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Fighting the Privatisation of Education

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There is no silver lining for COVID, but suddenly there is a realisation that public schools are the heart of the community and we must take care of them.

Diane Ravitch

COVID has laid bare the deep inequalities in our educational system. So why additional money to the already overfunded private education?

Angelo Gavrielatos

How are parents and teachers and activists successfully fighting the forces that are privatising public schools? US Education expert Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America's Public Schools examines the resistance to the forces trying to privatising America’s public schools. Whether it is corporations or philanthropists like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Mark Zuckerberg, she shows how their ideas have failed and how the defenders of public education are winning.

Diane was joined by host Jane Caro, author of The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education, Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator and deputy director of the Gonski Institute for Education, and Angelo Gavrielatos, President of the NSW Teachers Federation for a discussion about how schools in Australia and America are resisting privatisation of education.

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Gonski Institute for Education, with the NSW Teachers Federation’s Centre for Professional Learning.


Jane Caro: Hello, I'm Jane Caro and welcome to Fighting the Privatisation of Education. I am your chair for the next hour. And welcome to everyone who's watching and listening and who may watch and listen in the future. I think this is an incredibly important conversation. And to that end, we have an incredibly distinguished special guest, someone I have admired from afar for a very long time. Her name is Diane Ravitch, and she is a long time campaigner for public education in the United States. And she has written many, many books on the subject. And her latest is Slaying Goliath, which I can highly recommend. I've enjoyed reading it, because it's hopeful. And I don't know about you, but right at the moment, I can use all the help I can get. So it was a great pleasure to read how parents and teachers and ordinary people in the US are fighting back, and fighting back successfully, against privatisation, and extremely wealthy and powerful companies and individuals. But for the benefit of the audience. Hi, Diane, how are you? Lovely to see you.

Diane Ravitch: Great to be with you. Thank you.

Jane Caro: It's lovely to have you. I can't tell you what a thrill it is. And I thought for the benefit of the audience watching us, it would be good to get an overview from you to begin with, of what where public education is at, in America and the impact privatisation has been having, and how you're fighting back?

Diane Ravitch: Well, we've had a very interesting conversation before we came online. Two of my very good friends, Pasi Sahlberg, and Angelo Gavrielatos are here. And we were talking about the Australian system, which it turns out is, to my surprise, very different from the American system. We have a very strong tradition in this country of free and universal public education. And it's only been since about 1983, that the system as we know it, public schooling, has been under attack by people who seek to privatise it, who seek to create private management of public schools, or private management, not of public schools, but private management of public money, and vouchers, which would support religious schools. And I gather that you do this already in Australia, which I was quite surprised to learn. It's still not a popular idea at all, to send public money to religious schools here. In fact, we have 50 states. And whenever there's a vote put to the populace of, do you support the idea of sending public money to religious schools? It's overwhelmingly defeated, because most people went to public schools, believe in the principle of free public education, and do not believe that the public should be supporting religious schools. And some of the strongest opponents of subsidising religious schools, or are Christians, Baptists in particular, because they believe that if the government starts subsidising religion, then the government and religion will become entangled, and this will infringe upon religious liberty. So if you believe in religious freedom, the best way to protect it is to keep it free of entanglement with the government. And so I, I'm a scholar, I'm a historian, but I also lead an activist group called the Network for Public Education. And we've worked very closely with pastors, most of them Baptists, but not all of the Baptist. And they have been great allies and fighting voucher legislation, and in many of the American states. But the state of privatisation is this: we have almost, about half of our states, about half of our 50 states, have some form of voucher program. And actually very few children are enrolled in them. Usually it's anywhere in the range of two or 3%. One reason being that they're so poorly funded by the public that to choose a religious school with a voucher is to choose a third grade school, because the religious schools don't get the same amount of funding as the public schools do. But the more virulent form of privatisation is called charter schools. And charter schools are beloved by big corporate interests, by wealthy individuals like the Walton family. The Walton family owns the Walmart stores and they are multi, multi billionaires. And the reason why so many very wealthy people like privatisation is that they believe, first of all, that it can be used to eliminate unions. They don't like teachers unions. And so of the charter schools and of the religious schools, easily 90, there are very few, if any, religious schools that have teachers unions, and 90% of the charter schools are non union. So for the very wealthy, and very, who merged with very right wing, very conservative interest, supporting privatisation is a way of eliminating and blocking teacher unionisation. The other aspect to the privatisation movement is its tie-in to testing. And testing has been, since the passage of legislation by George W. Bush, who was elected president in 2000 on a hotly contested election, George W. Bush introduced a national testing program, which we had never had before. And the test results were used to rank schools, and to say, if your school has low scores, it can be closed, it can be privatised, it can be handed off to private interest. So the testing and the privatisation go hand in hand. And my organisation, and I personally, have been extremely active in trying to stop privatisation. And the reason I wrote the book Slaying Goliath was to celebrate the successes, to celebrate the teachers who's even in states where they're not allowed to have unions, they’ve unionised nonetheless, but they have voluntarily gotten together and said, we will not stand for this anymore, they have not been able to stop the testing, but we've had a very powerful movement of parents to say, we won't take the test, you can give the test, but we won't take it. And so that's one of the stories that I tell in the book, it's called the opt out movement, we simply won't take your tests, New York State had the largest of all the opt out movements, about 85% of the kids in America, between 85 and 90%, depending on the state, attend public schools, most public schools have funded based on property taxes. So if you live in a relatively affluent or middle class area, you will have a very good public school. If you live in a very impoverished area, you really will have large class sizes, and you're dependent on the public funding to try to equalise the availability of resources. But nonetheless, about 85 to 90% are in public schools. And the struggle we have here is to stop the choice movement, because the choice movement is now firmly tied into the very conservative right wing, associated with Donald Trump, with his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. And the Democratic Party, which many of us hope will win the next election, we hope will restore funding to public schools, as it should be. I have to say that one of the things that had a big influence on me and I, I used to be on the other side, it's my personal story, I was on the other side for a long time. And I changed sides around 2008, 9, 10 and wrote a book about it called The Death and Life of the Great American School System, warning people that testing and choice were doing terrible damage to our public schools. And right after I wrote that book, I went to the Finnish consulate, to learn about why Finland had done so well on the international test, or PISA. And I met this very attractive man named Pasi Sahlberg. He described what it was like in Finland. And I said, but how do you hold teachers accountable if you don't test children, they don't have standards for their schools? And he said in Finnish, we don't have a word for accountability, the closest word would be responsibility. And our teachers are very responsible. Well, I was so taken with my conversation, that it had a huge impact on me. And I then made a point of visiting Finland, visiting schools. And I realised that the way things are the US, the way things are in Australia is not the way things ought to be. Finland is the way things ought to be. And you're very lucky to have Pasi with you.

