Robin Duff: Educational equity key to success

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Improving support to low-income families will reduce rate of failure in schools.

There has been steady improvement in achievement since the NCEA standards-based system began in 2002. Photo / Greg Bowker
There has been steady improvement in achievement since the NCEA standards-based system began in 2002. Photo / Greg Bowker

Once again we have a so-called "education expert" seeking to manufacture a crisis about student achievement in order to justify failed policies for New Zealand (John Langley, 28 November 2012).

It is hard to know where to start with Langley's diatribe, but perhaps the issue of definitions might be a good place. Langley repeats the over-used claim that one in five of New Zealand students "fail".

Exactly what does he mean by "fail"? Yes, some of our students do not do as well as others; what's new about that? And some of our students, many in fact, do extraordinarily well, right at the top of the world according to PISA data.

The measure of failure in a society is socially determined, changes over time, and differs from country to country.

Back in the days of School Certificate, everyone accepted that about 50 per cent of students would "fail" each year.

Now we don't accept that, and we have shifted to a qualifications system, the NCEA, that is underpinned by a principle that everyone should be able to achieve something.

The much more critical issue is about equity. New Zealand, it is true, does not do as well as some countries with which we like to compare ourselves when it comes to mitigating the impact of socio-economic status, or to be blunt, poverty.

The Office of the Children's Commissioner reports that we have 270,000 young people living in poverty, and 20 per cent of families with school age children have inadequate nutrition. New Zealand has one of the most rapidly increasing gaps between rich and poor in the OECD.

Moreover, the fact that these economic conditions impact much worse on Maori and Pasifika correlates strongly with the lower achievement data, on average, of these groups.

Are our high rates of child poverty and related lower achievement to be solved by the education system, let alone by individual schools and teachers? Hardly. Government policy fails to grapple with the breadth of the problem and the solutions required.

In fact, government is bent on using the kind of crisis talk that Langley exemplifies in his article to justify policies of choice and privatisation, such as charter schools, when all the international evidence points to these having exactly the opposite effect.

Pasi Sahlberg, in Finnish Lessons, writes about how Finland comes to be at the top of the world for both achievement and equity. He explains that Finland made a clear policy decision, back in the 1970s, to aim for equity, not for choice, in fact at the expense of choice.

PPTA absolutely supports this idea. Equity should be the fundamental goal of our social and education policies.

People like Langley advocate "choice" policies because they allow private enterprise, including consultants, to get their nose into the trough, but they do not deliver equity.

To deliver equity, we must eliminate child poverty and provide extensive support to families who need it. We must act to reduce our high rates of vulnerable children. We must resource schools so that whatever a child's family background, they have the same chances of succeeding as any other child.

That means that there must be adequate special education support for the full range of learning needs, we must feed children a healthy lunch every day in all schools, we must provide a full range of health and wellbeing services in all schools, and we must do regular health checks followed by free treatment where needed.

Langley claims that all we have done in education in the last few decades is "tinker", and that this has been largely unsuccessful. Clearly Langley is way out of touch, and it is disturbing that he is a member of the Minister's Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement.

He has no credibility because he represents no one but himself as an independent and possibly self-interested consultant, he has no real expertise, and should never have been given an equal voice alongside those members of the Forum who are the elected representatives of major education groups and who have the practical understanding of what is required.

It is absurd to claim that the massive system change undergone by New Zealand schools in the last three decades or so is "tinkering". That description does not apply to the upheaval of our shift to the most highly devolved system in the world under Tomorrow's Schools.

It does not apply to our change to what is now widely regarded as a world-leading curriculum. It does not apply to the shift from a norm-referenced assessment system to a standards-based system under the NCEA.

Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that it has been much more than "tinkering".

And it is also profoundly untrue that it has been "largely unsuccessful". Actually there has been a steady closing of the achievement gap in NCEA results since its inception in 2002. The graphs showing achievement of NCEA go steadily up, for all groups of students.

At any rate, Langley's "solutions" are hardly radical. Of course there should be better access to professional learning for teachers, and career pathways that are supported by timely professional development. Performance pay, however, which he codes as "rewards", has never been shown to improve teacher performance or student achievement.

Of course we should grow and support leaders better, and work with families/whanau to assist our students.

However, none of these will help if government continues to push ahead on choice and privatisation at the expense of equity.


Robin Duff is PPTA president.

- NZ Herald

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