The word “great” appears with irritating frequency in the educational media and speeches by Australian political leaders. Former prime minister Julia Gillard spoke of the “great” education she received at Unley High School, and in her September 2012 address to the National Press Club, responding to the Gonski report, the then-prime minister used “great” nine times. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations’ monthly newsletter is called Making Every School a ‘Great’ School. In March the NSW government launched its “Great” Teaching, Inspired Learning initiative to lift the quality of entrants. Rewards for “great” teachers have been mooted.

Dr Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, is in Australia advising education bureaucrats, and he also likes to speak about a “great” education.

But where did this idea of a great education come from, and is it really any better than a good one?

In 2007 global consulting firm McKinsey & Company published How the world’s bestperforming school systems come out on top, a project that looked at 25 school systems, ranking the top 10 performers. High-performing school systems were measured by the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, an assessment of reading, mathematics and science of 15-year-olds. McKinsey’s research didn’t focus on curriculum, paedagogy or assessment; instead McKinsey looked at the system itself — the infrastructure — and how it delivers a “great” education.

McKinsey looked at what high-performing school systems have in common and what tools they use. These school systems show that best practices work irrespective of where they are applied. McKinsey recommended reform to “instruction”, a concept framed around three core propositions, and characterised as the “black box” of school reform.

Schleicher, who has been described as the most important man in English education, wrote the forward to McKinsey’s 2007 report in which he made a number of fearless claims. He also said, heroically:

“The world is indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. Success will go to countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change.” 

Schleicher believes countries cannot be economically competitive unless they measure student performance; he also has a capacity to turn numbers into policy. At The Sydney Ideas forum last Friday, Schleicher said: “if you have to make a choice between a great teacher and a small class, go for the great teacher.”

The OECD is an economic organisation, not an educational one, yet the reach and impact of the OECD on schooling globally is profound. Some 70 countries, or 87% of the world’s economy, now take part in PISA; the World Bank requires countries seeking development capital to submit their PISA results. It follows that national education systems are steered towards narrow indicators of school performance.

Global consulting firms and international economic organizations exert pressure to promulgate a singular model of school reform. The tools of instructional effectiveness and market efficiency can be flown in to right listing schools systems wherever they are. Australian lawyer Noel Pearson describes McKinsey’s work as “seminal”; Pearson also uses the word “great”.

The ideal of equality used to hold a central place in the purposes of schooling: UNESCO once held that every child had an inalienable right to a “good” education. A “good” education includes the idea of equal treatment and fairness. For Aristotle the “good” was an education in which “equals were treated equally, and unequals unequally”, what Martha Nussbaum called “need and dignity subtly intertwined”. “Great” leaves all of this out.

Apart from its colloquial cachet, a “great” education is nothing more than a rhetorical side-step; it avoids being sullied with a political narrative about  equality or the contribution schooling makes to the common “good”; it limits thinking about the purposes of education to its practice; and it implies its own narrative normalising the idea that education is no more than an instrument of production in a globalised economy.

The language of global school reform is managerial, naively or disingenuously value-free, and the hubris suggests the keys to education reform fit all the locks, and work anywhere independent of culture, institution or tradition. As a consequence values such as equity are rendered in morally benign terms and function atonally in the lexicon of global school reform.

Beneath the language of the black box is a vision, a dark one, of societies composed of agile and economically aroused individuals, shedding the past, eyeing the future, and along the social fault lines where purpose yields to performance and meaning gives way to metrics, everyone has moved up, avoiding the snakes and climbing the ladders.

*Chris Duncan is the principal of Lindisfarne Anglican Grammar School and a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

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