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Are standards slipping?

By Ross Farrelly - posted Monday, 20 February 2006

Recent findings by Michael Shayer, Professor of Applied Psychology at King's College, University of London, which claim to show that 11- and 12-year-old children are "now on average between two and three years behind where they were fifteen years ago" in terms of cognitive and conceptual development, raises the vexed issue of standards in school education.

When someone claims that “standards are slipping” they might mean a great many things and often it is not easy to scrape away the surface rhetoric and gain an understanding of exactly what they are getting at. “Standards are slipping” may mean any or all of the following:

  • That cognitive ability (information processing ability including perception, conceptualisation and problem solving) is dropping amongst children of a given age;
  • The curriculum is dumbing down. That is to say, children of a given age in a given subject are being presented with facts, process and problems of a lower order than they were at some (usually unspecified) date in the past. It may also mean that they are expected to master less material in a given period of time;
  • A certain country is falling behind other countries in educational performance as measured by certain international standards such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests;
  • There is an increase of employer, university, parental or student dissatisfaction in the community. Employers complain that they cannot find enough employees with the requisite character traits such as honesty, diligence and perseverance to manage their businesses. Universities clam that they must teach material once mastered at school. Parents complain that schools are not meeting their children’s needs and students protest that some aspects of the curriculum are irrelevant, repetitious, outdated or biased. These are clearly more subjective assessments but nevertheless are frequently cited as an indication that the school system is failing; and
  • The final possibility for the meaning of “standards are slipping” is that the education system as a whole is getting worse. It’s tricky to unpack exactly what such a general statement would mean in practice but in an attempt to do so we could try to image an scale of one to ten with the worst possible school systems at one and the best possible at ten. Up at ten we would find a number of different results.
    It could be a system in which every child stays at school until the end of Year 12 and then graduates with 100 per cent in all the subjects of her choice, heads off to university and ends up in a highly paid, influential job. This scenario is clearly impossible to achieve.
    An alternative may be that, as Brendan Nelson put it, “every young Australian … should be able to find and achieve his or her own potential”. That is to say that every student learns as much as they possibly can. Again, impossible to achieve and impossible to measure. A third answer may be that everyone is satisfied with the school system. Again, it is impossible that any one education system will satisfy everyone.

So we see from this simple scrutiny that it’s virtually impossible to define what we mean by an excellent education system and strangely enough it’s equally hard to agree on what we mean by an utterly dismal education system.

We may say that a system in which no one learns anything would be as bad as it gets. But such a system would never come about as children are learning all the time, by copying those around them. They learn from the example of their peers and the adults they meet and, although it’s conceivable that they may learn very little academic material, they will formulate a view on what it means to be human and what life is all about just by mixing with others.

An alternative to this worst possible educational system would be one on which there is a complete absence of human flourishing. Where children become violent, take drugs, engage in promiscuous sex and commit suicide. Yes, that’s a pretty gloomy scenario and it’s surely universally agreed that we should do everything we can to avoid it. The hard part is specifying what to do to avoid the unfavourable outcome.

The lesson to be drawn from such an analysis is that no single educational system will ever satisfy the needs of all parents and that any pre-planned, centralised educational system is sure to reflect the values of those who draft it and ignore the values of many people it claims to serve. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to easily and simply measure the excellence or otherwise of an educational system. People are complex beings and education cuts right to the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to lead a good life. Such profound considerations cannot be measured by psychometric tests or plotted on graphs.

A far better approach is to allow market forces to shape the education system, not to impose any structure from the top down. A market-based educational system would identify schools whose standards are slipping, not by measurement and reporting but by falling enrolments and eventual extinction.

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About the Author

Ross Farrelly works for a statistical software company. His blog can be found at

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