A long overdue rant

Long overdue in the sense that anything here is long overdue as I hadn’t blogged for a long long time.

Long overdue in the sense that Australia’s anti-intellectualism and suspicion of those with a university education has long gotten up my nose and it’s about time that I said my piece about it. (No guarantees that this is my piece in its entirety, I reserve my right to rant further on this topic).

Ok, some background, some context is probably necessary before I put my rant pants on.

The Labor government has been very education focused since coming to power in 2007.  In 2008 when Julia Gillard was federal Minister for Education she oversaw the signing of the Melbourne Declaration (which is the official document outlining Australia’s national goals for education). By fortuitous happenstance the education ministers of all the states (with the exception of Western Australia) were members of the Labor party and a close look at the Melbourne Declaration and Labor education policy suggests that the Melbourne Declaration enshrines many of Labor’s education policies into this national  agreement (the national curriculum, increased federal control over education, accountability and transparency, equity, etc). Since the signing of the Melbourne Declaration the federal Labor government has increased its control of the education sector. We are closer to having a national curriculum than ever before, we have a federal quality framework for the early childhood sector, the new government bodies AITSL [Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership] (AITSL is currently developing a federal set of teaching professional standards) and ACARA [Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority] (ACARA oversees the NAPLAN testing and the MySchool website) mean that education is being overseen and regulated by federal as well as the existing state regulatory bodies. As can been see from this brief overview, since coming to power in 2007 the Labor government has been busy (whether this incursion into education is positive or not is a debate for another day).

Image of the Melbourne Declaration document

Although there has been a lot of progress since 2007, things have gotten more difficult since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010. Not only is her government a minority government, but various states now have Liberal led governments thus the cohesion that existed when the Melbourne Declaration was signed no longer holds.

Not very long ago the federal government commissioned a review of education funding in Australia – the Gonski review. School funding is one of those contentious topics where everyone is an expert and everyone has an agenda. So the Gonski review was commissioned and it returned with a conclusion that in order to fix some of the problems of the unnecessarily complex and opaque conditions surrounding school funding, and to ensure that all schools are adequately funded on a needs basis, it is going to cost an extra $5 billion – this is probably higher than it needs to be as Gillard stated that no schools would be worse off as a result of any changes arising from the Gonski review. Anyway with agreement from the states the Gonski Review recommendations  might be put in place – but it isn’t going to happen with the states in slash and burn money saving mode.

And this all brings me to the subject of my rant. A post by Liberal Minister Alan Tudge on ABC’s The Drum on the failure of the government to implement the recommendations of the Gonski Review has managed to push my buttons. Tudge argues that the Gillard government needs to concentrate on teacher quality in order to improve Australia’s educational outcomes. He states:

After two years of work, it will back to the drawing board for Gillard, but she now has the opportunity to do what she should have done at the outset: tweak the current funding model and then focus attention on what really matters – quality teaching.

Our teacher training courses are frequently poor, focusing too much on the philosophy of education and not enough on the basics of how to teach well.

Well, I have a couple of things to say to this. You know what I love. I love how everyone is an expert when it comes to teachers and teacher education. And yes let’s hold teachers responsible for the state of education, no better yet, lets blame teacher educators for the state of education in Australia.

Firstly, the Gillard government is looking at teacher quality – what does he think that AITSL is all about?

Secondly, what does he think that that teacher training courses actually involve? I can tell you, it’s certainly not four years of nothing but philosophy of education. (Can you imagine it? ED101 – Intro to educational philosophy I, ED102 – Intro to educational philosophy II, ED201 – Educational philosophy I, ED202 – Educational philosophy II, ED301 – Studies in Educational philosophy I, ED302 – Studies in Educational Philosophy II, ED401 – Advanced studies in Educational Philosophy I, ED402 – Advanced Studies in Educational Philosophy II!!). I can assure you that while educational philosophy is a part of an education degree, it is a small part. Education students study educational foundations (history, sociology, psychology  and yes, a smattering of philosophy with a focus on ethics – I ask you who wants teachers without any background knowledge in ethics?); curriculum and subject content courses, pedagogy and methodology, behaviour management, special education and Aboriginal education as well as professional studies courses (incorporating practicums and an internship). What, pray tell, should be left out? So perhaps before Liberal Ministers bag out teacher education they should actually take a minute to find out what contemporary teacher training involves.

Thirdly, although I am not against improving teacher quality and teacher education (although I believe neither are in the perilous state indicated by Tudge) improving these areas alone will not solve the problems of our education system. The current focus on teacher quality puts the responsibly for educational outcomes on individual teachers and on the institutes responsible for teacher accreditation and registration. It ignores that education is embedded in complex structures and that student outcomes are influenced by, not just teacher quality, but also their SES background and the SES background of the schools of which they attend, parental and community attitudes to education, the curriculum, resources available to them and a host of other factors. Teachers themselves do not work in isolation and quality teaching is enabled when teachers work together in schools. The emphasis on teacher quality and the current solutions proposed to improve teacher quality  – bonus pay, teacher accreditation, professional standards – are each based on the presupposition that teacher work and teacher success is an individual endeavour and ignores the reality that teachers work as part of system – they work with colleagues, the school leaders, parents and the community, and within education systems; complete with bureaucracies, rules, syllabus documents and expectations over which they have no control. In other words, due to the complexities of the education system and the varied communities within which schools are embedded, improving individual teacher performance will not necessarily lead to better educational outcomes. Teacher quality is not the panacea for education’s problems. And discourses which look to simplistic solutions to solve education’s woes only serve to obfuscate the many factors influencing educational outcomes. The inequities that plague our otherwise good education system took several generations to evolve to this point, a renewed emphasis on teacher training is not going to suddenly make these problems disappear.

