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A Brookings Roundtable on Education Reform Featuring the Honorable Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia

In a roundtable discussion on education reform, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard outlined the similarities between the reform agendas in the United States and Australia. The following is a summary of her initial presentation and the discussion that followed; the text of her prepared remarks can be viewed here.

In her remarks to an invited group of education reform researchers, policymakers, and advocates, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard began by outlining the similarities between the reform agendas in the United States and Australia. (A text of her prepared remarks can be found here.) Reformers in both countries, for example, have advocated for greater transparency as way for parents to have more information about the performance of their children’s schools; indeed, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has played a prominent role in Australia’s debate over an widespread initiative similar to the one he championed in New York that gives schools individual letter grades.

Next, Gillard provided an overview of the political path her reform agenda has traveled. During the 2007 election campaign that brought current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to power, Australia’s Labor Party sought to make education a priority, despite the fact that, like in the United States, the national government has little direct control over the provision of K-12 education. Complicating the Australian picture further, she argued, is the fact that a sizable proportion of primary and secondary school students there attend non-state-run schools (including Catholic and other religious institutions) that still receive substantial public financing. Though Labor’s reform agenda focused primarily on primary and secondary education, it also included implementing universal access to preschool, investment in vocational education by way of 700,000 new slots in training programs, and steps towards a more demand-driven university system.

Gillard then described the reform agenda in detail, highlighting a commitment to transparency; a promise to create a high-quality, national curriculum that would allow Australia to keep pace with its Asia-Pacific neighbors; a program of capital improvements with an emphasis on computer access; and a plan for increasing secondary school graduation rates. Enactment of these various proposals was achieved by incorporating them into the education funding agreement between the national and state governments. Such an agreement is drafted every four years, and thanks to the Prime Minister having prioritized the reform items, an aggressive pact was drafted through collaboration between Commonwealth and state officials.

Among the most significant components of this agenda was the school transparency initiative. For the first time in 2008, students nationwide in grades three, five, seven, and nine sat for the same standardized test and by the end of this year, school-level test data, as well as other quality indicators, will be made available to the public. Non-state-run schools must also submit to this disclosure regime, and officials believe it will stimulate school-to-school comparison and competition. As in the United States, Australia is struggling with an achievement gap between its indigenous population and other students, and the funding agreement includes an extra $1.5 billion in extra funding for the schools educating these disadvantaged students, with few restrictions on how the money is spent.

Another component of the reform agenda, Gillard explained, is an investment—to the tune of $550 million—in teacher quality. Efforts will include the creation of national teaching standards, to be complemented by extra pay for teachers who meet those requirements and choose to work in disadvantaged schools. Gillard also discussed the creation of a national curriculum and with it, increased funding for basic literacy and numeracy education. Lastly, she described $14.7 billion in funding for small school-oriented infrastructure projects provided by Australia’s own economic stimulus package, highlighting that, together, Labor’s reform initiatives will more than double the national government’s investment in education.

From there, the discussion moved to an exploration of four major differences between the Australian reform agenda and its U.S. counterpart. First, the U.S. is moving slowly, and with significant opposition, towards the mere possibility of voluntary national standards, while Australia is embracing a full national curriculum. Second, most transparency initiatives in the U.S. focus on a value-added approach; Australia’s program does not. Thirdly, the renewed emphasis on vocational training in Australia stands in stark contrast to the “college for all” approach being touted by many in the U.S. reform community. Lastly, many proposals in the U.S.—ranging from vouchers to charter schools—rely on creating a competitive market for schooling and harnessing its pressures; Australia, on the other hand, does not seem to be going down this path.

Gillard explored each of these differences, emphasizing the fact that their success with creating a national curriculum has largely been the result of effective political maneuvering, including finding the right leader for the effort, beginning the process during the new government’s honeymoon period, and relying on a collaborative, representative, and data-driven approach. She also emphasized that the process is moving slowly and deliberatively enough that by the time the full curriculum is released, the stakeholders will have been involved so significantly and for so much of the process that they will see the actual curriculum as a foregone conclusion. In terms of competition as a vehicle for change, she explained that it is already quite easy to open a school in Australia and receive public funding for it, but that most new, non-state-run schools are not the product of social entrepreneurship (as they are in the U.S.), but rather are low-fee Christian schools perceived as being more “traditional” than state-run schools. Lastly, she explained that the eventual aim is to move to a value-added-oriented transparency system, but they chose to make their initial focus simply developing a program that provides basic information.

