Only to the extent … Posting 2
The first posting set out the following arguments:
Western governments help you and me only to the extent it helps to protect the position of the powerful and wealthy
Neoliberalism dominates Western societies though it has been transmuted to make neoliberal policies acceptable to sufficient numbers of people to make neoliberal governments electable
The two prime tests to determine the strength of neoliberalism in a society is the centrality of the ‘trickle-down theory’ in a country’s financial system; and the centrality of the organisational theory of the need to avoid what is described as ‘provider capture’
The trickle-down theory structurally builds inequality into a society; and the provider capture theory changes values and takes power away from people by means of government nominees, to distribute neoliberal power throughout society
The transmutation to make neoliberal governments electable, and the application of the provider capture theory, combine to make it very difficult for governments of other ideology to challenge in a sustained way the neoliberal structure of society
Because neoliberal governments usually present themselves as something other than neoliberal, and because the provider capture theory is anti-democratic, a feature of neoliberal governments is a ready and persistent resort to propaganda, lying, distorting, creation of myths, control by fear and contracted services, and limitations on the freedom to speak out.
Public schools and only to the extent
To demonstrate how the arguments above apply to the public school system, I will discuss in this posting.
In Posting 3, the posting after this, I will pay particular attention to a speech by Hekia Parata to the Iwi Chairs Forum, Friday, 29 November, 2013 – and how that relates to public schools.
A key argument in this posting is that the neoliberal National government has provided niggardly funding to all public schools but even more significantly to the education of Maori and Pasifika children, and to children in low decile schools (which were all declared priorities). The National government has vaunted its education policies as guaranteed to lift education achievement, reduce economic inequalities, and increase employment opportunities for all. As these policies have failed as they were bound to, the government, consistent with its ideology, has acted to obscure the failure through propaganda, lying, distorting, creating myths, control by fear and contracted services, and limitations on the freedom to speak out.
Another argument is that the government has acted to limit expenditure on public schools to keep taxation low in the interests of the powerful and wealthy. On the other hand it has increased funding for private schools to provide for the children of the powerful and wealthy superior facilities, resources, and staffing levels. As well, it has set up lavishly funded charter schools, ostensibly to help lift education achievement of Maori and Pasifika children, and children from low decile areas, but really to use as a platform to propagandise against public schools, to bad mouth them, and to encourage the idea of privatisation of education.
And then there is the theory that defines neoliberalism in education and all social institutions – the application of the concept of the avoidance of provider capture. In education, the acceptance of the provider capture concept means an acceptance of selfishness being the prime motivation for teacher behaviour. I don’t intend to go into the matter here but as the theory becomes entrenched, school education will become deeply hierarchical, anti-democratic, politically riven, adult- rather than child-centred, divisive between principal and teacher and teacher and teacher, cash-incentivised, and propagandised. In the end, public schools will become embroiled in series of ideological controversies having little to do with children becoming thoughtful and productive human beings and a lot to do with protecting the position of the powerful and wealthy and adult concerns. The government’s cluster system, with no doubt increasing numbers of principals joining, is a perfect step in that direction.
The National government’s actual policies for public schools are tortuous, deceptive, and ruthless. Consistent with the premise of this series of postings: Any increase in government funding of public schools will remain limited but never to an extent as to place its electability at risk.
For a neoliberal government this niggardly approach to funding serves three purposes: it corrodes the quality of public education, reduces the cost to the powerful and wealthy, and allows the government to make private education more attractive. It also creates a convergence perfect to neoliberal thinking but a perfect storm for public schools. Neoliberalism seeks to make education starkly utilitarian, based on the 3Rs early on and firmly employment related later; if money is going to be spent on public schools, neoliberal thinking goes, it should be fixed on it being an economic good. From my point-of-view, neoliberalism is based on exploitation (and deception to that end), I see neoliberalism in education (as well as other parts of society) as anti-democratic and fixed on centralised control, propaganda, lying, distorting, creation of myths, control by fear and contracted services, and limitations on the freedom to speak out.
Neoliberal governments have moved with particular decisiveness against primary education because primary school teachers with their public service idealism pose a fundamental affront to the neoliberal tenet of selfishness and the cash nexus as basic motivations. And, once again, there is another perfect convergence: the opportunity to make money from education as well as establish selfishness and the cash nexus as the prime motivations.
In New Zealand, I see the government as using the education system to impose unfairly and without due process – often without mandate – neoliberal values on schools. Parents of children have never been fairly consulted, neither have there been properly organised community forums. What is often forgotten is that the key connection between the government, schools, parents, and wider community is the official school curriculum. In reality, the official curriculum is a forgotten document, dismissed by this government early on, and now just pieces of paper that happen to be bound together. The government has used its legislative and regulatory power, also its directions to education bureaucrats, to override the official curriculum and make it irrelevant.
What is being referred to when various people speak of primary school education? When the government speaks of primary school education it is thinking of the 3Rs and a very narrow version of these. When teachers speak of education they are speaking of the ability of children to think flexibly in a range of curriculum areas including drama and the arts; of a broad education; of the development of positive attitudes to learning, for instance, children reading and writing independently in their own time; and of the ability for children to solve problems in various curriculum areas, for instance, maths, science, drama.
This leads to a key characteristic of neoliberal governments and education – constructed ignorance: ignorance constructed to allow governments to advance unconstrainedly neoliberal aims in education such as privatisation, school funding reduction, and limiting teachers’ freedom of speech. The government has cruelly and farcically fixed on the idea that the home environments children come from are of little significance in learning; that children who come from economically deprived home environments can learn just as well as children who come from more privileged ones (which, of course, they sometimes can) – all it requires is for teachers to pull their socks up and try harder. This outcome of constructed ignorance has allowed the government to compare unfairly New Zealand education with the education of say, Shanghai, with its middle-class exclusivity – and from that comparison to making damaging changes to the New Zealand education system.
