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The Liberals Are Ramping Up the Marketization of Australia’s Public Schools

Public school teachers have been working harder than ever during the pandemic. But that’s not enough for the New South Wales Productivity Commission, which wants to cut pay and conditions, while increasing productivity by pitting “value-added” teachers against their colleagues.

Instead of benefitting students and society by enriching the curriculum, the focus on “adding value” has incentivized teaching to the test. (Bruce Matsunaga / Flickr)

For most of the year, Australian teachers have worked harder than ever before, scrambling to adapt lesson resources for online learning, checking in daily with stressed-out students, and fighting for basic PPE such as hand sanitizer.

At the same time, representatives of big business, including the Liberal Party and the New South Wales (NSW) Productivity Commission, have seen an opportunity to reduce costs and ramp up “productivity.” As the commission makes clear, students are “human capital” and the goal is to further impose a competitive corporate culture within schools, in order to extract as much added “value” from teachers as possible.

They are proposing, for example, to give supervisors more power over lesson observations and to use test results and student surveys to assess individual teachers, as a stepping-stone toward performance-based pay. It’s the latest development in a decades-long effort to impose a market-based logic on Australian schools.

Cost Cutting, Brand Marketing

In 1988, the NSW Liberal government introduced corporate management principles into the NSW public service, hoping to find “cost efficiencies” to help reduce its $46 billion debt. For then-minister for education, Terry Metherell, one solution was to sack 2,300 teachers, alongside thousands of administrative support staff. For teachers who kept their jobs, it meant bigger class sizes, bigger piles of paperwork, and less time to spend with individual students.

Metherell also pioneered a long-term attempt to force public schools to compete with private schools. He relaxed restrictions requiring students to attend a local school — claiming that it would give parents more choice — in effect providing schools with an added incentive to promote their unique brand, compete for customers, and exclude students based on their performance. At the same time, the government began to create specialist schools, catering to high academic achievers or students with talents in technology, sports, languages, or the creative and performing arts.

Previously, public schools had been forced to compete with private schools. But these moves introduced market competition into the public school system, over time exacerbating existing educational inequalities. Better-off parents were now able to shop around for the best schools, while students with poor academic records or behavioral problems, often from the most disadvantaged parts of Sydney, were concentrated together, effectively creating a two-tier public education system.

In the words of one teacher:

Sometimes we’ll now have three or four or even five students in a classroom that are emotionally disturbed children or have special needs … it affects what you can actually do in the class; you have to curtail a lot of your curriculum to cater for these children.

Education Factories

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has proven to be just as enthusiastic about the marketization of education as the Liberals. In 2008, then–prime minister Kevin Rudd introduced standardized testing known as the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) exam. Shortly after, in 2010, Julia Gillard launched the My School website, which uses NAPLAN results to allow parents and the media to compare schools.

NAPLAN was criticized by principals at the time, who argued that “comparing schools has led to a stifling of creative and effective teaching [and] a narrowing of the curriculum.” Meanwhile, sales of exam coaching and sample tests doubled from 2012 to 2013.

Unsurprisingly, academic studies have found that NAPLAN rewards students for writing that is predictable, unnecessarily complex, and lacking in logical reasoning. And most concerning of all, as the Australian Primary Principals Association has argued, NAPLAN “creates anxiety and fear in primary children.” Subsequent studies have found that the tests have induced “vomiting, sleeplessness, [and] migraines.” In one tragic case, the pressure led one year-five student to attempt suicide.

Despite the evidence of such harmful side effects, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has followed other OECD countries in arguing that standardized testing ensures “quality of education” and “economic competitiveness.” More simply put, the point of NAPLAN was to create a blunt, quantitative measure of school performance. The goal was to run schools like education factories, and NAPLAN became the standard measure of the “human capital” they produce.

Exploiting Teachers

In 2012, Barry O’Farrell’s Liberal NSW government transformed schools into self-managing units, under the slogan “Local Schools, Local Decisions” (LSLD). Principals were redefined as business managers and given increased control over budgets and staffing.

In the private sector, rhetoric about “flexibility” disguises insecure, casualized work. Similarly, under the cover of empowering parents, LSLD has undermined conditions and made teaching more precarious by accelerating the spread of temporary teaching contracts. Anxious to secure long-term employment, temp teachers invariably end up serving on more school teams and projects and working for longer hours. The threat of not having their contract renewed also coerces temp teachers into situations that contradict their legal rights — for example, when they are required to attend meetings during non-teaching hours.

The corporate drive to maximize “value-added teacher quality” and school productivity has not spared permanent staff members, either. Today, NSW teachers work an average of fifty-five hours per week, while over 60 percent report suffering unacceptable levels of workplace stress.

By forcing individual schools to pursue growth and demonstrate “excellence,” LSLD has achieved the opposite result, burdening teachers with mountains of paperwork replete with meaningless buzzwords, to demonstrate “compliance,” “professional development,” and “evidence of learning.” As one teacher put it:

With so much more time spent on tasks unrelated to programming and lesson preparation for the children . . . it feels like work and tasks related to the classroom and preparing quality lessons for the students in your class is only 50 percent of the job.

Teaching programs themselves are increasingly subject to corporate-style audits. As a result, teachers are required to write extensive commentaries explaining exactly what is being taught, when, and how.

As these commentaries must refer to individual students, teachers are forced to spend evenings and weekends reporting absurdities such as “provided 1:1 literacy support by sitting next to [student] and showing them how to write a persuasive paragraph.” The irony, of course, is that this leaves teachers with far less time to think about and plan lessons.

Value-Added Education

The situation was already bad before COVID-19. Now, by further applying performance-management principles to individual teachers, the NSW Productivity Commission hopes to turbocharge economic productivity. If adopted, its recommendations will disadvantage teachers and students even further.

Take, for example, the Commission’s proposal to evaluate teachers’ individual performance using “value-added” measures. These are purported to “estimate teachers’ contributions to students’ progress over time, adjusting for their initial performance and characteristics,” and “identify the teachers who make larger-than-average contributions to learning growth.”

Putting aside the dehumanizing language for a moment, this begs the question: what “value” is being “added,” and how is learning defined? The NSW Productivity Commission’s green paper gives a hint. It praises the “Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System” (TVAAS), Tennessee’s “statistical growth model,” which was upgraded to a “higher-stakes evaluation system” that, “while controversial at the time,” led to “gains on national tests that earned Tennessee the title of America’s fastest-improving state in math and reading in 2013.”

Which is to say, under TVAAS “learning growth” simply means higher scores on standardized exams. The green paper confirmed that this is what the Commission has in mind for NSW by praising Reddam House, an elite Sydney private school that subjects students above year three to weekly fifty-minute “cycle tests” — effectively drilling them to boost the statistics.

Instead of benefitting students and society by enriching the curriculum, the focus on “adding value” has incentivized teaching to the test. Worse, the Commission is also proposing to penalize experienced teachers whose students do not score highly by abolishing salary progression based on years of service, and instead tying pay raises to productivity outcomes (read: wringing higher test scores out of students.) True to the customer service model imported from the private sector, the Commission is also recommending that pay raises be tied to positive outcomes on student satisfaction surveys.

Finally, the Commission is also proposing to tie remuneration to lesson observations. Lesson observations have already become a tool of compliance, in some cases leading to bullying as unscrupulous supervisors are given additional control over their colleagues. But as it stands, at least teachers have some say over lesson observations — they are hypothetically permitted to choose a colleague and negotiate the time and class. And for the time being, observations have no bearing on pay rises.

The Commission has declared that this is “at odds with modern standards of management and accountability,” and has argued that supervisors should have the “absolute right” to enter a teacher’s classroom whenever they choose.

Pitting Teachers Against Teachers

These moves are also designed to pit teachers against each other. No doubt a minority who most effectively game the system will be rewarded. However, with the NSW State Government already cutting public sector wages, the net result will, by necessity, save money by lowering salaries for the majority of teachers, especially impacting those who work at disadvantaged schools.

Far-right politicians like Labor renegade and One-Nation bigot Mark Latham have endorsed the Commission’s recommendations, while arguing that the government should go even further by placing principals on temporary contracts with higher salaries and tying additional funding to improved NAPLAN scores. This threatens to transform principals into the key agents of corporatization within schools, while accelerating the spread of temporary teaching contracts for classroom teachers.

And lastly, this agenda creates a long-term danger that underperforming schools will be singled out, shut down, and transformed into privately run charter schools, as has been the case in the United States. How long before an under-performing school’s teachers are fired en masse, and forced to reapply for their jobs? And faced with this kind of pressure, how long before standardized test cheating scandals erupt here, as they have in the United States?

For industry and establishment politicians, education is not a public good with intrinsic value to society. Its key mission is not to promote difficult-to-measure intangibles like empathy, critical thinking, and democratic citizenship. From the business point of view, schools are primarily an economic resource.

Unless teachers, parents, and students want to import the dystopian American education system into Australia, they must reject further corporate “reforms” of their schools.