Dud teachers and red herrings
The real story is that politicians are aligning against education's vested interests
I was at the conference yesterday where Australian federal education minister, Stuart Robert, made comments to the effect that independent schools do not tolerate dud teachers and, instead, these teachers end up in the public system. These comments have created a media frenzy — rare in the unsexy world of education reporting. And I cannot help thinking this was intentional and Robert was trolling the Twitter left in order to provoke a reaction and gain, in his calculations, some political advantage. What is the basis for such a belief? Robert talked about the abuse he receives via the Twitter #Auspol hashtag and how the people involved represent a tiny minority of the Australian public. He said he wanted to appeal to ‘quiet Australians’.
It’s worth noting that Robert’s comments were in response to a question from the host, Anthony Mackay, about how independent schools could respond to negative views expressed about them in parts of the media. The main thrust of Robert’s response — in which he made the instantly infamous ‘dud teachers’ comment — was to suggest independent schools should not worry about it — more than 75% of parents would choose to send their child to an independent school if they could and that’s what matters.
The most important point of all is that this particular bush fire, and the oxygen it is consuming, does not serve me and my agenda. It is rare for the interests of politicians seeking election and polemical five-AM bloggers to align and this is a good example of where they do not. I don’t want to be talking about this. I want to be talking about something else.
What else, exactly?
Well, we are forgetting the speech Robert gave before that question-and-answer session. In it, after some flannel that involved thanking everyone for everything and listing various amounts of money spent by the government on various things, he outlined some interesting policy positions. Robert has three areas of focus he inherited from his predecessor but that he seemed genuinely committed to — the curriculum, teacher quality and the learning environment.
On the curriculum, Robert spoke about the maths and history curriculum drafts and how they had again been sent back to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for review, stating that he simply will not approve them until he is satisfied. He spoke eloquently about the need for mastery of times-tables, an explicit identification of what students should be able to do without a calculator, and the fact that ACARA had overdone its focus on inquiry.
On history, Robert is concerned that the curriculum has neglected the role of Western Christian heritage in the development of Australia.
On teacher quality, the federal government’s main lever involves teacher education, which it funds. Robert wants trainee teachers to sit their literacy and numeracy assessments at the start of the course and not the end. The entirely reasonable aim is to prevent students spending years studying for a qualification they cannot then use because they do not meet the literacy and numeracy requirements. Perhaps more significantly, Robert wants to link federal funding to the content of teacher education courses — a similar idea to the UK’s core content framework. These are good ideas.
Finally, on the learning environment, Robert has recognised that Australian classrooms are among the most disrupted in the OECD and that classroom management is a major issue that Australian schools need to tackle. I agree and it would be good to form a plan for how to do this.
These initiatives are needed, according to Robert, in order to address the striking decline in Australia’s academic performance as measured by PISA. As a suite of assessments, PISA is poorly designed. However, it is one of the few international points of comparison we have and our precipitous decline can only be explained by students being worse at maths, science and reading than they were 15-20 years ago. As such, it is an alarm bell that is loud enough for politicians to hear, even if there is a small industry involved in explaining it away.
After Robert spoke, we heard from Tanya Plibersek, the Labor holder of the education portfolio who could take Robert’s job following an imminent federal election. Plibersek had not been present for Robert’s speech and the striking part about it was that she told almost the exact same story about PISA, and the need to reverse this decline, as Stuart Robert. As expected for a Labor education spokesperson, Plibersek spoke about the need for properly and fairly funded schools. However, whereas in the past, the argument may have stopped there, Plibersek went further. She did not have policy proposals that were as specific as Robert but she made some heartening suggestions.
In a move that would cause a few education academics to flush bright purple and scream, ‘positivist!’, Plibersek said that in education, “We need to use evidence like they do in medicine.” Yes. Yes, we do. Let’s do that. To illustrate the point, Plibersek referred to the amount of money New South Wales had spent on Reading Recovery when evaluations have show it to be of limited value.
Plibersek also wants principals to have greater powers to hire and fire because this is only fair if we are holding them responsible for results and because kids don’t have time to waste.
Both Robert and Plibersek talked about the need for ensuring students gain foundational academic skills and the societal costs of not doing so. Robert claimed that 50% of unemployed Australian struggle to read and write.
The most emotive difference between Plibersek and Robert was on the history curriculum. Plibersek talked of being able to be proud of those who ran up the hill at Gallipoli but of also recognising the injustice of aboriginal soldiers being barred from service organisations on their return. She suggested that we can love a child while recognising that he or she will make mistakes and sometimes do the wrong thing and that we can take a similar attitude to the nation.
I think this is more a difference of emphasis than substance. On this issue, both sides are talking past each other. Robert does not want to remove the history of injustices perpetuated against first Australians from the curriculum, he wants to ensure that Western history is present as well. Plibersek no more wants to erase the story of the ANZACs than Robert. In a perfect world, they would sit down together, look at what the history curriculum actually contains and see if they can reach a consensus. But in a perfect world there would be no base to throw some red meat to.
The real ideological divide is not between Robert and Plibersek, it is between Robert and Pilbersek, who are both concerned about falling standards and who both, in slightly different ways, want to address this by drawing on empirical evidence, and the mass of relativists who populate education faculties and bureaucracies, who do not recognise the problem as defined by Robert and Plibersek and who value performative pseudo-philosophical waffle over empirical evidence.