Tom Bennett

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The Power Behind the Throne: Joel Klein, News Corp and the Education Revolution

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Wormtongue and Saruman; Klein behind. Not in the pink jacket. Probably.
Joel Klein sat behind the Murdochs throughout their media crucible today. Why is he important? Because he’s one of the inner circle that Murdoch summoned to handle the crisis facing News International- and may I just say, what a brilliant job you’ve done so far. Really kept a lid on things.
He’s a man with a past, and a big interest in education, and he’s coming to a school near you. If that doesn’t chill your blood, I suggest that ice water already pumps through your veins. Last year he stepped down as head of New York’s schools so that he could take a position as head of News Corps Education Division (after turning down an offer to run the Security Wing of Omni Consumer Products in Detroit, after Dick Jones’s misjudged Robocop venture).
In the US he also ran the Antitrust department of the US Department of Justice; antitrust, as you probably know, is a legal field concerned with breaking up and preventing monopolies, something that Murdoch is, let’s be honest, pretty interested in. And by ‘pretty interested’ I mean ‘up to his armpits, obsessively, consumed by,’ given his desire to see the BBC split into teams of three people or less, running through the High Street interviewing shoppers about the weather on phone cameras (as trialled by The One Show).
And now he’s got his sights and heart, were he to possess such a thing, on education. Not that he actually has any experience in such a thing- trained as a lawyer- but that didn’t stop NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg appointing him to run one of the nation’s biggest systems. See? Education’s easy. He wasn’t popular there, focussing on performance targets for teachers, data driven programs, closed schools and, some say, favoured charter schools (think: free) over state schools (think: poor). But he is frighteningly qualified, having worked for Clinton’s legal team during the impeachment, and graduating Magna cum Laude from both Columbia and Harvard Universities. Stupid he is not. 
But that’s the past. Today, Joel Klein is very interested in Digital Education start ups, or as Reuters puts it, ‘offering individualized, technology-based content and learning opportunities for to support students and teachers’, which is one of those phrases that makes you want to kill yourself before you even get to halfway.
Dreaming of digital e-learning platforms.
Let me give you a flavour of what Klein’s mission statement is in education, and you can judge for yourself if you should quake or cheer  that he’s in charge of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for educational marketspace. He recently appeared at the Sunday Times Festival of Education; here’s what he had to say in relation to that:

‘And unless we’re prepared to do three difficult, but essential, things, we will never achieve real results: rebuild our entire…system on a platform of accountability; attract more top-flight recruits into teaching; and use technology very differently to improve instruction.’

So let me just clarify, based on what we know his favorite educational policies are:

1. Accountability. Setting targets for students and their teachers. Nothing wrong with teacher led, aspirational targets, but that’s not what he means. He means statistical targets, inevitably generated by computer modelling, which is as individually predictive as typing your likes/ dislikes into a career program to work out what job you should take. Teachers, presumably, will be promoted, graded and granted access to unlock higher pay scales through such means. You can see why the Unions in the US didn’t invite him over for Thanksgiving.

2. Attracting top-flight recruits. Again, this sounds great, who could possibly object? But who? Troops to teachers? The Stockbroker diaspora? People with first class degrees? None of these teachers offer a character and skill set that guarantees, or even increases the likeliness of someone being a great teacher. Great teacher training makes great teachers, as long as they’ve got certain basic qualities. As the Fast Track, and its successor program Teach First shows, the problem isn’t that our current teachers are rubbish. The problem is that there’s an international deficit of fairly traditional, authoritative and compassionate teaching/ schools with clear boundaries and consequences, and high expectations.

3. The Digital Classroom revolution. I am all for new technology in the classroom, used in new and interesting ways. But I have been waiting for this revolution since they introduced BBC Micros into my school, to transform and improve the paradigm of how we learn. And it still hasn’t, because people (and their brains and their minds) are still substantially the same as we’ve been for thousands of years. IT offers wonderful opportunities, and I embrace them. But information on a screen is still information; getting children to work, to focus, to avoid misbehaviour, to think for themselves…all of these teacher challenges are ancient, and unresolved by the format upon which the learning is provided.

But there’s another reason to be wary of a lot of what Klein might represent for education in the US or closer to home: education isn’t a commodity. And any time someone tries to sell you something, you’re right to exercise caution. The market and human welfare aren’t easy bedfellows; sometimes it’s closer to a not-for-profit than a business. So what can they sell to schools?

Answer: IT packages; hardware; software; lucrative support; spurious claims to revolutionary systems that improve learning by 150%. And that’s the hidden danger of the revolution: it isn’t a revolution at all.

It’s a hustle. It’s a corporate take over.

And right now, does anyone want News Corp getting involved in their school?


2 Comments

  1. I think an increased use of the web, not technology, is probably the only way classroom practice should change. I also think collaborating on the web has the potential to reduce teacher's workload significantly.

    And we don't need a teaching revolution. There is already a teaching revolution every 5 minutes! I really like what you say about the way people learn never changes.

  2. Tom Bennett says:

    Plus ca change, brother…

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