John Key: ‘We can count rodents easily – neglected, abused or sick children living in cold, damp houses not so much.’ Stuff, 3 October, 2016.
Children of the poor: Bitter and cynical strategy on education and poverty
Whenever the prime minister or finance minister talk about the prospect of government money being allocated to poverty reduction, they always draw from a medley of three rationalisations to justify dilatoriness: yes there is poverty but who really knows how much; the government won‘t be ‘throwing money’ at it; and they won’t support any policies that can’t justify their existence with measurable results. This last draws attention to the way, for the power elite, measurement and accountability are conceptual tools to use, to reinforce its power. And who is it suggesting that the government throw money at the problem’? Surely the policy suggestion would have been in the form of a provision of funding where it could best help lift more families out of poverty. By definition within the power elite, ‘throwing money at the problem’ is an expression only resorted to if the matter relates to the less well off in society: if it relates to the moneyed parts it is expressed as an investment in the productive sector – an entitlement consistent with their status. And when the power elite refers to real results it is referring to immediately measurable results which, in relation to social issues, is a way of distorting and avoiding the inherent nature of such issues. Such issues are always complex, fundamental, and chronic – therefore not amenable to short-term measures or measurement.
Short-term measurement serves not as a marker for complex social issues but an agent, a device, for making them less likely of solution; an outcome which may not be of particular concern to the power elite because their lack of solution can be used to political advantage: those in the front-line trying to effect a solution can be held accountable, scapegoated for their failures, especially if they have had the temerity to suggest flaws in the proposed policies; and, the idea that the social issues are beyond solution, given time to take hold, can create fear, insecurity, division, a sense of hopelessness, and moral ambiguity. Mixed in with all this is alarm, carefully contrived by the power elite that a political party might come along committed to ‘throwing money at the problem’, their money, as they have been led to believe.
A concomitant of short-term measurement is short term measures, which suits the power elite fine, as short term measures are always cheaper and don’t rely on trust, particularly inter-generational trust, of which it is mightily mistrustful. Contemporary Western society – driven as it is by individualism, managerialism, privatisation, accountability, and deep distaste of the idea of public service – is running perilously short of trust, that vital ingredient to a truly healthy social democracy. All the time, of course, while non-solutions to complex social issues are being showily pursued to political advantage, actual solutions are being ignored, leading to the complex issues becoming more intractable and the ostensible beneficiaries of the non-solutions even more disadvantaged.
This writing’s opening argument is that in the current political climate, any changes to education or other social policy, whether intended to help the poor or not, will result in making things worse. The power elite knows this, or goes out of its way not to know it, which is the justification for calling the current policy on poverty, bitter and cynical. That argument leads to the main argument that education policies from classroom to bureaucracies have a central intent – disempowering teachers as part of dismantling the public education system – and what is happening to the schools and education system is largely a contingency to that.
This cynicism is no more evident than in education. The present government’s education policy is based on a fundamental lie: that the effect of poverty on education achievement is 18 percent. This a figure borrowed from John Hattie, who actually moves the figure around, with 18% being one of them. Hattie, if he relates the figure to research at all, is talking to the kind of research that is limited in depth and reach – not really about achievement but short-term academic rabbit-from-a-hat duplicity. The classic research carried out in New Zealand has the effect of poverty on education achievement as 70 percent. But there is no chance of the government accepting that figure, because government policy is dependent on 18% or thereabouts to gain license to scapegoat schools and blame teachers for stalled or diminishing learning results. The government, in a similar manoeuvre, uses Hattie’s research to poo-poo the learning benefits of smaller classes when the classic research in New Zealand and overseas has smaller classes as an important part of learning improvement. All this is a double-whammy of advantage for the government’s finances not only does the government get-out-from under from pressure to help schools with more funding but also more funding to alleviate the effects of poverty, a role the government cynically exaggerates in its allocation to schools. While severely underfunding public schools the government cries crocodile tears at the failure of schools to deliver children from poverty: when are they going to get their act together? is the pose. Education is the best way, it says, far better than throwing money at the poor, says the government, laughing all the way to the next tax cut for the wealthy and re-election for retention of power.
Also cynical in education is the effect of imposed measurement on children’s learning, such an imposition has the effect of undermining public education, and while not explicitly thought out by the power elite, more demonstrated as a kind of constructed carelessness, the narrowness and emptiness of measurement-laden learning delivers a devastating blow in particular to the prospects of children needing to catch up while middle-class children bolstered as they are with cultural capital, are comfortably placed to take it in their stride and proceed comfortably to university. The children of the poor are dependent for education achievement on a high functioning public education, it is the only option they have, it is where they go. But a public education system of imposed measurement learning; reducing funding; larger classes; multiple deleterious policy changes often introduced as providing choice or increasing efficiency; and of political scapegoating, is not well placed to help such children.