The discussion continued on a comparative U.S.-Australia track, focusing next on whether there exists any significant conservative opposition to Labor’s agenda, since after the 2007 election the party controlled not only the Australian national government, but all the state governments as well. Gillard explained that while the “historic coincidence” of unified party government has helped, Labor’s agenda has been attacked from both the left and the right. In the cast of the former, many Labor members of Parliament would prefer the party to return to its historic singular focus on state-run schools; in addition, teachers’ unions have stridently opposed the transparency initiative. The conservatives, meanwhile, have vacillated, Gillard argued, between attacking the transparency and curriculum plans and claiming credit for them; they have also focused on attempting to find flaws with the way the stimulus infrastructure funds are being spent.

The conversation moved next to teacher quality, with Gillard explaining that improving both the quality of students in teacher training programs and the rigor of the programs themselves are important parts of her reform agenda. Efforts are underway to change teaching’s image as a low-status profession, to create financial inducements to get people into teaching, and to develop a “Teach for Australia” program modeled after the U.S.’s successful Teach for America. The discussion then returned to the issue of making a national curriculum politically palatable, with an emphasis on whether the Australian effort is involving all the necessary stakeholders. The development process, Gillard argued in response, has been completely public, with all the relevant information and documents available on the Internet; the independence of the board developing the standards has also helped allay concerns, as has the evidence-based nature of the process.

Another key difference between the Australian strategy and those of its neighbors was explored next; unlike many other Asia-Pacific nations, Australia’s national testing program does not attach high-stakes to individual students. Gillard reaffirmed this strategy and argued that while the Prime Minister has intimated that some schools as persistently failing might eventually be closed, the overall approach is one more focused on how school leaders and teachers, as opposed to a test, can motivate students for success. In Australia, she observed, it is less culturally acceptable than in many other countries to put the onus on the individual student.

The discussion then turned to how Australia is dealing with a phenomenon that has been well-documented in the United States: that parents lack significant information about the performance of their neighborhood school, and even if they do know that it is not performing well, they tend not to care enough to enroll their children elsewhere. In Australia, by contrast, Gillard argued, there is significant demand (as revealed by polling) for more information about individual schools. In addition, given the fact that non-state-run schools are already accessible to a large number of Australians because all schools receive some sort of public funds, most parents who want to choose an alternative already have. Because, furthermore, even non-state-run schools are subject to the new transparency requires, Gillard expects that the process will actually highlight some elite schools that are struggling and cause parents to reconsider some state-run schools. Lastly, plans are in the works to re-evaluate the entire funding system for state-run schools versus non-state-run schools in 2013, which will allow for further exploration of this dynamic.

Picking up on this dimension of the Australian reform agenda, the conversation next considered how demand-side effects can be realized if no penalties exist for low-performing teachers and/or schools. While there are plans to channel additional funding to persistently failing schools, one of the most important drivers of reform, Gillard argued, will be the fact that Australian states are incredibly competitive with one another. If, then, one state is widely publicized, through the national transparency initiative, to have the worst schools, it is expected that that state’s government will intervene on its own to catalyze change.

Returning to the fact that social entrepreneurs have yet to play a significant role in the Australian reform agenda, Gillard reiterated that efforts to establish a Teach for America-like “Teach for Australia” program are underway, as are attempts to create public-private partnership endeavors of various types; Australia has not, however, yet reached the point where it is likely that significant numbers of new schools will be opened by such entrepreneurs, as they are in the United States.

Lastly, Gillard explored the changing politics of education reform in Australia, explaining that in many ways, the new agenda is simply a return to Labor’s historic embrace of social mobility and equity. She emphasized that she remains hopeful that progress can be made in terms of gaining the support of teachers’ unions, pointing out that the union representing teachers at non-state-run schools has already begun to cooperate on several initiatives. In closing, Gillard reminded the audience that both she and the Prime Minister are the products of state-run schools; that, she argued, would be much harder to do today—making it an important indicator of the need to reform the system.

 

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