Curriculum reform in Australia

Originally posted on International Education News on December 4, 2014:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2010, Australia established its first national curriculum: the Australian Curriculum. The Australian Curriculum has defined content and achievement standards for the entire country. After a staged process of development, it is now being implemented. Recently, this curriculum was reviewed for the first time by the Australian federal government. The review raised a number of concerns that have led federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne to announce he will work with advisors to make sure it is serving the needs of Australian students. Pyne has stated, however, that any changes to be made as a result of the review won’t be implemented until at least 2016, due to the difficulty of earning the support of states and territories.

To learn more about this curriculum reform and the context of reform in Australia, I spoke with Dr. Glenn Savage of the University of Melbourne. Dr. Savage, with Kate O’Connor, recently published an article in the Journal of Education Policy titled “National agendas in global times: curriculum reforms in Australia and the USA since the 1980s.” From his perspective, there may be similar driving forces for reform in the US and Australia, but the reforms themselves have been quite different.

Savage and O’Connor (2014) wanted to understand how curriculum reform in Australia and the US were playing out, given that both countries have federal systems and histories of state and local control over education. Their research identified three key historical phases in the development of curriculum, which are shared by both nations. The first is the late 1980s, when both countries developed national education goals for the first time. They see this phase as a shift towards thinking in national terms, but also as a precursor to the standards movement of the 1990s and the push towards nationalizing aspects of the curriculum. The second was in the 1990s, when both countries attempted to create national curriculums or frameworks. In both countries those efforts failed when the realities of actually having to put the reforms into practice came along. For example, in both countries there was strong pushback against the idea of moving towards a national approach. The third phase was when each country rejuvenated their national reform efforts as a result of global economic and social pressures in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Influences included the global PISA testing program, which put the performance of each country in a global perspective and helped put standards-based national reforms back on the agenda.

While there have been common historical driving forces in both countries, Savage and O’Connor (2014) see current reforms as very distinct in scope and form. In the US, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are voluntary national standards that focus on the areas of literacy and numeracy, whereas in Australia the national curriculum is more extensive and discipline-based. Savage and O’Connor (2014) argue that the distinctive nature of reform in each country can be explained to a large extent by four key differences in the ‘national policy space’ of each nation: 1) contrasting system diversity and complexity; 2) different roles and expectations of federal governments; 3) different forms of state-to-state intergovernmental cooperation; and 4) the contrasting involvement of non-government policy actors. The authors argue that the distinctive features of each system mean that each country provides different “conditions of possibility for reform” (Savage & O’Connor, 2014, p. 18). Their key argument is that while global flows of policy ideas and practices are powerful, these influences manifest differently in different national contexts. As such, reforms must be thought of as both national and global.

Looking ahead, Savage identifies several issues that Australia will need to work through in relation to the curriculum.

First is the fall-out from the recent review of the curriculum. It is the first review of the curriculum and it has been heavily politicized. There are ideological arguments around it and it has raised questions about what a contemporary curriculum should look like. There is the possibility that the review could lead to the reshaping of certain elements of the Australian Curriculum.

Second is an ongoing debate about federalism and the role of state and tertiary governments in education. A Reform of the Federation White Paper, which was developed by a taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, was released in late October. The goal is to work out the appropriate division of responsibility between states and government. In contrast to the US, national intergovernmental organizations have long been essential to the Australian reform process and have the capability of bringing all of the states together with the federal government to consider a number of education-related issues.

Another issue Savage identified is that even though Australia now has a national curriculum, there are differences in how states interpret and enact the standards. Despite a common national framework, state-based inflections emerge. While this can be positive, in that it allows for tailoring to state-based needs and issues, it can also present problems of consistency, which is partly what the national curriculum set out to tackle in the first place. In one example, the state of Victoria has adopted a hybrid curriculum called “AusVELS” that takes some from the national Australian Curriculum, and some from the prior Victorian Essential Learning Standards.

Savage also said that since federation in 1901, there have been debates around the role of academic knowledge versus vocational knowledge and skills. From the early 1900s, for example, many Australian states tracked students into either high schools (academically-focused) or technical schools (vocationally-focused). In 1980s, most states eliminated tech schools and established a common, unified school system that aimed to provide all students with the opportunity to go to university. While this effort was intended to be a more inclusive model, it has also led to an increase in high school drop out rates. In order to address this, the pendulum has swung back and there are now proposals at Federal and State levels to return to a more vocational curriculum.

Finally, Savage said there are now debates about what a curriculum should look like for the future. Some argue that the curriculum should prioritize disciplinary knowledge, while others argue more for 21st century skills and competencies so that students are ready to participate in global workforce. There are huge tensions around this issue as many feel the skills focus is too short-sighted and too focused on what students should be able to do, rather than what they should know.

As Savage explained, the issues that Australia is grappling with at the moment are also educational issues that many countries across the globe are dealing with, illustrating the point that educational policies need to be recognized as simultaneously national and global in nature.

Deirdre Faughey

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