When the needing to catch-up children reach NCEA level 2, but aren’t up to it, then the power elite narrative is: what’s wrong with trades or hospitality, and so on? university isn’t for everyone. But you see, the whole point of education is for children to have a choice. Primary education and the early years at secondary should be organised, and funded accordingly, to ensure children have a choice when course selection becomes especially important to vocational prospects. Think of it like this: many Maori children are in the catch-up category – when they get to NCEA level 2, why shouldn’t they have the choice to go to university, to be the managers, doctors, lawyers, and accountants. It’s not good enough to say: what’s wrong with trades?
In the NZ Herald (Wednesday, 18 January, 2012) was a front page story headed ‘Poverty trap set at birth, study reveals’. This study, based on the long-running Christchurch research into 1265 children born in Christchurch in 1977, is sub-headed ‘Downward Path’ and recounts the already well-known effects of poverty on crime, pregnancy, health, and education. Those from poor families, it was reported, were more likely to leave school without qualifications, have babies before they were 20, commit crimes, go on welfare, and have addiction and other mental health problems in adulthood.
(Please note: There will be regular references in this posting to children from wealthier families and poorer families. To be more accurate the references should be to the degree of cultural capital within these families. As well, referring to children from wealthier and poorer families has a jarringly deterministic flavour. However, I have still persisted in using these labels as a shortcut – a shortcut I request you interpret in the light of the foregoing comments.)
From the school point-of-view the relevant matter in the report is the reference to the effects of cultural capital on education outcomes. The report writers said that ‘it could be that competent, bright families transmit their skills to their children’ and that ‘being bred in a high income family provides children with role models and resources for both educational achievement and career success.’ This is fair enough, the report writers are, of course, on the right lines, but what they say doesn’t really capture the half of it. There is a kind of clinical distancing effect in tone. The conditions in the home of so many poor are chaotic, making somewhat awry, clinical references to such things as the transmission of skills.
It is so easy to sit in an academic office or a political office and see things generally, acknowledging the problems, as this report does but, in my view, failing to grasp anywhere satisfactorily the disorderliness and fantastical limitations, the mind-numbing and overwhelming triviality of many children’s experiences, the violent haphazardness of events. Compare the richness of conversational exchanges between adults and children in some houses and the shouted, impatient, at-wits-end verbal scatterings in others; compare the insubstantial, unhealthy food-preparation-on-the-run in these houses; the never being on your own and the accompanying clamour and disorder; living in cars, garages, tents, and multiple families to a house; the catch-as-can family sleeping arrangements; the transience; the multi, precarious, low paid, all times of a day jobs involving both parents; the broken nights from people returning from pubs, parties, and night shifts; the ugliness of backyards; the grinding effects of poverty; and the hopelessness of ever finding a way out.
And when things go wrong in poor families, they often go calamitously wrong. Martin Thrupp’s excellent book, Schools Making a Difference: Let’s be Realistic, based on close and continuous observation of a student population of a school, details the extreme vulnerability to turns of events of children from poor families. Disruptive events are, of course, more likely to occur in the lives of children from poor families and when they do, the effects are far more devastating.
When the children of poor come to school, however, the mothers have mostly done their best with them, the children scrub up pretty well, keen to learn, and, after all, they are just children, so they are often lifted in the company of other children and their teachers. Indeed, a hopeful perception, might well be that somehow on their delivery to school gates, the children from poorer families would perform equally as well as children from wealthier families, and, indeed, so they will as long as they also have had years of intensive adult-child discussions, visits to many places and experiences, people around who read newspapers and books, association with people who have had academic success, a room of one’s own, ready access to computers, a healthy diet, regular health checks, and social stability. But what chance?
The initial approach to the children from poorer families should be that their capacities are the same as other children which, of course, is the initial expectation all teachers should have of all children but, in general, these children are likely to need greater patience; more individual attention; an emphasis on building fundamental concepts and experiences; an avoidance of cramming so that bad, hard to eradicate, learning habits, are not engrained; and a sense of individual success and progress.
The teachers know, of course, what some of these children from poorer families are going through. You see them comforting these children – violence at home, a father in jail, a family separation, all sorts of things that are just a happening too far – yes, I see the teachers comforting the children at crisis moments, hugging them, reassuring them, making sure during the day that a sense of stability is provided. And for these children, in general, I see teachers preparing special programmes, giving special help, allocating teacher aide time to them as available, setting an appropriate pace for their learning. I see them providing sublime patience while they artfully build up children’s confidence, experiences, conceptual understandings, and learning skills.
