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Poor kids; poor parents; poor future

By Phil Cullen - posted Friday, 16 July 2010

As Minister for Education you wanted to do something dramatic, gain more votes and revolve things in schools. Your business and banking friends, like most of us, had survived the bang, crash wallop system of schooling and in their less-cogent moments, reckoned that it would not do our kids any harm. You opined that there must be a system that made kids learn the basics like we all used to do. This notion of getting children to like learning and to like schooling and to develop a great love for learning had gone too far. It looked too laissez-faire.

You found one such system in down-town New York in October 2008 where an ex-lawyer, Joel Klein, like yourself, was running one. He knew how to force children to learn, he reckoned; and you bought it. He says that you had one great October day in his district and decided that his hard-data system (based on heavy measurement of the measureable bits of the curriculum and high-handed bureaucratic control) was better than the learnacy system (i.e. helping children to develop their natural skill and to learn as much as they can about everything). You ordered its introduction to Australia forthwith.

In late November the “wonderful” New Yorker, Joel Klein, visited Australia and told selected groups of Australians what it was all about ... the things that they would like to hear, anyhow. Over three days he spoke at a forum of educators (whatever that means), the media at the Press Club and at a dinner hosted by Union Bank of Switzerland for bankers. You later corralled the Principals. That was it. Task completed. Schoolies out there in the dark remained uninformed about the effects of the change to a hard-data system (as Klein calls it)]. They sure know now. Kleingate has crossed the Pacific from a place that does noticeably worse than we do in any international achievement tests.


Of course our Julia, brilliant politician that she is, knew that she could get away with it at the time. When Brendan Nelson had proposed a similar idea, no one took much notice. Hand-me-down totalitarianism was in the air; and it was easy to “eichmannise” state officials and school principals. The kids had no chance and certainly had no advocates. Their teachers in the classroom were placed in a subservient delivery mode - from the government warehouse to the test factory. When their Unions, presumed to have decided on professional grounds not to participate, she “stared down an avalanche of criticism and ... gave truculent teachers a hiding”. (Sydney Morning Herald.)

Schooling is very low on the agenda of public interest in Australia. Checking through the list of “education” items on the Forum or On Line Opinion will give us some idea. Look through major newspapers of the last 12 months to see how often feature writers discussed important schooling matters. Do you recall the public interest in the visit of the Finnish school official (September 2009); or the British Review of Primary Education (October 2009) - the most comprehensive review of schooling in world history; or the impact of Professor Diane Ravitch, ex-US Secretary of Education’s 180 degrees turnabout in Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (March, 2010)? Do you recall the headlines? No?

Such significant history-making issues were comprehensively ignored by the Australian media and there was certainly no public conversation about any one of them. It almost seemed as if discussion and conversation had been forbidden. Otherwise, there is toxic disinterest on a wide scale. Poor kids. Poor parents. Poor future.

A public discussion of a serious kind would have helped our rookie non-school-oriented Minister, at the time, even if it took a year or two, to try to determine what Australian parents and public expected of its school system. Nobody seems to know what to do with the first-base issues of:

  1. the best age to start formal schooling;
  2. the ages of compulsory schooling; and
  3. the number of years that ought to be spent in primary schooling.

Without a doubt, it’s a turbulent mess in Australia; and our States keep fiddling around even at this present time without addressing such important “borderless” items. Each state is different and even has different names for the first year at school ... kindergarten, preparatory, pre-primary, transition, reception. Quite crazy, isn’t it? Ever changed states? While such a state of affairs exists, it is obvious that Campbell’s Law is in operation: “The more any quantitative social measure is used for social decision-making the more subject it is to social pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to cover.”


Simon Crean, Chris Pyne, Sarah Hanson-Young ... hello. You have a problem. You should promise to stop the nonsense NOW and go back to the beginning. Do it properly this time ... no hit-or-miss Yankee ideas that somebody told you about. Choose mechanics to run the garage, not plumbers. Ask the public what they want. Ask the teachers how they should have learned the mechanics of their task at university. There is so much that needs to be done. It needs open, transparent, family-oriented methods of evaluating internal school effort with pupil, teacher, and parent all involved in a Stufflebeam way ... to improve, not just to prove. Share ideas about ways of doing this. Don’t waste all this money and time and effort just to prove that one school is better than another.

There are many thousands of teachers, their families and friends noting what you promise to do should you get into power at the next election. The child-oriented ones, who want their pupils to turn up anxious to learn and enjoy each piece of their learning experiences, will vote for the party that will ban the tests. They don’t want even one child vomiting before school because of the tests (The Courier-Mail, July 9, 2010). They want their pupils to achieve at much higher levels in all subjects and enjoy it, not beset with fear and sleeplessness as The Courier-Mail indicated.

Learning preceded testing by more than a million years. Klein believes that it started in 2002 when he was appointed Chancellor of a US school district. Julia thinks it started in Australia in 2008. Sorry guys. You got it wrong. You’ve got a lot to learn.

PM, you were tricked. The crazy tests have to stop forthwith! The only potential they have is to ruin our children’s learning and Australia’s future.

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About the Author

Phil Cullen is a teacher. His website is here: Primary Schooling.

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