Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Lessons from Victoria

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Lessons from Victoria

Article excerpt

Drawing on the experience of Victoria, Australia, the authors show that the adoption of statewide standards does not have to mean the sacrifice of school-site autonomy.

AFTER A decade of invention and experimentation, two strategies for improving public education have emerged, each having a corps of prominent advocates, each moving in a different direction. One set of reformers is bent on decentralizing public education so that individual schools will be more responsive to community needs, local priorities, and parental preferences. For example, in Chicago locally elected school councils hire principals and establish curricula. In many states the Coalition of Essential Schools supports the efforts of individual schools to shape unique programs that respond to their students' needs. Calls for schools that are carefully tailored to serve local needs gamer the support of many people who are accustomed to local control in a diverse society.

By contrast, other reformers propose a system of state or national standards and assessments that would set expectations for all students and all schools. California is the first state to have implemented an extensive system of curriculum frameworks; Goals 2000 encourages other states to do so as well. The New Standards Project is developing sophisticated approaches to assessing students' work, collaborating with 19 states and six districts. Calls for national standards strike a chord among those worried about students' inadequate performance and wary of the low standards that might be overlooked in the zeal for local variation.

Practitioners and policy analysts have noted the seeming contradictions in these two approaches. Competing strategies that would centralize or decentralize the system appear destined to collide when the independent decisions of local schools confront the uniform expectations of a system of state or national standards and assessments. In the U.S. we typically think of such issues in all-or-nothing ways. Either schools are free from outside control, or they are dominated by it. Either they define their own curriculum and standards, or they submit to the mandates of a bureaucracy or government. With such expectations in mind, those in district offices and government agencies tend to clutch and wield the little control they have while those in the schools defy those efforts or find ways to comply minimally while continuing to pursue their independent purposes. It is an either/or game played in a context of "us versus them."

Educators in other countries do not frame the options so starkly or regard centralization and decentralization as mutually exclusive. As Harold Howe II and Margaret Vickers described in their Education Week commentary on 14 July 1993, the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) illustrates an alternative worth considering. The balance of standards and diversity exemplified by the VCE is echoed by the more general compatibility of central curriculum guidance and school-site governance. Victoria, Australia, provides evidence that state standards and local variation not only can coexist, but also can be mutually reinforcing.

There are no school districts in Victoria, and since 1984 each school has been governed by an elected school council composed of parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. Since these local councils make many managerial and curricular decisions, Australian schools vary widely. At the same time, however, Victoria has adopted statewide both a set of curriculum frameworks for primary school through grade 10 and an innovative program of curriculum and assessment (known as the VCE) for grades 11 and 12. Because private schools receive public funding in Australia, all students in grades 11 and 12, whether they are enrolled in the exclusive Methodist Ladies College or in the working-class high school of Footscray-Yarraville, prepare for similar assessments.

Thus Victoria employs a combination of school-site autonomy and centralized direction that seems to work. …

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