Clueless in the Classroom

Stone the crows! Why is everybody upset with the Australian Education Union? Lots of reasons.

The public school teachers union has decided to ban national literacy and numeracy tests because the results will appear on Education Minister Julia Gillard’s My School website. The site compares the performance of individual institutions against national averages and similar schools, (although some of the comparisons look a little odd).

The AEU says this is unfair, because it means the media might – oh that such wickedness could be! – make fun of the poor performers by ranking schools according to performance.

This argument is less thin than translucent. Ignoring problems perpetuates them and the best way to ensure disadvantaged kids grow into illiterate, innumerate and unemployable adults is to do nothing to improve their education.

And parents understand this, visiting the My School site some 2.8 million times since it launched in January to see what schools are in strife and which are successes.

So why does the AEU want to sabotage a resource that its customers (which is what parents of children in state schools are) like a lot?

Perhaps they believe it is their job to socially engineer mediocrity, by ensuring nobody knows which schools are doing well and which ones aren’t, because they think encouraging competition is un-Australian.

Perhaps they worry life will get tough for poor performing teachers who will have to explain why their students are doing worse than kids in similar schools.

Perhaps the union is used to running education debates that focus on teacher pay rather than pupil performance and can’t quite work out what the results of tests has to do with their members.

Perhaps they realise that they can’t stick with their old argument that public schools are under-resourced, what with the way the Commonwealth is spending billion dollar sized buckets of money on renovations. And attacking public funding for private schools won’t wash anymore given the growth in non-government school enrolments  – all those kids aren’t attending Sydney Grammar and SCEGS.

Or perhaps the AEU’s officers are outraged by what they see as an affront to their own and their academic allies’ authority as the self proclaimed arbiters of what is taught and how in schools.

Not knowing what goes on when the pedagogical politburo meets I have no idea, but my guess is that it is a combination of all the above.

But one thing that is obvious is the union has no idea how to deal with Julia Gillard.

Of course, it is easy for Ms Gillard to take the AEU on – unlike her state colleagues, she employs no teachers and cops no flak if they strike. But even so, the federal minister’s website and her demands that union officials put children first have crippled the AEU’s argument that it is the protector of public school students.

The fact that the union representing teachers in private schools (where enrolments have increased by 208,000 since 1999 compared to 26,000 in government schools) will administer the tests also doesn’t do much for the AEU argument either.

And yet, instead of accepting that they have made their point and that public opinion supports My School and graciously accept they have lost this argument, the AEU is proposing to ban tests it says it supports in case the information on individual schools is presented in a national context online.

This is nuts.  It makes all public school teachers (rather than their union’s bosses) look like they fear parents finding out what sort of job they are doing.

And it will improve Ms Gillard’s political position in fights with the union to come (hands up everybody who thinks she will present the AEU as opposing the obvious idea that schools with poor test results have to be identified to receive help).

Given her fascination with the charter schools and teaching reform programs established by New York City education chief Joel Klein, it is a sure thing the minister has many more ideas the AEU will abhor.

While they obviously hate the My School website and fear what it will do to their unassailable authority, the AEU has already lost this fight. And if they keep up these tactics they will likely lose blues to come.