Australia’s Top Educator Shares a Familar Education Agenda

By Debra Viadero — June 22, 2009 2 min read
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Julia Gillard, Australia’s deputy prime minister, was gadding about Washington late last week to talk about her government’s education agenda. After meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and her American counterpart, Vice President Joe Biden, Gillard spent a morning at the Brookings Institution with some education thinkers, federal government officials, and members of the media. (Yes, they let me come, too.)

Gillard, a member of the Australian Labor Party, outlined a program that includes developing a national curriculum, making school-by-school data on student achievement and funding more “transparent” to the public, decreasing high school dropout rates by beefing up career and vocational education programs, and improving teacher quality through Teach For America-like initiatives.

Sound familiar? It should. Gillard said her governmen’s “transparency agenda” borrows heavily on NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s ideas on that topic. The Australian government is also working with Teach For All, a global version of Teach For America, to develop its own Teach For Australia initiative.

But what really interested participants at this meeting was Australia’s work on a national curriculum. The power to determine what gets taught in schools in Australia rests firmly with the states and territories, as it does in the U.S. Yet the Aussies are plunging ahead, well on their way to having draft curricula in every subject completed by year’s end.

The U.S., meanwhile, is proceeding more cautiously along the same track. Duncan, you’ll recall, called for common standards for groups of states. While 46 states and three territories have signed on to the idea, standards are not quite the same thing as a national curriculum, as one meeting-goer noted.

So the burning question for attendees at Friday’s meeting was: Given the inevitable controversies over states’ rights and the politics of what gets taught to children, how are the Aussies pulling it off?

“It’s a public curriculum-development process and the papers are available on the Web,” explained Gillard. “And whilst it’s sometimes been scary... our posture is basically that this is an evidence-based process and I’m not a teacher and I’m not a curriculum developer.”

Tom Bentley, Gillard’s deputy chief of staff, said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government was “quick off the mark” in setting up a national group, made up of a wide range of stakeholders, to oversee the curriculum-development process in Australia. It also helps, he said, that the group is being headed by Barry McGaw, an internationally known Australian researcher, with the demeanor of “everybody’s favorite uncle.”

Wise politicking hasn’t entirely staved off political controversy over the process, though. Questions arose in Australia over whether one of the commission members had Communist inclinations, the Australian officials said, and Gillard herself was asked at the start whether she believed Australia was invaded or settled.

“But we hope by the time the content appears, 80 percent of the people will treat this as a foregone conclusion,” Bentley added.

UPDATE: Looking for more details? The full text of the deputy prime minister’s prepared remarks is now available online at the Brookings Website.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.