Warwick Elley: Why Are We Squandering $359 Million on Misguided Education Policies?

There is nothing new in what Warwick Elley so professionally and fluently describes below. All this was known before the teacher organisations committed themselves to money being spent on policies that constitute a tragically wrong policy direction: it entrenches all that is wrong about the present system and where it is heading; allowing little space for that which is, or could be, right. Clusters are not about children and their needs; they are about principals – their preferences and feeling safe. It is the early days of Tomorrow’s Schools all over again. And it is no skin off my nose if principals unsubscribe – I went all through that with Tomorrow’s Schools as well.

Now that the Ministry of Education is reconsidering, with primary teachers, the shape of its keynote plan “Investment in Education Success” (IES), we should examine the evidence for the original proposal. The scheme was rejected by 93% of primary teachers, not just because it was another surprise package, imposed without consultation, but because teachers see more drawbacks than benefits. I share their scepticism.

First, the Minister exaggerates the potential of schools to reduce gaps between high and low achievers. She quotes poverty as accounting for only 18% of the differences between students. That figure ignores the influence of many non-school indicators not measured in PISA. Visiting expert David Berliner puts our figure at 78% of student achievement differences due to home circumstances, neighbourhood influences and school social status. That leaves little room for changes due to differences in the quality of teaching. We cannot generalise from the dissenting Tennessee study quoted by the Ministry. It is dated, confined to one subject and one cohort, and assumes that NZ teachers vary in quality as much as US teachers. Furthermore, common sense suggests that there are many ways of being a good teacher. Raising literacy and numeracy test scores are only two.

The objective of IES is to raise the achievement of all students, high-achievers and selected priority groups – Maori, Pasifika, Low SES and Special Needs students. As we have consistently out-performed other nations in the percentages of students achieving at the highest levels, but have failed to reduce our “under-achieving tail”, it is surely better to focus those millions on reducing the gaps between the priority groups and the rest. Spending up in the top schools will only increase the size of our gaps, as the research consistently shows that un-targetted interventions help top students the most.

Much of the Ministry evidence justifying IES comes from two British sources – the McKinsey Reports. These purport to reveal the secrets of systems described as “sustained improvers” in international surveys. No mention is made of the critiques of these reports. For instance, claims about the success of England’s literacy and numeracy strategies are surely false, as the gains quoted predated the relevant surveys. Likewise the successes attributed to Michael Fullan, popular adviser in Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand, must also be questioned. All these education systems have been in steady decline in PISA in recent years. Bias or shoddy scholarship?

There may be merit in forming “Communities of Schools” to share “best practice” but the case is not well made. As this Government has done so much to provoke strong competition between schools – through National Standards and league tables – the hoped-for cooperation between schools would be half-hearted at best. We should follow the example of most European countries and dispense with competitive rankings of schools, which are clearly shown to polarise achievement levels. Moreover, the idea of absenting top teachers and leaders from their stations – with big bonuses – to help others, is unpopular with teachers and parents. Research shows that many teachers are effective when they spend long hours, going the extra mile for their own students. Low-achieving schools need the best principals and teachers fulltime, not as periodic visitors. We need more incentives to secure this outcome.

Importing the teacher-sharing models from Asia is highly debatable as their systems are much more authoritarian, their educational goals narrower, and their after-hours coaching schools often contribute more than their regular schools. Even the quoted example of principals spending time supervising a range of municipal schools in Finland ignores the fact that we are unique in having no structure between schools and central authority, which lumbers our principals with far more duties to perform. Few could spend days away from their desk.

Perhaps “best practices” of successful teachers should be identified and disseminated if possible, but many already exist. For instance, students who struggle in reading need early, individualised, intensive, expert help. Such effective tutoring has been given to thousands of 6-year-olds, here and overseas, in the form of Reading Recovery. Yet only half of our low-decile schools, where most strugglers are found, can afford it. Jeanne Biddulph’s “Reading Together” Programme where parents are taught effective tutoring practices is another proven strategy. There is research to support numerous other targetted interventions. The millions should be invested here, not on teacher bonuses.

Of course, IES would have minimal impact if the root causes of achievement gaps – poverty and inequality – are not addressed more vigorously, in the early years. More resources for pre-natal care, more support for young mothers, more “at risk” children given easier access to quality ECE, earlier screening for disabilities – such measures would generate “sustained improvements”. The research is clear – dollars invested in quality child care will save thousands.

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One Response to Warwick Elley: Why Are We Squandering $359 Million on Misguided Education Policies?

  1. Lynne Torrie says:

    It is actually quite difficult to recognise a simple solution! You mentioned ‘78% of student achievement differences due to home circumstances, neighbourhood influences and school social status.’
    What if … the money was spent in educating teenagers to be parents??? Something in the Health syllabus that taught how brain development, from conception, is influenced by the environment in which the child grows. Alcohol, drugs, abusive relationships, poor nutrition all affect brain development of the fetus and the child.
    Teach them, BEFORE they become parents, the power for success they can give their children by giving them a loving environment, filled with what they need to know and grow.
    Literacy changes lives! teach them how reading to their children influences what they know, how they think and their success when they are at school.
    If every student arrived at school with the wealth on knowledge given to them by listening to amazing children’s stories success is not in question.
    See Facebook.com/thepowerofreadingtochildren
    and http://www.thepowerofreadingtochildren.com

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