*deep breath* I think I’ll leave it there for now, but I do have more to say on this topic.

Disclosure: I have a PhD in educational philosophy, work as a teacher educator.

Thats me in the corner losing my religion

So as I said in my last post in relation to this story, ‘there goes the last lingering threats of my Catholicism’.  Of course the Catholic Church has a history of being criticised by feminists, but before writing the whole institution off as completely worthless, I should make it plain that it was through the Church that I came to my feminism.  I think that I mentioned elsewhere that I had a happy childhood, and my education in the local catholic schools was a big part of that, as was Sunday school and church.  Church lent a happy rhythm to the week, and I loved the ritual of the Catholic service.  I remember singing hymns loudly and proudly and when I made my first communion I was one of four students chosen to stand with the Priest explaining to the congregation why the service was like the Last Supper.  I enjoyed my faith, it was a source of comfort to have a belief in a God of love, to have a friend in Jesus.  I remember praying fervently as child during times of distress and when I was quite small I even toyed with the idea of becoming a nun (until a friend of mine laughed, but she would laugh –  she was the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister and they don’t believe in nuns).  I was such a devout little girl.  So what happened?  When did I start ‘losing my religion?’

During my teens I started to realise that life wasn’t as black and white as I had thought.  I was involved for a number of years with a youth group which gave me very clear insights into the human element of religion.  The power plays, the jockeying for leadership, the righteous judging of who was committed enough, I began to see that shared faith or a common belief isn’t enough to unite a disparate group.  Some of the group were committed young Catholics and were trying to help other teens with their faiths, others were committed young adults trying to meet other teens, most of us I suspect were both.  In that time I experienced deep spiritual moments and deep human hurts.  It was in this that I got a sense of how deeply humans can scar one another without even meaning to.  But that’s not why I lost my faith.

I’ve always felt that there is something deeply wrong with society’s treatment of women and there has long been a burning sense of justice in my heart.  Gender Studies at uni gave some formal understanding of the system of the patriarchy that we are swimming in, but I was still attracted to the Church, even though it was becoming increasingly clear that the Church was thoroughly patriarchal and not going to change anytime soon.  Women weren’t going to be ordained so why stay in a church that limited women’s expressions of faith in a way that it did not limit men’s?  I thought for a time that it would be ‘easier to burn the castle down from within’.  So I stayed in the Church, and got married in the Church.  The Catholic Church, to my mind, has a strong sense of social justice and this aspect of the Church is something I’ve always loved and has in part shaped me.

It was history, finally that caused me to walk away.  Through my studies I have learned that the Bible is not the cut and dried document that I had believed it to be.  Different threads of interpretation run through the Bible, and it is a compilation of many authors and editors and translators and long forgotten oral traditions. There an environmental ethic in there, if you look past the ‘new heaven and new earth’ of Revelation (if there’s going to be a new earth than it doesn’t matter what we do to this one).  There’s a feminist message (Jesus praised Mary over her sister Martha for scriptural learning, befriended a Samaritan woman, saved an adulterous women, etc) too if you overlook Paul’s letters.  Just as the Bible is far from being a homogeneous document so the Church is not homogeneous.   I realised that  major theological decisions were made by a bunch of men coming together and arbitrarily deciding ‘stuff’ and making it ecclesiastical law.  Thousands of people have died because of differing interpretations of pure conjecture.  Books and people put to the flame for heterodoxy.  So when it finally occurred to me that my childhood beliefs were the result of closed doors power plays by political bishops of ages long gone, well these things stopped making sense to me.  The trinity, transubstantiation, the unbroken status of Mary’s hymen, tricky answers to questions that should not have been asked.

I learnt about the architects of the Church, the Early Church Fathers, men like, Augustine (pictured), Jerome, Philo, Tertullian and Thomas Aquinas who each had their own twisted version of Aristotelian logic that they brought to the Church.  These men shaped the Catholic Church and imprinted their misogynistic mindset upon the developing theology.  Understanding the humanity of those that shaped the Church is what has compelled me to walk away.  When people take seriously the notion that women are ‘the devil’s gateway’ (Tertullian) and use that understanding as the basis for a theological stance how can that institution ever be reformed – with the founding epistemology so deeply ingrained with dualistic and misogynist beliefs about the world.

Not sure what I believe anymore, but I do know this, as I work it out I won’t be trying to foist it on anyone else.  Maybe reading about other ways to be Catholic has made me pause to think about my relationship to the Church, or maybe I’m just fed up with the tragic injustice of it, but I’m going to come back to the topic and post about the Church’s teaching on sexuality shortly.