Thursday, 11 June 2015

Problems in NSW

Disturbing story from NSW

(From today’s Sydney Morning Herald)

Education means big money, from childcare to university and beyond. No longer are the joys of learning, exposure to new ideas and training of the brain to think critically the main drivers of maximising each child's inherent potential.

Too often today, education equals results. The financial stakes are high for parents of private andpublic school pupils; for students during and beyond school life; and for institutions which were once largely immune to market forces. Under such pressure, it is no surprise that a worrying, high-pressure culture has developed whereby some parents and children are tempted – or willing – to game the system to get the best results, with tacit acceptance from some schools and universities. It is no surprise, either, that plenty of people out there are prepared to meet the demand by supplying questionable services. And all this as high-intensity tutoring becomes the norm in some areas, to help students practise exam answers and hone test techniques.

The worry is how powerless authorities seem to be at changing this marks-at-all-costs culture, let alone stopping the sort of cheating the Herald has exposed over the past seven months, among them: the MyMaster uni paper and online tests scandal; the fake case studies by Sydney University medical students; and the pop-up services which write essays for HSC students.(Refer to the SMH education Facebook site for these stories)

Some critics say these are isolated incidents that could have been prevented by stronger policing. Perhaps. But the rorts have crept into the top educational institutions, and technology is giving rorters an advantage against anti-plagiarism programs. As education funding and standards fall, too, the global reputation of Australian school and uni graduates is suffering. Cheating just erodes that further.  Trying to fix the corrosive culture is just as important as post-facto punishment of offenders.But the causes are complex. The NSW school system embeds incentives for students to pass exams to obtain entry into no-fee, highly performing public school opportunity classes at primary level and selective schools for the secondary years. Fewer than one in three of the year 6 students who sit the NSW selectives test gain entry, into a selective school with many of the best teachers.

Other students go to public schools and poorer private ones which can struggle to get some pupils through the crowded curriculum. That in turn encourages some schools to try to focus more on marks to attract teachers, funding and better students. The consequences include teaching for NAPLAN tests – which are meant to be diagnostic – and a zeal for Higher School Certificate ranking success. With more students going to year 12, the competition is intense. A high Australian Tertiary Admission Rank becomes the focus because so many universities use this as the sole entry criterion. In addition, the HSC is structured to reward certain skills such as high-level maths and science and compulsory English, making it harder for those who struggle with the language and especially the regular essays used to help form a ranking for students.

The focus should be lifting all students to uni-level standards for English. Instead, many teachers fear take-home assessments can be outsourced and that the exams are marked on an inflexible rubric. This makes rote learning of essays an option for strugglers and top students alike. Universities, in the meantime, having suffered funding cuts, are rewarded for attracting more local students of lower skills and especially fee-paying foreign students. Legitimate tutoring companies are cashing in at every point in the schooling process, buoyed by parents who are encouraged to think that children in the top 10 per cent of their cohort are gifted and talented. The result is a system skewed towards those who can afford tutoring and away from those who don't have access. Parents and students also know that education delivers monetary rewards which can help pay back deferred debt for course fees.

The combined outcome is a tacit and sometimes open acceptance of anything that can give a student an edge. That only exacerbates a pressure-cooked schedule, especially for the HSC. While it is still 124 days to the first external written exam this year, it's less than 50 days to first oral language exam and first major project deadline. HSC trial exams start around the same time, with more practical and performance exams crammed into the following weeks. Such pressure does not necessarily produce better educated people. Rather, it can favour students who have are fortunate enough to know how to play the system and have the means to find external help - legitimate or nefarious - to maximise marks.Perhaps it has always been thus, just less public. Perhaps all this pressure will lift Australian education standards eventually.

But at what cost?


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