Letting schools off the hook? Exploring the role of Australian secondary schools in the COAG year 12 attainment agenda
Volume 28 Number 2, March 2013; Pages 268–286
In 2009 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) called for a significant rise in year 12 or equivalent attainment rates: from the then-current 83.5 per cent to 90 per cent by 2015. This attainment agenda formed part of the National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions. It was advanced in the context of rising youth unemployment and research indicating that early school leavers faced poor social and vocational prospects. The target figure placed significant pressure for reform of senior school curricula and certification systems, particularly in states and territories with low attainment rates. However, three core problems have reduced the effectiveness of the target as a driver for reform. Firstly, the measure of attainment was soon weakened. Initially, the 90 per cent target had referred to 19-year-olds; now it referred to the population of young people aged 20–24, making the target much easier to reach and 'directing the burden for meeting the targets to the post-compulsory education and training sector'. As a result, secondary schools were under 'significantly less pressure to innovate or reform'. The second problem relates to contradictory developments within the present secondary school system. On one hand, most states have created more diverse, flexible and inclusive pathways for the senior years. An 'increased vocationalisation' has seen rapid growth of VET pathways and new partnerships between schools and the business sector. On the other hand, the potential for these innovations to significantly improve year 12 retention or attainment rates has been reduced by the 'grammar school culture' dominating senior secondary schooling and certification. This culture impedes any move away from the traditional academic curriculum, marginalises vocational pathways and weakens the chance for 'structural relationships with employment'. Senior secondary schooling evolved from the relationship between elite universities and independent grammar schools. This model continues to be supported by universities, which compete for 'an elite scholastic intake'. Governments' capacity to address this problem is weakened by the high proportion of year 12 students based in autonomous non-government schools. The grammar school culture is reinforced by the move toward market-based governance of schools. In theory, the autonomy that this move encourages would be expected to promote diversity and innovation. In practice, evidence suggests that marketisation is 'amplifying and normalising the "brand value" associated with academic excellence' and reducing the status of vocational pathways. The third problem is that the COAG agenda is eroded by 'the issues of equivalency, quality and comparison'. Researchers have argued that the concept of 'equivalence' is problematic; if it is to be applied at all, they suggest that the vocational equivalent to year 12 should be Certificate III not the current Certificate II, as at present. Another serious issue is the quality assurance and regulation processes in the VET sector, which allow private providers to offer 'fast-track' courses of several days' duration as Certificate III courses. In any case, post-school outcomes are more strongly linked to students' pathways through school than to the credential ultimately acquired. Qualifications' usefulness also depends on students' demographic and geographic status. The need for more consistency and comparability of certificates, curriculum assessment and reporting was highlighted in a 2006 report on the possibility of an Australian Certificate of Education.
Subject HeadingsVET (Vocational Education and Training)
An 'intercultural understanding' view of the Asia priority: implications for the Australian Curriculum
Number 131, July 2013
As the Australian Curriculum continues to be developed and implemented, educators are exploring the place and role of the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities. One key issue is how the cross-curriculum priority Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia links to the general capability of Intercultural understanding. Intercultural understanding should be the key driver for the Asia priority in schools, for several reasons. While content knowledge about Asia is a starting point, the goal of intercultural understanding focuses attention on the 'understandings, skills, behaviours and dispositions' that are also required to develop Australians' thinking about the Asian region. Another reason is that intercultural understanding is likely to resonate with educators due to their familiarity with a closely related concept, multiculturalism. There are further reasons. As a general capability, intercultural understanding becomes a shared responsibility of all teachers; without this, the Asia priority is likely to be 'pigeonholed' as the domain of humanities, social sciences and languages. Also, the Asia priority is often perceived in terms of economic and political benefits to Australia, which is likely to gain less traction with educators than the vision of personal and social transformation embodied in 'intercultural understanding', connecting as it does with the higher purposes of education. There are various ways in which schools may cultivate intercultural understanding. Many schools simply integrate content from other cultures into different areas of the curriculum; this approach re-raises the problem of pigeonholing intercultural understanding into a few subject areas. A more rigorous approach is 'knowledge construction': a focus on how cultural background shapes our understanding of knowledge in all subject areas. Intercultural understanding may also be pursued as a means to reduce prejudice and as a means to achieve equity for students whose minority cultural backgrounds would otherwise leave them at a disadvantage. Finally, when schools commit to the development of an empowering school culture they are well placed to cultivate intercultural understanding. An empowering school culture focuses attention on how cultural background may be impacting on existing patterns of sports participation, academic achievement, student–teacher relations, and involvement in special-needs programs. A focus on intercultural understanding helps to move education on from the vague concept of Asia literacy. Teachers are 'spoilt for choice with the Australian Curriculum': it offers many entry points for intercultural understanding and 'deep, meaningful treatment of the Asia priority'.
