Ken Rowe, 1945-2009
March 31, 2009 — 12.00am
KEN ROWE, teacher and education researcher, loved to escape to his timber cottage in Marysville in the hills above Melbourne, where king parrots chirped rather than mobile phones. It was where he retreated to write the report into the teaching of literacy, the ideologically-charged inquiry he headed in 2005, which found that direct systematic phonics instruction was the key to learning to read.
Book lover … Rowe was a constant reader, even while stationed in Vietnam.A deeply religious man, Rowe had been shaken by his experiences as a 24-year-old conscript in the Vietnam War. It was 20 years before he told his family of the horrors he had witnessed, and then his nightmares eased. When his life had been under great threat there, he told his wife Kathy, “his faith in God’s presence ? and protection of him, was almost physically felt, and he spoke of the overwhelming sense of peace that came over him in those times”. This has comforted Kathy Rowe since the bushfires.
Born in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham to Marjorie, a seamstress, and Clem, an accountant, Rowe was the oldest of four, with brother Graham, and sisters Margaret and Glenda. With the older two he started a folk band, the Soul Seekers, in which he played guitar and sang in a rich tenor.
Glenda, 10 years younger, adored him. When she was young he would play classical music and ask that she lie down still with her eyes closed, to listen and pick out the different instruments. He took her to museums, restaurants and parties, taught her about opera, movies, and the stockmarket. He drove her to school in his little white MG, making her the envy of friends.
The family moved to Maidstone in the mid-1950s, when Clem Rowe took a job with the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. Ken won a scholarship to Melbourne Grammar, but his father decided he should attend the new local Maribyrnong school, which opened in 1958, in an old ordnance factory.
The school’s motto was “achievement with honour” and, with the Maribyrnong Migrant Hostel as neighbour, it had a multicultural group of students and teachers. Rowe was school captain and dux, excelling in swimming and Australian Rules football.
His father wanted him to work in a bank. But Rowe won a scholarship to train as a teacher, after which he spent a happy year at a one-teacher school in South Gippsland.
He met 21-year-old fifth-year medical student Kathy Lewis at a Christian youth camp in Wilsons Promontory. He had the good looks of a young Brad Pitt; many girls were attracted to Rowe but Lewis caught his attention because she would challenge things he said. Most girls were just happy to be around him and didn’t dare have an opinion.
Called up for national service, he went to New Guinea to teach soldiers, learned pidgin and performed children’s songs for the ABC. He applied for an extension, only to be posted to Vietnam.
Home in 1972, he joined the Victorian police education centre, later becoming principal. He looked up Kathy Lewis, cancelling three dinner dates before they reunited. Six weeks later he proposed.
She became a pediatrician at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. They had three sons: David, now 33, Andrew, 29, and Iain, 24. At nights, Rowe studied psychology, philosophy and statistics for a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University. He became an elder of the Brethren church, (not the Exclusive Brethren), a Christian evangelical congregation.
In 1984 he was awarded a Commonwealth Relations Trust Fellowship at the University of London to study statistics. He wanted to sharpen the skills needed to gather evidence about what works in education. Kathy took a diploma of education, as the couple found increasing overlap in their work.
On returning, Rowe worked in the Victorian Ministry of Education and the University of Melbourne.
Their professional partnership culminated in a 2004 paper examining the link between children’s auditory processing skills, classroom behaviour and literacy development. His PhD research found that improving teacher quality improved student literacy and behaviour.
Rowe continued to butt up against orthodox thinking. He decried the fact that 20 per cent of children left school functionally illiterate, and understood the real-life consequences from his wife’s work with behaviourally disturbed children.
Believing that incompetent teaching compounded disadvantage, he argued that teachers’ skills should be based on strong evidence-based research rather than “whims or fancies”. In 2000 he became research director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, where he remained as a consultant until his death.
Ken Rowe is survived by his wife, Kathy, three sons and three grandchildren.