Honourable Minister tells a Big One, and in the House

Education should be an activity in which everyone takes the greatest care with the truth; the teachers and children of New Zealand deserve nothing less. Does the Honourable Minister pass that test?

Honourable Minister, over the years, you have told a Big One of fantastic import – the Big One on which your education policy pivots.

But this time you have told that Big One in the House, from a source of your own choice, and in an unambiguous way.

No Honourable Minister, when corrected, you will not be able to say, as you do so often in the House: ‘That is not how I read it.’

You have 26 personnel working on media relations and a swag of other appointments; you cannot get out of it by saying as you do so often in the House: ‘That is not how I read it.’ You asked them to provide evidence for the Big One and they provided it, and you recounted it. But it was not correct evidence was it Honourable Minister? the correct evidence was there but it didn’t suit you, and you went ahead with the Big One.

No Honourable Minister, you knew exactly what you were doing.

You told them go find the Big One; the Big One that will underpin the revised Education Act, Communities of Schools, and the stifling, bureaucratic grasp of EDUCANZ.

Honourable Minister, you asked your 26 media relations and swag of other appointments to find a figure to support your purposes.

But in the end Honourable Minister, as far as the truth is concerned, you left it entirely undisturbed.

Honourable Minister – your recent Herald article is headed: ‘Socio-economic factors are often overstated’.

That clearly is the message you want to get across, as it has been for years, and will be for some years to come.

Your first paragraph contains the sentence: ‘It’s important for society to understand the critical issues facing schools and students, and why some kids are not achieving the way others are.’

So there you are; there is basis for your entire education policy: You want to remove socio-economic factors as a matter for teachers to refer to, and you are going to do it by hook or by crook.

It will never be the fault of government policy; never the fault of under resourcing; always the fault of the teacher.

That, of course, will put great pressure on schools in Communities of Schools. If they don’t get all children up to at least 85% no matter their decile, it will be declared the schools’ fault.

And looming over the schools will be interventions of the various kinds to be in the revised Education Act. So, for that reason, most schools will get the children over the 85%.

And that is achievement is it Honourable Minister? Oh happy days! In Australia with national testing, the results have hardly moved since being implemented; but in New Zealand, under national standards, whoosh! at the imposition of higher stakes.

This article in the Herald, and another a week later by Barbara Ala’alatoa (The Honourable Minister Lite), were all part of a stepped up propaganda campaign. For Barbara Ala’alatoa it was a case of making a big straw issue of ‘decile not meaning destiny’; or (addressing teachers), put another way, when did you stop letting the children down? Remember, this is the head of EDUCANZ appointed by the Honourable Minister.

Yes Honourable Minister, your education policy pivots on the figure for children’s achievement accounted for by socio-economic factors and the lower the better. Up till now the standard in New Zealand research has been by Richard Harker (consistent with many overseas studies) who said that ‘anywhere between 70-80% of the between schools variance is due to student “mix” which means that only between 20% to 30% is attributable to the schools themselves.’ (Please note, that means a lot more than the teachers in classrooms.)

The Honourable Minister stood in the House and referred to a recent large-scale study by the OECD and PISA in 2012.

OECD and PISA, if congenial territory is to be found anywhere to suit the Honourable Minister, that would seem to be it for the pivotal policy of blame the teacher (always, of course, by referring to some others as crème de la crème).

That is the Honourable Member’s chosen research terrain.

From there the Honourable must stand and deliver.

I experience a frisson of concern.

The Honourable minister says:

I do agree with the OECD study in 2012 involving over half a million 15-year-olds from 65 countries, of which one was New Zealand. In fact, 5,000 students from 177 schools in our country participated. That OECD study found that 18 percent—18 percent—of the difference in student achievement can be accounted for by socio-economic factors. That means that 82 percent of student achievement is not statistically explained by socio-economic factors.’

My goodness! Oh woe is me! My holistic world view is falling apart.


18% (OECD) or 70-80% (Harker) Spot the difference?

Is my education philosophy to shift on its axis?

82% not statistically explained by socio-economic factors!

82% (OECD) or 20-30% (Harker) Can you spot the difference this time?

Oh those lazy woe begotten teachers, especially from lower decile schools.

I stand my ground, but I fear the worst.

The challenge is there: the Honourable Minister has put forward her chosen study (PISA) with its large scale population (over half a million) up against all the other studies of the past thirty years.

But I read on in the PISA study and there is a development.

The Honourable Minister is QUITE WRONG; UTTERLY WRONG, in what she said to the House. The PISA study does give contradictory percentages for the role of socio-economic status (due no doubt to many authors trying to make sense of complicated data sets). The 26 media relations and swag of other appointments pounced on those early percentages. But in reading on, they would have found the conclusion to the report makes those early percentages QUITE WRONG; UTTERLY WRONG. 

The 26 media relations and swag of other appointments would have reported to the Honourable Minister, don’t worry, no-one will check up. We’ve cracked it; we’ve found the Holy Grail for public propaganda and teacher bashing. The Honourable Minister had the figures she wanted.

