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A review of Why Our Schools are Failing. By Kevin Donnelly.

May 21, 2004

Duffy and Snellgrove, 2004.

Earlier this year the Howard Government came under attack for suggesting that many parents are concerned about the state of our schools. He said the reason more and more parents are sending their children to private and independent schools is because of political correctness and a loss of values in public schools. The Prime Minister suggested that our public schools might be short of values while long on political correctness.

Indeed, leftist bias, mediocrity, a downwards leveling, discipline problems, lowered academic standards, political correctness, and the push for values that many parents are uncomfortable with, have all led to a mass exodus from public education. The facts bear this out. Just over three decades ago around 20 per cent of children attended private schools. Today that figure is 30 per cent and rising.

Education unions claim this move is because public schools are under-resourced. But this is just not the case. Education expert Kevin Donnelly documents how a loss of values, a dumbing-down of the curriculum, and the promotion of leftist and politically correct causes are all contributing to parental dissatisfaction with public education.

The sorry state of Australian education makes for depressing reading, but it is important that parents know why our schools are failing us and what can be done to stop the rot. This volume does both tasks admirably. Lengthy chapters document the key shortcomings of our education system: outcomes-based education; refusal to uphold standards; the promotion of leftist agendas; the attack of postmodernism; unresponsive bureaucracies; ideological teacher unions; and emphasis on education as radical social change.

The secrecy surrounding public school performance is one shortcoming which Donnelly focuses on. It is vitally important that an objective measure is available to parents of how their students are performing, how teachers are performing, and how schools are performing. Yet this kind of basic knowledge is often hidden from parents.

For example, the Australian Education Union rejects any form of student assessment which is competitive, norm-referenced, based on set-year standards of achievement, or used to construct ranking of students or ability groups. Thus parents have no clear idea where their children stand in relation to others in the class or to any objective measurement standards.

But a view of education which is suspicious of competition and excellence, and instead treats the classroom as a means to socialistic leveling, ensures that any kind of hierarchy of outcomes will be seen as taboo. Every student, in other words, must be a winner. In many classrooms it is impossible for a student to fail, no matter how poorly he or she performs. After all, according to the progressives in our education system, we do not want to harm their self-esteem.

Teachers also are largely exempt from rigorous and objective performance measurements. And under-achieving schools are also pretty much covered up from public knowledge. Indeed, as Donnelly points out, teachers unions fiercely fight to prevent school performance information being made public. Such secrecy is not a feature of successful overseas school systems.

The problem of leftwing indoctrination and political correctness is also documented in this book. A number of radical causes are routinely pushed at all levels of public education. These include Marxist and socialist causes, feminism, the homosexual agenda, radical green activities, “peace” campaigns, and anti-capitalism polemics.

For example, the NSW Teachers’ Federation instructed its members to actively campaign against the war in Iraq, by attending peace rallies and writing to politicians, congratulating those opposed to the war.

History, English and other subjects are subject to the pressures of PC and deconstructionism, the belief that all knowledge is basically flawed because of chauvinism, racism and sexism. Thus classic literary works like Romeo and Juliet are attacked for sexism (it promotes heterosexual love) and traditional fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk are attacked for being gender-stereotypical (it presents boys as masculine and physically assertive).

As a result, queer studies, Marxist studies, feminist studies and so on are the norm in most public schools, while the values that characterise most Australians are rapidly being squeezed out. No wonder so many people are leaving the public school system.

Donnelly does not just document the shortcomings of our education system. He also highlights those characteristics which have proven to be effective and successful. These can be gleaned by looking overseas where excellence in education has been occurring, and best performance, as measured by international testing, is the norm. Countries such as Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, for example, provide models of excellence.

Some of these characteristics include: accountability, both of schools and of teachers, wherein good performance is monitored and rewarded; the adoption of a strong discipline-based approach to subjects; the regular testing and examination of students; and clearly defined educational standards.

An effective curriculum, for example, would be bench-marked against the world’s best equivalent documents. It would also be related to specific year levels, instead of covering groups of years. It would also recognise the central importance of core academic courses, including maths, sciences, history, and so on.

Moreover, there would be emphasis on phonics, on rote learning (remembering times tables, etc.) and a syllabus approach where an essential body of knowledge, skills and understanding are  taught.

The gap between what is the ideal, and where we now stand, is quite wide and at times may seem unable to be bridged. Yet this volume will help to challenge the reigning educational orthodoxy, and perhaps result in much needed change. To that end this is a valuable work indeed.

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