Annual Conference 2017

Commercial creep into classrooms

Shelley Dempsey

Anna Hogan, Greg Thompson, Bob Lingard, co-authors of
the Commercialisation in Public Schools report, along with Sam Seller (not pictured)

Australian teachers have expressed concern about the way public schools are increasingly run as businesses and the privatisation of education, according to a national survey conducted for the Commercialisation in Public Schooling (CIPS) study, launched at Federation Annual Conference.

“Significant amounts of commercial activity” are already taking place in public schools in Australia, Dr Greg Thompson, Associate Professor of Education Research at the Queensland University of Technology and a co-author of the report, told conference.

About 74 per cent of those surveyed identified the ethics of having student data in commercial hands as a significant concern, while 72 per cent were highly concerned at the way public schools are being run as a business.

Further, 68 per cent were highly concerned about the privatisation of public education and 60 per cent were highly concerned about paying for services the Department of Education once provided for free. The survey involved 2193 teachers and school leaders across Australia, with 51 per cent working in NSW.

For almost half of the respondents (45 per cent), their most significant concern was the issue of business dictating education policy, and 36 per cent were also highly concerned about teacher activities being outsourced.

Some 57 per cent were also highly concerned about the lack of departmental support. Dr Thompson said school principals were particularly concerned about having to pay for services that were traditionally supplied by the Department.

While some respondents believed there were some benefits to public-
private partnerships: “There’s a really strong sense that commercialisation has no place in public schools,” he said.

“There’s also a real concern, I think, among participants that Australia seems to be learning the wrong lessons from the UK and US and bringing those into our schools. One of the really significant things is that people are concerned that public schools will go the way of TAFE.”

The CIPS report found education technology (EdTech) companies are already benefiting financially from developing standards and data infrastructure in schools.

Commercial activity is advanced and Australian schooling now has the most developed national data infrastructure in the world, because of the standardisation rollout through the work of the National Schools Interoperability Program (NSIP), the study says. The development of open standards has helped an alliance of corporate interests grow the value of the overall data “pie” in order to grow the value of their market segment.

In 2014, the value of the US EdTech market was estimated by the Software and Information Industry Association to be more than $8.38 billion, a 5.1 per cent increase since 2013.

“Testing and assessment was the most valuable market category in 2014, worth $US2.5 billion, after growing by 57 per cent over the previous two years,” the study, commissioned by Federation, found. These categories were followed by English language arts and reading content, maths content and online courses.

“Both testing and assessment, and data analysis and integration are identified as key growth areas for the industry in the coming years.”

A case study presented to conference confirmed that commercialism is entering schools through the standardisation of software and data-set products under NSIP, where some policy standards are being developed by the private education technology sector. NSIP is a joint initiative of state, territory and federal ministers for education.

Under the radar

Queensland academic Professor Bob Lingard, of the School of Education at The University of Queensland, and one of the co-authors of the report, told delegates there were big questions to deal with in this area, such as how this trend may change work practices for teachers and learning for children.

“There’s a lot to think about here and there’s a lot going on under the radar which is escaping scrutiny,” he said. NSIP is “quite unknown in the teaching profession and we need to think about it a lot more”. The study warns: “The forums that have been established to advance the agenda of standardisation enable commercial actors to shape the demands of users, which in this case are often governments, and may further contribute to growing demand for generic products.”

Launched by Federation President Maurie Mulheron and Project Director of Education International Angelo Gavrielatos, the study found that in February this year 13 commercial vendors were operating education projects in Australia that comply with standards set by the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF), a standard used to link together data systems within the school sector.

These include assessment and reporting software, cloud-based student identity management, learning apps, learning platforms and more. There were also 16 company members of SIF AU in February this year. SIF was launched in Australia in 2009, after an earlier launch in the US by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

However, further education involvement in the US from Mr Gates met with resistance. Opposition from activist groups shut down a program in the US called inBloom, run by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which sought to establish a standard infrastructure to manage data across schools, districts and states. Concerns about data privacy and technology companies profiting from personal data led to the closure of the program in 2013.

In the US, privacy concerns have provoked “outrage” from parents, students and educators, Professor Lingard said.

He conducted research and interviews for a case study on the parent-activist opt-out movement, where 26 per cent of parents in New York and 50 per cent on Long Island last year opted their children out of standard testing from Years 3 to 8 to boycott tests in the schooling system. Professor Lingard said the Trump Budget cuts of $9 billion to public education are also likely to strengthen the resolve of those opposed to the corporate reform agenda.

The report found that after these developments, the EdTech industry is employing strategies such as partnerships between philanthropies and think tanks to push for regulatory changes to allow the joining of data sets and freer access to student data.

The study raises two important issues for teachers’ unions in Australia. First, concerns about data privacy have been successfully mobilised by opponents to commercial involvement in public education to block initiatives such as inBloom in the US and these concerns have been identified by the EdTech industry as a significant obstacle to their business.

“Privacy regulations will be an important terrain upon which to evaluate and, where necessary, challenge commercial activity that involves improper private usage of data generated in, and by, public education systems,” the report states.

Bigger than one union

Second, the operation of data infrastructure in education provides commercial actors with “hidden and technically complex means to subtly orchestrate activities in schools and school systems”, the report said.

As a result, it will be important to monitor any changes to the work practices of educators and the effect on students and learning that may result from new data and software applications. In future, the needs and capacities of public schools will be subtly shaped by the provision of software. In the next three to five years, the chief information officers of all education players will see a significant shift in their role in the market.

“This shift will be for education jurisdictions to act as information hubs, exposing students, staff and school data to a trusted third-party developer,” according to NSIP.

Mr Gavrielatos concluded the Commercialisation in Public Schooling session at conference by issuing a call to action to support the global response against big corporates in education, such as Pearson.

“We are organising and mobilising around the world to build a global response,” he told conference. He called on Federation members to demonstrate solidarity, saying the issue of commercialisation in public schooling is “bigger than one union”.

“It’s all so scary,” he said.

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