US teachers demonstrate outside Pearson's AGM

Free trade sellout of schools

Dinoo Kelleghan

Education International has slammed the influential role played by Australia in bringing education within the little-known Trades in Services Agreement (TISA), saying the move was “auctioning off our school systems”.

The comments were made at Education International’s (EI) seventh World Congress in Ottawa in July at which AEU Secretary Susan Hopgood was re-elected EI’s president.

“Only recently, we learned that four nations — Australia, Norway, New Zealand, and Colombia — are secretly promoting the inclusion of ‘education services’ in TISA,” EI Secretary-General Fred van Leeuwen said.

“We have exposed their conduct and insisted that they stop auctioning off our school systems.”

The fact came to light in June thorough Wikileaks, which leaked TISA documents that would not have been made public for five years after the deal took effect. The leaks show Australia wants the removal of all restrictions on foreign private providers of education that are encroaching steadily into Australia’s secondary and tertiary education systems.

Federation President Maurie Mulheron referred to the TISA implications for Australia in a speech at Annual Conference.

In Australia, edu-business is insistently knocking on doors. Last month News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch brought to Australia Joel Klein, head of News Corp’s Amplify, which produces tablets and digital resources pushed heavily into the US and British schools systems.

At the EI Congress a top United Nations official condemned the “alarming” encroachment of edu-business into public school systems while a senior OECD official emphasised that good education depended upon the building up of a quality teaching force.

These two key issues are captured in decisions taken by Federation at Annual Conference in July, where President Maurie Mulheron, AEU President Correna Haythorpe and Professor Stephen Dinham, Chair of Teacher Education at the University of Melbourne, spoke at length about the growth of profiteering in education in Australia by multinationals such as Pearson and the strategies — including the lowering of teacher status — used to further their business.

“We must resolutely stand up against privatisation in education,” UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kishore Singh, told EI, emphasising that privatisation “cripples” the universal right to education.

‘It will generate angry teachers, stressed students, frustrated principals’

He congratulated teacher delegates at the Congress for passing a resolution that declares commercialisation of education to be the greatest threat to education as a public good. “This is imperative in the face of the explosive growth of privatisation in education,” he said.

“The phenomenon of education as an attractive business is assuming alarming proportions, with scant control by public authorities.”

The quality of any education system relies on the quality of the teachers; that “is the single most important factor influencing student performance”, said the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Deputy Director General for Education, Montserrat Gomendio.

“Thus having high-quality teachers who are satisfied with their jobs and work in stimulating and supportive environments, must be a priority of all education systems,” she said.

Federation wants teacher training to span five years, up from the current four years, in outright rejection of the Abbott Government’s plan to have new teachers in class after six weeks of teacher training, adopting a concept pushed by billion-dollar education multinationals.

In being part of multiple testing processes (such as NAPLAN in Australia) “teachers are being forced to make students take tests as a means of making money” for companies such as Pearson, pointed out the Global Campaign for Education President Camilla Croso.

“The idea that you can somehow improve quality by introducing standardised testing, league tables, and performance pay, by ranking schools, by measurement, is wishful thinking,” said Mr van Leeuwen. “What it will do, however, is generate angry teachers, stressed students, frustrated principals, and lots of paperwork.

One speaker pointed out that $US8 billion education conglomerate Pearson has a stake in low-fee private education institutions, claiming, with World Bank backing, that this would make education affordable for the poorest families in developing countries.

Dr Prachi Srivastava, Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, pointed out that the reality was that sending one child to schools run by the Omega or Bridge school chains in Ghana and Kenya respectively could take a quarter or half of a family’s income. In 2012, Pearson bought a stake in Omega; it already had a holding in Bridge.

EI delegates came out clearly in favour of sharing information and co-ordinating strategies against privatised education. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten described how the AFT, in coordination with the UK’s National Union of Teachers, the AEU and other teacher unions, used shareholder action and a successful social media campaign to put pressure on Pearson.

EI President Hopgood acknowledged that EI had been backward in seeing the lengthening tentacles of edu-business but it was now a priority.

“We failed to see the rapid growth of these education businesses — their size, reach and influence,” she said.

“Education has become a goldmine for investors who view children not as students but as economic units and are more than happy to replace our teachers with tablets or lessons in a box. This is capitalism at its worst: the exploitation of children and their future for cold profit.”

Marking up high profits

The profit motive in setting tests such as NAPLAN has been mercilessly exposed by English comedian John Oliver in his program Last Week Tonight, recommended at the EI Congress as essential viewing for teachers.

Oliver points out that in the US, where edu-business has grabbed hold of education systems, students would sit about 113 standardised tests by graduation, amid reports of “kids throwing up, kids crying” from the pressure. Official instructions to supervisors included what to do if a child throws up on the textbook.

The tests were unreliable: Oliver interviewed a member of a Florida school board who asked to be given a typical grade 10 reading and maths test that subsequently labelled him a poor reader even though this person taught graduate courses in six universities, had two maths degrees and been re-elected to his school board six times.

“If standardised testing is not good for students or teachers, who are they good for?” Oliver asks, then points out that by 2012, Pearson had 40 per cent of the US testing market. Testing is paying well: Fortune magazine says that stake is now 60 per cent.

With Value Added Analysis, in which teachers were rated on perceived ability, tests for kids turned to tests to teachers, Oliver said.

He goes on: “A girl could take up tests from kindergarten to at least eighth grade studying with Pearson curriculum and textbooks, taught to her by teachers who were certified by their own Pearson tests. If at some point she was tested for a learning disability such as ADHD, that’s also a Pearson test. And if she eventually got sick of Pearson and dropped out, she then had to take the GED [General Educational Development, a high school equivalent credential] which is also a Pearson test.”

Oliver notes that Pearson has advertised for markers on Craigslist and that markers are being advised to score papers in certain ways, one saying he had been told, “You have to see more papers as threes and more papers as fours.”

Oliver sketches the history of the testing frenzy, saying it came in when the US Congress passed George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy – a concept that on its face was difficult to argue against: “Voting against No Child Left Behind is like voting against No Puppy Left Unsnuggled,” remarks Oliver.

Watch the John Oliver clip here.