Jane Caro: We certainly are. We'll be hearing a bit from Pasi and Angelo, in just a few minutes. It's interesting, isn't it? The whole world talks about Finland as being the ideal, and its results, certainly in international comparisons. Give the evidence to that. And yet we won't do it. We won't do it. We won't take the lessons, which is interesting, seeing we're talking about education. What, I mean, you've talked a little bit about the motivations behind privatisation and school choice. I mean, is it religion, the desire to indoctrinate, and to continue religious control over the population to some extent? And it's interesting to me that America is a much more religious country than Australia. Australia really wears its religion if it has one very, very lightly. Whereas for America, it's very much a fundamental part of how you began indeed, and yet you are much more committed to public schools, to secular public schools than we are. Is it religious? Isn't economic? I mean, we had saturated markets after, in the 80s, in terms of selling stuff to people. And so that was when corporations started to move into areas that previously they'd left the government, like education. So they had to expand, to grow, and they had to go into new places, including law and order, and education and a whole lot of other places. So is it economic? And these are the ideological? Is it part of the neoliberal wave that, you know, kind of, rolled over the whole of the Western world anyway, particularly with the Reagan and Thatcher, period? Or is it a combination of all three? What do you think Diane?

Diane Ravitch: Well, I would say it's a combination of all three. And I've always had trouble identifying one specific motive, you might say that with religious groups they’re interested in expanding their reach, and having public support for what they're doing anyway. And they, it helps them spread their message, if the people who attend their church could also send their children to their school. So there is a religious aspect to it. There is an economic aspect, because there is a lot of money to be made, particularly in the charter sector, not in the voucher sector so much. There's a lot of fraud and abuse and waste in the charter sector. Because basically, the way charter works, the charters work, is that many of our, most of our states have legislation allowing charters, that means that anyone can apply to get a charter to open a school, you don't have to, in most states, you don't have to be an educator. And so corporations have moved into this. And also some very dubious characters who are running for profit operations. So they may run a non-profit school, but the corporation that's running it is for profit, and then when you look at even the ones that say that they're non-profit, they're paying themselves outrageous salaries, and there's a lot to be gained by them, by multiplying, they get one charter, and then they get 10 charters, and they get 50 charters. And each of these charters is producing public money, and there's no oversight. And just in the latest round of Coronavirus relief funds, the charters were allowed to apply for funding as public schools and then turn around and apply for more money as non-profit organisations, and to get money that public schools were not allowed to access. And as much as, I don't know, a billion, two billion dollars have gone to charter schools because they see themselves as small businesses. So there is a pecuniary motive on the part of many of the charter operators. Some of them may be paying themselves millions of dollars a year. The virtual charters, which are online charters, are big money makers, because they get the same tuition from the state as a regular public school. And all they supply is a computer and online instruction.

And if someone has 10,000 children enrolled, and each of them brings with them tuition of $10,000, that's $100 million. And all they're doing is handing out computers. And they're having teachers teach remotely. So there's a massive amount of fraud associated with the online charter business. But this doesn't seem to tarnish their reputation. The charters are beloved by billionaires, they're beloved by Wall Street. And this is, I think, fundamentally the third thing you mentioned, which is the neoliberal impulse, the idea of marketising everything and turning everything into a free market, where competition is supposed to lift all boats. But what we've learned is that it doesn't. The cities, we have some cities that are desperately impoverished, where there's tremendous inequity, and now they have many, many charter schools. In Milwaukee, there's a public system, a charter system, and a voucher system. All three of them do terribly. And Detroit which is the poorest performing city in the nation. About half the kids are in charters, and they do as poorly, if not worse, than the kids in public schools. So the money that should go to build one strong system is instead divided into two very weak systems. And I think the neoliberal impulse is very powerful, because the billionaires are not investing in charters to make money. They're already billionaires. They're investing in it in order to spread the market ideology that has been so very beneficial to themselves.

Jane Caro: Yes, well, we can certainly recognise the two systems, and the problem that that has. In Slaying Goliath, you talk a lot about how in 2018, teachers took to the streets in America. It's my observation as a non-teacher that teachers are awfully well behaved. They obey the rules, something about being a teacher that creates that. It’s very hard to get them to really take on the powers that be, in a rebellious way, which has happened in America. Has that turned the tide? Is that having a real effect on the way Americans are starting to think about their school system? 

Diane Ravitch: Well, the reason I wrote Slaying Goliath was because I was very moved by what started in the spring of 2018, two years ago, a little over two years ago. And that was when the teachers of West Virginia, which is a very, very poor state, decided enough is enough. And their salaries were very low, their health insurance had just been increased dramatically. And they said the only way anything would change was if they went on strike. So there was a lot of planning that went into this. Technically, they're not allowed to strike in West Virginia, they could all be arrested for doing this. But there are 55 districts in this small state, and every superintendent in the state of West Virginia, decided to close the schools. So they weren't on strike. The schools were closed, but they were on strike, they all rallied at the state capitol. They all were matching red T-shirts, and they had slogans that they chant, they were very well prepared. And the two existing, they're two teachers unions in the US, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. And they both supported the strike in West Virginia. And that strike then led to them getting some benefits, not everything they asked for, but certainly more than they would have gotten, had they done nothing at all. And that was followed by strikes and other states, which I described in the book, that Oklahoma, and Arizona and California, in Colorado, and Kentucky, and every state had its own issues, but the basic issues were the same, teachers underpaid, classes were overcrowded, there had not been a significant investment in infrastructure and capital spending. And teachers realised, and the more they saw it happening, the more it became contagious. And they realised that if they didn't fix it, no one would. And what was very inspiring at that time, was that this was in the spring of 2018, a number of teachers in these states ran for the state legislature and won. And they were underfunded and unknown, and not everyone who ran won, but nonetheless, there were now more teachers in the state legislatures. And I saw this as an incredibly hopeful moment. And that was the point at which I wrote that book. And the book came out on January 21, of this year, 2020. And the first case of COVID, appeared in the US on the same day the book came out. Of course,  I didn't realise that. But now the only thing anyone wants to talk about is will the schools reopen? How can they reopen? What do we have to do to be safe? Is it safe? And so we're pretty much tied into this conversation about the COVID. But at some point, hopefully, we will get back to something approaching normal. I don't know, it may not be soon given the way things are going. But what happened with the teachers in 2018, was that they completely changed the narrative in the United States. We had had 20, 25, 30 years of constant complaining about the public schools, bashing the teachers, saying the teachers were bad. If the test scores didn't go up, the teacher should be fired. Teachers should be judged by test scores, on and on with criticism. Meanwhile, when the strikes began, the media began to tell a different story. And the story they told was, teachers can barely make do. Some of the teachers were teaching their job, and then they had another job after school and another job on the weekend. And some teachers had three, four jobs, and they also had children to raise, of their own, and they were living themselves in extremely strained circumstances. So instead of this constant complaining about teachers, there began to be a new approach on the part of the major national media, looking at the world from the teachers point of view and saying, we have been underfunding our schools. And it made me realise that the billionaire's have another motive in promoting privatisation, which is not to pay taxes. I mean, we have a tax that is very skewed towards incredibly wealthy people, and they don't want to pay more money. I mean, the Koch brothers now there's just one Koch brother, one of the major, major industrialists was, he and his brother together, were worth about $120 billion, the Walton’s worth 150 billion, and on and on with these. They didn't want to pay more taxes. They would like to have a government in which there's no social security, no Medicare, and everyone's on their own, and no one calls them and says, how about if we raise your taxes and, and you pay more for the common good. So the fundamental issue here, and I see this affecting, not just the US, but countries everywhere, is whether we have a sense of the common good. And I think one of the things that impressed me about Finland was, they have a school system that works for everyone, that has excellent teachers, that's well respected, and they pay for it. And the problem we have in the US is, we're not willing to pay for it. And what was turning around just before this terrible pandemic started, was that states were beginning to say, we're going to have to raise taxes, to pay our teachers better, to have smaller class sizes, and to take better care of our public schools because they are a jewel. And I think that if there's any, there isn't, first of all, let me say there's no silver lining to the pandemic. It's horrible. 

Jane Caro: Yeah. 

Diane Ravitch: But one good thing to come out of it is that there is a renewed appreciation of the importance and the role of teachers, and also public schools. Because suddenly, people realise that the public school is not just a place where kids go for academics, they also go for meals, they also go for medical attention, if the school has a nurse, and about a quarter of our schools do not have a nurse, but should. And suddenly there's a realisation, these are the heart of the community, and we must take care of them. But more important, I think, is that parents who've been stuck at home, quarantined with their children, started giving up almost immediately and saying, I can't do this, how about the teachers do it with 25 or 30 kids, when I can't do it with my own two children? And it's, they realised this teaching is very, very hard, and it takes a lot of skill, and perseverance. And so there's a renewed respect for teachers.

Jane Caro: That's a really interesting point for me to be able to bring in our other two guests on the panel, who is Angelo Gavrielatos, who is, of course, the president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation. And he led the global response to privatisation for five years, when he worked with the global teachers union, until relatively recently. And, of course, Pasi Sahlberg, who is one of the fathers of the Finnish education system, so he must be feeling very good about himself at the moment. And he's now to our great delight, the head of the Gonski Institute at this very University, and a resident of New South Wales and a parent of children in New South Wales public school, which is fantastic. Diane's point about the renewed respect for teachers because of parents being confronted in a way they never have been before, with having to do home learning. Do you think that's happening in Australia as well?

Angelo Gavrielatos: The pandemic has changed a number of things. And I hope it will change things for the better moving forward, because it's done a few things. One, it's highlighted the worth of teachers and principals. Not that we needed that to be highlighted. But it's certainly highlighted the worth of teachers and principals, as Diane said, there is a much deeper appreciation, a growing appreciation, I think, still growing appreciation, and a deeper trust and admiration for the work of teachers and principals. That's a very good thing. And we certainly hope it lasts well beyond this pandemic. The second thing it's done, it's laid bare for all of us to see, not that many of us needed it. The deep inequalities, inequities that exist across and within our education system, deep inequalities, deep inequalities that we cannot go back to. So when we get through this pandemic, we're not going back to that old normal. We have a lot of work to do in order to address once and for all, all those inequalities, many of which are amplified because of privatisation in our school systems.

Jane Caro: Well, Diane was talking about how the charter schools in America were able to double dip for the COVID subsidy, we have also seen here, private schools getting large, really, gifts.

Angelo Gavrielatos: Oh it’s outrageous that the federal government announced a month or two ago additional money for the already overfunded private school sectors. I'll just say one more thing, though, just to link it back to COVID, the pandemic, and privatisation. One of the other things that's been occurring, though, has been the opportunism on the part of global EDTech companies, who are operating within the notion of never letting a good crisis go by, we're seeing incredible entryism, on the part of the EDTechs, and we were in fact call it the EdTech pandemic.

