Public schooling

Let’s stop talking about school choice and reconfigure what we are doing in Australia

In a perfect world, public schooling would be able to honour its mission to provide access to high quality education for all young people, regardless of their backgrounds, interests, and capacities.

However, the world we live in is far from perfect.

Idea of collective good is being lost

Market-based policy decisions by governments of various persuasions over the past thirty years in Australia have, with breathtaking success, undermined the emphasis on the collective good of the community. Education, and schooling in particular, are at the centre of the move to privatise the public, whether through the growth of private schooling or the encroachment of corporate interests in public schools.

These days we worry more about individual responsibility and private gain than we do about working together towards what is best for our community as a whole.

Furthermore, the question of social justice and equity in education becomes reframed as an individual matter, where choice, competition and decentralisation are the mechanisms for delivering equal opportunity and high quality educational outcomes for students.

In his book, Hatred of Democracy French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, describes how contemporary society promotes mass individualism in the self-interested pursuit of limitless growth. In other words, Capitalism sets up citizens to be consumers, whether that’s of media, electronic goods, or education.

Schooling has morphed into a product to be consumed

We argue that mass individualism should not be the measure of collective social good, whether we are talking education or otherwise. The social, and in fact the very nature of most global challenges and condition mean that we need a commitment to the public good more than ever before. Schooling needs to be reclaimed as a space for reimagining democracy and civic virtue.

Of course, there is also an uncomfortable tension with the notion of democracy in the classroom, given that schools by their very design are undemocratic social institutions. By this, we mean that schools are places where young people learn to regulate and control their behaviours, to follow rules and engage in a multitude of compliances to authority. These effects, we argue, are enhanced in a climate where performance on standardised tests becomes the measure of the quality of learning and teaching that takes place in schools.

Much of the media cycle is given to a narrative of educational achievement and standards in decline. The policy response, especially from conservative think tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies, is to call for greater levels of privatisation, competition and choice in the education market.

Capacity to pay is not ‘choice’

The well-worn argument is that parents should be free to make choices about the best school to send their children to. Schools would then improve their educational outcomes to meet the demands of the market and their ‘consumers’. This fits with Rancière’s notion of massified individualism – by each student improving their own individual educational outcomes, overall ‘quality’ is increased.

Yet for families living in poverty or in communities of high levels of disadvantage, with unemployment, health and other welfare concerns, there is simply no capacity to choose.

Often when parents are making choices about schooling, they are actually choosing to buy into advantage, rather than specifically seeking a school that best suits the needs of their child. This is well-exemplified in the prestige of highly selective public schools in inner-city locations throughout the country, who are increasingly relying on NAPLAN scores and entrance exams to select the best and brightest students.

One clear effect of buying into advantage is the increasing segregation of Australian schooling. The work of Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd demonstrates the growing divide, not between public and private schools, but between schools in areas of high socioeconomic advantage, and those in low SES communities.

Let’s look at reconstructing schooling instead

Perhaps we should focus less on the notion of choice of schools and more about reconstructing schooling itself, so that the local public school is the best option for young people to have a meaningful, connected and authentic educational experience. In much the same way that a commitment to a high quality public health system and universal medical coverage promotes excellent health outcomes across the entire community, so does a commitment to a high quality public education system.

We are concerned with the delegitimising effects of schooling-as-usual, without regard for the particular lives and knowledge of young people themselves. Simply enacting mandated curriculum, even ones claimed to contain powerful knowledge, finding ways to better test learning, or ensuring that there is greater school choice available, does not address the systemic and social disadvantage that many young people face.

We argue that there is a clear need to reconfigure schooling. We suggest that this might take the form of schooling that better connects with the lives of young people in substantial and sustained ways. This will mean moving beyond standardised, ‘one size fits all’ approaches and where classrooms model democratic principles of social justice and more meaningful knowledge transfer, acquisition, and production.

Given the enormous complexities and challenges of our time, we owe it to young people of all persuasions, to have the very best chance of a meaningful education that can be provided.

Business as usual simply won’t work.

Stewart Riddle is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Teacher Education and Early Childhood at the University of Southern Queensland. His research interests include social justice and equity in education, music-based research practices and research methodologies. He also plays bass in a band called Drawn from Bees.



David Cleaver is a lecturer in the School of Linguistics, Adult and Specialist Education at the University of Southern Queensland




This post has been adapted from the forthcoming book, Alternative schooling, social justice and marginalised students: teaching and learning in an alternative music school.

This is the first piece in a series on schooling and democracy in the lead up to the Re-imagining Education for Democracy Summit, being held at USQ Springfield 13-15 November. For more details about the summit

Private interests shaping public education: let’s not follow the US example

Private interests are playing an increasingly prominent role in public education. It is a global trend that is already evident in Australia, as we can see from previous posts on this blog.

I believe we can learn a lot from what is happening in American education policymaking. In particular, strategies are evident around efforts by private interests in the US, such as philanthropies, to influence education policy using what we call “idea orchestration” — arranging all the pieces in the policymaking process by aligning the efforts of think tanks and other intermediaries in ways that essentially privatize public policymaking.