But look where education is being pushed: a desiccated wasteland of learning. Teaching is becoming formalistic when it needs to be flexible and imaginative; narrow when it needs to be spacious; standardised when it needs to be diverse; a soulless learning cram when it needs to be based on understanding; and leached of real world reality when it needs to be cognitively and affectively rich. Children need the kind of reading and writing programmes developed by our fabled stjcs with their emphasis on the ‘I can read’ ( and ‘I can write’) approach; to experience learning as something they have a say in not something that just happens to them; to be stimulated imaginatively and intellectually challenged – and all this from their first years at school. It is children who experience this kind of learning throughout their primary years who will still be enjoying learning when faced with secondary examinations; and it is this kind of experience that will contribute to whatever schools can contribute to lessening the social reproduction of disadvantage so manifest in our current system.
But the tragedy of what is happening daily in our classrooms. I have been there when a boy has received his reading national standard and at that moment knowing that for him, at six years, reading was over, not only because of that dispiriting information but because I knew he was fated to be subjected to a programme of intensive phonics. Remember how teachers battled against phonics dominating reading, arguing the case for reading for meaning, interest, and in context; remember the Nicholsons and the Tunmers, the conservative politicians, the newspaper editors, the received public wisdom, and Grandma Moses from Kapiti Coast (there’s always a local amateur who has discovered the reading elixir)? For years they held off the damage wrought when the phonics academics overwhelm the classroom developed knowledge of teachers. But now phonics is making a strong comeback as it always does under conservative governments: looking for formalistic education answers to intricate and subtle education questions. This despite recent, compelling New Zealand-Scottish comparative research unequivocally demonstrating that the New Zealand reading tradition was absolutely on the button, that New Zealand children performed well ahead of the phonics-taught Scottish children, and even more significantly, that phonics teaching left a deleterious footprint on the later reading of the Scottish children. Once again, the main victims of the swing to phonics will be children of the poor because they are the ones without the cultural capital to rise above the effects of the misguided teaching that intensive phonics represents.
The alliance of quantitative academics and conservative governments in the matter of phonics is a natural one in the Aotearoa version of class war (as it is in most Western countries): the simplistic nature of phonics, and what appears commonsense, is just what conservative governments are looking for to undermine public education – their thinking is always towards the idea that anybody can do teaching, it is all very straightforward, so why not cut back on teacher training and education, as well, it allows the appointment of bureaucrats with no background in education to feel empowered and righteous about directing and evaluating what teachers do. The conservative governments for confirmation of their view of education then go to a handful of quantitative academics like John Hattie, Tom Nicholson, and Bill Tunmer who because of their obsession with measurement become honorary members of the power elite.
The return of the narrow version of the 3Rs, with the associated reduction in cognitive and affective challenge as the basis for preparing children for life, is an absurdity. It is on children of poorer families that the burden of this absurdity falls most heavily. It is reminiscent of the gardening policies for Maori children at the turn of the century before last. When it is appreciated that such a policy is an illusion disguising a vacuum, the policy goes beyond absurdity to a bitter and cynical strategy. And, beyond the school gate, is the twisting and turning of the power elite to avoid doing something genuine about the growing gap beyond rich and poor. The return to the narrow version of the 3Rs should be seen as a cynical strategy put forward as an all-purpose cover for doing nothing of significance. The idea that the 3Rs is somehow separate from the whole curriculum is a damaging fallacy. The 3Rs, and thinking, exploring, imagining, and expressing are intrinsically interdependent. Children right from year 0, no matter their home circumstances or ability should be cognitively and affectively challenged to enable them to succeed in the 3Rs, in the wider curriculum, at secondary school, and beyond. The idea, openly acknowledged in present policies, and implicit in the idea of league tables, is that first get the 3Rs in place, and then attend to the wider curriculum. If the 3Rs are considered in this way then what happens to children, often those from poorer families, is to experience a repetition of formalistic 3Rs programme to year 8 and even beyond. Such a programme is condescending, limiting, boring, and setting children up, especially children from poorer families, for almost certain failure.
While making political capital about concern for the education of children from poorer families, National (also Labour if you go back to the arguments for the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools) has used the concept of provider capture to devastating effect. What its use has done is remove teacher knowledge from policy making, leaving the field open to politicians, bureaucrats, quantitative academics, newspaper editors, and that entity known as the public (whose voice is interpreted by these groups). By removing teacher knowledge from policy making, the power elite has been able to get away with the duplicity of bringing in a raft of policies with the ostensible purpose of benefiting children from poorer families, often at little taxpayer cost, that actually disadvantage children from these poorer families while, to some extent, advantaging children from wealthier ones. Children from poorer families, through the obsession with a narrow, standardised, one-pace-for-all education are condemned to a repetition of such a programme through their primary and intermediate schooling years – an education devoid of imaginative, rich, and cognitively challenging contexts. As a basis for learning it is a sure way to limit the development of children from poorer families and a recipe for them to fail at secondary and to rarely be in a position to contemplate tertiary. Meanwhile, children from wealthier families will have the cultural capital to draw on to shrug off a fair bit of exposure to this literacy-numeracy obsession, serving to increase the gap in performance between children from poorer and wealthier families. As well, more children from wealthier families will attend private schools and quasi-private schools to benefit from the freer curriculum and higher funding level.
