mnot’s blog

Design depends largely on constraints.” — Charles Eames

Monday, 19 October 2009


Working with the US on Education

Dear Ms. Gillard,

I am a US citizen who moved back to Melbourne almost three years ago with my Australian wife. We did so largely because we wanted our sons to grow up in Australia and go to Australian schools.

So, it’s with quite a bit of interest that I read about your understanding with the US government regarding education. We did a fair amount of research about Australian schools, and are very confident that we enjoy some of the best schools in the world, in terms both of outcomes and overall experience.

Which leads me to a question — what, specifically, are you looking to emulate in the US education system?

Is it the systemic focus on results, leading all subjects that don’t impact standardised testing to be shunned? To the point where many schools don’t teach “wasteful” things like music, science and art [1]?

Or is it the fact that US teachers are chronically overworked, with more contact hours per year than any other country [2]?

Perhaps you’re interested in duplicating the disparity of education quality endemic in the US system, where a family is forced to live in a wealthy neighbourhood — with correspondingly high house prices — to get their children a decent education.

When I lived in Baltimore (just up the road from Washington D.C., where you met those slightly perplexed students) those children that bothered to show up to city schools were treated to crumbling, asbestos-riddled buildings and forced to share scarce and outdated textbooks with other students. Meanwhile, those who lived in the richer suburbs were treated to swimming programs, new athletic facilities and media centres full of computers.

More recently, California shows how America really works. Public schools there are dependent upon funding from “private education foundations.” In rich neighbourhoods, they’re able to raise thousands of dollars per student [3]; is this the future you want for Australia?

Or, perhaps you want to save money. In California, class sizes are approaching 50 students [4] and teachers are being asked to work without pay.

Of course, I know you don’t want these things for Australian schools. However, you must realise that the US education system is in a fundamentally different place than Australia’s, and therefore they need different solutions. Most US school districts would give anything to have the funding, facilities and staff that we do; their education system faces very large problems that we don’t suffer from, to the point where they don’t even know what direction to take next [5].

Following their lead is going backwards, not forwards. Please listen to your critics and look further afield.

Kind regards,

Mark Nottingham

  1. New York Times, “ Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math” 26 Mar, 2006
  2. OECD, “ Education at a Glance 2008
  3. Forum, “ School Foundations” 30 Nov 2007
  4. San Francisco Chronicle, “ State’s schools feel squeeze of larger classes” 27 Sep 2009
  5. San Francisco Chronicle, “ Schools fail to meet No Child Left Behind goals” 22 Sept 2009