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'No kids left behind'?

By Xue Wang - posted Monday, 31 March 2014


The results of the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests have created much panic among those people who regard academic results as the most important or almost sole indicator of quality in school education. They claim that Australia's brightest students are being eclipsed internationally in maths, reading and science. ''We're being outperformed by a much larger number of countries now,'' according to Sue Thomson, director of educational monitoring and research at the Australian Council for Educational Research.

For such an undesirable result, the PISA partisans blame either the current Australian funding system or the educational system, or both. Their solutions are to increase funding to ensure education equity so that all students, regardless of their differences in intellectual ability and socio-economic background, have access to schools with high international standards as the ALP government's Gonski Report (2011) advocated, together with improving teacher quality. Sue Thomson says factors that seem to influence success in a high-performing country such as Singapore include ''teacher quality, picking up students with problems early on and giving more time for teachers to be mentoring other teachers''.

On the other side of the coin, Professor Scott Prasser, Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University, has pointed out the vagueness and weakness of these suggestions. What is quality of education? How do we measure it? In all the debates on quality of education, there has never been a clear definition of it. However, one thing is clear-that, when arguing about the quality of education, advocates tend to reference students' test scores. In their eyes, the high quality teachers and schools are those who can produce students with high academic results in tests such as NAPLAN(the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy)and PISA.

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Professor Prasser contends that the practice of NAPLAN had done more harm than benefit to students, teachers and schools. Students' self esteem has been threatened when their test performance leads to grade retention or failure to graduate; teachers' motivation for teaching has been distorted when their rewards come from only test scores, and school focus has been distracted when their reputation and future funding levels are based on test results. Excessive focus on NAPLAN encourages schools to discriminate against teachers who equip students with other competences and skills, such as wider knowledge, sports, dancing, leadership and creativity, and thus imprison students' minds.

There is no doubt that those educators and policy makers focused almost exclusively on test scores have failed to recognize the diverse talents of students and in effect many left out of the education system. Their self esteem and confidence - instrumental for them to thrive in later life - will be significantly damaged as a consequence.

While educational elites are fretting about the high quality of education and desperately searching for a way forward, many schools are making their best endeavour to protect kids from being hurt by these discriminatory policies. The McDonald College of Performing Arts in North Strathfield is one of a possibly quite small group of schools determined to stand on their own feet and act out their own philosophy. Of course, as in all schools, some aspects of this school need to be improved. The focus here is on what kind of education philosophy will help every child grow up with a sense of self-belief.

The McDonald College has been a rich breeding and training ground for students dedicated to performing arts since 1984. Alumni include: Sarah Murdoch, international model and TV presenter; Nikki Webster, the child star singer at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and songwriter; Robert Curran, principal artist at the Australian Ballet, and Joshua Qong Tart, actor in Home and Away, Underbelly and more. The ethos of the College is to educate performers to the highest level they are capable of whilst following their passion to be a performer. This allows their options beyond school to be many and varied.

Despite the pressure for improving test scores to (supposedly) earn a good reputation, the College Principal, Maxine Kohler, insists on providing an opportunity for every student to thrive according to their own strengths and interests. She once said the College does what is best for students. Students are seen as being the centre of the school's education program-and not only in education narrowly conceived.

At the beginning of each year, without any teacher or school staff involvement, students independently organize a prefects' concert as a part of school fund raising activity for kids in need. Every year all students present their best performances in drama, music, musical theater and dance on stage during the College high performance season. Each student experiences a moment of fame. The performances demonstrate the very diverse array of talents available across the entire student body. The annual Evening of Classical Ballet at the Opera House has never ceased to amaze audiences. Performers range from four years old to eighteen. The college's Premier State Ballet company produces the equivalent of one short professional ballet season every year (Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and others). Ballet dancers come from outside as well as inside the college. Apart from these memorable events, there are plenty of performance opportunities on the campus all year round.

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When some education elites complain that the academic performance of Australia's brightest 15-year-olds has continued its downward slide on the world stage, there is no shortage of outstanding achievements among young performers at the College.

Yannick Koffi, aged 14 and in Year 9 at McDonald College, is a multi-instrumentalist (principally guitar) and has performed on both domestic and international stages since age 8 when he appeared on Channel 7 as a Sunrise Busker and was invited to join the outstanding band SUPER KIDS in Japan, showcasing his talent on a TVshow, "Unbelievable!" In 2009 he performed alongside acclaimed musicians, including Caribbean superstar Jacob Desvarieux from the group Kassav, in Ivory Coast. Later, his musical maturity took him to the United States to share the stage with legendary reggae act, "Third World", at the Home Run Music Festival in Florida. In 2011, Yannick performed for 25 Presidents accompanied by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Ivory Coast. Early this year, he was again invited to perform in Japan.

In 2010, at age 10, Ryu Bautista choreographed his own jazz dance and came third at the Sydney Eisteddfod competition. He won championships at Sydney Eisteddfod in following years. On top of achieving "academic excellence" at McDonald College last year, Ryu won a ballet competition in Philadelphia early this year and has qualified for the world's largest ballet competition, the Youth America Grand Prix, in New York in April this year.

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About the Author

Dr Xue Wang is a mental health professional. She obtained her doctoral degree in politics from the University of Sydney.

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