduation standards, however, that system is being blamed for regional disparities and achievement gaps, as well as adjustment problems for the estimated 80,000 students who move across state lines each year.

The country’s schools are educating a growing number of immigrants, and about a fourth of K-12 students are not native English speakers. Less populous parts of Australia have far fewer resources to devote to 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 states on international tests.

Jennifer Atty, left, and Helene Mwali were born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but now attend Keira Technology High. As in the United States, Australia’s schools educate a growing immigrant population.

The federal government in Oz is taking a similar approach to tackling the problem as one being debated in the United States: national guidelines for the content of core subjects.

The “education revolution,” as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s initiative is called, is intended to ensure that children have access to high-quality academic programs, whether in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, or the far reaches of Western Australia. A principal feature is development of a national curriculum, now under way, that will standardize what is taught in all public and private schools, beginning in 2011.

Previous efforts over the past three decades to define on a national level what all students should know and be able to do have met with fierce debate, and varying degrees of cooperation—just as such undertakings have in the United States. This time, though, there appears to be widespread support for the measure. State leaders are involved in devising the guidelines for mathematics, English/language arts, science, history, and other subjects.

‘Good Timing’

Little public discord has cropped up over the latest undertaking at nationalizing the curriculum in Australia. Still, the endeavor has had its challenges.


Total population: 20.8 million

Primary and secondary student population: 3.3 million

Public spending per pupil as % of GDP: 17.3 (primary), 15.4 (secondary)

Education governance: States and territories have authority over school governance, but all schools must give national tests in specified grades. A national curriculum and accountability system will be mandated beginning in 2011.

Sources: National data; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Concerns have been raised, for example, over what content and skills should be required, and whether the curriculum will be both rigorous and flexible enough. Debate has also arisen over how to hold schools accountable.

Some states have questioned whether national benchmarks would lower the bar for students already immersed in rigorous studies. Subject-area experts have suggested that draft outlines, particularly in English and history, have set unrealistic expectations.

Even so, few major obstacles appear to be in the way of completing the task, observers say. The Australian Education Union, which represents the nation’s public school teachers, has criticized the absence of teachers on the National Curriculum Board, but generally supports the initiative.

“This is quite different from the last time we attempted a national curriculum,” said Susan Mann, the executive director of the Curriculum Corp., a Melbourne-based independent education-support organization governed by the state and federal education ministers.

International Rankings

See where the United States and other countries, including Australia, Slovenia, and South Korea, rank on two prominent international mathematics and science exams, PISA and TIMSS. The two tests measure different skills for students in different grades and age groups.

Science Literacy, PISA
15-Year-Olds, 2006


Science, TIMSS
8th Grade, 2007


8th Grade, 2007


SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement

“This process has had good timing,” she said. “There’s been a really consultative process, ... and there is a sense that we need national improvement to ensure that every student has the same chance.”

That timing has paid off for Prime Minister Rudd, who beat out Liberal Party incumbent John Howard in 2007. Mr. Howard had his own plan for a national curriculum, but Mr. Rudd, with his Labor Party in charge in each state and territory, has been able to get unanimous cooperation.

International comparisons have also helped build momentum for a common curriculum, observers say.

Australia’s 15-year-olds performed among the best in the world on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, out of 57 participating countries. On that test, which gauges how well test-takers apply their math and science skills in out-of-school contexts, U.S. students scored lower than thier peers in most other developed countries.

On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, American 4th and 8th graders scored at the same level or slightly higher than their Australian counterparts on the tests, which are aligned with school curricula. But for both countries, a small proportion of students could demonstrate advanced skill in the subjects.

Attention to those results may be a factor in a growing dissatisfaction among Australian parents with the job schools are doing. The number who said they were satisfied declined between 2001 and 2007, according to a government survey. Nearly six in 10 said the quality and content of the curriculum needed improvement.

After more than a decade of debates over proposals for national academic guidelines, the federal and state education ministers agreed in the late 1990s to a statement of national goals for schooling. The initiative, however, did little to change Australian education, some observers say.

Over the past several years, steady progress has been made toward adopting national guidelines. Requirements for literacy and numeracy standards for primary and lower-secondary students kicked in, and national assessments in those areas were rolled out last year for all students in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9. And this past fall, the Australian Parliament passed legislation linking federal education funding to adoption of the national curriculum and testing program.

Preparing Teachers

With the drafting of the national guidelines proceeding after a long development and review process, Mr. McGaw of the University of Melbourne is optimistic that this latest push to define a common curriculum will succeed.

“We now have the prime minister and the [state] premiers driving the process, and there’s much stronger buy-in this time because it’s been such a collaborative process,” said Mr. McGaw, a former director of education for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the Program for International Student Assessment.

About This Series

This is the fourth and final installment of a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.

The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.

The second, published September 24, 2008, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning.

The third installment, published February 25, 2009, focused on charter quality and came a quarter-century after A Nation at Risk declared that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was eroding U.S. education.

Beyond setting the guidelines, though, implementing a national curriculum and assessment program within the allotted time may require a Herculean effort.

Educators and subject-matter specialists were recently recruited to adapt the outline approved by the National Curriculum Board into more detailed frameworks. Once the final documents are completed and approved—as is expected by July 2010—schools and teachers will have to get up to speed quickly. With a mandate to institute the changes in January 2011, at the start of the school year, an intensive professional-development effort is expected next year. There will also be a need to revise and craft instructional materials that match the requirements.

Despite their support for the initiative, educators say much still needs to be done that will require the input and participation of classroom teachers.

“Announcing a new curriculum does not improve educational outcomes,” said Angelo Gavrielatos, the federal president of the 175,000-member Australian Education Union, based in Victoria. Teachers, he said, should be given a leadership role in writing the curriculum documents.

The union has lobbied for flexibility in the documents to allow for teachers’ judgment and for testing just samples of students, rather than all students, to protect against test-driven instruction. Mr. Gavrielatos said his members also oppose any mandate for national dissemination of school report cards that could lead to comparisons or rankings of schools.

“The educational outcomes of students,” he said, “might be improved only with proper resources and properly supported implementation, ... which includes the thorough engagement of teachers.”

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as National Curriculum Inching Forward


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