“POOR WHITE TRASH”
Call me old fashioned, but educating the nation’s children is the job of schools, right?
Well, actually Mark Latham would call me old fashioned.
In the current Quarterly Essay, the former Labor leader (right) outlines his ideas for the education revolution we have to have, saying that families that adhere to the “leave it to the school” approach are heavily disadvantaged.
“In the conventional wisdom, schools are seen as places where children do most of their learning… Schools, at best, are a useful addition to the learning continuum. At worst, they are places where students muddle through, making only marginal gains in knowledge and life skills.”
Calling Australia an “education backwater” based on recent international standards data, Latham executes a top-down excoriation of the way children are educated in Australia, focusing on the comprehensive system.
Public schools, he says, have become a production line for internationally substandard results.
By Latham’s reckoning, the system is a chronically-underinvested disaster: teachers are shockingly underpaid, university entry requirements are lax, substandard teachers are allowed to hide in a “sheltered workshop environment” so that it is impossible to get rid of underperforming staff. He does have his extensive ideas for reform, and you can read more about them here, but parents are taking up the slack.
The question is: should they?
“Having been involved in and studied public education for many decades, I believe the current system is adding only minimal value to students’ capabilities. Most of the gains in individual learning capacity are fashioned in the home. Parents’ aspirations for their children are a stronger determinant of student achievement than the institution of schooling itself.”
Parents’ aspirations for their children are a stronger determinant of student achievement than the institution of schooling itself.
Right now you might be wondering if you have to reassess your aspirations for your children.
Think back on your own childhood – what aspirations did your parents have for you? Were they low, unbearably high, or completely non-existent?
And at what point do parental aspirations switch from inspiration to stressful burden?
Couched within the concept of the Asian century (“If Australia has a future in the so-called Asian Century, it is certainly not in maths”), Latham’s message points to the Asian model of education, citing statistics about the success of students with a language background other than English (LBOTE).
For example within the NSW selective system, which is based on academic excellence, the schools’ LBOTE cohort is at 88.2 percent – “a near monopoly.”
Explaining the success, he writes: “Asian parents are highly devoted to the education of their children: assisting with homework, organising extra tuition, forever encouraging excellence. In selective entry, this is their winning advantage — a family-based contribution underpinning high-level achievement.
“By contrast, families which adopt a “leave it to the school” approach are heavily disadvantaged.
“No matter which Sydney primary school they attended, pupils from a non-Asian background are less likely to attend the best government high schools.”
Pointing to the immobility of kids from poorer families, he says: “Visit any suburban public-housing estate in Australia and this debilitating trend is obvious.
“The former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew’s prophecy about poor white trash in Australia has found a new resonance.”
Of course here we cue the memories of The Tiger Mother – Amy Chua, who wrote the controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she advocated, in a nutshell, very little fun and a hell of a lot of extra work for schoolchildren.
“After-school tuition is one of Australia’s fastest growing industries. High and middle-income families are seeking to compensate for the failings of classroom instruction by using professional services outside school. Students from low-income backgrounds are at a comparative disadvantage. Often this is a double jeopardy: parents who do not assist with homework and do not have the funds to pay for special tutoring.”
The government, says Latham, needs to introduce a means-tested tuition voucher scheme “ensuring that poor families are not left behind in the race for academic achievement.”
What do you think? Should parents face up to the mounting stresses of having to supplement their children’s education?
And an ever bigger question: should academic achievement be seen as a race, a means to an end, or is it an end in itself?
MORE ARTICLES BY LUCY CLARK
*Lucy (Editor of The Hoopla) is a journalist and editor with almost thirty years experience in newspapers and magazines in Sydney, London, and New York. She has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, Vogue Living, Australian Art Review, and Gourmet Traveller. Most recently the Books Editor of the Sunday Telegraph, she has also contributed to the non-fiction books, Australia Through Time, and What Women Want. You can follow her on Twitter: @lucykateclark.