Not a Class Act: McKew joins the education wars

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Maxine McKew’s Class Act is sub-headed “Ending the Education Wars”. But it’s actually another shot in the war against teachers and poor, working class public school kids. There’s nothing original in Class Act. McKew lines up with other elites to heap blame upon what she sees as “wild” children and their ineffectual teachers.

But the left must take note of Class Act, because McKew exposes herself and the whole Gonski agenda as being firmly on the side of vicious, neo-liberal attacks on schools.

For three years education unions have invested massively in trying to secure businessman David Gonski’s recommendation that an extra $5 billion of government funding a year go to disadvantaged schools. McKew, however, makes it clear that the Gonski money is intended to punish teachers, not resource them.

Private funding for public schools

With the nerve only a chairperson of Coca-Cola Amatil and ANZ could
summon, Gonski even proposes to use public money to train principals of poor schools so they can find corporate sponsors.

McKew celebrates the idea of partial privatisation. For instance the principal of Roseworth Primary in Western Australia made his peace with inadequate government funding. Realising “the traditional educational resource base was not going to be enough”, he cobbled together charities and philanthropists to prop up school funding. Similarly, Kerrie Dowsley from St Albans Secondary College has “partnerships” with the Business Council of Australia, Social Ventures Australia and Goldman Sachs.

With this money comes destructive corporate agendas. The Fogarty Foundation money granted to Roseworth “helps principals set priorities”. It was used to set up a surveillance room, where mirrored windows and multiple video cameras allow for weekly teacher evaluations to enforce the literacy co-ordinator’s rigid lesson format.

McKew doesn’t mention it, but at St Albans, Social Ventures Australia is funding a program that will force every child to purchase a (once government-funded) computer or Apple iPad—this despite concerns from staff about the huge expense to parents, and a preference for labs of desktop computers as a more useful and equitable alternative.

Private sponsorship also has an atrocious education record. The obsessive testing, the hellish teaching conditions and curriculum distortions of the charter system in the US and academies in the UK are infamous. A national comparison of charter and public schools in the US showed that students performed better in only 17 per cent of comparable Charter schools, but they performed worse in 37 per cent of them!

Dictatorship of the principals

McKew doesn’t just want public schools to be funded privately, she wants them to be run like private schools too, where principals get total hire and fire control of teachers—and students. She can’t get enough of ruthless principals who issue punishments, suspensions and expulsions to “miscreants”. She is snobbishly obsessed with appearances; in every chapter the principals’ new dress codes for teachers and students are credited with turning around “the culture” of the school.

But McKew’s favourite theme is how successfully her principals bludgeon teachers. Toronto High School’s principal gets full marks for defeating a union rep who stood up to a regime of endless classroom observations and teacher evaluations. Principal Kerry Dowsley from St Albans casts the staff as lazy, ineffectual and late.

At McKew’s book launch in Melbourne, her friend Marcia Langton put it bluntly, “the crisis in Australian education is because of bad teachers.”

But non-school social factors like family income, parents’ occupation and neighbourhood have four to eight times the impact on student achievement that teachers do. Yet McKew, and state and federal governments, all blame teachers.

Gonski would also fund faddish programs that actually eliminate teachers’ power to actually teach.

From weird obsessions with writing “learning intentions” on the board at the start of every lesson to an extreme focus on teaching “Standard English Grammar”, McKew is fascinated by standardised lesson formulas. The process of teachers researching and creating lessons themselves is dismissed as having “short changed an entire generation”.

Despite her infatuation with high performers on international league tables, McKew ignores that teacher respect and autonomy is key to their success. In Finland (ranked 12th internationally) the national curriculum is a framework that leaves teachers latitude to decide how they will teach. Teachers select their own textbooks and other materials, and assess their own students. There is no standardised testing.

Abbott has cut the Gonski funding, but McKew’s book spells out how mistaken it will be to simply mount another “Give a Gonski” campaign to get Labor to reinstate it. The demands for scrapping NAPLAN, ending casual contracts, for smaller classes, greater trust and preparation time for teachers and against privatised public schools are the key to any union campaign for real funding for public education.

By Lucy Honan

Class Act
By Maxine McKew
Melbourne Uni Publishing, $19.95

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