Labor and education: Gillard’s counter-revolution

The education revolution has been a neo-liberal one, argues Ernest Price
As the federal president of the Australian Education Union Angelo Gavrielatos agreed to call off the teachers’ proposed ban on literacy and numeracy testing (NAPLAN), Julia Gillard reiterated the government’s core education policy. She pledged that, “the ultimate winner [in the NAPLAN tussle] is the kids who are in schools today, because we keep improving Australian education with the national testing information.”
Gillard went on to say that, “the Australian Education Union has asked us to take things off MySchool. We won’t be doing that. We’re going to keep MySchool. Everything that is on MySchool now will stay. The Rudd government has consistently stated its intention to add to the MySchool website by including value-added data such as the improvement in student performance over time, the resources available to schools and other measures of school effectiveness.”
As the potential for some real change recedes, replaced by another Rudd government working group, teacher activists nationwide are asking exactly what has become of the Rudd government’s promised education revolution. Talk of root and branch change has been replaced by a focus on standardised testing and “school effectiveness”.
For many of Labor’s traditional supporters, the idea of an “education revolution” read as a bid to restore life to a public school system that had suffered at the hands of the Howard government. Immediately there were hopes that the Rudd government would increase spending on teacher training and wages, decrease class sizes and broaden the curriculum.
Fast-forward three years and Julia Gillard is seeking wholesale change in education—but the agenda is conservative rather than progressive. Gillard has bullied the education unions over school rankings. There has been a significant tussle over the content of the new National Curriculum. The Building for the Education Revolution program is in tatters. The promise of a laptop per teacher and a laptop per student still has not been realised.
On top of this, a majority of states have moved to implement performance pay for teachers, and funding for training has been diverted in into programs for converting “professionals” into teachers on two-year contracts. Private school funding remains at the astronomical levels that it reached under the Howard government.
In reality, the Rudd government’s education revolution has adopted and accelerated the Howard government’s neo-liberal education agenda. Gillard’s position on MySchool and NAPLAN can only be understood when we consider the government’s broader agenda for education.

MySchool, NAPLAN and curriculum
The single most significant development in the public debate over education has been over the government’s MySchool website. MySchool uses the data from the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests to compare schools. By its very nature the website is comparative—asking parents to compare their child’s school to national averages and like schools. But the socio-economic indexes used are inaccurate, leaving small public schools in remote communities compared to elite private schools in wealthy suburbs like Toorak.
However, there are much bigger problems with MySchool than just its socio-economic index. NAPLAN data is by definition narrow. It tests two basic skills. Placing a premium on this data, using it as a basis for assessing teacher performance and school funding, has meant some schools spend weeks teaching to the tests, at the expense of the curriculum and developing other skills such as critical thinking. This has also led to a booming industry developing commercial pre-tests. Schools also find innovative ways to exclude some “under-achieving” students from the tests in an effort to boost their school scores.
The focus of NAPLAN testing and much of the new curriculum is basic “employability” skills—literacy, numeracy and information and communication technology skills. This focus on the needs of industry has been at the heart of the Rudd government’s education policy since 2007.
Comparing schools encourages competition and is part of introducing a market in education. Once a school is pegged a low-achiever, parents tend to remove their children. Once school population decreases, so does funding—leaving many schools stuck in a vicious cycle. The flipside of this is that once schools reach a certain threshold in test achievement they fail to qualify for extra funding—meaning once again, less money for teachers and for professional development.
Alongside the narrowing of the curriculum is a push to find a scapegoat for low-level results in working class communities. Rather than looking at chronic underfunding, dilapidated infrastructure and ballooning class sizes, the logic of MySchool and the introduction of performance pay shifts the blame for government negligence onto individual teachers.
Teachers don’t need NAPLAN to know if their students are literate and numerate. The obsession with standardised data does not take into account the very real individual differences within classrooms and the need to take time and care to craft individual learning programs. It says that no matter what the disadvantage or differences, teachers should be able to turn student performance around.
Finally, the Rudd government has spearheaded the development of a new National Curriculum for Prep to Year Ten. Whilst there is not room to go into the developments in the curricula here, it is enough to say that the staged process of curriculum development (only Maths, English, History and Science will commence in 2011) necessarily narrows the range of subjects that schools will offer. The prescribed hours attached to these four “core” subjects leave little room for electives and “non-core” subjects.

Money, money, money
Of course no policy revolution is complete without a big financial splash. The Rudd government’s Building for the Education Revolution (BER) program was part of the federal stimulus package released in response to the global economic crisis. The $16 billion allocated to school buildings was seen as killing two birds with one big stone—providing jobs for construction workers and much needed school infrastructure.
The scheme has proven more than a headache for Gillard, with widespread corruption and waste reported in The Australian. Whilst the corruption and general profiteering by construction companies is sickening, the real issue with the BER is not the profiteering or even the building of non-essential infrastructure (such as the reports of surplus school gymnasiums). Problems in public education cannot be fixed by buildings or laptops whilst teacher numbers and pay levels remain the same and class sizes remain unmanageably large.
While BER money has built some permanent classrooms, one in seven schools are getting prefabricated demountables rather than “bricks and mortar” buildings. But, more classrooms are only going to make a significant impact when they have more teachers in them, teaching a meaningful curriculum to smaller classes. Unfortunately, this is not what Gillard has in mind.

The New York Model
Julia Gillard is on the record as seeking to emulate the work of Joel Klein, the Chancellor of the New York Department of Education. Klein has pushed privatisation, establishing Charter schools, while slashing teacher training and attacking education unions.
But it a curious time to be emulating a program from the United States, when their system is in crisis.
Australia actually outperformed the United States in nine out of ten education achievement categories tested on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in 2006. Indeed, the general trend for the US on the PISA tests over the last four data collection cycles has been down—and fast. The US has been overtaken by countries such as South Korea and Japan.
Klein’s model focuses on the professionalisation and privatisation of schools. His mission is simple—“We’re converting the role of the principal into a CEO role”. He was a crucial player in the Teach for America scheme, which has now been replicated in Australia. The scheme takes non-education professionals, gives them six weeks teacher training and puts them into public schools in disadvantaged communities.
The Teach for America and its Australian counterpart do not fit with the increased emphasis on teacher performance. Surely, the logic of such a position is to increase teacher training—not slash it. There are real and easy solutions to the problems with the education system. They all begin with consulting teachers, rather than undermining them.

Alternative vision
As long as the education unions held the line against the MySchool website and NAPLAN testing, there was a real sense that there could be a productive debate about the future of education. However, the fact that the Australian Education Union and the state-based teacher unions maintained that their only problem was with the “misuse” of NAPLAN data to create league tables, it became difficult to articulate an alternative vision of the education revolution.
Teachers know their students. They know the difficulties they face and what the next steps in their development should be. Gillard’s reforms take another step away from teacher control over the curriculum and the assessment tools they use. Unions need to have confidence that teachers can articulate a vision for the future of the education system.
This vision starts with valuing teachers and improving their working conditions. This means smaller classers, a broader and more engaging curriculum and a real education revolution.
The AEU and state-based unions need to campaign for these changes, and the hold the line against NAPLAN, and against Julia Gillard and her New York Model.
That could be the beginning of the education revolution that parents, teachers and students have been waiting for.

Further reading
Andrew Viller, The New York Model: A critical Briefing Paper
For a copy email the Activist Teachers Network (NSW) at atn-subscribe [at]


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