The government dismantling of public education: and reflections on resistance

[Dedicated to Ivan Snook, my mentor, friend, and inspiration.]

This posting explores public education being in serious difficulty – largely because the government is intent on dismantling it. But was where we are inevitable? And a personal philosophy of resistance is referred to.

New Zealand public school education is in decline, in the early throes of a silent calamity: silent because the government, teacher organisations, media, academics, and parents all have reason for keeping it so. The government, because achieving neoliberal ends, not improving education, is its primary motive; teacher organisations, because to admit to a decline would expose schools to blame and criticism, also to make uncomfortable their relationship with the minister; the media, because there is no journalist who has quite got down to really understanding schools (one or two have come close) and there are explicit and implicit editorial restraints (if the decline in public education had occurred under a Labour government, it would be a cauldron); academics, because they would be shushed by their employers for fear of losing contracts; and parents, from befuddlement in response to  inflated national standards results and unrelenting propaganda from minister and ministry.

It is not my intention to go into the details of the decline of public school education, I have provided those in a number of postings, but in quick summary, national standards and NCEA results are highly inflated and near worthless as indicators – contributing to this, the failure to get children at primary to think and be imaginative, the formal, uninspiring methods of teaching reading, writing, and mathematics leading to children being ill-fitted to pass authentic NCEA when they reach secondary;  and children with the innate potential to exercise choice when they reach secondary, but really having none because of lack of preparedness and being diverted into low hierarchy courses.

In international tests, New Zealand is now at the bottom of the Western world countries when it was at or near the top in reading and writing and got along in mathematics. The National Monitoring Study of Student achievement (Dunedin) has students scoring around 25% below national standards results. But the far greater tragedy is in the arts, they are a desiccated wasteland, and science, mainly just skills: where is the science? and social studies, almost disappeared and when it does show up mainly heartless skills. The greatest and cruellest hoax is the one being perpetrated on Maori and Pasifika children. I am not talking from a distance here, I go into primary school classrooms, the will is there for teachers to do better, but the freedom, encouragement, and means to do so, by design, are in short supply, the government having other priorities.

A distraction by ministers over the Tomorrow’s Schools years has been what I call the next big thing: Tomorrow’s Schools was the first and biggest next big thing (paraded as school freedom), for David Lange to be shaken and bewildered that it brought no curriculum progress; the education review office under the new leadership of Judith Aitken was then promoted as the next big thing, to became an education grotesque; then it was national standards; communities of learning; and under the new minister, it will be computers. What an escape the next big thing has been for ministers: don’t worry about declining results, the next big thing will solve all. And please note, all the past and next big things are from the neoliberal education toolkit. Sorry we can’t provide extra funding for Maori education or special needs, the communities of learning will do the trick there – or computers (especially computers under the new minister).

The main reason public education is in decline is because consecutive National governments have steadily set about dismantling it (it needs to be pointed out that dismantling also occurred under Labour, but more as an inherent structural outcome of  Tomorrow’s Schools). For public education, the inevitable outcome is a middle-class flight from public school mundanity. In one way or another, the middle-class will find a school system, or found a school system, that meets their values, leaving public schools as working-class ghettos.

The process of dismantling public education is revealed in a range of government behaviours some motivated by ideology, others more by instinct, nearly all in combination, for instance: education being considered a private good and where it might be less so, pushed relentlessly to the right (in other words, insisting education be based on vocational values to the benefit the corporate economy); setting up education to favour the wealthy and powerful in society; controlling education to silence the agitation for increased funding; controlling education to impose a narrow curriculum to inhibit questioning and critical thinking; controlling education to impose a narrow curriculum to inhibit imagination and creativity; controlling education to develop an obedient, accepting society; controlling education by imposing conformity from classroom, to school, to groupings of schools; reducing individuality by larger classes, larger classrooms, and larger schools; controlling education to prepare for continuance of that control in any future social breakdown or dystopia; controlling education for a non-democratic future; controlling education as an exemplar of a non-democratic society; and using fear as an exemplar of the most efficient way to control society (fear reducing the need for a large number of agents of control and, in being incalculable, pushing those subject to it, to extremes of accommodation).

