Friday, January 12, 2007

Shockingly low level of literacy in West Australian students

About one in five students who completed Year 7 in Western Australia last year are functionally illiterate, failing to meet minimum national standards in reading, writing and spelling, and performing well below the national average. But two years ago when the same group of students were in Year 5, they recorded one of the nation's highest performances in literacy tests, with more than 90per cent reaching the minimum standard.

The 2006 results of the West Australian Literary and Numeracy Assessment released late last year show almost 84 per cent of Year 7 students met national reading standards while about 85 per cent met writing standards and 84 per cent met numeracy benchmarks. By comparison, 92 per cent of the same students in Year 5 met reading standards for that level of school, with 87 per cent meeting the Year 5 writing standard and the numeracy standard. Nationally, 91 per cent of Year7 students in 2004, the latest available figures, met the reading benchmark while among Year 5 students nationally, almost 89 per cent met the reading standard. When last year's group of West Australian Year 7 students were in Year 5 almost 94 per cent met the reading benchmark, a national report says.

The head of the federal Government's literacy review, Ken Rowe, said part of the problem had been the poor teaching of reading in previous years, with inadequate teacher training compounded by the whole language method, which relied on children recognising words rather than sounding them out. Dr Rowe, from the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the University of Western Australia's Bill Louden, who have just completed a literacy and numeracy review for the state Government, said a flattening of results was expected between Years 5 and 7, reflecting the onset of adolescence and the more demanding standards.

But national reports show some states report a rise in student performance, compared to when the same students were in Year 5. The national benchmarks adopted by all states and territories define the levels of literacy and numeracy a student needs to make sufficient progress at school. The reading standard for Year7 says students should be able to identify the main purpose and idea of a text and make connections between the ideas and information. The examples given include labelling a step in a flowchart, identifying the meaning of an unknown word and interpreting a simple simile such as "spaghetti ends dribbled from his mouth like wet mop ends".

The acting executive director of curriculum standards in the West Australia Education Department, Chris Cook, said the literacy and numeracy trends remained stable over time, indicating student performance had not significantly changed. "To achieve the Year 7 benchmark in reading, students are expected to apply sophisticated interpretation and comprehension skills to dense and complex texts that take into account the reading ability required in secondary school. This is significantly more demanding for students than the standard expected in Year 5," she said.

Professor Louden said the state's results had remained stable over the past few years. "My first hypothesis if there's a drop-off in the score is that the benchmark has changed or the items around the benchmark were a bit harder."


Unfortunate victims of fashion: If you can read this, don't thank outcomes-based education

One need not have a doctorate in education to understand that if one stops penalising students for spelling and grammar mistakes in English classes, and instead allows them to treat a promotional movie poster as a "text" equivalent to a book published between proper covers, academic standards will inevitably decline. Or to grasp that an overweening emphasis on largely disproven student-centred teaching methods such as constructivism might not be good for teaching students the fundamentals. Or to think there might be something wrong when teacher training colleges spend just 10 per cent of their time teaching how to teach. Yet in falling for precisely these fallacies, the educational establishment of Western Australia - and indeed state governments across the country - have allowed young people to make it to Year 7 and beyond while remaining functionally illiterate.

The verdict is in on Western Australia's great experiment in throwing over musty old teaching methods in favour of the trendiness that is outcomes-based education, and the results are not pretty. According to figures from the state's Department of Education, just 80 per cent of Year 7 students meet the reading benchmarks, or base standards. The numbers also show this same cohort of students has gone backwards since being tested two years ago. And similarly poor results have been recorded in the field of numeracy.

While it is easy to snicker at the outrages of Western Australia's curriculum boffins, it must never be forgotten that ultimately lives and careers are at stake. The one in five Year 7 students found to be functionally illiterate will, if corrective measures are not taken quickly, help form a low-skilled underclass with few employment prospects - all due to an educational fad. Nor is this a problem solely confined to Western Australia. Urgent remedial reading programs are required to try to catch those students left behind by fads and trends. And education ministries across the country need to abandon the faddism that threatens to create a permanent underclass at a time when Australia is in urgent need of skilled workers.



No doubt he wants to ban coffee too. That's FULL of the evil caffeine and lots of people drink it with that ghastly, fattening MILK and SUGAR!

Governments have been urged to consider banning the sale of caffeinated soft drinks to children following Australian research showing caffeine only increases addictiveness. A Melbourne study, published in the most recent issue of international research journal Appetite found caffeine added to cola-based drinks did not enhance flavour, but did increase their addictiveness, adding to childhood obesity problems. Study co-author, Deakin University's Russell Keast yesterday said his findings were "absolutely conclusive" that people could not detect the caffeine flavour added to cola-based drinks. But he said children might find themselves becoming addicted to the caffeine, without realising it. "It's a problem for children," he said. "We're talking about children, who don't have the cognitive ability to understand why they're getting more irritable, more moody."

Dr Keast said there was a "very strong cause and effect" between soft drink consumption and obesity, with previous research showing a person's chance of obesity rose 60 per cent with each extra can of soft drink they consumed. "Soft drinks have been linked to childhood obesity and caffeine has been linked to increased consumption," he said. "So I think overall that the picture is while caffeine adds no flavour activity to these soft drinks, it is potentially an issue the government perhaps should look at regulating, certainly in schools, to see if maybe caffeinated soft drinks and maybe soft drinks overall shouldn't be marketed to school children."

