WHAT LIES BENEATH- What Price the Future of Education in Australia

WHAT LIES BENEATH- What Price the Future of Education in Australia
(C)Julie Boyd 2011

Where are we headed with our education system?

This is not a new question, indeed it is one I would hope that educators ask themselves every day. However with the advent of a national curriculum and discussion about merit pay for teachers in Australia, we need to be vigilant about the next moves of our policy makers.

The death of Hedley Beare last year was very sad for many. I have vivid memories of Hedley, and before him, Garth Boomer as brilliant educators and true visionaries in Australian education. As with politics though, visionaries with a comprehensive, altruistic and egalitarian view seem to be becoming rather thin on the ground these days, leaving a fertile area for other interests to intrude.

My most memorable encounter with Hedley was when I was a young, aspiring principal over three decades ago, at the old Institute of Educational Administration (whose leadership programs have never been equalled in my experience). During one session, he asked us to each document our vision of what we saw education as being thirty years hence. I recently found my old notes and was happy to see that many of the things I envisioned have come to pass – greater community interaction, inter-connected communities of learners from pre-school to university/TAFE/work, integration across school/business/community, appropriate adaptation to contemporary technologies, integration and alignment of curriculum, pedagogy, learning environments and assessment. The one key thing I did write down which has not eventuated, and I guess was more of a hope than a plan – was that education might become de-politicised, i.e. that bureaucracy would be genuinely flattened, and the tendency for politicians to use education as a political football would be stymied. I was hopeful that in my lifetime I would see a bipartisan acceptance of the fact that educational innovations do not fit comfortably with political election timeframes, or with 24 hour media cycles. Unfortunately the opposite has now happened and educators are more vulnerable than ever to politics – not just externally but within the system as well.

If teachers, principals and parents in Australia have not been watching events in American education, particularly over the past 12 months, then perhaps they should be, in view of our increasing ‘Americanisation’. In America, the debate over the future of public education, school and education reform has recently become a full-scale war between those with vested corporate interests concerned with their fiscal ‘bottom line’, and those concerned for the future of students. Respected educators such as Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier have taken to social media sites like twitter, to rally against the perceived undermining of the teaching profession. Corporate leaders and politicians are openly blaming teachers for poor student results, and punishing educators by taking an incredibly simplistic view in tying merit pay to student results. In some states, republican governors are slashing teacher pay, and removing any support staff they might have, in the interests of attempting to balance the state’s budgets. The word ‘education’ has dropped completely out of the education debate and it has simply become an argument in economics. Education systems have been hijacked by corporations and foundations who have more of an interest in turning schools into money-making enterprises, and teachers into fodder for repaying state and national debt rather than focusing on what students need to learn. There is a divide between education for profit and education for nation-building which is as clear as the divide between the extremes of the political spectrum, and just as aligned.

While one may argue ‘that’s in America and won’t happen here’ let’s keep a few things in mind:

1. ‘Teaparty’ style politics are alive and well in Australia. An extension of our adopted American culture is having attitudes and practices, as well as language, osmosing into our culture, aided and abetted by biased media commentary and flawed polling practices. The recent actions by the NSW government to adversely impact the salaries and conditions of public servants, including teachers, quickly became known on twitter as #NSWisconsin in recognition of US states doing the same.

2. Arne Duncan was seen by our current federal government as worthy of us emulating practices he had implemented in New York schools. Mr Duncan is currently being widely panned by educators across America for his association with corporate interests, and his impact on their practice. He is accused of having no experience in classrooms and being condescending at very least toward the teaching profession.

3. Schools which are being proclaimed ‘miracle schools’ in their apparent capacity to ‘turn student scores around are now being exposed as fraudulent.

4. Principals and Superintendents in some states of America are pleading for their schools to be reclassified as prisons as more resources are dedicated to prison inmates than to educating students.

5. Big corporates and foundations, including a very well-known computer software founder’s foundation are accused of actively undermining public education in an attempt to privatise education and generate profits. Education was described by one blogger as the ‘new defence bucket’ – i.e., rather than making money in war-mongering as has been past practice, education is the new frontier for shareholders. Rather than the “profit” from public education being seen in the form of educated, creative, civic-minded members of society, or in quick teachers successfully educating children to think for themselves, the race is now for the quick dollar, not true education.

So why are the Americans in this mess, and what do we need to do to ensure we don’t follow suit! A letter written to Mr Duncan in direct response to his ‘letter to teachers’ by a high school biology teacher, David Reber summarizes many of the concerns felt by teachers. He raises some salient arguments including the following:

In response to Duncan’s “In today’s economy, there is no acceptable dropout rate, and we rightly expect all children –to learn and succeed”, Reber asks “What other professions are held to impossible standards of perfection? Do we demand that police officers eliminate all crime, or that doctors cure all patients?

In response to “developing better assessments so [teachers] will have useful information to guide instruction…” he writes “Excuse me, but I am a skilled, experienced, and licensed professional. I don’t need an outsourced standardized test – marketed by people who haven’t set foot in my school – to tell me how my students are doing”.