There are a complex of reasons why teachers are excluded from policy making: the one of provider capture can be revealed as a cynical ploy because all it does is allow the more intensive capture of education by other groups – in particular, of course, the various agencies of government, which are left with near untrammeled power. Why the government has sought such overwhelming power is often rationalised as needing to be in full command to properly represent parents in getting the best possible education for their children. But that argument is a facade, the government’s real reason is not to get the best education for children but the worst for public education. It is not that such a perception has necessarily been consciously thought through, it is more likely derived from an absorption of values from others in the power elite or an attitude of mind derived from the power elite’s neoliberal ideology. This writing argues that children and the curriculum and teachers’ teaching are all contingent to the drive for near untrammeled power, and that the primary reason for that is to divide, destabilise, slur, and disempower teachers, remove their voice, from agitating for increased funding for public education and to obstruct its systematic dismantling.
A great irony of national standards, purportedly intended to keep parents and the government better informed, is that the reverse is occurring. More information will, indeed, be provided but, because of high stakes surrounding the production, it will become highly inaccurate – all the supervision, moderation, and computerisation won’t make a jot of difference. Also, any drop in learning and accomplishment, where and when it occurs, will be managed by the government – is being managed by the government – through its considerably increased command of the education system: the government already has almost complete control of university quantitative research with its contractual agreements; and control of qualitative reporting through it’s highly ideologically charged organisation of the bureaucracies – meaning the education system is already close to being hermetically sealed. When test results become politically sensitive as they increasingly are through the extreme politicisation of education, the government is easily able to change the nature of the tests to its advantage, the test processes, the marking procedures to improve or worsen the results, and the interpretation and reporting of results.
Similarly, any education policy that has choice embedded in the associated rhetoric will end up favouring children from wealthier families. For instance, much is made of parents looking up review office reports and choosing schools on that basis – this is a major distortion; much is made of parents choosing religious schools because of the supposedly more ordered environment – once again, this is a major distortion. Since the year dot of education choice (1989), choice has overwhelmingly been about flight from brown faces. If pakeha and Asian parents could get past this, they would find, as I did in my years of visiting schools, a significant number of schools with a predominance of brown faces where all children received a brilliant education. But over time, the movement away of so many of the most able children has a wearing effect on the functioning of the school and the quality of the education for those left remaining. If choice is available, it is understandable and right that parents should make choices for their children according to their own lights, but it is the responsibility of governments to ensure that the availability of such choice, in its exercise, doesn’t work to advantage one group of children at the expense of another.
For the power elite, measurement is an instrument of delay, distortion, advantage, and oppression. Such measurement is always short term while social issues are always chronic so there is mismatch from the outset. Measurement of social issues is never a neutral, it is always value laden which is why the power elite is so commanding in its control of measurement and the interpretation of results. This means, amongst other distortions, that the power elite can declare an issue more or less resolved when it isn’t or, as more often is the case, far from resolved, allowing the power elite to scapegoat those it chooses to blame. An outcome of all this is to create a sense that certain social issues will always be with us, incapable of resolution, thus creating a moral ambiguity about social issues, reducing the will to do something profound in response. In education, the imposition of a measurement-based system and the accompanying narrow formalistic curriculum has had a devastating effect on learning especially for children from poorer families; children from wealthier families are subjected to the same system but they have the cultural capital to rise above it. To oversee the measurement-based system the power elite has established a hierarchy of rigid controls and fear-driven conformity. As part of this, a simplistic view of what education is and teachers do has been propagated. The main argument in this writing is that the power elite’s motivation for imposing such a system and being so fixed and relentless about it, no matter the contingent damage to the children of the poor, is to undermine and weaken teachers’ resistance to the dismantling of the public education system thereby providing an unobstructed path to propagate and act on the pervasive neoliberal ideology.
Though the attention in this writing has been to education, to make sense of it all, education has been be placed alongside other social policies in the much wider context of attempts by the power elite to maintain the present economic and institutional status quo in the face of axis-shifting political and economic realities. What is happening in education in New Zealand and in other Western countries is unfathomable if not seen in the context of governmental and public responses to significant economic and political change. And, as could have been predicted, the power elite is using the opportunity to place itself to strategic economic advantage and satisfy a deep-seated emotional drive to take it out on the poor and keep them in their place. Using the powerful tools of propaganda and persuasion at their disposal, the power elite, by playing on fear and insecurity, has been able to convince large sections of society to work against their own interests to the particular detriment of the poor.