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Unhappy anniversary

By Phil Cullen - posted Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Senate Inquiry into NAPLAN is due to produce its report this Friday 27 June. That makes it a neat 5 years since NAPLAN started on its willfully destructive path. It was on that fateful day, 27 June 2008, that Julia Gillard, then the Federal Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister, was visiting Washington with a representative of the Department of Education to attend the 16th annual Australian-American Leadership Dialogue (AALD), attending a Carnegie Corporation function where they met the redoubtable Joel Klein, then Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education.

He sold Julia a pup. He invited her to adopt his educational theories and to follow carefully the pedagogical strategies of his New York School District, where billionaire Mayor Bloomberg had given him carte blanche powers to run its large school system because he had been a successful lawyer. The essential element of his theoretical underpinnings was that fear is the greatest of human motivators and the more forcefully you use it on children, teachers and school administrators, the more successful the outcomes. Fear is the DNA of Australia’s NAPLAN. At the time, his SBT [Standardised Blanket Testing] system was already failing New York, where academic gains were proving meagre and creative enthusiasm for learning and scholastic achievement was being crushed.

“Parents were shut out. The annual budget nearly doubled, low-scoring students shuffled from school to school, discipline problems hidden, teachers demoralized, and principals scared of every twitch in the data, as incompetents ruled the administrative roost. What is there to celebrate?” Marc Epstein asks.


Never mind. Julia copied it, holus bolus. Klein’s self-congratulatory narrative and narrow-minded view of teachers has become legendary; and his spin machine was such that the rhetoric appealed to those who mattered: the greedy, the gullible and the media. His friend Rupert Murdoch bought it. There was money in it. Klein tried hard to believe it himself. His self-promoted fame spread, and Julia, following this ‘chance’ meeting at a Washington knees-up, became a devotee.

Klein’s style suited Rupert Murdoch, a master peddler of testing materials as a school administrator, down to the ground. Murdoch was already running a cutthroat business on the pretense of a ‘reform’ agenda that was worth billions of dollars through the publication of tests and associated materials, with the promise that online testing was soon to control everyone’s schooling. When Murdoch’s newspaper sales later began to sag, his testing companies were able to subsidise their recovery from the huge income from Standardised Blanket Testing. Our befuddled Julia was conned into believing that the testing industry, now feeding off the profits offered by the Joel Klein system of schooling, had something to do with learning in the classroom.

Joel Klein is now a Senior Executive at News Limited. Australia lives with his legacy.

How did this happen to us? Julia was so impressed by his spin that she invited him to Australia. She then joined a long line of Federal Education Ministers who could not tell a learning-based classroom from a flung sandwich…Kemp, Bishop, and Nelson amongst them. They all suffered from the same malady that infects the world every now and then. When peculiar memes spread around the globe as fast as torn jeans and tattoos, we teachers know that creative, purposeful learning suffers. There are some people who just love bashing schools about without even evidence of any substantial nature. Politicians are usually amongst the most critical and lead the assault. Do you vote for any such mischief-makers?

In early 2007, Julie Bishop, the Federal Education Minister, lamented declining education standards at the same time as a book called Dumbing Down by a Dr. Donnelly, the self-described “thinking man’s Andrew Bolt”, was launched. Donnelly had been chief of staff to Kevin Andrews. Fascinating how memes spread, isn’t it? This time, in Australia, a one-man black paper. Last time, some English academic malcontents’ ‘Black Papers’!  Julie Bishop followed the best whinging traditions of Messrs. Brendan Nelson and David Kemp. The tradition has been maintained and it looks like being maintained by Chris Pyne. He’s part of the redneck testucating brigade, hiding his cards ready for a ‘robust’ attack on schools. When will it stop? Our children’s cognitive development will have to maintain a stet position and suffer more, unless something is done real soon. Who is thinking of the kids?

Gillard was true to her leader of course, who upon his appointment as PM had become forthright about the need for accountability with regard to standards. His ‘revolution’ was based upon comparison of scores between schools and if children did not score well at one school, they could “...walk with their feet to a better performing school.” Whatever! Gillard knew what her friend and leader meant.


Back to Mr. Klein. Gillard’s invitation led to a weeklong trip Down Under, sponsored by the investment bank UBS. Klein spoke in Melbourne about “Enacting Transformational Change” and in Canberra “Report-Card Grading Systems”. If he had visited Brisbane or Perth he may have ended up in Moreton Bay or Fremantle Harbour, but The New York Times reported him as flying “flack free”. At the same time, his Melbourne talk was described as “rubbish” and Save Our Schools (SOS) reminded him that Australia knew where its problems were, without his suggesting schemes that were known to have failed. He told The New York Times that “...Australian education officials seemed ‘quite excited’ by the New York model, and he was hopeful the accountability movement would gain traction.” “It won’t be without noise,” he conceded, “I wish I knew a way to do transitional change without making a noisy process, but I just haven’t figured how to do that yet.”

He left that to Julia. She’s good at it.

That’s how Australia got lumbered with the Klein system.When Julia took over the Prime Ministership from Kevin, it was a done deal. She had decided. No reference to anyone who knows how classrooms work. Her Klein-based fear system, described as a joke by the normless and supported by the gormless, needs to become a ‘dead, buried and cremated’ monument to stupidity, if democracy in Australia is to be regained. NOW!

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About the Author

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

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