By “…restore the status of the teaching profession by bringing more of “America’s top college students” to enter the profession” Reber asks “if by “top college students” you mean those with high GPA’s from prestigious, pricey schools How, exactly, will a 21-year-old, silver-spoon-fed ivy-league graduate relate to or establish any rapport with poverty stricken kids?”
“…recognize and reward great teaching” is suggested to be “stale code for “merit pay”; which is stale code for “bribe for test scores”; which comes down to “justification to pay most teachers less.” Lower teacher salaries, in turn, will free up money for standardized tests, new computer software, text book manufacturers, and other profitable pursuits”. The whole letter may be read at http://tinyurl.com/3sg9cvb

The so-called ‘Race to the Top’ in America is supposedly an attempt to improve America’s scores relative to OECD countries. The problem is this appears to be, quite literally, ‘at any cost’ and it is teachers who are paying the price. Australia is also caught in the same comparative race, though we are a fraction more subtle about it. E.g.the introduction of the Australian Qualifications Framework while purporting to increase the number of Australians with qualifications has definitely increased the number of people with pieces of paper, but the quality of those qualifications is, in some cases extremely dubious and led in 2010 to the investigation of a number of private ‘colleges’ which were, in fact, fronts for circumventing the immigration system.

The introduction of widespread standardised testing in Australia was warned against in the 1980s and 90s when the impact on Americas schools of these regimes became so obvious to those of us who were working there. Teachers ‘practicing students for the test 4 days per week and teaching one day,’ students being ‘encouraged’ to stay home on test days, selective entry, refusal of particular students by particular schools, and parents starting to outlay large amounts of money to private tutors were all indicative of the impact on education. Sound familiar? The impact on society of people who have gone through such regimes is also becoming clearer with increases in anti-social behaviour, decreases in empathic behaviour, and increased societal turmoil.

The Australian federal government’s attempts to nationalise the curriculum will hopefully succeed in areas where America simply cannot. We have only a handful of states and territories to consider compared to their massive systems, but given the vast amounts of money being poured into huge numbers of organisations that then require consultation it’s a wonder any decisions are made. But those who are working within the bureaucracy which has been established to achieve this end, comment – privately – about the number of non-teachers who are employed to make decisions on the work of teachers. Teachers comment – privately – that they are being stymied by progressively increasing workloads, and fear of offending their principal or other members of the bureaucracy who hold their career paths in their capacities, and others comment – privately that they are experiencing cronyism on a scale not previously experienced in decades of teaching.

If we are not to follow the American path, yet we also want to ‘race to the top’, surely we should be looking more closely at other, more appropriate systems of education. Marc Tucker in his report ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’( National Center on Education and the Economy, May 2011) explored the education systems of Canada (focusing on Ontario), China (focusing on Shanghai), Finland, Japan and Singapore, to ascertain the key factors in their ‘success’. Briefly, he pointed to the need to:

a. Benchmark the best – and pointed out, with seeming surprise, that The Hong Kong government actually hired an Australian who had done state-of-the-art work in several countries on curriculum, standards and assessment when they were looking for someone to reform their standards and assessment system.

b. Design for quality by achieving clarity and consensus at all levels of government, on the goals for education

c. Have a system of ‘gateways’ with some form of external national assessment at each one. The standards for the examinations at these gateways are typically set by the state in close collaboration with representatives of the industries (or appropriate others at each level)that will employ/accept the graduates to achieve effective alignment. Assessments given between gateways are not used for accountability purposes, as the basis of teachers’ compensation or to stream.

d. In these systems, regardless of which path a student decides to take in upper secondary education, they must all meet a common basic education standard aligned to a national or provincial curriculum before moving on to upper secondary school.

e. Standards are aligned with the curriculum, which is aligned with the instructional materials available to teachers. And the examinations are also aligned with the curriculum, as is the training that prospective teachers get in teacher training institutions.

f. National curriculum goes far beyond mathematics and the home language, covering, as well, the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and music, and, often morals or philosophy.

g. The national standards and curriculum typically give teachers considerable latitude with respect to the specific materials used, pedagogy and pace.

h. Teacher quality is defined as 1) a high level of general intelligence, 2) solid mastery of the subjects to be taught, and 3) demonstrated high aptitude for engaging students and helping them to understand what is being taught.

If we, in Australia are to focus on education system improvement rather than get caught in the morass of ‘education reform’ I suggest that some key questions we, as educators, need to ponder, remain the same now as they did when I first started teaching more than thirty years ago.

1. Does education lead society, does it follow society or does it simply reflect society?

2. If we are to be societal leaders, then what exactly is the purpose of education these days in the context of our response-ability to our Australian and global society?

3. Are we even having the right discussions and asking the right questions?

I am not suggesting that changes do not need to be made in our education system, indeed we do have some teachers, principals, schools and bureaucrats in need of a massive shakeup. However I am suggesting that we need to be very careful about the directions we are taking, as, so-called, educational reform today is not in everyone’s eyes about teacher effectiveness, not curricular approach or pedagogy; it’s not the number of kids in the classroom or the size of the school, or the learning needs of individual students and teachers. It’s about economics and status.

Instead of education reform perhaps the conversation needs to be about economic reform. Hazel Henderson back in 1990 pointed out that our modern culture is based on an economic system that is fundamentally flawed. It thrives on the exploitation of people and the planet, and worships the illusion of eternal material progress. Perhaps if we turn our attention to this issue and create a just economic system that preserves and protects the integrity of the living planet, and once we have the conversation in schools, communities, businesses and politics that we need to have, about our societal purpose, we will notice that there is much less need to have a conversation about education reform.

Perhaps then, the teachers at my local primary school will be able to walk past the sign that hangs on their gate stating ‘Only persons who are authorised or have a legitimate purpose for doing so may enter these premises’ with the confidence that they indeed do understand the purpose they serve, and so does everyone else! Perhaps then, Australia will realise that we once held the reputation for being the most student-centred educators in the world, and will stop looking overseas for answers.

HERE is a pdf list of some URL links via twitter to enable you to make up your own mind. Just click to read. tweets for ed reform