Issues in Educational Research, 5(1), 1995, 1-9.
Curriculum makers or curriculum takers? The influence of tertiary selection on secondary schools
Edith Cowan University
This paper reports the findings of a study conducted in 1994-95 by and for the Western Australian Secondary Principals Association (WASPA). The study is grounded in the reported experiences, observations and reflections of high school principals in WA, not the theorising of armchair policy analysts. It documents the influence of tertiary selection on the Year 11-12 program in terms of what occurs in practice, on-site, in schools. Members of WASPA conceived the idea for the study, provided all the data and responded to successive drafts of the findings. A full account of the study is contained in a 97 page WASPA report (Chadbourne 1995).
Background and purpose of the study
For decades high schools in Western Australia (WA) have been heavily influenced by tertiary selection requirements. Complaints about the nature and extent of that influence have led to a variety of investigations and reforms over the past 25 years. For instance, the Dettman (1972), Beazley (1984), McGaw (1984), and Andrich (1989) reports have led to major changes in university entrance requirements and certification of students completing secondary schooling. The general trend of these changes has been to add more weight to the school-based assessment component of the tertiary entrance score.
Despite two decades of reform, state secondary school principals have become increasingly concerned about what they see to be the continued domination of schools by university selection requirements. Their concerns spring from frustrated attempts to provide a relevant and high quality education for all students in the face of significant challenges created by changes in: retention rates, the job market, national education agendas and the social fabric of the community. As a result of these concerns, the WA Secondary Principals Association (WASPA) commissioned a study to investigate the current influence of university entry requirements upon the capacity of schools to provide a relevant and high quality educational program for all Year 11-12 students. This article reports the main findings of the study.
The three phase design of the study
In the first phase of the study, a draft report was written based on the experiences, observations and reflections of 19 secondary principals, as reported in audio-taped interviews. These principals were selected by the WASPA professional development committee; they represented schools in high and low socio-economic areas, metropolitan and rural schools, and male and female principals. Five members of WASPA formed a panel of interviewers. Between them, they interviewed eleven other principals on a one-to-one basis, in December, 1994. As indicated below, three more principals had input later. Also, throughout the interviews the interviewers provided their own perspective on the matters under consideration. This made some of the data gathering sessions more like collegial discussions than conventional interviews. At some of the interviews, the principals were accompanied by a senior staff member responsible for post compulsory programs in their schools. The interviewers were provided with a set of broad questions drawn up by WASPA professional development committee and a researcher (Rod Chadbourne) commissioned by WASPA. These questions asked for information about the affect of tertiary entrance exams upon: the aims and culture of the school; the school curriculum; teaching and learning strategies; processes of assessment recording and reporting; and patterns of work organisation in schools. The principals were also asked to propose ways to reduce the detrimental influence of tertiary selection requirements. Each interview lasted about one hour. The interviews were transcribed and returned to the participants for validation and clearance.
Following the interviews, the researcher drafted a report from the transcripts using the constant comparative method of qualitative data analysis and inductive coding methods (Glasser and Strauss, 1977; Lincoln and Guba, 1985; Maycut and Morehouse, 1994). He circulated this draft for comment to the five interviewers and three further principals who had been selected for the initial round of interviews but were not available at the time. Their responses were incorporated in a revised draft which was then circulated to all members of WASPA for discussion and validation at their March Conference (1995).
Phase two took place before and after the March Conference. It involved collecting data in various ways to determine whether the points and proposals made in the draft report were representative of the experiences and views of the broader WASPA membership. All principals were given a copy of the draft report two weeks before the Conference and asked to annotate it and mark parts they agreed and disagreed with; they handed in their annotated reports on the second day of the Conference. On the first day of the Conference, 88 principals filled in a 96 item survey based on the contents of the draft report, and they workshopped the draft report in small groups. Phase three of the study entailed amending the draft report on the basis of information gained from the annotated copies, survey results and small group discussions during the March Conference. A final report was then sent to 10 principals selected by WASPA for validation of amendments to the draft report made as a result of data collected at the March Conference.
Findings of the study
The findings of the study, as presented in this section, represent the views of the 88 principals (93% of the total WASPA membership) who attended the 1995 March Conference. The substance of these findings was documented in the draft report, subjected to written annotation by the principals, discussed during small group sessions at the Conference and tested through the survey. The statements below, then, constitute the distillation of all this work.
Influence of tertiary selection
According to a majority of principals, the TEE exercises an unhelpful influence on the aims and culture of schools, the school curriculum, teaching and learning strategies, processes of assessment, recording and reporting, and patterns of work organisation in schools. This applies particularly to the Year 11-12 program because tertiary selection requirements contribute to a situation where:
School aims and culture
Teaching and learning strategies
Assessment, recording and reporting
Proposals to reduce the influence of tertiary selection
The principals put forward a variety of proposals to reduce what they perceive to be the detrimental influence of tertiary selection. These proposals can be grouped into two broad options: abolishing the TEE; and, making reforms within the system of external examinations.