But someone did check-up and the dramatic findings follow.

 THE PISA FINDINGS ARE QUITE CLEAR: ‘More than half of the performance differences found across students in different schools can be accounted for by socio-economic disparities across students and schools’. (p46)  And as an example in one curriculum area: ‘Across OECD countries, a more socio-economically-advantaged student scores 39 points higher in mathematics—the equivalent of nearly one year of schooling—than a less-advantaged student.’ (p.47)

The Honourable Minister has not got away with it. She’s been caught in the act.

The report says that ‘Socio-economic status is still a strong predictor of performance in many countries and is associated with large differences in performances in most countries that participate in PISA. Socio-economically advantaged students and schools tend to outscore their disadvantaged peers by larger margins than between any other two groups of students.’ (p 47)

The actual DATA the report draws on in is Figure 11.2.8. (p. 48) The average of what is explained by socio-economic factors for all PISA countries is just over 60%. NZ comes in at about 78% (almost spot on with Harker’s findings of 80% in NZ in 1995).  Finally the report says ‘In Chile, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand, Peru and Slovenia more than 75% of the performance difference between schools is explained by the socio-economic status of students and schools.’ (OECD 2013, p. 49).

The evidence is clear and consistent and it has nothing to do with ideology or politics. It is just a fact that in countries like ours the social background of students accounts for some 70%-80% of the variance leaving only 20% – 30% to be explained by schools.   

And that was where Harker had it all those years ago; it was always there, but it didn’t suit the Honourable Minister, she stood up in the House and told the Big One in preference to the Right One, even though the Right One, the truth, was there for the taking. But taking the truth if it is doesn’t suit is not the  Honourable Minister’s style.

The Honourable Minister likes to say she puts children at the centre of education and her concerns; that is the obverse of the truth, the Honourable Minister puts herself at the centre, her status, and her unlovely prejudices. If children were at the centre of her concerns the Honourable Minister would not have told the Big One, she would have told the Right One, but she chose not to, and that dear readers is all you need to know about our Honourable Minster.

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7 Responses to Honourable Minister tells a Big One, and in the House

  1. John Elliott says:

    Well written, Kelvin.
    Why are PPTA and NZEI not raising objections like this?
    You are a fulsome writer who takes time to establish ground and make point. Unfortunately, I fear that many internet readers now lack the necessary attention span to follow your arguments.
    And we have all Govt-funded agencies (ERO, Ministry, etc) covering the Govt’s backside because of insidious little clauses in their employment contracts.
    I wonder what the weasel-worded defence will be. Or whether this topic will even make the Mainstream Media.. If not, our beloved education minister will not even need to speak.
    I would love to believe that some journalist will see this as worthy material.
    Hope springs eternal, but pessimism consistently counters..

  2. alingham says:

    It’s no surprise to me; a teacher in an AWESOME decile 2 school with PASSIONATE teachers who are young and well and truely up with the play of the latest teaching pedagogy. We’ve had copious hours of PD, and are always looking at improving our teaching.
    Our results remain below 85%. Well below.
    It doesn’t surprise me that 70-80% of the factors that impact on achievement (or lack of) can be attributed to socio economic. A while back, I worked out that 88% of a child’s life is spent OUTISDE of school. http://unleash.alingham.com/2011/where-are-the-kids-learning/
    But no… Outside influences are just an excuse that teachers use to brush away poor results, right!?

    • Kelvin says:

      Alingham: Well done. Keep up great work.

      • Paul says:

        I’ve just finished our learning report to the BOT. The teachers at my school are a focused, workaholic bunch. Lots of PD, a wide range of extra assistance programmes in place, families and community support and supported. We can’t get get there either. In reviewing those children who are struggling for example at reading we have 14 we are concerned about – 4 are often truant, 5 have health problems, 3 are new to our school, 1 started school at 6 and is progressing at the expected rate and only 1 child is hard to fathom. Failures? I think not. The target is ridiculous which makes you wonder one who set it, and two why did they set it? The second one is the real worry.

  3. John Carrodus says:

    The sanitary gang are using a lot of uric acid to transform these inconvenient findings into roundup to pour over low decile schools and their staff, rubbing even more degrading insult into their wounds. Politics can be lowly filthy game, or a force to move mountains when good people do good things for good reasons.

  4. kellyned says:

    Thanks for your direct challenge of the Minister. I doubt that she could lie straight in bed!
    Interestingly she often refers to her own schooling at Ruatori, suggesting that because she went to a low decile school and ‘made it’ (heaven help us) that anyone can. However what she fails to tell us is that her father was the Principal of the Secondary school (Wikipedia) – and therefore she was in fact not raised in a low socio-economic home. Certainly her home would not have been impoverished.
    A more interesting testimony on her part would be around how many of her class mates didn’t ‘make it’.

  5. This is the fantasy that education can solve all social and economic problems, acting on them as an external object from those problems, that is becoming increasingly pervasive globally

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