“The 2016 results show reading scores have increased by 0.4 per cent since 2013, writing scores have declined by 0.2 per cent and numeracy scores have risen by 1.26 per cent. Over the same time period, federal school funding has increased by 23.7 per cent.” Federal Minister for Education, 2016
“…the Premier’s Priority is to increase the proportion of NSW students in the top two NAPLAN bands for reading and numeracy by 8% by 2019.” Bump It Up Strategy – Fact Sheet
There has been frenzied reform in Australian education over the last decade. The current era demands measurement and data, so much of the reform has failed as the numbers are not good. This has led to a new round of restructures, reports and realignments following the same market-based educational philosophy in order to reverse the trend and ensure the data improves. It is a political and economic imperative that the education sector records strong, steady growth and this success is demonstrated internationally.
Ministers, bureaucrats, educational leaders, teachers, political pundits, unionists and the occasional parent have tried to understand, from their own personal or professional point of view, what is really going on and why it is apparently failing. There are a variety of opinions spanning the political spectrum including concerns about privatisation, neoliberalism and the suitability of market reform in education through to concerns about poor teacher quality, the detrimental impact of technology or poor parenting.
Something is wrong, regardless of who you ask. What could it be?
As a kid, in the mid-1980s, I worked at KFC. It was a good job at that time for a young person who needed cash. All you had to do was learn the operational processes and carry them out to be a successful employee. It was clearly an effective strategy to standardise how teenagers, most working at their first job, completed the various simple, repetitive tasks that kept the fast food chain profitable.
I wish the training manuals were still in my possession in order to share with you here now. We were measured by all kinds of data showing productivity and stock variances, carefully recorded. Basically, it was important to have enough of every product to sell when the store was busy but not too much leftover when we closed. The system was easy to follow and just required due diligence.
There were tests to pass and ‘’mystery shoppers’’ who awarded points for “Quality, Service and Control” to youthful employees whom were rewarded with funds for social events if they achieved a series of perfect scores. This was motivating for most. It was simple and effective business management that made sense in the fast food industry last century.
In fact, it was such a successful model that obesity rates soared as fast food was consumed by families rather than traditional fare that was far healthier. The price was right and one did not even need get out of the car to buy the product. More and more chain restaurants, employing the same successful model for educating their young workers, opened and soon there were not many towns without employment opportunities for their teenage children…or thickening girths.
In many ways the KFC approach was a philosophic fore-runner of outcomes based models of education that were introduced into Australian schools just before the turn of the century. Of course, the number of training manuals and processes were considerably less for the fast food companies than for schools who had much more challenging tasks to perform than making a profit from selling fatty foods, sugar, MSG and salt.
An Australian teacher has a vast number of syllabus and policy documents to implement in the course of the hour, day, week and year. Legislation compels the grading of all students from A-E and the release of semester reports. The Higher School Certificate and other exit credentials await all those who enter the system – often at 4 years of age – as a rite of passage that increasingly doesn’t mean much for some other than signifying, on completion of the last examination, the date one is released from the education system now that the leaving age has been raised to 17.
The big issue for policy-makers, how do we measure what the syllabuses are trying to achieve was solved quite easily by having students sit for standardised literacy and numeracy tests. The challenge of not having a national curriculum was eventually overcome and more and more ducks appeared to be in a row. Data could be collected, crunched and used to measure the effectiveness of the syllabus, or rather, how it was being taught.
The tests had the added benefit of providing feedback for students, parents and teachers about where their children needed to improve. It did take a very long-time to get that information back as the task of marking was laborious and the children had moved on but nevertheless schools, systems and states could be measured and this data made public via a website.
Improvements should have followed now that such a successful business model for measuring outcomes was in place. The teachers thought it a flawed strategy but were not asked and their unions were compliant citing fear of fines for breaking new industrial laws. Parents trusted the system to do what was right for children but some with 8 year olds doing the tests for a week felt more and more anxious about the tears flowing each May. “Bump-it-up” strategies gave students the opportunity to be tested more often so schools could prove they were improving. Weighing the pig did not, however, appear to be fattening it much.
The philosophy of the market was now firmly entrenched. Leading educational researchers performed meta-analyses of hundreds of research papers to find out what worked or distracted teachers from the main game of improving outcomes. Oddly enough, spending more money on reducing class-sizes or investing in infrastructure were on the list of what didn’t really make a difference. No-one seemed to comment on the fact that not for profit organisations were no longer in charge of testing and that large multinational education companies with dubious reputations now had the contracts.
House prices soared in suburbs where the test data was good as parents keenly read what was published about school performance at the government website or on the flyer in the letterbox from real estate agencies. Schools with students whose parents had lost out in the great economic reforms that commenced when I was still working for KFC didn’t really have much choice with their casualised jobs and continued sending their children to schools that were struggling with the impact of socio-economic disadvantage and increasing expectation to perform.
All of the senior bureaucrats, ministers and prime ministers who had pushed these business reforms into schools were removed from office by the electorate, retired or moved on to better jobs outside of education. There seemed to be little educational philosophy that was not that of the market. No-one seemed to be in charge and key performance indicators about the reform were not being met.
The teachers were clearly an issue. Improving the entry standards required to let them into those expensive, de-regulated university courses that were once free and no longer did what they used to do to teach teachers became a priority. Politicians had yet another plan to improve teacher training (and there have been dozens) which involved the concept of a ‘blueprint’ unaware of the irony in our age of choice:
“A blueprint is a reproduction of a technical drawing…invented in the 19th century, the process allowed rapid and accurate reproduction of documents used in construction and industry. The blue-print process was characterised by light coloured lines on a blue background, a negative of the original. The process was unable to reproduce colour or shades of grey.” Wikipedia
After two decades of reform the latest international comparative data suggested something was still going pretty wrong as Australian standards continued to decline alarmingly; even after an inordinate amount of money had been invested in the schooling systems run by organised religions.
Great Britain and the USA, by this stage of the arc, just privatised schools with former high-ranking government officials now heavily involved in the private companies who replaced state systems using tax-payer funds.
“What did you have to sacrifice about my child’s education to raise those scores?” Alfie Kohn
Research by the Lowy Institute has consistently revealed that younger Australians have lost faith in democracy. Education has been commodified and this is a great danger to our democratic institutions but in the scramble to reform some of the basic functions of schooling in a democratic state are being neglected. Maybe younger Australians are just reflecting lived experience that Australian democracy is becoming less democratic as the influence of the market and those who control it becomes more omnipresent.
Citizens may be consumers but not all aspects of life should be left to the market. What worked in the 20th century, especially in the fast-food industry and other franchised businesses is not appropriate for the 21st century (based on the currently available data).
Education should not be a commodity in a properly functioning democratic state; it is a right. More than a right, it is a necessity to keep the state functioning democratically.
Featured image: Flickr photo by JeepersMedia https://flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/14105615303 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license