The government is dismantling public education to ideological ends. It is doing this by denigrating teachers, public schools, and teacher organisations; promoting charter schools as a platform for undertaking this; wildly underfunding schools, thus hampering them in compensating for social disadvantage, the ability to help children with special needs, provide specialist teachers, promote the teaching of Maori, and individualise teaching (especially in upper primary classes); undermining the idea of a qualified teacher; re-writing the past to better control the present and the future; taking control of the future (digital to the exclusion of imagination) to take control of the present; imposing the digital as a prime education purpose rather than a subsidiary tool – admittedly a hugely important one (incorrect use of the digital is a significant reason for the decline in learning); asking the wrong question of the digital, instead of asking how the digital can be used in the curriculum, asking how the curriculum can be used in the digital; hampering public school functioning by imposing stifling and belittling hierarchical, bureaucratic controls; adding another layer of bureaucracy as represented by the Education Council; increasing the size of classrooms (very large classrooms are suggested as contributing to learning failure); refusing schools significant architectural choice in any rebuilding;  increasing the sizes of schools at the expense of rural and smaller schools (long a source of innovative practice and career development); establishing a narrow, restrictive curriculum at the expense of a holistic one, thus setting classrooms up for failure and even more hierarchical control; fragmenting the curriculum into arrays of narrow objectives accompanied by a heavy regime of classroom and national testing leading to more failure; imposing national standards thereby changing the nature of whatever was intended to be taught by the fact of its measurement; extending the hierarchal and bureaucratic characteristics of the system into the classroom; emphasising a school system based on organisation rather than the curriculum; excluding teacher organisations from genuine involvement in policy initiation and development; reducing teacher control over what they do; valuing conformity over variety; working exclusively from academic and bureaucratic knowledge; and refusing to acknowledge the validity of teacher-produced knowledge.

But the main instrument governments have used to dismantle public education is the education review office; it is the organisational apotheosis of the coercive neoliberal education ends.  If public education is to be freed, given renewed health to pursue democratic and holistic ends – more than anything else, more than the removal of national standards, more than increased funding, the supervisory function of schools must be radically restructured.

The review office is pure dread: the relationship of school to review office is one of unpredictability and lack of accountability leading to an overall relationship based on fear that is often sublimated by schools furiously conforming to, even going beyond, review office expectations. But in the complex, value-laden environment of education, there is always more a school can do, so there is always pervasive that the dread of being guilty of grievous error, of something else that needs to be done, of who knows what? Unpredictability of review office behaviour can derive from the personality or mood of the review officer, a principal being prominent in the newspaper, a principal being associated with a different philosophy of education, or even just showing hints of it, a letter about the school residing in the review office’s secret file – there are multitudinous ways for the review office to put a school on the rack – and there is no accountability. But the most dangerous part of the review office’s way of functioning is its anti-democratic way of deciding, without consultation with parents, teachers, or any representative consultation group, what curriculum areas should be emphasised, how teaching should be organised to minute detail, and how schools should be administered. The official curriculum in New Zealand primary education is now a document interpreted for meaning by an unaccountable centralised grouping (review office, ministry, and Treasury) with the latest word often being spread through review office school visits. This centralised group invariably taking out of the official curriculum those parts making the curriculum easier to measure as a means of extending bureaucratic control.

Through the time of Tomorrow’s Schools from 1990 to today, I have resisted the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, leaving my position as a senior inspector of schools to expose the deceptiveness of the way that philosophy was introduced and the consummate idiocy of it being a Labour government doing the introducing. My main instrument of resistance then, as now, was the advocacy of the holistic as against the neoliberal fragmented control curriculum.

An education system should be built from the curriculum up, not the system down – meaning, in the present situation, the holistic is a weapon.

In 2010, I spoke to the South Island Intermediate and Middle Schools Annual Principals Conference (‘How corrupted is our education system?’ https://kelvinsmythenetworkonnet.wordpress.com)

And what I said in conclusion to that address is a summation of my philosophy of what characterises resistance in a democracy – no matter how hard the going, the prerogative of that democratic context was understood by me, and always appreciated. Perhaps, though, resistance requires some madness, I could often feel it rising but I subverted, and to some extent controlled it, into my writing.