Few would argue against a need for substantial reform in American education. There is widespread concern with the country’s performance on international measures as well as with its notable achievement gaps between rich and poor or minority students. While chronic concerns with the education system have sparked generations of education reform, (as I show in a new analysis with Jameson Brewer and Priya Goel La Londe in the Australian Educational Researcher) recent policies are driven by private interests and reflect a particular focus on private sector models.

Most notably, these interests are re-shaping education policymaking not through traditional democratic channels, but through business investment-style strategies manifested in education policy as “idea orchestration.”

In some ways, private interests penetrating public policymaking in the US is not new. For generations, the for-profit business sector has advanced its vision of a low-cost system producing employable graduates, while non-profit philanthropies like the Carnegie or Ford Foundations have had their own initiatives in areas such as improving the quality of teaching, or addressing poverty.

The New Edu-Philanthropy

However, the recent wave of what has been called “corporate education reform” features a central role for the private sector that is different in at least three ways.

First, the scale of private resources directed at influencing education policy is unprecedented, as evident by the sheer size of some of the primary movers and shakers. For instance, the Walton family, by far the wealthiest in America, directs a foundation with a primary focus on reforming public education. The Gates Foundation, which combines the wealth of two of the world’s three richest people, has assets of almost $45 billion (USD). Especially in an era of tight budgets and increasing economic inequality, the resources these individuals can dangle in front of policymakers and organizations can be an irresistible enticement for embracing their agendas.

Secondly, the non-profit and for-profit elements of the private sector are in remarkable alignment in terms of their agendas for education. Earlier efforts to reform education often saw philanthropies and businesses taking contrasting, if not conflicting, approaches. For instance, the Henry Ford II famously lamented the perceived anti-capitalist direction of his family’s namesake foundation. Now, all of the “big six” philanthropies active in education reform leverage the wealth accumulated relatively recently by their business-person founders: the Gates fortune from Microsoft, the Walton wealth from the Wal-Mart chain of discount stores (the largest private-sector employer in the US), for instance. Thus, it can be expected that the efforts of the foundations are aligned with, or at least not opposed to, the business interests of the companies that made their founders wealthy.

Third, the business sensibilities these individuals used in amassing their fortunes are being directly applied in how they manage their philanthropic efforts as well as how they expect the recipients of their largess to manage their own efforts. In fact, there is a remarkable confluence of interest and objectives amongst these leading philanthropies in supporting competition among individuals and organizations, with the implications that schools should be run in the same way that these philanthropists have accumulated and managed their own wealth: through business strategies. Hence they are throwing their support largely behind policies that promote consumer choice, competition between schools, and greater autonomy for schools.

Thought Tanks

In contrast to previous generations of private influence on public policy, current patterns of philanthropic activity are different, focusing not only on giving, but on managing and orchestrating efforts. A defining feature of this new business-based education philanthropy is not simply its endorsement of a private-sector model for schools, but a business-style strategy to bring this vision to fruition. Instead of simply throwing money at an issue, funding a study, a project, or an organization, these business-based philanthropists treat their efforts as comprehensive investments. As with the rise of their own business empires, any investment is buttressed with related efforts around policy, politics, and public image. Rather than just channeling funding at a problem, they take care to align adequate political support, have a policy infrastructure in place, and arrange appropriate media and intellectual resources.

In these efforts, so-called “think tanks” play a crucial role in legitimizing and organizing the concerted efforts of like-minded people and organisations. Funded by these philanthropies, think tanks provide the analyses, evidence and intellectual credibility crucial to their funders’ agendas, but at the same time play a critical role in convening key players in public and private sectors, supplying useful data and talking-points to allied media outlets, and identifying and attacking potential opposition.

For instance, the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University receives funding from the Gates, Walton, Koch, and Friedman Foundations, and produces research generally aligned with the agendas of those funders, even when that may conflict with a consensus in the independent research community. PEPG also possesses substantial media acumen, and has been successful in placing its associates in key positions in the public and private sector.

However, rather than simply producing ideas (as their label would suggest), many think tanks — even university-based ones such as PEPG — might be more accurately labeled as “thought tanks” to reflect the fact that their efforts generally revolve around one idea: increasing markets in education. That is, rather than developing and analyzing new policy ideas, the primary contribution of groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the State Policy Network, has been in terms of developing strategies to advance free market, low cost policies, rather than developing additional, much less alternative, policies.

While there may be something laudable about philanthropists wielding their vast fortunes to improve schools, the emerging patterns of how they are doing this may also point to some reasons for concern. Their reliance on business-style strategies to push ideas (or an idea) orchestrated through think tanks highlights the marginalization of democratic channels and the rise of privatized public-policymaking.

from left: Joel Malin, curriculum specialist at the Pathways Resource Center and Chris Lubienski, professor of educationChristopher Lubienski is professor of education policy at the University of Illinois and Sir Walter Murdoch Adjunct Professor at Murdoch University. His research focuses on education policy and reform, with a particular concern for issues of equity and access, and on the political economy of education policymaking. His co-authors on the paper on which this blog entry is based, Jameson Brewer and Priya Goel La Londe, are advanced doctoral candidates in education policy at the University of Illinois.