Dr Keast said banning the drinks' sale to children under the age of 18, in the same way alcohol was banned, could be one approach for governments to explore. "I think if that's a regulatory approach, that sort of thing should maybe be considered. I don't know what the best options are, how you would go about such things." Dr Keast last week emailed his report to federal Health Minister Tony Abbott and Victorian Health Minister Bronwyn Pike.

Mr Abbott last year slammed soft drinks as being "very, very harmful" for children except as an occasional treat, but stopped short of promising tougher laws.

Dr Keast said yesterday that research into the effects of caffeinated soft drinks would continue, with funding being sought to do similar studies in Thailand, where childhood obesity was also a growing problem. The six-month Melbourne study, conducted jointly with Lynnette Riddell, repeatedly tested 30 people aged in their 20s to see if they could detect the caffeine flavour in cola-based drinks.


Is Christianity the new socialism for Australia's new federal Leftist Leader Kevin Rudd ?

An interesting but rather confused comment by a former State Leftist leader below. He wisely does not tackle theology or specific policies so that leaves rather vague what he is driving at. He mainly shows how conservative Australia's mainstream Left has become

Kevin Rudd's unequivocal statement that he isn't and has never been a socialist seems to have raised little or no interest in Labor circles. Once upon a time, declarations of support for socialism were common among Labor leaders. It didn't mean they were committed to the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, but it did mean a rejection of the inequalities, inefficiencies and irrationalities of market capitalism and support for a strong public sector in a mixed and less commercialised economy.

The democratic Left defined itself by its historical and critical analysis of market capitalism, its support for the mixed economy and its embrace of the values associated with Enlightenment liberalism, most notably freedom and equality. Labor politicians supportive of this package of values, analysis and policy were quite happy to call themselves democratic socialists. In the context of the great battles of the 20th century, between capitalism and socialism and between democracy and tyranny, democratic socialists played a crucial role in winning the working class to democratic politics by offering hope for a better world than that which had created two world wars and the Depression.

By the turn of the century, the world had changed significantly, and with it the language and politics of the democratic Left. The downfall of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was not just a defeat of an authoritarian and statist version of socialism, it was a win for capitalism and the market as a system as well as a set of values. Market capitalism came to be viewed as a force for good with the new Centre-Left's claim to legitimacy being its greater ability to manage such a system in the era of globalisation. Belief in the market was seen not just as a way of allocating resources but as a tool for regenerating the public sector. Indeed, it was often Centre-Left governments that pushed liberal economic reform and market-based public sector reform the hardest.

Capitalism was successful for so many that talk of its inefficiency or irrationality meant little to the average voter. The prospect of self-advancement also neutralised the political impact of growing inequality in wealth. Indeed, the focus of policy proposals for equality shifted as the women's movement, campaigns for gay and lesbian rights and support for multiculturalism and indigenous claims gathered strength. In this context, Labor's talk of socialism was clearly out of place and inappropriate, even as a weapon of critique. What had been a faith in an alternative way of imagining human society, albeit applied in the democratic world of negotiation and compromise, became an ideology whose use-by date had long passed.

With the critical analysis of capitalism gone and the policy proposals associated with it discredited, all that was left from the past were the values of liberty and equality. What had been a means to an end (democratic politics) became an end in itself. A shift in self-description followed, with labels such as New Labour and the Third Way used in the battle against the traditional enemies on the Left and the Right.

There was a price to be paid for this embrace of managerialism. Some of the territory once occupied by the democratic Left was taken up by the populist Right and the green Left with their critical account of global capitalism and its implications for the people and the environment. However, although these developments complicated the task, Centre-Left parties were still able to mobilise election-winning majorities or at least sufficient votes to be the main players in coalition governments in many parts of the democratic world. This was particularly so when they embraced the social dimension of human existence and attached support for the community to their commitment to liberty and equality.

Consequently, it is not capitalism that Rudd attacks today but "market fundamentalism", and inasmuch as he seeks a defining principle for his politics, he turns to his Christian faith rather than socialism. This is a good illustration of the fact that religions are no longer wrapped up and disposed of solely as private concerns. Rather, they are accepted as topics for serious dialogue on all sides of the political spectrum. However, the question remains: can the social gospels replace socialism as the "light on the hill" for Labor politicians?

Inasmuch as I know anything about their content, they are truly radical in what they expect of an individual and what they dream of for society. Rudd is right to see Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an outstanding representative of this radical and worldly Christianity. In fact, many scholars go further and, while saying it is a mistake to link Christianity to a party political agenda, point to a socialist ethic as inherent within the Christian traditions of theory and practice.

Has Rudd finished up with a position that he disavowed as a starting point for his politics? Perhaps he has in mind the conclusion that theologian Karl Barth reached about the role of the church: "It may have to speak very conservatively today and very progressively or even very revolutionarily tomorrow, or vice versa. It cannot have a program because it has a living master whom it has to serve in the most varied circumstances and situations."

We might conclude then that Rudd has kept alive the Christian concept of hope but not tied it down to a democratic socialist analysis and reform agenda that was a product of 20th-century realities. Of course, hope has always had a battle on its hands in a world of less than perfect, some would say sinful, human beings. The potent mixture of social science and social activism that characterised 20th century democratic socialism showed the way. What Labor needs is not so much the language of socialism in either its secular or religious form but a crisp analysis of global capitalism, Australia's position, and what has to be done to meet the challenges of social dysfunction, global warming and international anarchy. As Nye Bevan put it in a speech to the British Labour Party in Blackpool in 1949: "The language of priorities is the religion of socialism."


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