I said, ‘There won’t be decisive change for the better until, sometime in the future, New Zealand faces a crisis, probably a combination of the economic, social, and moral. In that circumstance, we should be ready with some ideas, carefully considered ideas, for a better way of going about things. In the meantime, especially in education, power structures being the way they are, we must expect that education will be increasingly unsatisfying for children and disappointing for society (both economically and spiritually). This will be especially so in New Zealand which doesn’t receive the lavish funding, say, UK, Australian, or American schools have received; and poverty increases with its flow-on education effects. All we can do, I believe, is slow down the decline by opposing the characteristics of scientific management, by exposing the myth of the academic expert, proposing alternative ways, and campaigning for a fairer society.’

I can remember sitting at my computer in the course of writing that paragraph and contemplating the question: How is all this going to end? I turned off the computer and pondered the question for some days, and my answer was: Not rationally, only when New Zealand ‘faces a crisis, probably a combination of economic, social, and moral.’ But, and this is a crucial point for a philosophy of resistance, that ending was not inevitable.

History is not a story of what was inevitable; it is a story of what didn’t have to be. David Lange didn’t have to impose an education system to go with the economic system his minister of finance had imposed (and Labour doing this removed the natural opposition to it when National would have introduced it anyway); the members of the caucus might have had the courage and insight to oppose it; the teacher organisations could have opposed it and while they might have failed at first, that could have set things up to succeed in the long run; a strong leader could have headed one of the teacher organisations; we could have had one example of the media who listened (RNZ thinks it is listening but it hasn’t listened and doesn’t listen, and no newspaper listened – really listened); Labour eventually might have recognised the grievous error of its education ways and undertaken a thoroughgoing democratic restructuring ; and what if Brian Donnelly had held his nerve against Labour and National and appointed a different group of people to sit in committee on the future of the review office?

Someone in an official position or a teacher organisation could have come through and played the long game, which is the key to the philosophy of resistance, but none did, any resistance was issue-based (usually raised by the government) keeping the organisations distracted, busy and feeling useful. In effect, the organisations became reliant on pleading with the government and being habitually acquiescent in the hope of the government occasionally dispensing  a favour, while all the time it was steadily dismantling public education.

Any of these would have changed history. I obstructed, ridiculed, and proselytised, waiting for a change to history; that was my game, one I never thought I would win, but one for my own reasons, I felt impelled to engage in. (In respect to the reference to Brian Donnelly, I agitated for that through the magazine, a protest on the steps of parliament, addressing meetings, printing bumper stickers, running a petition, but Brian Donnelly capitulated and guess who was on the committee? Hekia Parata’s sister and Margaret Austin for Labour, amongst other neoliberal education devotees.) My resistance was not because I thought I would win, but because what I was resisting was wrong. And, at the risk of self-indulgence, there is that universal yearning for your life to mean something, I always proceeded in the belief that in fight for right we are not alone, we are with all those people in the past who have fought for right, in particular the multitudes of lesser people, lesser people like me, whose example we don’t know, long forgotten if ever remembered, but who endure as a general cultural memory.

The foundation for my resistance was curriculum knowledge (largely gained by observing and listening to you) informed by a willingness to imagine. It has been both an elevating experience and disturbing. To know what is going to happen and not being able to decisively change events is sometimes knowledge you would rather not know.

In 1999, I spoke to a group of principals. My main message was that given the morally and ethically complex times ahead, principals, in doing what they had to do, needed to do that, but on the understanding that they retained, as part of their thinking, the idea that much of what they had to do was not in the best interests of children. They needed to make that distinction for their own integrity, and to be able to challenge that which was not in the best interests of children when opportunities arose.

That was the message of resistance I delivered to principals but increasingly their eyes showed incomprehension or resistance (more the former); reactions seeming to be in pace with principals moving from the holistic curriculum to the national standards one. I could gauge the movement away from the holistic from the decline in interest in my courses on setting up holistic classrooms. One of the intriguing characteristics about schools is that amongst the much revered school values, independence is often omitted, and courage nearly always. Many principals know what they are doing is not in the best interests of the children but from my observation become determinedly non-imagining, allowing themselves to operate at the practical level and in the short term. The pressure from the education review office and the ministry based on fear is intense, and like all autocratic organisations sought more than conformity and loyalty, they sought love – and in all kinds of subtle ways principals found ways to communicate that.

