Defenders of public schools are their worst enemies
THE proposal by education guru Ken Boston to shut down failing schools, sack their principals and replace their teachers is the scholastic equivalent of what’s known as “Ben Tre” logic, from the Vietnamese town of the same name where an American major famously reasoned that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
The people who will be the most outraged by Ken Boston’s radical but welcome suggestion, made at an Australian Primary Principals Association forum on Monday, are the self-styled defenders of public education in the Teachers Unions.
It’s time that someone rang the school bell on the intellectual contribution these unions make to the quality of the public education.
It’s generally so paltry that you almost suspect that the landed gentry who run Kings, Knox, Xaviers, Melbourne Grammar, St Peters and Prince Alfred College, to name but a few of our more la-di-dah private institutions, have clandestinely bandied together to payroll these unions, as they’re the biggest advertisement for private education going around.
(And that’s not written as a private school toff but the proud product of the public education system, whose own personal views pre-date Gough Whitlam’s on the public funding of a system which is inherently elitist and exclusionary.)
Ken Boston’s proposed scorched-earth policy towards non-performing schools is the industrial nightmare scenario of every teacher’s union in the land.
This is because it involves a much more onerous and candid level of disclosure than even Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Education Minister Julia Gillard are proposing with their push to provide detailed online reporting on the performance of every government school by the end of this year.
It also proposes that problems are not only identified, but that they result in action – with the punting of teachers who preside over consistent mediocrity, or worse.
Boston, who is meeting Julia Gillard and members of the PM’s staff today, said there was limited value in having “opaque” league tables, rather a more direct and detailed account of school performance which gave parents and communities the clearest possible picture of what’s really going on at the local school.
He said the controversial league tables introduced in the UK are “far from transparent.”
“We need rich reports which explain why a school may be performing less well, not just simplistic league tables,” The Australian quoted Dr Boston as saying yesterday. “Don’t massage the data, no jiggery-pokery, no smoke or mirrors, just present the data as it is. My belief is that this would offer greater public accountability than league tables.”
The teaching unions are already on the record in their vehement opposition to the league tables which Dr Boston says are impenetrable or meaningless. Clearly, the proposal of plain English reports, jam-packed with meaningful detail, will be an even more chilling proposition to the unions, as they have shown that the one thing they abhor in the public system is transparency and the industrial repercussions it brings.
That is – acting against principals who have consistently under-delivered, refusing promotions to teachers who do not perform well, or pulling them out of schools where there has been no improvement or a deterioration in grades, despite the fact that they’ve received extra training, extra funds, more support.
It’s garbage for the teaching unions to say their profession cannot be monitored for performance because there are so many intangibles in their job – the biggest one being, obviously, the lucky dip factor with the varying abilities and attitudes that students bring to class with each passing year.
The first counter-argument is that human resources departments the world over have now perfected the art of running the ruler over every other profession, with their acronym-heavy performance reviews examining “key performance indicators” and what have you. If anything it would seem easier to craft a solution for a profession which itself is framed entirely around assessment.
The second is that there is such a massive divergence in the performance of students in disadvantaged areas – some of them stay listless and ignorant, while others soar, lifting themselves out of poverty and deprivation through a love of learning and a passion to get ahead – that there clearly are some teachers who can educate and inspire, and others who either lack the talent or energy to motivate a troubled class.
In the ongoing debate in NSW over school tables – where the Coalition has trashed a long-standing party principle by siding with the Greens, of all people, to block school league tables, the debate has been clouded by discussion over the media’s role in using data about under-performing schools.
Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell has spent the past two months sounding more like a future Media Watch host than the next Premier as he maintains a baffling rhetorical alliance with the Greens over the Mount Druitt High School affair, where The Daily Telegraph ran a controversial front-page story in 1997 headed Class We Failed, illustrated with a picture of that year’s HSC class at the impoverished western Sydney school.
In my view, and I was not working for the paper at the time, the story was a noble and sincere campaign for a fair deal for kids and families in one of the newspaper’s heartland – but over the top in its illustration, given the distress it caused the kids on the front page.
But – and this isn’t to argue that the impact on those kids was erased by the long-term good – there is no way the article would have achieved the turnaround for public education in this neglected part of Sydney if the treatment had been toned down.
It was an angry front page. And if you’re prepared to accept the commercial reality that newspapers are businesses, then logic must tell you that no newspaper would risk circulation in its heartland by being deliberately cruel to a bunch of kids. It follows that the only reason the newspaper would have done it was to get the issue on the agenda for government, and to secure much-needed funds for the state’s most under-performing school.
Which is exactly what happened.
As a result of a government inquiry five senior schools in the area were shut down and combined into what is now Chifley College, where the curriculum was revolutionised, teacher numbers increased, new funding was allocated.
In 1996, the ABC’s Radio National chronicled the turnaround at these new western Sydney campuses, where that year a stunning 92 per cent of kids did the HSC.
Anyone who would argue – or anyone such as O’Farrell who would be swayed by their argument – that the publication of school league tables would invite the annual publication of Mt Druitt style front pages is wrong.
I don’t think any paper in Australia would give another story the same treatment - not just because The Daily Telegraph was sued and lost, but simply because these kids were so upset by what happened that a noble campaign on their behalf ended up looking like an attack on them.
But anyone who values transparency in education should also see though the disingenuous recycling of the Mount Druitt case by the teachers unions. There are plenty of other Mount Druitts out there. And the union, like those parents with Munchausens disorder, has shown by its actions that it’s more comfortable with continuing and avoidable under-achievement by working class children, than any performance-based scrutiny which may put the screws on its members and result in real change.
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