How Do You Deliver A World-Class Curriculum?


As Julia Gillard urges parents to use the My School website to find out how schools perform in national testing, another element of the Rudd Government’s much vaunted education revolution is set to emerge. 

According to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) — the government body also responsible for My School — the first draft of a K-10 National Curriculum in the areas of English, Mathematics, History and Science will be available for public scrutiny from the end of February.

Whatever the content of the National Curriculum, you can expect to hear the usual range of popular reactions. They will be the same ones that panic parents into visiting the My Schools website with questions like: "How much will my child read?", "When will my child learn their times tables?" and the old, but reliable, favourite "Where do kids learn about Australian History?"

However, beneath these perennial concerns, some very important questions about the National Curriculum remain unanswered. Will all states and territories implement the proposed curriculum? What professional learning and resources will teachers be given to help implement the new curriculum? And which are the best teachers to deliver this world-class curriculum?

ACARA, so far, has been firm in its response that the curriculum being developed by them will be undertaken by all Australian K-10 students. This all sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? But in light of the fact that all states and territories still have their own education departments, each with their own curriculum and assessment bodies, the simple directive that "every Australian student will undertake a National Curriculum" becomes more complex.

Average mums and dads, the same ones who look up their child’s school on My School, understand the basic concept of a national curriculum: all students around the country will effectively be studying the same material. At this stage, however, none of the states or territories appear to have made a commitment that the National Curriculum will replace the existing curricula for English, Maths, History and Science.

To be fair, it may be difficult for them to make such a commitment since they have not yet seen a draft of the curriculum which they are expected to implement on a trial basis in less than 12 months.

And while most state and territory governments have agreed, in principle, to support a National Curriculum, it’s very unclear how far they will go to implement it. In Victoria, for example, a memorandum sent to all school principals stated that, "the curriculum will be submitted to Ministers for approval in the second half of 2010. The Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs will decide on an implementation timeline in 2010. It is expected that the Australian curriculum for the P–10 years will be available from 2011."

Although positive in its outlook for a national curriculum, this missive does have a provisional air about it — it is only "expected" that it will be rolled out in 2011. And, of course, the curriculum still has to be signed off officially by Ministers. Even less apparent is how the different sectors — government, Catholic and independent — will be required to implement it.

Such memoranda don’t outline the other contentious issues which exist between the states and territories such as assessment. Queensland, for example, does not currently have an external examination system for its senior students whereas the other states and territories do. It does not seem likely that this issue will be taken lightly by teachers, no matter what camp they’re in.

The Prime Minister, his Deputy and the leaders of ACARA, have all said that they want the curriculum under development to be world class. Ironically, though, ACARA has also made it clear that the provision of teacher professional learning and support for the new curriculum falls outside its remit.

Teacher trainers are also placed in a difficult position. They are meant to be preparing their students to teach in classrooms where a national curriculum will exist but without any firm indication that it will be adopted by states and territories.

Presumably, politicians, students and parents all hope that "world-class" teachers will deliver this "world-class" curriculum. If teachers, both experienced and those new to the profession, do not have access to adequate training, especially in the disciplines which are flagged for the national curriculum, it is unlikely that these world-class feats will be accomplished.

In a few weeks, though, when the draft of the curriculum is released, these implementation issues won’t fall under the scrutiny of the mass media or of mums and dads. Instead, fine-tooth combs will be used to see whether phonics are being used to teach reading, whether algebra is being taught, and to find out when students will learn the name of Australia’s first prime minister.

These are important questions — but they’re only relevant if thought has gone into how this "world-class" curriculum will be delivered in classrooms.

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