In yesterday’s post I argued that we have hardly begun to provide high-quality education for every child, for to accomplish that we would need to focus on the child, not on the school, and by doing so we would eventually overturn the current paradigm of ‘the school’ that all of us know and went to. What Australians do instead, many of them, anyway, is complain that the school and teachers are not giving them what they want. One of our teacher-daughters had once to deal with an exasperated parent who couldn’t understand why his child was not at the top of the class. ‘I pay a lot of money for him to be here, you know!’ The fault was that of the school and the teacher (yes, this was a private school).
The attitude is characteristic of our times, and has been picked up by governments, particularly the Commonwealth Government. Part of it has been caused by the drift of children into the private sector, which suggested that there was something wrong with public education, and with teachers, rather than the somewhat obvious fact that as the country grew rapidly wealthier school education was becoming, like health, a consumption item.
Professor Stephen Dinham, who gave the Phillip Hughes Oration in Canberra on Thursday night, pointed out that on average there has been one state or national inquiry into teacher education every year for the past thirty years. Imagine if that had been the case for doctors, or lawyers! It suggests to the uninformed that something is seriously wrong with the whole system, and Dinham countered that perspective in one of the best speeches I have heard for a long time. I agreed with it, too, but it was packed with the right argument and evidence.
I thought Julia Gillard’s time as federal Education Minister was not a great success, because she assumed all too easily that there was a real problem that she could solve. And, like so many other ministers who have never faced a class, she fell for a simplistic ‘solution’ that someone said had worked somewhere else. Kevin Rudd, another person whose knowledge of schools is confined to the ones he went to as a child, thought that a computer in the hands of every child would be a great step forward. So it might be for some, but what is to happen when the computers need replacing?
Dinham sees danger that the push for ‘improving teacher quality’ is being hijacked, with absurdities like the Victorian government’s suggestion that the best thing to do would be to sack the bottom five per cent of teachers. (And replace them with whom?) Why not a system of well-funded professional development? What worries Professor Dinham, and me, is that our political leaders seem to be subject to panic attacks about schools and teachers, and respond with ‘simplistic, quick fix, populist solutions promulgated by economists, those from the business sector and educational advisers and politicians out of touch with teaching’.
Like politicians involved with research, about which I wrote the other day, they worry about Australia’s falling behind the rest of the world, and accept all too ready international comparisons without thinking hard about their context and what they mean. Dinham reminds us that we were once told to emulate Japan, because of the strength of the Japanese economy. We don’t talk about copying Japan today. Nor should we be interested in emulating Shanghai or Singapore, which are city-state environments with quite a different educational culture to our own, and one in which, on the evidence, many children are victims even when they are apparent successes. Yes, Finland is a model, but it is small, mono-cultural and wealthy. You have to recognise differences as well as opportunities.
In fact Australia does quite well in these comparisons. We are not at the very top, but we are in the top, along with Canada and New Zealand. ‘Should we be satisfied with this?’ asks Dinham. ‘No, but we shouldn’t “beat up on ourselves” either.’
Dinham calles teaching ‘the battered profession’. It daily receives ‘damning statements — denigration, verbal abuse, misinformed criticism — about the dire state of education’. In the US public opinion surveys show perennially that while there is a high level of concern about the quality of public education, there is also a high level of satisfaction and support for the respondent’s local school. As a ‘grandfriend’ who visits his grandchildren’s schools, I can say that I am deeply impressed with the quality of the teaching they receive (in our public schools), the ambience of the classroom, and the uniformly high rating they give their teachers. I see no sign of weakness or failure at all.
There are problems, and one of them is that we are currently producing more teachers at the primary level than there are places for in the schools, and there is no sign that any government is prepared to reduce class sizes so as to accommodate them. But we do have a good system, and it has helped to produce the Australia of today. We should be congratulating the public school system, and assisting it to do better with increased, thoughtful, funding.
As a first step — no more reviews for five years!
(Those interested can download the Dinham oration here.)