Jane Caro: And this is via keeping kids at home and remotely and all that kind of thing.

Angelo Gavrielatos: Absolutely, they're occupying a space that exists. This is not an argument against technology. Technology, where it's teacher friendly, or teacher led, and where the policy design and the like is teacher led, is a good thing. But what we're talking about here is something very specific within the context of the pandemic, and the role of large education technology corporations, trying to get their foot in the door opportunistically, within the traditions of disaster, capitalism and market creation, and potentially changing the face of education, influencing policy in the interest of their motives, which are profit motives.

Jane Caro: Nothing marketing likes better than a problem, because then they can sell you a solution. That’s how it works. 

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, well, I just wanted to add to this question of teachers, you know, if there happens to be any teachers listening, or parents listening to this thing that, I was a teacher for many years, it's much easier to teach other parents children than your own. So there's kind of an agony of trying to make your own children follow what's going on in school, when, when they're learning from home. It's not necessarily as bad as it feels. But I agree with both of you that, you know, when one day when this pandemic and crisis is over, that we will, we will look at teachers in a different eyes that we will see them, almost as we are looking at medical doctors and nurses and healthcare workers right now, that the teachers, and particularly in public schools, they are the ones who will keep our children happy and healthy and learning as well. And that's an important, that's an important outcome of this mess that we are in.

Angelo Gavrielatos: Jane, just on disaster capitalism, it might be good to ask, Diane can shed a bit more light on it. We have got the example of New Orleans post Katrina. 

Jane Caro: Oh yes. 

Angelo Gavrielatos: And what happened there, where the disaster was exploited. And it was Naomi Klein, who coined the term disaster capitalism. But New Orleans is a case in point, they lost their public education system.

Jane Caro: Diane, do you worry about that happening after this? 

Diane Ravitch: Well, you know, one of the things that I worried about initially was that this would create a boom for distance learning. And certainly the companies, the corporations that are heavily invested in selling K-12, education online, have been advertising intensely. But I think that parents are kind of sick of it, frankly, they don't want, they're not going to want more distance learning after having been subjected to months and months, having their children home. And I know I have grandchildren who are school aged, and they're bored. I mean, they get through their lessons very quickly. And then they say, what, what do I do now? And because of the lack of socialisation, it's very difficult, because they're very limited in what they can do. And they can read a book. But still, it's not the same as being in school, being with your friends, engaged in activities, having an art teacher. And I know I saw an article this morning that the young journalists wrote in one of the Bloomberg publications, saying that the pandemic is going to lead to a boom in homeschooling. I think it's quite the opposite. I think that parents are going to say, I've done this, I don't want to do this anymore. I want to go back, my four children should be in school with other children, and the last thing I want is homeschooling. So I don't think… we have about 2 million out of 50 some odd million children in the US, 2 million are homeschoolers, and many of them do so out of religious motivation. They don't trust the secular culture, or the non-sectarian culture. And so I don't see that sector growing as a result of this. I think. I just hope that there will be a sea change, a sea change in the appreciation for the importance of schooling, for the importance of experienced teachers, and I have to say the other, the flip side of that is, a fear that the negative side of this pandemic, is that many older teachers will retire early, because they're literally afraid for their lives. And in the US, at least, they're being pushed to go back to school, when the schools are not safe. And rather than go back and risk their lives, they'll retire. And a friend of mine in one state contacted me the other day, and he said, 20% of the print of the superintendents in his state have retired. The pressure on them to open schools, when schools are not safe, and the requirements of having a healthy environment, are simply not there, is too much. And so I think that we may lose a large number of highly experienced, and highly professional veteran teachers. But that, I think, just puts more pressure on those of you who are teacher educators to raise the banner and say, we've learned how important teachers are, they should be paid as professionals, they should be paid as well as other professionals. And we shouldn't bring people into the classroom unless they're committed to making teaching their work, and not just a stepping stone to something else. You ask, Angelo, about disaster capitalism in New Orleans. And I think that's a good question. New Orleans in 2005, was devastated by a category five hurricane, which is the worst hurricane you can get. And it did tremendous damage to New Orleans. But the pieces were already in place before the hurricane, to begin privatising the system. What it needed was this one massive disaster where so many people had to leave the city, fleeing for their lives. And the system was transformed. The first thing that the new bosses did, that is the state legislature, which was dominated by white men, New Orleans was, is, a primarily African American city. But the first thing they did was to fire all the teachers, and all the staff, 7500 people, most of them African American, and most of them women. And they were the backbone of the middle class in New Orleans. And they were all fired summarily. Some of them got their jobs back, but the template for reopening was to turn the public school… close all the public schools, or almost all public schools, a few have remained open. It's now all charter system. But they're, all the schools in New Orleans are now run by private organisations, who are free to hire and fire teachers at will because the legislature, in addition to firing all the teachers, eliminated the teachers union. That’s what this is all about is. get rid of the teachers union, fire the teachers, start fresh, bring in… we have a group called Teach for America, you probably have Teach for Australia, and the theory there is that any bright young college graduate will be a good teacher, and that's simply not true. I mean, one of the things that's made Finland the envy of so many countries is that they demand professionalism, and they would not permit unprepared or ill prepared inexperienced young people to teach other people's children. So I think that the bottom line and I write about New Orleans in Slaying Goliath,  is that it's one of the lowest performing cities today, and one of the nation's lowest performing states. Louisiana is a very, very poorly educated state, does very poorly on the national exams. And about half the charter schools in New Orleans are considered failing schools. So there has been no miracle there. It's kind of held up as the ideal of privatisation, because there are no public schools left. There was no teachers union, and yet half the schools there are failing schools, and the failing schools are almost uniformly all non-white children.

Jane Caro: It's very interesting that you talk about the aim of privatisation is basically to avoid paying taxes, to impose neoliberalism as much as possible, because I kind of get it. If you are talking about market forces, you know, that the market can solve every problem. The big sticking point is in the education of all children, because children are not disadvantaged through any of their own doing. They are disadvantaged because they were unlucky in the lottery of birth, and some kids are advantaged, so they haven't earned their advantage, and they haven't deserved their disadvantage. So it is the major sticking point in the neo-liberal market forces merit will out you know, blah, blah, blah. nonsense. Sorry, I'm exposing my bias, I think it's infantile nonsense, that argument.

Angelo Gavrielatos: It’s the truth. Yours is the truth Jane. 

Jane Caro: That’s right. 

Diane Ravitch: Jane, are you familiar with the book The Rise of the Meritocracy by a British sociologist Michael Young? 

Jane Caro: No, but I better get it. 

Diane Ravitch: You should, you should get it, because it was written many years ago. And when he did it, he brought out a new edition sometime in, I don't know, the 50s or 60s. And in his introduction, he said that we shouldn't rely on these standardised tests, because they reflect family income and success of the families then reflected in the child. And he said, people are likely to become arrogant when they get high scores. And they think that they're smarter, that they deserve what they get in life. And the people who get low scores deserve nothing. And the people who get low scores think that they've deserved nothing because of this test. And he says, in reality, the people who get the high scores are members of what he calls, the lucky sperm club.

Jane Caro: Absolutely, I know a few of those. Well, but it seems to me that this is the nub of the problem, that if you have that philosophy about, I'm superior, because I'm wealthy, and that, you know, prosperity, theology, all that kind of stuff is playing into that. It's where public education in the education of all children is where it sort of bangs up against something. And so there is a real attempt to literally, as in New Orleans, dismantle it, get rid of that particular problem. Is COVID going to help us to fight back against that? Or is the jury still out?

Angelo Gavrielatos: Absolutely. Look, let me put it this way. We didn't need COVID to help us fight back. Because that's what we do. 

Jane Caro: Yeah. 

Angelo Gavrielatos: If you don't fight, you lose. 

Jane Caro: Yeah. 

Angelo Gavrielatos: We fight, we fight, we fight and there's no nobler cause, for every teacher in principle, than the defence of quality public education for all…

Jane Caro: Yep.

Angelo Gavrielatos: And the campaign against privatisation.

Jane Caro: Greatest idea humanity ever had.

Angelo Gavrielatos: We didn't need COVID. But COVID, having put the spotlight on inequality, and the impacts of such, on the opportunities for every child, you betcha. We're going to fight some more.

Pasi Sahlberg: But you know, the other thing is, that if we look at what has happened in these countries, most of the countries until now with this COVID thing is that, almost every nation has relied on the advice of the experts, health and medical experts in what to do next. 

Jane Caro: Yeah. 

Pasi Sahlberg: So what we can, if we learn from this, this crisis, that in education, when we are fixing our education systems, we have to listen more, the experts will really know what's going to happen. And in this country, and many others, in the United States, you know, education reforms and policies have been based on politics, or ideas of some individual people. 

Jane Caro: Ideology.

Pasi Sahlberg: You know, this is where my kind of a hope is, that if we understand that any complex system like health, or economy, or education requires expertise, and that's why. You know, the amazing thing is that the OECD that people often refer as an authority in the global evidence, OECD has been telling for the last 10 years very clearly to all the governments including here, and the United States, that the market mechanisms is a bad idea in education, there is no successful education system in the world that is has built, it's kind of a success and glory around the kind of a market ideas that we are seeing here and the United States and many other countries. Instead, the OECD is emphasising the importance of equity, the fairness, the public education, if you look at the world class systems right now, they all share the same thing, their strong public education systems, and they all they all have been driven by this idea that the best school for each and every parents child should be the neighbourhood school, and you cannot have that ideal if we believe that you can run the education system, like you run the business. And that's the kind of a thing that let's listen to not only our own experts, education experts, but also the international authorities that have much more, kind of, a big picture knowledge. 

Jane Caro: And I dunno, the evidence. Look at the evidence. 

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, exactly.

Angelo Gavrielatos: This is astonishing, because, and this is why sometimes we highlight that, even though it's incremental, we are winning. 

Jane Caro: Yeah. 

Angelo Gavrielatos: It's not any of the OECD’s evidence, the World Bank, their own evidence, the World Development Report two years ago that focused exclusively on education. The World Bank concludes in their own reports that privatisation doesn't work. It deepens inequality, deepens segregation, and in fact, it doesn't improve education. There's a term in political science called organised hypocrisy, and that is where actors ignore their own evidence, which is the case for the bank and others.

Jane Caro: Sounds like the human race. I actually think too, in this conversation, just as we get to the point where I'm going to bring in some questions from teachers and principals. One of the things we've talked about here, that COVID may also be reminding us of, is what education and schools are for. Because it got narrowed down, didn't it? To the point where it was all about test scores. That actually it was just about, like children were little vases. And what you did was stuff them full of information which they could then regurgitate, job done. And what people are realising and I think Diane referred to it earlier, is that schools are a whole experience. They're about socialising. They're about relationships with teachers and educators. They're about learning how to be with other kids. As much as they're about the curriculum and the stuff… I always thought the curriculum was the stuff you practise on. It isn't, you don't have to know it, you have to know how to find out about what you need to know. And that COVID is reminding us of that, because that's what's lacking when parents sit at home with their children and find that children are longing to get back to school, to see their friends, to see their teachers to be part of something again.

Diane Ravitch: I want to throw a question to Pasi, since you mentioned the importance of relying on the experts. And I thought when he mentioned the OECD, I thought about the damage that's been done by the horse race that they run… 

Jane Caro: PISA.

Diane Ravitch: Where every nation wants to be first. And I was very impressed when I first met you, when you said well, we're first this year, but frankly, we don't care where we are, because in Finland we don't want… when you ski down a hill, you don't want to be the first, you want to be the second.

