Worlds of Education

Teacher resistance to the Global Education Industry: potential, manifest and successful

published 7 November 2017 updated 7 November 2017

By Bob Lingard, The University of Queensland, Australia

Teacher Unions have provided important resistance and organised opposition to the Global Education Industry in nations and globally. This piece reflects on three examples of potential, manifest and successful teacher opposition to the privatisation and commercialisation of public schooling.

In a recent survey that I conducted with colleagues Greg Thompson, Paul Shield, Anna Hogan and Sam Sellar for the New South Wales Teachers Federation in Australia, we found very strong support by teacher respondents to the nation-wide survey for what we might see as a social-democratic framing of the purposes and place of public schooling.

Interestingly, there was a consensus about this social-democratic framing across teachers and school leaders, amongst young and old, less-experienced and experienced teachers, across teachers in all types of schools and all types of locations.

There was strong support for a more supportive department of education and acceptance that government schools had important roles to play in respect of democracy, social justice and for dealing with difference. Open-ended responses complained about the evacuation of departments from important roles such as provision of professional development, as space was opened up for private providers with profit as a chief motivation.

These respondents pointed to a significant amount of commercial activity in schools, including commercial lesson plans, online learning programs and use of commercial standardised tests. Schools leaders reported significant commercial activity in respect of commercial behavior/attendance programs and reporting software. Respondents expressed great concern about student data in the hands of commercial providers and the ethics of this, and real consternation at schools being run as businesses.

The data suggested that schooling systems in Australia today are being restructured around a mixture of government and private provision, what we might see as the partial privatisation of education policy and systems. What we see here is a most interesting situation of the teacher workforce and its values at odds with the values framing contemporary education policy and the restructuring of departments of education.

We know how important teachers are to the enactment of education policy in schools. It seems there is a strong, and perhaps to this point, largely untapped political opposition to privatisation of Australian government schooling amongst teachers.

US: Resistance to standardised testing

The second case of manifest teacher opposition is also derived from the research funded by the New South Wales Teachers Federation and relates to the Opt Out Movement in New York state and city.

The Opt Out Movement works in opposition to the standardised tests introduced in that state as a result of Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top programs. This largely middle class activist group has been highly successful, achieving more than 20 percent of students opting out of the standardised tests taken by all students from Year 3 through to 8 in the last two years.

In parts of Long Island, opting out has gone beyond 50 percent of eligible students. Research interviews with those involved indicated a number of things. First, the opposition to standardised tests has been part of a broader oppositional politics to the related privatisation and commercialisation of public schooling, and recognition that standardisation is important to the latter.

Opt Out brilliantly utilises social media and appears to be an exemplary and successful twenty-first century grassroots social movement. Our interviews and other research would suggest that about half of the Opt Out activists are teachers.  These teachers have also been very important in the educative role of Opt Out.

The election of the President Trump has galvanised this Opt Out and other progressive opposition and honed the focus on the privatisation of public schooling, given Trump and Secretary for Education Betsy DeVos’s financial and political support for the expansion of Charter Schools (government schools run by private interests).

The point to note here, though, is that teachers have been important in opposing high stakes testing and related changes. Teachers, along with activist parents, were also involved in ending the InBloom initiative driven by edu-businesses and philanthropic interests, which would have seen the corralling of all data about a child across eleven states, including New York, in a unified data infrastructure provided by private for profit ed-tech businesses.

There was very real concern about such data being in the hands of private companies and also the potential for these ed-tech businesses to on-sell the data for profit to third parties.  As noted above, Australian teacher respondents to our survey also expressed this exact same concern.

New Zealand: the 'Kiwi standards'

The final case I want to comment on here is that of New Zealand, which with the election of the Ardern Labour government (in coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First) has witnessed the scraping of New Zealand’s version of the Global Education Reform Movement, the National Standards (and the Maori version, Nga Whanaketanga Rumaki Maori),what Martin Thrupp calls the ‘Kiwi Standards’.

These National Standards were introduced in 2008 by a Conservative government with little or no consultation with teachers or the teacher unions, a retrograde and foolish policy move, given the more common partnership approach historically to policy development in this small nation state and the centrality of teachers to the success of any policy implementation.

There has been ongoing teacher union opposition to these Standards and their impact upon the work of teachers, reductive impact on curriculum and their opening up of aspects of schooling to commercial for profit interests. Martin Thrupp in his book, The Search for Better Educational Standards: A Cautionary Tale (Springer, 2017) provides an intelligent, granular account of the Kiwi Standards from policy gestation through to implementation. Important to my argument here is the fact that his research (conducted with colleagues) was funded by the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI), the largest teacher union in New Zealand.

This research and related teacher union activism have been centrally important in the demise of New Zealand’s version of GERMS (or at least an important component part of it) achieved through the election of a Labour government, but also evident in the education policies of the three parties that now form the coalition government.  Such victories need to be celebrated.  I would also stress, as evidenced in the three cases dealt with here, that teacher union commissioned research has become an important component part today of organised opposition to the Global Education Industry and privatisation of public schooling.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.