Education in a democracy should serve democracy but, at the moment, it doesn’t, it serves, through neoliberalism, the corporate culture. Education should serve the values of democracy, the developing of the holistic talents of the individual, and employment prospects in an authentic and integrated way, but it doesn’t. These three aims are not by nature exclusive of each other but they are increasingly made to be. The New Zealand school education system is a microcosm of the developing corporate state: the use of the big lie, propaganda, false statistics, and the most efficient and effective means of control – fear. The effect in schools is narrowing the curriculum, divesting the arts and critical thinking, and creating citizens unable to think their way out of a paper bag, conformist, fearful, and with a belief that following commands from the top is the only way. Another effect is to undermine public education both because it is public and because of its potential as a source of competing ideas and values. The corporate powers that be, and governmental systems expressing those, use their control of the present to use predictions of the future to bolster their control of the present.  Those in control emphasise a digital, corporate dominated future with an intolerant refusal to accept any other. They do not contemplate other futures, for instance, a breakdown in civilisation from climate change, a breakdown that could well strike in the lifetimes of school children today. Public education, on the other hand, should be about values, democratic values to prepare children for any number of futures, including one in which economic development is subordinate to environmental and humanistic imperatives and the attention is to a fairer sharing of less.

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8 Responses to The government dismantling of public education: and reflections on resistance

  1. A great summary, thank you.

  2. Roger Young says:

    Good on you Kelvin. These things need to be aired and loudly.
    You touch on a very important aspect with reference to primary schooling and the ‘FAILURE TO GET CHILDREN AT PRIMARY TO THINK AND BE IMAGINATIVE, THE FORMAL, UNINSPIRING METHODS OF TEACHING READING, WRITING, AND MATHEMATICS LEADING TO CHILDREN BEING ILL-FITTED TO PASS AUTHENTIC NCEA WHEN THEY REACH SECONDARY’
    This is where the Government, the Ministry and ERO are missing the boat completely. Without this thorough and diverse teaching in primary developing thinking and creativity, and diversity there is little hope for them at secondary level. The results already show the decline and the officials, including manny principals are ignoring them. Your column needs to be compulsory reading for principals and ministry people.

  3. Kelvin says:

    A well-known Tauranga principal writes:
    I couldn’t agree more.
    Cheers

  4. Kelvin says:

    This response is by an American professor, the kindliest of persons, who I worked with in New Zealand and America on the Science Alive series over 20 years ago. I cherish my relationship with him and his beautiful family.

    Kelvin –
    Thank you for sharing (https://networkonnet.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/the-government-dismantling-of-public-education-and-reflections-on-resistance/).

    I was saddened to read your post, but the following could have just as readily been applied to the dismantling of education in the U.S., a neoliberal (and bi-partisan) policy here since Reagan was president:

    “The process of dismantling public education is revealed in a range of government behaviours some motivated by ideology, others more by instinct, nearly all in combination, for instance: education being considered a private good and where it might be less so, pushed relentlessly to the right (in other words, insisting education be based on vocational values to the benefit the corporate economy); setting up education to favour the wealthy and powerful in society; controlling education to silence the agitation for increased funding; controlling education to impose a narrow curriculum to inhibit questioning and critical thinking; controlling education to impose a narrow curriculum to inhibit imagination and creativity; controlling education to develop an obedient, accepting society; controlling education by imposing conformity from classroom, to school, to groupings of schools; reducing individuality by larger classes, larger classrooms, and larger schools; controlling education to prepare for continuance of that control in any future social breakdown or dystopia; controlling education for a non-democratic future; controlling education as an exemplar of a non-democratic society; and using fear as an exemplar of the most efficient way to control society …”

    We don’t have your education review office, but I’m sure you are aware that the Trump government is accelerating the process of dismantling what already has not been privatized into charters, with education now under the leadership of Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos. We also have an outspokenly anti-science government which promises eco-cide for the planet in order to enrich their campaign sponsors (and themselves).