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But I, you know, I think that there's no perfect way of measuring complex systems like social systems anyway. And, you know, my position to the OECD piece of this, I think that there are several issues. But I also often argue that without evidence, if we wouldn't have any data, any evidence, about other countries, we would be arguing about very different things right now. So that's why I think we have to be mindful with the fact that the data, we need some ideas, some evidence about what's happening, but we cannot fully rely on, for example, the data that comes from questionable sources, like the standardised assessments in the national tests.

Jane Caro: Well, thank you all for that conversation we've just had, but we've now got some questions. But let's begin with our first question from Alice Lung, about school choice.

Alice Lung: Hi, Diane, my name is Alice Lung, and I'm a teacher in Sydney, Australia. My question relates to school choice and public education. While many members of the community are generally supportive of a strong public education system, and they recognise the value of a strong public education system. Many are unwilling to send their own children to the local public school, citing school choice as the main reason, this then results in some public schools experiencing increasing compounded disadvantage. So my question is whether school choice can ever coexist with a strong public education system?

Diane Ravitch: I think that's a very good question. And clearly, it's possible. But I think it's not likely. What happens with the system of school choice is that those who have the most, take care of themselves and their own children. What school choice does is that it encourages an attitude of consumerism. And the consumer always wants to take care of me first, my children first. And then the others who don't have the same advantages are left with whatever it is left behind. And this has happened in countries that have choice systems, that is those who have the most resources go to, at least in the US, very expensive private schools where the tuition is in the neighbourhood of say, $50,000 a year. When the state then introduces choice, there's a great deal of segregation that follows. Segregation by race, segregation by ethnic group, segregation by economics. And we really have to ask at some point, what do we want schools to be? Do we want them to be a positive force in society? Or do we want them to be the great dividers that reinforce inequity? And I think that the more school choice you have, the more inequity there will be. I think that to the extent that there is choice, I believe people should pay for it themselves. I once wrote an article saying I'm all in favour of choice, but you have to pay for it yourself. So if you want to take your child out of the public system, and you pay for a private school, that's your right. State can't prevent you from doing it, although in some states they do. But the state should not pay for your private choices. And I think that's where the, that's where the big dividing line is. We should not be, US, you, many other nations, we should not have the state paying for religious education, we should not have the state paying for private education, because that's the state subsidising inequity. I think that's wrong.

Jane Caro: But it's what we do here, isn't it gentleman?

Angelo Gavrielatos: Certainly is, we have a federal government that considers itself the government for private schools exclusively, almost exclusively.

John Goh: Hello, panel. My name is John Goh, Principal of Merrylands East Public School. In America it seems like multinationals have a lot of say in curriculum development, implementation, and also assessment. What impact has this had on public schools and public education in general?

Diane Ravitch: Well, that's a very good question. The multinational that has had the biggest impact on us education is Pearson, which is based in Britain. And I can tell you from my own experience working in the federal government, that assessment companies, not just Pearson, but certainly Pearson too, they have lobbyist, their lobbyists are very well paid, they have lobbyists working in at the national level, they have lobbyists working at the state level, to make sure that the states continue to use their assessments. There are different assessment companies, but they're all lobbying for very, very large and sizable contracts. What this does is that it's a damper on any creativity. It's a damper on experimentation. It blocks those districts and states that might say, you know, we've been doing this standardised testing for 20 years, New York State being an example of this, we've seen absolutely no improvement over a 20 year period, maybe this is not the right thing to do. The US has a national exam, which is a sampling exam. And we can learn everything we need to know by looking at the results of that exam, it's called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But in addition to that national exam, we also have by federal law, every child is tested, every single year, from third grade through eighth grade. These mandated federal tests are totally unnecessary, because we can get the same information from the National Test. But it's the lobbyists from Pearson and from other of these multinational testing and assessment curriculum groups that have kept us locked into what I consider extremely stale thinking. And what I was trying to do in my book Slaying Goliath, was to explain that we've been doing this now for 20 years, the annual assessments test every child every year, and it's produced nothing. And you think that if we have intelligent policymakers, they might wake up one day and say, you know, maybe we should do something different? This is not working. Maybe we should invest in families, maybe we should invest in children's health? The book that I wrote before Slaying Goliath was called Reign Error. And the the point of Reign of Error was to lay out all of the research base things that we should be doing, instead of testing and instead of school choice, and it began with providing high quality prenatal care. 

Jane Caro: Here here. 

Diane Ravitch: And there’s just a wealth of evidence showing that when women don't get high quality prenatal care, their children are likely to be born with disabilities. And the children obviously will have, their lives will be harmed, but then society will be paying for their disabilities, which are way more expensive than investing in good medical care at the outset. Reducing class size, particularly for children who come from disadvantaged circumstances, small classes are very, very important. But there are also, there's a range of research based things we should be doing instead of standardised testing, but standardised testing are like, they're like a worm that's eating people's brains. And policymakers can imagine when somebody said earlier, how come nothing changes? Jane said, well, we know the Finnish example, they don't test, they don't do a standardised test. Why don't we follow that example? We have a system, a political system that listens to experts from McKinsey. And from other similar management consultant types who know literally nothing about education, nothing about children, but they know data. And so, they want to, they want the big data that standardised testing provides, and our policy makers are in love with data, and the data is worthless.

Jane Caro: Anything to add, gentlemen?

Angelo Gaverialtos: Well, Pearson's motto is, always learning, which most people refer to,  or people that I know refer to, as, always earning. It's also been referred to as a mutating giant, because it's constantly morphing itself as part of its market creation, to drive its profit, to feed its profit motive, in the case of assessment, and this is where they drive policy as well, because of the lobbyists. Once you've captured assessment, standardised testing, well, then what you can do is you can then populate curriculum, what you can then do is populate teacher development, what you can then do is set up your chain of online schools. And in doing so, you've captured the market. And that's what Pearson’s business plan is, although that's about the change, because it's flipping entirely to digitalisation. Now, I could talk to you forever about what Pearson is doing in the third world, to other people's children. But time doesn't allow us to do that. 