Option One: Abolish the TEE:
Opinion is almost evenly divided among principals on whether to retain or abolish the TEE. The aggregated responses from eight survey items indicate that just over a third of principals want to the abolish the TEE, a third wish to retain it, and just under a third say they are undecided. During the initial round of interviews for compiling the draft report, a slight majority of principals advocated the abolition of the TEE and the remainder had reservations about that course of action. The annotated draft reports submitted by the principals contain a mixed response on whether or not to abandon the TEE. At the Conference, one discussion group was almost unanimously in favour of retaining the TEE while another group was almost unanimously in favour of abolishing it. Given the mixed nature of these results and the strength of concern about the detrimental influence of current tertiary selection processes on the Year 11-12 program, the study concludes that:
Option Two: Reforms Within the TEE:
Abolishing the TEE represents a form of radical restructuring. The second broad option involves attempting to reduce the detrimental influence of tertiary selection procedures by introducing reforms within the external examination system. Collectively, the principals in this study propose a wide range of such reforms, such as:
Table 1 summarises the results of survey items relating to the introduction of reforms within the external examination system (Option Two). It lists proposals made by principals in rank order according to the level of acceptance they attracted from the principals. It can be noted that very few of these proposals gain a two-thirds majority approval rating. This does not mean that over one third of principals reject a lot of the proposals. In many cases, principals are more undecided than opposed to them. In light of the level of uncertainty and the lack of clear endorsement for many of the proposals listed above, and given that steps need to be taken now to reduce the detrimental impact of the current tertiary selection process on schools, the study draws three conclusions.
Table 1: Summary of Survey Results Relating to Option Two
(n = 88) (A = agree, UN = undecided, D = disagree)
|1.||Extend vocational programs of study||88||11||1|
|2.||Improve student counselling services||84||13||3|
|3.||Develop a cross district curriculum||72||16||12|
|4.||Introduce semesterisation of Year 11||67||19||13|
|5.||Make more use of Distance Education||66||28||6|
|6.||Allow more self supervised study at home||61||23||16|
|7.||Delay the TEE by three weeks||60||16||24|
|8.||Set up middle schools and senior colleges||60||18||21|
|9.||Implement student outcome statements||57||31||12|
|10.||Make graduation more inclusive||56||34||10|
|11.||Introduce semesterisation in Year 12||55||28||16|
|12.||Establish a Year 13||55||28||17|
|13.||Schedule early and late classes||54||31||15|
|14.||Institute a three year upper school||53||24||22|
|15.||Give schools control over one Year 12 subject||47||41||12|
|16.||Abolish exams for Year 12 non-TEE subjects||34||23||43|
|17.||Unload some Upper School curriculum into L.S.||31||32||37|
|18.||Abolish Year 12 mid-year exams||24||25||51|
|19.||Establish separate TEE and non-TEE schools||11||16||73|
Firstly, a pluralistic, rather than monolithic, approach seems to be warranted. That is, rather than a mandatory set of reforms, proposals should be seen as constituting a menu for change. Different schools could by encouraged to select from the menu those proposals which fit the local context within which they operate. Some schools have already done this. Others may need to be encouraged to do so.
Secondly, some items on the menu may require system-wide clearance and support. Other items may be matters for local discretion and resourcing. For example, one Conference discussion group recommended that abolishing Year 12 mid year exams, abolishing exams for non-TEE subjects, and scheduling early and late classes should be school decisions.
Thirdly, there may be a case for striking off the menu some items which attract a particularly low level of acceptance from the principals, at least for the time being.
Mutually exclusive options or complementary steps?
Another implication that can be drawn from the study involves viewing Options One and Two, not as mutually exclusive courses of action, but as necessary and complementary steps to combat the detrimental influence of tertiary selection upon the Year 11-12 program. The following interrelated assumptions underpin this alternative:
A final conclusion reached in the study is that, if removing the TEE proves impossible, then a lot can be achieved by a full scale implementation of the reforms listed under Option Two. Before embarking on such an exercise, however, it would be necessary to check that each initiative is educationally sound, organisationally achievable, and ideologically acceptable. To be educationally sound, an initiative needs to be able to promote improved student learning outcomes. To be organisationally achievable, an initiative needs to be capable of surviving obstacles such as industrial sensitivities, lack of professional and cultural readiness, parental and political opposition, legal barriers, and logistical complexities. To be ideologically acceptable, an initiative needs to be consistent with EDWA's Statement of Ethos and Purpose.
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|Author: Rod Chadbourne is a senior lecturer in education at Edith Cowan University. Before taking up his first tertiary position he taught in secondary schools for eight years in Western Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada. His recent research work has focussed on managing change in schools, teacher evaluation, devolution. and the impact of industrial disputes upon the nature of teachers' work.
Please cite as: Chadbourne, R. (1995). Curriculum makers or curriculum takers? The influence of tertiary selection on secondary schools. Issues In Educational Research, 5(1), 1-9. http://www.iier.org.au/iier5/chadbourne.html
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