John Langley: Radical change needed in schools

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If the achievement of our bottom 20 per cent were measured, we would be just ahead of Turkey for last place.

We have less than a generation to address the imbalance in achievement in our education system. Photo / Getty Images
We have less than a generation to address the imbalance in achievement in our education system. Photo / Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago the Secretary for Education, Lesley Longstone, commented in her annual report that New Zealand did not have a world-class education system because around one in five of our children fail. She is right.

Four out of five is not good enough to claim world class status.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has also rightly targeted this issue as a major focus as minister, and it is a clear focus for her Forum on Student Achievement.

Those who fail are predominantly brown or poor, or both. This has gone on for generation after generation. It is morally indefensible and economically unsustainable. Not to mention the cost on individuals, families and communities.

If the achievement of New Zealand's top 20 per cent of children were measured, we would be first out of all OECD countries. If the achievement of our bottom 20 per cent were measured, we would just sneak ahead of Turkey for last place.

That is the range and extent of the problem.

The response to Longstone's comment from a number of quarters was sadly predictable. One response, initially made by the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) and supported by others, was that the comment should not have been made because it undermined public confidence in our education system as a whole. This is a curious thing to say as it begs the obvious question about whose confidence is being undermined?

It is not those who are failing or their families. They lost confidence in the system generations ago.

It is not those who do not have sufficient skills to get a job because they, too, have already lost confidence in the system years ago.

So, maybe it is the confidence of the largely Pakeha middle classes whose children tend to succeed most in the system that is being undermined?

Perhaps PPTA is concerned that nasty talk of failure in certain quarters might unnerve those whose children and young people are actually succeeding?

Then again, maybe it is because these are issues that are very difficult and the traditional "tinkering" type approaches we have attempted for decades to address these complex matters have, by and large, been unsuccessful and we must now think about more radical changes to our whole system? This, I have no doubt, can cause a certain amount of angst for some.

Or maybe it is just that at times this truth is unpalatable to a country with values of fair-go, equity and merit-based reward such as New Zealand?

What is most difficult to understand about the response is that it seems to be saying that if the facts are not pleasant, then we should not publish them and discuss them because someone somewhere may be a little upset or offended.

So, such reports then should only contain the good news?

I think not.

We should be rightly proud of our education system and all that it does achieve. We should be proud of the bulk of our teachers who cause children and young people to achieve every day. They get too little reward for their efforts.

And we should acknowledge all of the very serious attempts that have been made to address this most vexing problem we have. But that should never ever for any reason stop us identifying, publishing and talking about those things that are not working. Not to do so is to condemn the system as moribund to be run and reported on by a bunch of latter day Pollyannas.

We have less than a generation to address this imbalance in achievement in our education system and if we are to succeed, we must look the problems squarely in the eye and do what must be done to make the changes necessary.

So, what are those changes? What we know from the best current research is that the vast majority of influence in student achievement is because of the quality of teaching, the quality of leadership that sits behind it, the relationships that exist across individuals and institutions within the education system, and the range of pathways that young people have within the system.

So, any changes that will have any significant impact on achievement must focus on these factors. We must:

Ensure that our professional and performance standards for teachers "raise all of the boats" and reduce the range of quality between the top performers (of which there are many) and those less effective - the need to teach 5/5 and not just 4/5.

Provide teachers with the professional development, rewards and career structures that foster ongoing professional growth and development.

Grow and develop our educational leaders in a clear and systematic manner focusing on teaching and learning and the environments that enhance that.

Always, without fail, see education as a team effort between children and young people, teachers, education leaders and our whanau and communities and hold them all accountable.

Develop a more flexible system that enables institutions at all levels, from early childhood to tertiary, to be able to cater for the needs of those attending them rather than be locked into a resourcing system that encourages patch protection.

Most importantly, develop a structure where teachers are seen as learned and caring professionals who can make the decisions necessary to grow those in front of them and who have a say in how that happens and be accountable for it.

We know what a world class education system needs to do. We know the steps we must take. We have little time. We must get on with it. Our future depends on it.

Dr John Langley is an independent education advisor and commentator based in Auckland.

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