As 2016 draws to an end, I am left with a deep sense that things are going very, very wrong. I waver between fury and frustration, unease and dread. But these feelings are useless without some action.
I presented in a symposium at the AARE conference recently on social justice, and our theme was reframing and resisting educational inequality.
It struck me that there have been some really powerful examples of reframing and resisting this year.
For example, we have seen Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers do a stunning job of reframing the UK; we’ve seen Donald Trump resist every moment of rationality and opposition, instead successfully employing what has been described as a choreography of shame to take the presidency of the US. And here in Australia, we’ve seen the zombie-like rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation from the political dead.
We have seen the TIMSS and PISA results released. Almost unanimously, the Australian media took the line that Australian students are slipping down the rankings and, heaven forbid, we’re even being beaten by Kazakhstan.
Leaving aside the incredible display of casual racism, xenophobia and complete lack of cultural awareness being displayed in the commentary, the fact is that TIMSS and PISA say very little about Australian schooling at all.
Yet, our federal education minister argues this is an urgent wake-up call proving that equity-based funding is unimportant and that instead we need to fix teachers and increase slipping standards in our schools.
Actually, minister, all we really need to do to improve our rankings is make the Northern Territory and Tasmania go away (to New Zealand, perhaps?) and hide all of the students who dare to come from circumstances of social and material deprivation or those who have special learning needs. Watch us rocket up the rankings!
Perhaps the most striking thing for me has been the way that discourses of equity and social justice have been mobilised in a very public and powerful way to argue for more testing, for more restrictions and control over teachers and teacher education, and to push for market models of education that undermine the public for private profit.
In the US, Trump has chosen a billionaire for his education secretary and has already announced a huge investment in turning public schools into charter schools. Similarly, Theresa May has a plan for more Grammar schools in the UK. Both are presented as addressing educational inequality.
Here in Australia, we have a phonics test suggested for our youngest students, modelled on the one the UK introduced a couple of years ago. Again, the argument is that this is needed most for children who are disadvantaged.
Education research is trash-talked on social media and given little oxygen in mainstream media and public discourse and is almost invisible in the policy arena.
The message is really powerful and simple and consistently prosecuted: education is broken because of bad teachers and teachers are bad because of teacher educators who are a bunch of out-of-touch educationalists who don’t know anything about the way the world works.
Of course all of this is complete rubbish.
I wonder about the correlation between increasing systems of surveillance and control over curriculum and pedagogy and the growing number of high stakes testing regimes, audit and accountability technologies, and the narrative of slipping standards, declining outcomes and an education system in crisis.
I wonder about how another set of tests is going to address sliding test results.
I wonder about what it means that we have had conservative coalition governments in control of the national policy agenda in this country for fifteen of the past twenty years.
I wonder about what it means when we have climate denying, market ideologues in control who reframe equity as a problem of teacher quality, who advocate for school vouchers instead of a vibrant public education system, who engage highly politicised and influential free-market think tanks in doing their policy work for them, while education researchers are ignored and teachers, parents, students and entire communities are reduced to those who simply have policy done to them.
I wonder what it means when I see multiple reports of children in the US being told by their classmates and in some cases, their teachers, that they will be locked up or their parents deported and themselves put into orphanages because they are Mexican or Muslim.
I wonder what it means when I read about a 10-year-old girl who says a boy who “grabbed her vagina” said it was okay because “if a president could do it, I can too”.
I wonder what it means when a 13-year-old Queensland boy takes his life because of bullying and the Courier Mail runs a piece calling the Safe Schools program “repulsive” and decrying “the ludicrous notion that most of our subjects nowadays include Indigenous, Asian and environmental components.”
I wonder what it means when Pauline Hanson calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and her fellow One Nation senator, Malcolm Roberts, declares that climate change is a “scam” cooked up by the CSIRO and NASA.
I wonder what it means that we lock up children indefinitely on Nauru, subjecting them to cruel and inhumane degradations, yet when Australian teachers protest, our Prime Minister gets annoyed at their “absolutely inappropriate” behaviour.
I think it’s telling that the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. Similarly, Dictionary.com chose “xenophobia” as their word of the year.
So what does a post-truth world mean for educational research, social justice, equity and addressing educational inequality?
What are the ways we can mobilise and fight back against the xenophobe, the misogynist, the racist, the anti-intellectual, the billionaire posing as a saviour for the common person, the rampant destruction of our natural systems on a global scale, and the complete disregard for the future of our planet and all who live on it?
We need to organise, to collectivise and not just to resist and reframe, but to entirely reconfigure how we approach social inequality through our individual and collective endeavours.
We need to grow community-based, regional, national and transnational networks that can stand together and reject the framing of education as simply a problem of bad teaching that completely ignores structural and systemic inequalities and decades-long policy failures.
We need to produce local, situated and deeply contextualised knowledges that are generated with the communities we work with.
We need a radical reimagining of the politics and practices of educational research.
We need to fight.
Dr Stewart Riddle lectures in literacies education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research includes looking at the links between music and literacy in the lives of young people, as well as alternative schooling and research methodologies. Stewart also plays bass guitar in a rock band called Drawn from Bees.
Stewart is a member of the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland management committee and edits their journal, Words’Worth.