Research from government-aligned academics is then sought to justify this constructed ignorance. But what kind of education is researched? When looked at, the research is always based on the 3Rs, a very narrow version of these, the children drilled, then tested soon after, never longitudinally. This caricature of education is then used as the norm to impose neoliberal values on the system and schools, including downgrading public education.
Associated with the neoliberal education myth that home environment doesn’t matter to children’s learning (well nothing that a half-way decent teacher couldn’t correct) is the myth that class size doesn’t matter. The important point is that class size only makes a difference if the teacher teaches to individual differences, if the teacher is the kind who teachers the whole class, emphasises drilling, class size won’t make much difference. In the matter of attitudes to learning, learning flexibility, and other higher orders of learning, class size is crucial, but this needs a special kind of research to pick up and value.
As an education priority, children of all ages, no matter their ability in the 3Rs, should have rich and intensive opportunities for flexible thinking both within the 3Rs and beyond. The functioning of the 3Rs should be considered not only compatible with flexible thinking but also mutually supportive. For children considered struggling in the 3Rs, flexible thinking is often delayed, best left for their later years the mantra goes, but those later years keep getting delayed to never. The implications of the over-emphasis on the 3Rs is educationally debilitating for all children, for less able children who suffer the butt of an even greater emphasis it is devastating, but it is something of a silent education malfunction, the extent of which only becomes stark at secondary school. For those children, the majority of whom come from poverty-affected environments, there is little hope of sufficient cognitive redemption from the home environment so little hope for the student unless the school takes immediate and radical steps. Even the education review office has been stirred to criticise secondary schools for pointing Maori and Pasifika children to low aspirational units.
The obsession with the 3Rs and a narrow version of it means a significant number of children, many of them Maori and Pasifika children, have been rendered relatively cognitively disabled by an education system that, in effect, is designed to produce low level thinkers and therefore workers. When these children reach NCEA time, they are often shunted into low aspirational units.
School education over the 25 years of Tomorrow’s Schools has probably stalled in its development –in the six years of this neoliberal government it has gone backwards though this has been somewhat obscured by inflated results, also propaganda, lying, and distortion by the minister. In primary schools, reading looks about right in national standards results but writing and mathematics results look considerably out of whack. But it is in secondary schools that the inflation of figures is most outrageous. The Tertiary Education Commission, for instance, has expressed profound concerns about the readiness of NCEA students to handle engineering university courses.
Probably the best way to shorthand the issue is to go to England where things became too much even for another neoliberal government. Relentless grade inflation was recognised by authorities then combatted, leading to the implementation of far more stringent marking and testing processes. Results went backwards but this was greeted with relief and approval as an important dose of honesty and reality. The discrepancy between internal and international results that sparked the concern was not blamed on teachers but on the system being set up to value the wrong outcomes. It was agreed by English authorities that the children most harmed by the previous grade inflation were the children from less privileged home environments.
The grade inflation has also occurred in New Zealand and requires a similar response. In the first instance, students should have to continue longer with maths and English, and there should be a limit on internally marked credits.
But in response to this greater honesty and rigour in NCEA processes, there should definite steps to help students who might find the increased challenge difficult. Those students should be provided with a comprehensive, secure, and stable individualised teaching and mentoring system. That can only be done with a substantial increase in the numbers of teachers. It is on such a mentoring system the funding being wasted on the government’s cluster organisation could well have been spent. But oh no – just as occurred with Tomorrow’s Schools – the government, bureaucrats, and good number of principals are too caught up in their new plaything.
This government and this minister of education have made much of lifting the education achievement of Maori and Pasifika children but they have only tinkered with the problem (I except the changes to early childhood education from this charge). And, in not acting genuinely, as is a characteristic of neoliberal governments in education, the government has acted to obscure their lack of genuine action with propaganda, lying, distorting, creating myths, control by fear and contracted services, and limitations on the freedom to speak out.
I could spit tacks about the government’s lack of genuine action to help Maori and Pasifika children. It has underfunded public schools, the schools nearly all Maori and Pasifika children attend; it has lavishly funded charter schools ostensibly to meet the needs of those children; it has imposed national standards on public schools claiming they would help children in their learning – but resulted in an over-emphasis on the 3Rs to the detriment of both the 3Rs and opportunities for flexible thinking; it has based policies on the myth that home environment has little effect on children’s learning, thus exempting itself from policies to improve those home environments; it has employed the same myth to scapegoat teachers for the gap in achievement, thus providing itself with an excuse to make neoliberal changes to the education system ; and it has promoted the myth that class size doesn’t matter, thus exempting itself from funding a policy important to lifting the learning of Maori and Pasifika children; and, as discussed above, it has applied undue pressure on schools to reach certain targets, resulting in grossly inflated and misleading outcomes, especially for Maori and Pasifika children, and most disadvantageous to their higher learning achievement and vocational prospects.
But more on this when I look at the speech by Hekia Parata to the Iwi Chairs Forum, Friday 29 November, 2013, in all its transcendental dishonesty and its Orwellian language terribleness. I observed in her speech patterns, thought corrupting language and, in turn, that language corrupting thought; a surrendering to words from practised dishonesty as against testing the honesty to find the words that properly express it. And this all matters, because an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form, and so on, indefinitely. And now we have principals succumbing to it.