Maxine McKew has spent the past two years as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE). She has taken part in a broad range of activities across the school, and her book Class Act is evidence of the thinking she has absorbed from some of MGSE’s outstanding researchers—John Hattie and Patrick Griffin among them. She has also talked with students and lecturers at length about the Master of Teaching program and seen its unique clinical practice model in action in a range of partner schools.
With a background as an education advisor to Social Ventures Australia, and before that as Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood in the Rudd Labor government, McKew brings a strong interest in education to the task. Her focus is on describing and documenting the strategies being employed in Australian schools that are helping to boost student learning. The value of this work is in McKew’s reportorial style and the way she allows the direct voice of principals and teachers to tell their stories. Class Act is a story of change and success in some unlikely settings.
At a time when the public education debate is consumed by what John Hattie describes as ‘the politics of distraction’, which usually involve second-order issues, McKew has produced a book which looks at what works—diagnostic assessment, expert teaching that evaluates impact, challenging academic content, and a culture of high expectations. She highlights the role of leaders within schools, not for any particular heroic qualities they may bring to the job, but rather for the precise ways they undertake a sustained long-term program of reform and improvement. Class Act also features a series of interviews with a range of education thought leaders—among them Linda Darling-Hammond, John Hattie, Patrick Griffin, Dr Ken Boston, Dean Ashenden, Misty Adoniou and Bruce Armstrong. Each of them offers a different perspective on our most persistent challenge—how to lift achievement for all our students at a time when the international tests of PISA and PIRLS are flashing red lights. Of particular concern is the gap between our lowest and highest achievers—the gap in Australia is greater than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average—and that our overall ranking is now significantly behind nations that were equivalent to us twelve years ago. Moreover, the achievement level of our most able students is also trending down.
What the top-performing nations have in common is that they have strong public education systems. Class acts are the norm. The focus is on student growth, not just standards. There is an expectation that students at the bottom will reach the top and students at the top will reach the stars. Throughout Class Act, McKew makes the case that we need to learn from the best—that it is only through a high level of collaboration and knowledge-sharing that we will be able to get a system-wide lift and a consistent boost in learning for all our students.
As readers will see, McKew brings a strong sense of social justice to the task. She doesn’t pull any punches in deploring the extreme level of social segregation that now exists in the Australian schooling system. Whereas the Finnish have created a system where the ‘best’ school is the closest one, we are a long way from being able to say the same in Australia.
One of the achievements of the Review of Funding for Schooling that I was privileged to Chair was not directly anticipated by us while the review was taking place. This was that it would start a discussion at all levels of the community about how important school education is, what equity in school education means, and how it and a good education can be best achieved.
Class Act is one of the manifestations of this achievement. This book recognises (which many didn’t) that our review was about funding as distinct from how to educate, and in an informative and yet entertaining way continues the debate—examining a number of the questions we raised and going out into the world of school education and seeking answers to them from senior educators in the field and academics who have deliberated and written on the subject.
There is no doubt that this publication builds on the issues the review raised and indeed raises new ones.
I would not be human if I didn’t appreciate the approval that the author of this book to the concept of ‘equity’ in school education and to many of the principles we espoused. The review team was unanimous that equity in relation to funding school education requires us to find a funding system that ensures that differences in educational outcomes ‘are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions’. This is a principle I believe in and it is pleasing to see a text so strongly endorse it.
However, whether one agrees with what the review team said or not, the issues have to be discussed and thoroughly argued, and determinations made. The inputs from schools and education thought leaders so well expressed in this book are vital to that debate and inform it well.
The author is to be praised for her endeavours and no doubt the debate will be enriched by them.