Jane Caro: No, another Centre for Ideas, we'll do that. 

Angelo Gaverialtos: We could do that. 

Jane Caro: Pasi, anything to add?

Pasi Sahlberg: No, I'm gonna give the floor to teachers. 

Jane Caro: Ok. 

Angelo Gaverialtos: Sorry Pasi. 

Jane Caro: Well, we now have another two… 

Diane Ravitch: Do you mind if I answer one other thing?

Jane Caro: Sure. 

Diane Ravitch: Many years, many years ago, I was interviewing a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about educational reform, of course, and he gave me a memorable line. He said, let me write the nation's tests, and I care not who writes it's poetry and songs. 

Angelo Gaverialtos: Yeah.

Jane Caro: Yeah exactly. 

We now have two questions about equity, which we'll play together. And they're from Alice Dixon, full disclosure, she's my niece, and Denise Loffs, I'm not related to Denise. Okay, here are the two questions.

Denise Loffs: COVID highlighted the intense and deep inequity that exists within us, within and across our schools. How should our schools respond to that?

Alice Dixon: Hi, my name is Alice Dixon, and I'm an English teacher in the Mount Druitt area. My question today is, how do I and my colleagues maintain a focus on equity, when we teach at schools with such a high density of disadvantage? So much so that equity seems invisible. So a lot of teachers in disadvantaged settings can no longer think about equity, because we have no experience of it in our teaching careers.

Denise Ravitch: My response would be that, first of all, the best response to equity concerns would be to eliminate school choice, because school choice is a driver of inequity. That's number one. Number two is, when you're teaching in a school where kids have not had the experiences, the advantages, medical care, the nutrition, all of the advantages that children of affluent families have, then you have to do the opposite, you have to make sure that they have three meals a day available at school, that they have good medical care available to them. They have small classes, they have a curriculum that includes a rich program in the arts so that they have the opportunity to be creative and to express themselves, and to know that they have a voice and that their voice is valued. And basically, what you have to do to reverse the inequity is to invest resources and time, and into the schools where these children are so that they know that they matter.

Jane Caro: Good answer. 

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, can I add here and I must disclose that Denise is my student. Here at the university. But this is a great question. But I think just like Diane said, I think what these teachers need to understand is that they alone, the schools alone cannot fix the inequities. This is something that is the campaign where we are all needed. The Gonski Institute, just last week, we released a, kind of, an invitation for every part of the society to be part of this. But what the schools need to be very clear of is that there are certain things that Diane was mentioning, that the government, the politicians, and the system has to take care of. And they often go beyond education. It's not just about the curriculum and teachers and resources. It's about health care, and wellbeing, and social issues that has to be provided if we want to have an equitable, equitable system, but there are certain things that the schools can do, and many other schools here that I've seen in New South Wales, in Australia, actually are doing wonderful things. And one of those things is that we have, we need to understand that children have different needs. And we have to understand that we need to address those needs, upfront, early on. Oftentimes it happens that we only provide help to those kids, whether it's about learning or health or behaviour, whatever it is, when the problem is already there. And the kind of equitable school is doing these things early on, they intervene early and identify these things so that they can provide help to all of these kids. But please don't don't accept any claims that schools can fix the inequities in Australia, that's not going to happen. You can do your share, but you have to understand the big picture. And you have to be able to argue and ask for other people to do their share. Angelo.

Angelo Gavrielatos: Well, there's a lot of research that shows that more than 60% of educational outcomes are already predetermined before a kid enters the playground, 20% they can't account for, and 20% attributed to what we can do in our schools. That's not to say that all of our people aren't doing a great job, and how much more they could be doing if they had the resources to do it.

Jane Caro: Oh, yes, absolutely. Teachers sometimes make a huge difference, in terms of encouragement. You hear that all the time. Everyone can name the teacher who did that for them. We have one last pre recorded question. Let's have a listen to that.

Chris Habarecht: Chris Habarecht, my people are Wiradjuri, Wiradjuri Country, Central New South Wales from the banks of the Murrumbidgee in the Darling river. I am the principal of Guilford Public School in Western Sydney. The 12th Closing the Gap Report shows Aboriginal children still trail far behind Non-Indigenous children in literacy and numeracy and writing outcomes. The report also shows the country is on track to meet just two of the seven government targets to reduce the disparity in health education and employment outcomes. While literacy scores for Indigenous students have slightly improved in the past decade, at least 20% are still behind the national benchmarks. The 2019 Family Matters reports shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children represent 37% of the total out of home care population, including foster care, but only 5.5% of the total population of children in Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are now 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than Non-Indigenous children. My question? How do we best equip our school leaders and teachers to embrace a curriculum that values truth telling and cultural proficiency? Thank you.

Jane Caro: That is a really important and difficult question. Diane, as an American, do you have the answer for us? Because we haven't been able to solve it?

Diane Ravitch: Well, I think some of the problems we have in this country are not dissimilar. And I think a lot of what you're describing was discussed by Pasi and his last answer, which is the schools can do many things, but what they cannot do is they cannot reorganise society. And the inequities you're describing are rooted in society and not in the schools. So the schools are trying desperately to repair damage that was done to children, and done to families and done to communities long before they ever arrived in schools. And what's needed is a sweeping change, that lifts up families, lifts up communities, and gives everyone a sense of worth and also the means to have a decent standard of living. And I know that those are very large orders. But until society faces up to its responsibility, the schools will constantly be playing catch up, trying to do the best they can for the children. As for what they can do, they can certainly commit themselves to truth telling, to teaching children about their own history, about how their world connects to the larger world. All of this is very important. And schools do this. And I think that schools can give children a sense of who they are, a sense of place, and a sense of possibility, a sense of the opportunities that lie before them. But the larger picture is the one that will require people who are not in schools, but who are in the state legislature, the state government, the national government.

