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Nelson takes a leaf out of Bush's education reform plan

By Andrew Leigh - posted Friday, 9 July 2004

A suite of school reforms released by a conservative government have prompted substantial debate among educators and parents. The mantra of the package is testing, accountability and choice.

Teacher unions are critical, while the Left seems to be split on whether to bury or praise the reforms.

The story of federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson's school reform package over the past six months? Yes, but also the tale of another controversial education reform package: President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002.
The two reforms are so uncannily similar that the Nelson proposals might be better described as NCLB II.


At the core of both packages is regular student testing.

NCLB mandates annual student testing of US children from years 3 to 8, while Mr Nelson has persuaded state and territory education ministers to agree to test all Australian children in years 3, 5 and 7.

Testing underlies accountability, and test score measures can be used to create smarter incentive structures for schools and teachers.

Accountability is another key aspect of NCLB and Mr Nelson's reforms – requiring that all parents be informed of how well their children and their child's school are performing.

Many US states publish detailed information on their websites about the academic performance and socio-economic composition of every school in the state, and NCLB will require this to become universal across the US.

In Australia, the changes are happening more slowly but, with a modicum of resistance, state and territory governments seem to have agreed that parents have a basic right to information about their children's schools.


Research by Harvard University's Caroline Hoxby has demonstrated clear benefits from greater accountability: those US states that gave parents detailed information about the performance of their schools experienced larger test score gains than those states that did not.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of both countries' plans is their emphasis on choice.

NCLB requires that students in underperforming schools be given free tutoring and assistance in transferring to another school in their neighbourhood.

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This article was first published in The Australian on 28 June 2004.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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