Subject HeadingsCurriculum planning
Principles of practice in teacher education and performance standards
Volume 12 Number 3, June 2013; Pages 16–20
Teacher professional knowledge can be captured as 'principles of practice', or principled guides to action. Principles of practice are fully articulated versions of what are often called 'tips for teachers', for example, the 'tip' to break instruction down into manageable chunks. Examined thoroughly, as principles of practice, these tips have four aspects to them: a strategy, a function, a psychological theory, and an educational value. They have broad application, although they do need to be contextualised. For example, imposing consequences on a student after two warnings for a misdemeanour might be set aside if the student had already experienced consequences for a serious behavioural incident earlier that day. Adopting the idea of principles of practice has implications for teacher standards, and principles of practice relate closely to the 'features of practice' developed by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). While AITSL's features are descriptive of good practice, the principles are prescriptive. AITSL's overall approach 'has much to recommend it'; however, the author calls for teacher standards to be 'fleshed out…with relevant principles of practice'. Adopting the idea of principles of practice also has implications for teacher education, as a means to help overcome the notorious divide between theory and practice. In part, this divide is due to the fact that practice is partitioned off into periods of school placement, while university-based time is devoted to education theory; this should be revised, so that in-school placements 'take place at least half a day per week throughout the initial training course'. However, the theory-practice divide is also caused by the fact that theory is examined through units of a purely theoretical nature, such as philosophy or sociology. Instead, theory and practice could be united in units focused around principles of practice.
Beyond the scoreboard
November 2012; Pages 27–30
Traditionally, principals give early-career teachers feedback on their performance via formal, annual or semi-annual reviews. Performance is evaluated through the use of an elaborate rubric. Performance is norm-based, and categorised in terms such as 'mastery', 'proficient', or 'working toward'. The principal's evaluations are based on a limited number of classroom observations prior to the formal review. A far more promising approach is the 'coaching model', in which the school leader works with the teacher on 'specific concrete actions that will improve results', after the manner of sports coaches. The author describes the example of a school where the principal meets weekly with teachers. Using the coaching model, feedback, correction and improvement form a continuing cycle. The focus on concrete actions means that the teacher knows exactly what skill to work on and what to prioritise. Goals are very specific and always achievable. This level of clarity contrasts with the potential for confusion created by an elaborate rubric. The coaching model avoids problems associated with the traditional approach, such as evaluations based on unrepresentative teacher performance, or those involving aspects of teaching that cannot be adequately captured in a handful of observations. This coaching process does replace half-yearly summative evaluations, but gives them a new context. Because the principal's classroom observations are weekly they can be of short duration: 15 minutes instead of one hour. The principal may group several such teacher observations into one long block to improve time efficiency. The coaching role can also be distributed among other school leaders, such as heads of department or grade levels.
Subject HeadingsTeacher evaluation
Insights from a beginning teacher
Volume 57 Number 2, 2013; Pages 14–15
The author, a secondary science teacher, describes her dawning awareness of how lack of literacy skills impacts on her students at different year levels. She then offers suggestions as to how literacy levels can be improved in the science classroom. Literacy means having strategies in place to 'interpret, decode and extrapolate from a pattern in the text'. When students appear to be struggling, the 'Newman Process' may be used to identify the level of literacy at which they are having difficulty. The teacher asks the student to read out a question; to explain its meaning; to articulate what they will need to do to answer it, and explain the approach they will take; and to review what they have said to ensure it makes sense to them. Beyond that, the teacher should always call on students to justify their answers and articulate their thoughts deeply; use full sentences and correct spelling; teach them how to interpret a test, modelling their own thought processes as they mark a paper; make students give 'feedback on your feedback', to show what they have understood and develop their thinking skills; have students read their work aloud to the teacher; break down instruction into very basic steps; and have students repeat words and phrases back to the teacher, to encourage them to use these terms in future. Students need to be able to interpret 'everything from prac reports, textbook pages, to marking feedback'.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
'Covering content' and 'teaching thinking': the issue facing middle years teachers of discipline-based subjects
Volume 21 Number 1, February 2013; Pages 9–13
The scholarly disciplines arise from the need for a rigorous and systematic way to investigate the 'big questions of life' and establish reliable and credible answers to them. These disciplines, built on the fundamental human ability to think symbolically, extend beyond 'natural', 'common sense' ways of thinking. They simultaneously provide a way to accumulate content knowledge and teach rigorous ways of thinking about that content. However, the exponential growth of knowledge made possible by these disciplines generates an ever-greater amount of subject matter that may potentially be covered. This content cannot be added indefinitely to a curriculum. To avoid overburdening the processes of teaching and assessment, the nature of the curriculum needs to be reconsidered. This in turn raises the need for clarity about the relationship between subject content and ways of thinking about that content. Before the 1950s, it was assumed that subject knowledge about science, history etc automatically generated suitable ways of thinking about it. The advent of Bloom's Taxonomy in 1956 highlighted the distinction between disciplinary content and critical thinking skills, understood as either generic or as connected to a specific discipline. More recently, research provides strong support for the integration of disciplinary content and disciplinary thinking by setting students 'rich tasks' – complex problems to resolve, in realistic settings. Within this approach, learning is no longer conceived as moving knowledge from a book or an expert's mind into the mind of a student. Rather, learning is the process of collaborative construction and communication of meanings.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
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