An Open Letter to the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham

Dear Simon,

It takes a village to raise a child.

Much gnashing of teeth, furrowing of brows and pointing of fingers has resulted from Australia’s performance on the recent TIMSS and PISA tests.

The TIMSS tests measure a narrow band of maths and science achievement for Year 4 and Year 8 students. They have been conducted every four years since 1995. PISA measures maths, science and reading of 15 years olds.

For those who have not read a newspaper or listened to any news for the past week, the results for Australia were not great. On TIMSS our students performed about the same as they did in the past three to six years. On PISA they performed significantly worse than  in 2006.

My first complaint Simon is that we exaggerated the negative. It has been reported that Australian Performance in Maths and Science on TIMSS is slipping. In fact it is not slipping. It is not improving either.

Is Australia doing worse in TIMSS? No, we are doing about the same.

Is our ranking slipping? Yes. Other countries are doing better.

Semantic maybe, but let’s not catastrophize more than we need to.

On the ABC news last night it said we had plunged from 13th to 28th in Year 4 Maths, 12th  to 17th in Science. The media cried, “We’ve now fallen behind Kazakhstan!

Yes, we were previously performing better than Kazakhstan and now we are performing worse than Kazakhstan. Why is everyone singling out Kazakhstan? Borat has much to answer for.

On PISA Australia performs better than the US and the UK and is significantly above the OECD average.

Mention some positives too Simon.

You said the results are “appalling”.

You said we need to move away from “just throwing more money” at education and look at what teachers are doing in the classroom.

Fair point. But Simon, you should look at the fine detail of the data. If we judged Australia’s performance on these tests by the results of ACT students, Australia would be in the top five in the world. When you include the NT, Tassie and all those low SES and rural areas in the data set, we slip quickly down the rankings.

Australia is a low equity county in terms of education. Our kids from advantaged backgrounds with highly educated parents do way better than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is more pronounced in Australia than in other countries and it is getting worse!

Gonski still matters Simon.

Inequity in the Australian education system is a massive problem. These international studies like TIMMS and PISA, and  our own NAPLAN, continue to highlight the growing gap in educational attainment between the haves and have nots in Australian society.

Sometimes people need hard data to see the picture more clearly.

Here are the six secondary schools in the local area where I live. We are 100km from Melbourne.


You can see that most high income families send their children to non-government schools. 

Notice that indigenous students are also concentrated in the government system.

To compound  disadvantage even further, the amount of money spent on education in a private school is more than at the government school. It is a classic case of the the rich getting richer. We are putting more resources into the most advantaged students.

The conservative governments argue that wealthy parents have a right to spend their money on their children’s education to give their children the best they can afford.

I agree, but the government shouldn’t then chip in as well to widen the gap between rich and poor. In the Australian education system that is exactly what we do. 

To quote the PISA report, “Generally speaking the smartest countries tend to be those that have directed more resources to their neediest children.”

Look at the table above. In Australia we do the opposite!! Not smart Simon.

As the Education Minister in charge, you need to do something to fix this.

And while you are at it, instead of jumping straight into the teaching profession as the only cause of these poor results look more broadly. Just blaming teachers for the TIMMS and PISA results is like saying doctors are wholly responsible for the overall level of Health in Australia. Teachers are one part of the picture. The other parts of the picture seem to have been completely overlooked.

Students and parents need to lift their game too.

In fact the whole village needs to get on board here.

Look at the Asian tigers at the top of the PISA and TIMMS tables. When their kids do badly at school Asian parents are ashamed. They take responsibility. They do something about it. They hire tutors; they insist their children put more effort into their studies. When I visited Singapore recently there were maths homework books and tutorial centres at every train station. Being educated, doing really well at school, is central in their lives. Central to the culture of the society is personal responsibility and hard work.

In Australia when students do poorly it is the teacher’s fault, or the school’s fault or the government’s fault. We need to change this attitude.

Simon your comments are not helping, in fact they are reinforcing this victim, “blame the teacher” mentality.

The PISA report has given you a good checklist for the agenda at the next Ministers for Education meeting.

Here it is …

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have:

  1. acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective;
  2. directed more resources to their neediest children;
  3. enrolled most children in high-quality preschools;
  4. helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement;
  5. applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

Good luck Simon.

Get the village behind you.

Rob Monk

Cognitive dissonance and the Michaela phenomena

cognitive dissonance

  1. the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

For those of you in Australia who don’t read any of the English education blogs, follow twitter or read “The Times”, Michaela Community School is an English Charter School in London. It is a free school that takes in a largely poor and ethnically diverse cohort of students. Michaela has been labelled “The strictest school in England”. It has generated widespread acclaim or loathing depending on your notion of how a school should operate.

