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Julia Gillard

The Gillard revolution

Julia Gillard 30%

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IT was telling that on the Monday morning after the weekend Council of Australian Governments meeting, ABC local radio in Sydney excitedly declared it day one in the education revolution. For ABC broadcaster Deborah Cameron, the revolution was about computers. Was this the Great Leap Forward? she asked rhetorically. Cameron should have googled, if only to remind herself that Mao Zedong's program led to the deaths of many millions of Chinese. Historical quibbles aside, for the next few minutes Cameron and NSW Education Minister Verity Firth applauded the coming revolution for delivering a laptop to every high school student in years nine to 12.

Completely off their inner-city Mao-focused radar is the real revolution cautiously started by Julia Gillard at the weekend. 

Far more important than the underfunded election gimmick of computers that still excites the ABC is Gillard's grassroots change to education. There was no coincidence to the visit to our shores in the lead-up to COAG by New York City education chancellor Joel Klein. In Sydney late last week, he told me, with a cheeky smile, that he enjoyed being described by 2GB radio broadcaster Alan Jones as Julia's pin-up boy. And it's not hard to understand why Gillard is enamoured with Klein, who has run the largest public school system in the US - more than 1400 schools - for the past six years. 

His bold reforms have challenged the status quo, lifting the prospects of thousands of children. Based on accountability, transparency and leadership, Klein's system tests literacy and numeracy, and tracks the progress of students in every school and the outcomes delivered by every teacher. 

Critics who complain that Klein's reforms teach students to master mindless tests miss the point, he says. Every mark of progress students earn in the tests increases their probability of graduating. And lifting the outcomes of students stuck in the tail of educational disadvantage is Klein's driving focus. 

Importantly, parents can access all the information on the New York City education department's website. Schools are awarded a grade for student progress, from A to D or F forfail. 

The D and F schools face restructure or closure unless they improve. Principals and parents are surveyed regularly. That, too, is all public. 

As Klein said, transparency means the public becomes your ally in reform, "so that parents can raise hell" about schools that are failing their children. Added to that powerful cocktail of transparency and accountability is competition from small, independent charter schools. 

Parents with students at failing schools have the option to move their children to other schools. Underperforming schools stop taking students for granted. "We wanted to be the Silicon Valley for charter schools," Klein told The Australian, so he recruited the great charter school leaders to NYC. People such as Dacia Toll, who is the director and co-founder of the Amistad Academy, came to NYC to open schools that unapologetically use student performance as a factor in student, principal and teacher evaluation. 

When Klein took up his post, disadvantaged students had little choice. There were 16 charter schools. There are now more than 100, all in high-poverty areas such as Harlem and central Brooklyn, educating the most disadvantaged black and Hispanic students in NYC. 

Klein told me about meeting a child in kindergarten at Excellence Academy, a red-bricked charter school in an impoverished part of Brooklyn. The boy told Klein he was in a University of Pennsylvania program. "Hang on, you're in kindergarten," Klein said to the boy. "What do you mean?" 

"I'm on my way to college. It's never too young to think about that," replied the little boy. 

Klein's key concern is the inequitable distribution of high-quality teachers. So he also encouraged quality school leadership by raising ($110 million) from the private sector to train what he calls "get-up-and-go, tackle the problem" leaders who, in turn, would attract motivated teachers to their cause. Leaders such as Marc Sternberg, who graduated near the top of his class at Princeton and went on to business and education degrees at Harvard. When, at 29, Sternberg returned to New York, Klein appointed him principal of a small school where every child is black or Latino. 

Klein copped the usual criticism about appointing a young guy. Longevity is the key to being a good school principal, said the critics. 

When Sternberg joined Bronx Lab School in 2004, it had graduation rates of about 35 per cent. Now the graduation rate is 94 per cent. "That's the power of leadership," says Klein. He has also introduced a trial into 200 high-poverty schools of bonuses for teachers where student progress improves, and greater freedom for principals to achieve better outcomes. 

At COAG on Saturday, Gillard dipped her toe in the water of a Klein-inspired education revolution by scoring agreement with the states to publish data about the relative performance of schools. The commonwealth can then identify struggling schools and inject further resources into them. "What Labor has never used before is full transparency," Gillard said. Klein said that "once this genie (of transparency) is out of the bottle, it's very hard to put it back in". 

But if Gillard is serious about reforming education and confronting the tail of education underachievement, she will need to do more. The model of rewards and penalties that she has previously ruled out will, ultimately, need to be on the table. Handing out money to disadvantaged schools cannot be the end game if student outcomes do not improve. Closing down consistently failing schools, encouraging competition and providing incentives to schools that achieve have proven to be critical reforms in NYC. 

Klein's bold agenda is to position education of the most disadvantaged as the civil rights issue of the 21st century. If Gillard can do the same, she will, in the process, position herself as a true leader and Kevin Rudd's natural successor. Sometimes the best reforms are done from within. For all the bluster about reforming education, none of the Coalition education ministers, including most recently Julie Bishop, could win over teachers unions to this cause. 

Gillard, from the Labor Party's Left faction, is uniquely placed to woo her power base to see the sense of reforms they have long opposed. 

For now, unions are mouthing the same old nonsensical objections driven by their vested interests. And Gillard can expect much more feral and misguided criticism. 

But if, as Klein has done, she can build on the present moves towards transparency with tougher reforms in the future aimed at greater accountability, she will deliver a real education revolution. And she will have earned the thanks of those who count: parents and students, especially those most disadvantaged among us who deserve a quality education. 

Stirring the pot - and delivering. real outcomes - is, as Klein would say, the power of leadership.


Janet Albrechtsen | December 03, 2008


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