    Previously I shared with you my re-readings of John Dewey’s work and how I saw your advocacy of a holistic curriculum over a standards-based one as fitting with Dewey’s philosophy, which I heartily endorse. The corporatist top-down privatizing over-testing scheme seems to have won the day in the US, and in my field STEM has won out as the latest fashion and cost us science education in natural history, evolution, and STS, but I’m still resisting. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far. As you point out, there is no evidence the corporatist model is serving children any better, or democracy (another concern of mine as well).

    Your final paragraph summed it all up succinctly and accurately, in my opinion, and I’ll be quoting it in some paper or another I can promise:

    “Education in a democracy should serve democracy but, at the moment, it doesn’t, it serves, through neoliberalism, the corporate culture. Education should serve the values of democracy, the developing of the holistic talents of the individual, and employment prospects in an authentic and integrated way, but it doesn’t. These three aims are not by nature exclusive of each other but they are increasingly made to be. The New Zealand school education system is a microcosm of the developing corporate state: the use of the big lie, propaganda, false statistics, and the most efficient and effective means of control – fear. The effect in schools is narrowing the curriculum, divesting the arts and critical thinking, and creating citizens unable to think their way out of a paper bag, conformist, fearful, and with a belief that following commands from the top is the only way. Another effect is to undermine public education both because it is public and because of its potential as a source of competing ideas and values. The corporate powers that be, and governmental systems expressing those, use their control of the present to use predictions of the future to bolster their control of the present. Those in control emphasise a digital, corporate dominated future with an intolerant refusal to accept any other. They do not contemplate other futures, for instance, a breakdown in civilisation from climate change, a breakdown that could well strike in the lifetimes of school children today. Public education, on the other hand, should be about values, democratic values to prepare children for any number of futures, including one in which economic development is subordinate to environmental and humanistic imperatives and the attention is to a fairer sharing of less.”

    Again, Kelvin, thank you for continually speaking truth to power!

    Your friend (and another resister),

    Michael

    PS you mention that NZ doesn’t receive the lavish funding of some other countries, including the US. Here funding of public education is largely based upon the property tax. Wealthy communities do often lavish funding on their public schools and have far better schools than poorer urban and rural areas whose property taxes provide much less funding. So school funding in the US system provides disproportionately to the “haves” while the “have nots” struggle to provide the basics. Unjust.

  5. Kelvin says:

    Auckland George says: Hopeless .. nobody taking it seriously. Arranging to meet my Labour candidate .. she is 11 on the list. Will see if she is going to be any use!

  6. Kelvin says:

    An Auckland teacher writes:

    More and more I think that unless the poverty and housing crises are sorted, education will be an on-going problem, regardless of what specific structures are in place. It’s the domino effect. Young teachers are leaving in great numbers, mainly because of the work overload, the judgmental attitudes from above and all of that. But more and more it’s the bad behaviour of so many kids, and it’s utterly draining. Every class has one or two kids like that, and some classes have more. And it’s not just our school! We have to get in early and break the cycle somehow, and try and help these students become good citizens. I don’t have the answer, but it’s a huge problem.

    • Kath Martin says:

      I feel your frustration and pain. We have classes that have 8 learning / behaviour challenging children, with very little support from MOE. However, we have found something that works for us and is making and enormous difference across the whole school. It is the programme ‘Play Is The Way’ (google it). It is based on 5 core values, which are specifically taught, as well as Self-mastery questions. It must be taught school-wide (the Juniors soak it up!). Part of the programme is based around games that teachers play with their class …. fabulous manual covers this. As Principal, I have gone from dealing with 20 incidences a day ……. to NONE for days on end!! It supports teachers as the Self-Mastery questions require students to take responsibility for the choices they make as well as ‘How are you going to put this right?’ It takes the sting out of every situation!! We have broken the cycle, we are building good citizens – give me a call ….. Kath at Hokitika Primary School.

  7. Kelvin says:

    Well done Kath for addressing values and behavioural issues so directly. I can see value in what you are doing. As a reader of this website, I know you will understand I advocate such learning be incorporated developmentally into the general functioning of classrooms. Attacks! 71-90 spell that out. But teaching developmentally is not so easy to have happen these days, so your approach is to be commended.

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