Thursday 30 March 2017

In my opinion: Are bonus points undermining education values?

There is no reason to believe that awarding bonus CAO points for Higher Leaving Certificate Mathematics will improve either the teaching of that subject or students' understanding of key mathematical principles and concepts.

It will, however, further consolidate in students' minds a clear hierarchy of subject importance, while elevating one form of knowledge and intelligence over others.

Given the predictive value of Mathematics performance, this proposal will further advantage academically able students, while greatly enhancing the profits of the grinds industry, whose most lucrative product is Maths tuition.

In her recent TUI Conference address, Minister Coughlan justified this proposal on the grounds that it would motivate our smart, calculating young people to bridge the Maths 'skills gap' while enhancing the international reputation of Irish education.

This knee-jerk reaction to what is understandably an issue of concern is predicated on a blatantly instrumentalist philosophy.

It reflects our penchant for piece-meal rather than holistic curriculum planning and our reactionary approach to education policymaking in response to calls from high-profile employers.

The proposal is underpinned by an uncritical allegiance to slogans such as 'growing the smart economy'.

While there has been no shortage of smartness here over the past decade, it is time to interrogate the meaning and its underlying values of the 'knowledge economy' given the moral bankruptcy that has contributed to our current national woes.

The Minister's strong support for the 'Project Maths' initiative makes her endorsement of bonus points all the more puzzling. Why not allow that initiative time to develop?

How might future researchers disentangle the relative impacts of each initiative if they are introduced simultaneously in a context where it will not be possible to evaluate the economic contribution of graduates of the new system for at least 10 years?

Or is there an expectation that the rhetoric of the very announcement will convince the international business community of a new reality?

It is significant that the official name of the education ministry has changed three times over the past 13 years -- from 'Department of Education' (Independence to 1997) to 'Department of Education and Science' to 'Department of Education and Skills'.

Like the Minister's arguments in favour of 'bonus points', this reflects the creeping advance of neo-liberal thinking, the harbinger of national testing and school league tables in other countries.

It also highlights the current imbalance between the perceived importance of the economic and social/holistic goals of education.

Let's recall however that when third-level, industry and professional interests pressurised the Task Force on the Physical Sciences to offer bonus points for Science subjects, the education community recognised the futility of such extrinsic incentives and dismissed that suggestion.

If the NCCA proposals for senior cycle reform, including the development of key skills across the whole curriculum, were given official backing, this would prove an effective and equitable investment in the promotion of Ireland internationally.

Irish Independent

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