Tom Bennett described the Launch of Michaela’s book here in a wonderful piece of writing about the light and dark of 2016.

What have the Michaeleans done for us?

bennet michala.pngFew educators on social media could have failed to notice that the Michaela Community School/ Factory For Turning Children Into Glue and Tears (delete as your ideology dictates) ran a book launch that doubled as a rally for their unconventional blend of traditional teaching and 21st century learning- ultra trads, if you will. Live streamed, tweeted in real time, and punching so far above its weight that David and Goliath look like a fair fight, it represents a new model for how schools face the world. Scorned by people who have never visited, and often admired by those who have, I have yet to see an institution that, in the face of such antipathy, exposes itself so candidly to scrutiny, challenge and frontal attack. It’s almost as if they knew they were doing something extraordinary. Twitter sizzled with their battle cries, and it was inspiring to see so much positivity for a school that has worked hard to earn it. All credit to their head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, who has two settings, as far as I can see: combine harvester, and dead. 

He also posted this contender for Tweet of the Year.


How many schools have published their own book? The Michaela PR machine is an amazing beast.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Michaela’s results are outstanding.

So what is it they do that is different?

This is the impression one gets of Michaela from listening to what the staff and others have said about the school.

  • Very high behavioral expectations. – They sweat the small stuff. Classroom default position is silence. Corridors between classes; silence. Demerits given for slouching in your seat, not having correct equipment, top button undone, calling out in class. No Excuses Discipline.
  • Pedagogy is “Teacher centered” – Constructivist= no, Instructivist = yes. Just tell them. Here is a school that says “No, we don’t want our teachers to be a ‘guide on the side’ or ‘a facilitator of learning’. We want our teachers to teach.” They seem to have taken much from the Lemov, “Teach Like A Champion” playbook. Lots of drill and practice and didactic instruction.
  • Differentiation: Not much – Lots of whole class teaching. High expectations for all. They don’t want teachers to design three levels of instructions. They want everyone to get it.
  • Group work: Not much. Think pair share seems to be as close as it gets.
  • Project based learning -No
  • Inquiry learning. – No.
  • Personalized Learning – No.
  • Technology – Not much. They had tablets in year one; electronic ones not stone ones as some would suggest,  but they decided the benefits were outweighed by the loss of learning time keeping them running. Now they proudly say they don’t even use powerpoints for instruction. Having said that the common homework involves the web based IXL , a maths drill program and Quizlet a vocab drill program. Students don’t have 1:1 devices in class but are expected to use them for homework.
  • Curriculum – The schools motto says it all. “Knowledge is Power”. Very content rich curriculum. Content matters at Michaela.
  • Reading – There is a huge focus on reading across the curriculum. The expectation is that children will read at home each night. There is a big reading program of classic literature unashamedly based largely around “Dead White Men” authors.
  • Work hard, Be kind. – What a wonderfully simple and all encompassing four word slogan. The things most valued at Michaela are hard work and kindness. A common vision and purpose and everyone rowing in the same direction are the hallmarks of any successful organisation. Michaela seems to have that in spades. Work hard, be kind. This applies to staff and students.
  • Dynamic, charismatic leadership – Principal Katherine Birbalsingh seems a little manic but no one could doubt her passion. Watch this  unscripted rant to see her in full flight.


I’m still chewing the food for thought.

My stomach is full.

Cognitive dissonance gives me indigestion.

Non Renewable Teacher Energy

Sometimes you hear an explanation of something that reinforces what you have tacitly been doing.

In this debate Joe Kirby from Michaela talks about writing comments on student work. He talks about this practice as being a non renewable use of teacher time.

A teacher has a finite amount of time to invest during the week. They can invest time in any number of activities. These include preparing lessons, correcting work, writing comments on work, professional reading, attending professional learning, counselling students, contacting parents. There is never enough time in a teacher’s day to do all these things. A teacher’s life is a series of time based compromises. What will I invest the next 30 minutes of my time doing? There is always a choice and always more to be done than time available to do it. 

Writing comments on student work is a non renewable use of teacher time. It benefits one student probably once. Investing time in preparing lessons on the other hand is a renewable use of teacher time. Whatever you prepare will benefit many students and can be reused in subsequent years.

What will I spend time on now, preparation or correction?

Err on the side of preparation, especially if it is something that can be used many times over.

Preparing great learning activities is even better if your preparation can be used by others


This will Revolutionize Education

This is a link to a quick presentation I showed before a whole staff PD session on using ICT in the classroom.

I still love watching it.

This will Revolutionize Education.

The main job of a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn

The most important thing a teacher does is make their students feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning.