University of Melbourne Magazine

Expert comment: A tsunami approaches

  •  Over the past few years there has been growing concern with and focus on the quality of teachers in Australia. There have been a range of simplistic, unproven or disproved remedies promoted by various bodies to ‘fix’ teachers and teaching. These have included merit and bonus pay for the best performing teachers (‘carrots’) and sacking poorly performing teachers or denying them salary increments (‘sticks’) (Dinham, 2013).

    The context in which these measures have been proposed includes Australia’s declining performance on international measures of student achievement and the seemingly intractable achievement gap. In addition to this focus on teacher quality there are powerful new developments emerging in Australia. These have largely been copied from Britain and the USA, despite a lack of supporting evidence, something that epitomises the Australian approach to educational innovation where we have a tendency to copy the worst of both worlds.

    These more universal factors and beliefs that are playing out go back as far as the Thatcher and Reagan years. They include the view that public education has failed and a belief that the free market, choice and competition are the answers to almost any question about education (see Berliner & Glass, 2014).

    Related beliefs include the ‘fact’ that teacher education is ineffective and needs reform, that the value of a teaching qualification is questionable and even unnecessary, and that there are benefits that will accrue from appointing noneducators as principals and running schools as businesses (Dinham, 2014).

    These developments include the fostering of government funded, for profit independent schools. These go by various names such as charter schools (USA), free schools (UK) and may be part of chains or academies owned by the private sector. In some cases these schools are exempt from employing registered teachers and even from following the curriculum (New Zealand). Teaching staff are often employed on contracts, some of which prohibit union membership.

    Another powerful development is the movement of teacher education to schools, a return to an apprenticeship, craft based form of professional learning and a direct result of the belief that teacher education is ineffective. In England this has seen the demise of a number of long established faculties of education due to their loss of pre-service teacher education programs. This makes education research problematic as research tends to be subsidised by teacher education courses. It will also worsen the so-called ‘theory-practice’ divide and make it more difficult to break the cycle of teachers teaching as they were taught.

    As well as introducing new forms of independent schools, there is a push for greater autonomy for government schools, which in reality usually means more responsibility and less support. The research evidence on this practice is once again either inconclusive or nonsupportive (Hopkins, 2013; Berliner & Glass, 2014).

    A further development is the entry of big business into education. There has always been a commercial aspect to education with providers of textbooks, resources and equipment but this is escalating almost exponentially. Publishers are now moving into large scale vertical integration whereby they have commercial involvement with curricula, teaching resources, teaching standards, teacher development and appraisal and student testing, in effect gaining control of the entire education supply chain. This is not illegal and these firms are responding to opportunity, but the outcomes will be interesting and quite possibly profound.

    Implicit and explicit in these developments is heavy criticism of existing education and educators. Decades of research is either ignored or disregarded. Educators themselves have been either silent or bypassed in these debates and decisions. Teacher unions, professional associations and other bodies have made little effort or headway in critiquing such change. This is not just a matter of defending public education however, because these developments have the potential to be equally disruptive to ‘traditional’ non-government education. It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons.

    If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance, something that will provide the proponents for such change with further ‘evidence’ to support their position and for even more far reaching change.

    Australia is becoming a less equitable society both generally and in respect of education and as Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) have demonstrated, inequality in society is actually worse for everyone.

    A tsunami comprises waves with very long wave lengths. Often these go unnoticed until it is too late to do anything about them. When they reach land great devastation can result. The ‘long wave’ changes to education outlined above need to be subjected to intense scrutiny before it is too late. If the profession remains silent and passive in the face of some of these developments we will only have ourselves to blame for what might eventuate.


    – Professor Stephen Dinham OAM FACE