The Attack on Public Education in the US as a Cautionary Tale for New Zealand and Australia

Public education is under attack in the US and other countries around the world. I am just concluding a two-month trip to New Zealand and Australia speaking and meeting with the heads of national teachers’ unions in both countries, and speaking at four universities. This will be the first of several blogs.

The impetus for the trip began simply enough. I was invited to present a keynote speech to the primary school teachers’ and principals’ union (New Zealand Educational Institute- NZEI) conference in Wellington, New Zealand. New Zealand educators have a long proud tradition of professional independence in which curriculum and assessments are created at the local level. But with the recent election of the neoliberal National party, the government has turned to supporting charter schools, promoting the idea that teachers should be paid based on their students’ achievement, and other top-down reforms.

The union leaders were clear regarding their goals for the conference: to educate themselves about the high-stakes testing and privatization movement in other countries, remind themselves what good teaching encompasses, and organize to defend public schools and teachers. Other keynote speakers included: Martin Thrupp (University of Waikato, NZ) who recently completed a three-year study on the effect of the new standards on schools primary schools in New Zealand; Bob Lingard (University of Queensland, AU) who has studied globalization and education; David Berliner (University of Arizona) who has a new book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools; Meg Maguire (Institute of Education, London) who has researched and written about urban schools and education policy; Barbara Comer (Queensland University of Technology, AU) who researches and writes about literacy education, social justice, teachers’ work, and practitioner education; and Margie Hohepa (University of Waikato, NZ), expert in Maori medium education.

For this and my subsequent major talks on the trip, I focused on the rise of high-stakes testing, the push to privatize public schooling through charter schools and handing over standards, curriculum development and assessment over to private corporations such as Pearson, and the shift in education decision making at the local level by school boards, administrators and teachers to unelected and unaccountable individuals and organizations at the state, national, and federal levels. I began by warning that we are in danger of losing public schools in many cities in the US noting, however, that schools will still be largely funded out of public taxes but schools and education policy will be privately controlled by individuals such as Bill Gates, corporations such as Pearson, and organizations such as Teach for America. I described the rise and misuse of standardized testing in the New York, as first students needed to pass five Regents exams to graduate from high school, then No Child Left Behind added testing requirements for grades 3-8, and finally Race to the Top added more tests plus requiring that test scores be used to evaluate individual teachers.

I closed my talk by describing the rising resistance in New York, as teachers, parents, administrators, students, and the public push back against the private takeover of the public schools. Commissioner King has met determined criticism during his “listening tour.” Teachers’ and administrators’ unions have called for a two-year moratorium on the Common Core curriculum and assessments. Perhaps thousands of students and families are planning to boycott the next round of tests. My closing comments urged the teachers and administrators to form an alliance with parents, students, and the public to resist the government’s efforts to implement high-stakes standardized testing and open more charter schools.

In my next blog I will describe some of the Ministry of Education plans in New Zealand and Australia (which was my next stop) and rising resistance from unions and universities.

My talk and those of the other NZEI keynoters are on the NZEI website at

Mine is also posted below and on youtube at:

David Hursh

Author: David Hursh

For the last decade David Hursh’s writing and political organizing has focused on the dangers of high-stakes testing. His most recent book, High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), situates the rise of high-stakes testing in states like Texas and New York, and at the federal level with No Child Left Behind within larger debates about the purposes of education and the nature of society. Marilyn Cochran-Smith, John E. Cawthorne Professor at Boston College, wrote: "In this unusual book, David Hursh combines rich recollections of classroom teaching with trenchant analysis of the "real crisis" in education today-the neoliberal package of high stakes testing, accountability, markets and privatization. The result is a deeply disturbing but compelling and original book that puts democratic education back where it should be--at the center of discussions about schools and schooling.” In 1998 Hursh helped start the Coalition for Common Sense in Education, a group of parents, students, and educators working to changed education policy through lobbying in Albany and hosting forums. Some of the speakers the Coalition has funded include Jonathan Kozol, Angela Valenzuela, Deborah Meier, Peter Sacks, Monty Neill, and Susan Ohanian. Since the publication of his book in March, Hursh has delivered invited talks to numerous groups, including the Rochester Teachers Association, Monroe County School Board Association, and in the Arts and Lectures series at SUNY-Cortland. This upcoming academic year he has been invited to present at universities across the United States. David Hursh is a Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester.