Twin interviews on last night’s 7.30 Report were virtually a formal launch of this year’s feast of political entertainment here in Australia. First we had the Prime Minister, John Howard, eleven years into reshaping Australia to a form I generally deplore, and then we had Kevin Rudd, whose chances of imploding as Mark Latham did are, I hope, minimal, because while Kevin Rudd and Labor are not offering utopia they are at least offering relief from a Quadrant-led Australian psyche. Kevin Rudd had been launching Labor’s education policy, while John Howard had, among other activities, been shafting Amanda Vanstone.
Howard, however, did respond on education which promises to be a big issue in this election, behind the consequences of John Howard’s amazingly uncritical allegiance to the floundering George W Bush.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Given that you’ve tied yourself so closely to George W. Bush, and I guess global warming is one of those issues, you must be concerned by his increasing political isolation in his own country and that there’s every prospect that Iraq will still be a mess by election day in Australia, and that it seems to have become a very successful recruiting ground for terrorists?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, Kerry, just because I like George Bush – and I don’t apologise for my friendship with him at all – it doesn’t mean that I agree with him on every domestic issue. For example, his views and mine on gun control laws are diametrically opposed. [A far too obvious example of avoiding the question. — N.]
KERRY O’BRIEN: Pretty close on Iraq.
JOHN HOWARD: But I’m talking about domestic issues. That’s a foreign policy issue. As far as Iraq is concerned, I know our position is unpopular. When we decided to commit to the coalition operation, it was unpopular. I believe that it was the right thing to do. I think for us to pull out of Iraq now, which is effectively what Mr Rudd is advocating – he says if he became Prime Minister he would ring up the President and say “I’m pulling out”, well, of course the President would say, well, that’s your right, but it would have an impact on the alliance and, frankly, if we are able to pull out of Iraq, why can’t the British and the Americans, and I think that would deliver an enormous victory to the terrorists. But you ask me, is it popular – no, it’s not. Is it the right thing to stay with our most important ally? Yes, it is, and I intend to continue to do so. [Compare: Want a cheap and nasty debate? Visit the Senate… and the links there. — N.]
KERRY O’BRIEN: On economics again, Kevin Rudd today has identified education as crucially linked to the health of the economy. He says that your record on productivity is not good, in fact, that the rate of increase of productivity in Australia over your 10 years has been in decline comparative to what you inherited. Do you agree with Mr Rudd that education is a crucial factor underpinning Australia’s economic future, and how will you respond to his promise of a revolution in education at every level, both in money and in policies?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, Kerry, I certainly agree that education’s important to the economy. I don’t think Mr Rudd’s discovered that. It’s self evident, of course it is. An educated work force is a productive work force, there’s no doubt about that. Of course you need education. The most important thing we need in education, though, is a lift in standards at a primary and secondary level. I think we probably do need more investment in universities as well, although the vice-chancellors are saying that the number of places, the HECS funded places are now adequate, I noticed that, in the wake of the offers made in the first round a few weeks ago. So there’s a bit of a debate about where that additional investment might go. But in the end, though, investment, in an area like education, is not the only criterion. America invests something like 14% in health care, way ahead of what we invest, but nobody would argue the American health system is superior to Australia’s.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Against that, though, he cites, Mr Rudd cites as one instance of your lack of spending that spending on universities has actually gone down by 7% in your time, while for the rest of the OECD it’s gone up on average by 48%. Now if those figures – going on those figures, that would seem damning?
JOHN HOWARD: No, but Kerry, if you look at the international comparisons, the most recent group I looked at indicate that irrespective of what the spending may be, our comparative performance is very strong, and it’s the point I make. It’s not only money that matters in these areas. It’s important, I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s also the basic standards and I think lifting basic standards, which has been the revolution, if I can borrow somebody else’s word, that we have embraced over the past several years in relation to this – and we’ll continue to require of the States that they lift standards of literacy, in numeracy, the teaching of Australian history; all of those things which are relevant to the quality of the output of our system are just as important, some would even argue more important, than the dollars that are invested.
KERRY O’BRIEN: John Howard, thanks very much for talking with us. We look forward to more of these, through the year.
JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.
What Howard has done is steer the ship straight towards privatisation, squeezing the public education sector and over-rewarding the private sector. The talk of “raising standards” is a total chimera. I have argued this at length before, most notably in Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis, which I revised last month.
Looking at my Big Archive, I noticed a relevant item there: Literacy Benchmarks – Yr 7 benchmarks, originally a November 2005 entry on Blogspot.
There above you can read for yourself the so-called literacy benchmarks — itself a hideously illiterate phrase if you ask me — for Year 7, and you can go from there to look at the rest of them if you wish. Given what they set out to do, they are not a bad set of criteria. Now again, though, we have the Herald banging on about the odious Nelson and his obsession with teachers who “are more likely to teach Buffy The Vampire Slayer than Milton.”
We are told “about one in 10 students in year 5 and year 7 cannot meet reading benchmarks.” That is, about 10% cannot do the following:
Texts that students at the benchmark standard are able to read may have:
• new vocabulary, including subject-specific words (eg papyrus, mummification) and words that create images and atmosphere (eg grabbed, exotic)
• complex sentences that contain a lot of information (eg The rainforests are filled with colourful parrots and there are beautiful little mice with feathery long tails, which hop along the leafy forest floors)
• clear links between ideas and information within and between sentences (eg This weighing was an important test: a good heart would balance a feather, a bad heart, full of sin, would not. The spells for surviving this test were contained in the Book of the Dead)
• figurative language (eg Spaghetti ends dribbled from his mouth like wet mop ends).
At the benchmark standard, when students read and comprehend these texts, they can identify the main purpose and main idea of a text and make connections between ideas and information in a text. For example, they can:
• specify that the purpose of a text titled ‘The Causes of Acid Rain’ may be both to explain and to argue
• identify the sort of people who would be the most likely target for the information in an advertisement
• identify the moral in a fable
• make a timeline showing the main events in a novel
• identify some evidence used by a writer to support his/her argument
• identify the reasons for a character’s behaviour in a story
• interpret the meaning of an unknown word
• interpret a simple simile (eg Spaghetti ends dribbled from his mouth like wet mop ends.)
• label a step in a flowchart.
Why am I not surprised? Thirty-five years ago I taught students in Year 9 who could not, some of them, write their own names, and they were Australian or UK-born citizens of Dapto. Some of them also had IQs listed as TLA — “too low to assess”. It had nothing to do with whether or not their Kindie teachers had used whole language or phonics or some combination of both. Of course about one in ten can’t do that stuff, and no matter what hairy chests we beat it will always be so. Just as more than one in ten will be so far ABOVE these benchmarks you wouldn’t believe, and some in Year 7 will be reading and writing at levels above many of their teachers. By the way, I had read Milton, but it didn’t help at all in the GA class at Dapto; Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have been more useful, had it existed at the time.
As my old Aunt Beth, now over 90 and, I am sorry to report, not at all well after a recent fall, told Mr R and myself a few years back, the trouble nowadays is all that testing and benchmarking and all that political posturing, which is taking away from the real issue — teaching. She, by the way, as a Head of Infants in the seventies was one of the pioneer teachers of an earlier fetish — and not a bad one — called Breakthrough to Literacy, being there touted in the USA as the latest thing, but appearing in 1970 in the UK as an outcome of the early work of M A K Halliday.
Such nonsense is talked about literacy, especially by Dr Nelson [then the Donnelly-possessed Education Minister], who commissions reports that tell him precisely what he wants to hear. Then there is the whole other issue of where these bottom 10% of the benchmarks occur; is there in fact — as there must be — a whole raft of socioeconomic factors? Is the vital factor phonics or not-phonics? Either answer would be simplistic no doubt.
Very much related, I commend Life Matters: 23 January 2007 to listen to or download. There you will hear:
1. The Teacher That Inspired Me: Gideon Haigh’s Mr Keary
2. Accelerating Gifted Students
3. Masters in Pieces: The Canon and the English Curriculum
4. Nursery Rhymes
5. Mem Fox.
It is a brilliant episode of this excellent series. I commend Mem Fox’s website to you as well. A writer as well as a teacher, Mem Fox makes sense of the so-called “reading wars”, an area where the Howard government has exhibited its typically ideological and simplistic embracing of just one approach. In Life Matters, Mem Fox explains how the Howard government’s line on reading quite literally made her sick!