Jane Caro: Do you want to comment further? We've got a couple of questions from the audience.

Pasi Sahlberg: Now, just very quickly, I think there's one thing we know we should not do with this question. And it's, try to implement silly ideas like direct instruction, to try to solve this problem. There's a study that was published recently that shows that it doesn't make any sense to, you know, ask teachers to teach more, these kids, when the flexibility and other more creative solutions would be the better way to go.

Angelo Gavrielatos: It's cause for national shame.

Jane Caro: Yes, it is. 

Angelo Gavrielatos: It's cause for national shame that the plight of our First Nations peoples has been so ignored for so long, deliberately so. It’s a source of national shame.

Jane Caro: I couldn't agree with you more. I'm going to move to, we have only a couple of minutes left. We have gone over time, we've been allowed to go a little over time. So I'll ask for very brief answers but Susan from Leichhardt asks, policies like Local Schools, Local Decisions – this will be a little opaque to Diane – this has resulted in the loss of support from teachers. What can we do to ensure the Department of Education supports the teachers?

Diane Ravitch: Well, just for Diane's benefit Local Schools, Local’s Decision, Diane comes out of the privatisation playbook. It's the devolution of responsibility from the centre, if you like, devolution, shifting responsibility and ultimately blame. When it was introduced, it was introduced at the same time that they slashed significant resources in terms of support to schools, through experts, curriculum experts and other experts, which were able to assist schools to continue on the path of ongoing improvement. So what do we do? We keep on campaigning in terms of ensuring schools and principals have the support and the resources they need to be able to do the job that needs to be done.

Jane Caro: Any comments from Diane or passing on that one? Oh, we'll go. I think it'll have to be the last question. I'll go from Isabella, from Western Sydney. What can a teacher do in their own school to stand up for equity, and expose government underfunding of public schools and over funding of privatised schools? How do teachers in their place of work do something about that? Diane, if you've got a suggestion, it’ll have to be brief.

Diane Ravitch: Well, you know, I'm asked this question, often by teachers in the US. And I will say to them, during the organisation that I run, National Network for public education, because we try to encourage people to work with others. On your own, it's very hard to make a difference when you're just one person. But when you collaborate, and you find that there are many people who share your views, it's very important to find other people that you can work with, and you become an organisation. And you may be a small organisation, but then you find other small organisations. And before you know it, you have a national force, where you can speak out on a national basis, representing people, teachers and parents who share your views. So I think it's about network building, and collaboration. But on your own, you know, I guess what I tried to show in my book is that there were examples where small numbers of people made a big difference, changed the direction of history in their city or their community. But in general, it's a better idea. If you have people that you're working with and collaborating with so that you have a larger voice.

Jane Caro: In other words, get organised. 

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, use your voice.

Jane Caro: Use your voice, join the union. Unfortunately, we now have to bring this really interesting and really important event to a close. I'd like to thank Diane Ravitch, obviously, all the way from the US. It's been wonderful to have you here. Angelo Gavrielatos,  just popped in from the Teachers Federation, Mary St. Surry Hills. And Pasi Sahlberg who just walked down from his office, and me who came from the leafy North Shore. And it's also to the University of New South Wales, and its Center for Ideas. It's absolutely fantastic to do these things for all of you for listening. Everyone who asked a question, and everybody currently working in public schools and in education, thank you so much for everything you're doing. The rest of society owes you an enormous debt. Thank you all.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is one of the foremost authorities on education and the history of education in the United States, and a former US Assistant Secretary of Education. Originally a strong proponent of standardised testing in schools, she has been a central figure in critiquing the way it has been implemented. Her books include The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatisation Movement and The Danger to America’s Public Schools.

Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg has worked as a schoolteacher, teacher-educator, researcher, and policymaker in Finland and advised education system leaders around the world. He has served as senior education specialist at the World Bank, lead education expert at the European Training Foundation, director general at the Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, and visiting professor of practice at Harvard University. He is a recipient of several lifelong service for education awards, including the 2012 Education Award in Finland, the 2014 Robert Owen Award in Scotland, the 2016 Lego Prize, and Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Resident Fellowship in 2017. In 2013 his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland won the Grawemeyer Award for an idea that has potential to change the world. His most recent books include Let the Children Play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive, Finnish Lessons 3.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland, and In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World-Class Schools. He is Professor of Education Policy at UNSW Sydney and the Deputy Director (Research) of UNSW’s Gonski Institute for Education. 

Angelo Gavrielatos Headshot

Angelo Gavrielatos

Angelo Gavrielatos is the President of the NSW Teachers Federation. Prior to his election, Angelo lead Educational International’s (EI) response to the growing commercialisation and privatisation of education. EI is the global union federation representing teachers and other education workers globally. Angelo was the Federal President of the Australian Education Union (AEU) for 7 years prior to commencing work with EI during which time, among other areas of work, he led the national Gonski schools funding campaign. Angelo is driven by a fundamental belief in the transformative power of public education and what it means for each individual child and nations, small or large, as a whole. 

Jane Caro

Jane Caro (Chairperson)

Jane Caro AM is a Walkley Award-winning Australian columnist, author, novelist, broadcaster, advertising writer, documentary maker, feminist and social commentator. Jane appears frequently on Q&A, The Drum and Sunrise. She has created and presented five documentary series for ABC's Compass. She and Catherine Fox present a popular podcast with Podcast One, Austereo Women With Clout. She writes regular columns in Sunday Life. She has published twelve books, including Just a Girl, Just a Queen and Just Flesh & Blood, a young adult trilogy about the life of Elizabeth Tudor, and the memoir Plain Speaking Jane. She created and edited Unbreakable which featured stories women writers had never told before and was published just before the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Her most recent non-fiction work is Accidental Feminists, about the fate of women over 50.  

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