Graeme Aitken: Focus on social inequality will aid teachers

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The education changes announced last week are welcome. They acknowledge teacher professionalism and their ability to lead change. They encourage networking and collaboration within and between schools. They offer attractive career prospects that have the potential to significantly raise the status of teachers and teaching.

They come, however, with some words of caution.

The Prime Minister commented on the "mountain of evidence" that the quality of teaching is "the biggest influence on kids' achievement". That is certainly so if we only consider in-school influences but the mountains are more like foothills when set against the Everest of research that shows that socio-economic status is the strongest predictor of achievement.

These changes will have limited impact if they are not accompanied by bold initiatives to address social inequality and poverty.

The expert and lead teachers have the prospect of being important levers for change. But their selection will be crucial. The policy announcement refers to them being "top", "good" and "best" teachers. It is suggested that such teachers will be recognised for improving achievement. The focus on improvement is crucial. It would be a mistake to assume that "top" teachers are those who achieve the best results. Top teachers are those who work with their students to deliver the greatest improvement in results.

To compare teachers simply on the basis of the results of their students is to overlook the multiple influences on student achievement outside the control of the teacher - hunger and poverty, the prior knowledge and experience of the students, and the family resources available to support success at school including, for example, the capacity to afford private tutoring.

Top teachers don't use challenging external influences as excuses. They are persistent with, and are optimistic for, every student. They take accountability for striving to make the greatest difference they can. They realise they cannot do this on their own. They are open-minded to advice and new ideas, are curious about innovation, are risk-takers who experiment with new ways of teaching and learning.

They take evidence seriously and are flexible in adjusting their teaching in response to this evidence. They are deeply knowledgeable about what they teach. If expert and lead teachers are selected on these bases, rather than on the basis of their good fortune of achieving "best" results with already successful students, then the prospects for influence on colleagues will be much greater.

Top teachers also define "results" broadly. Of course academic success matters - it is the raison d'etre of schooling. But if academic success is achieved without leaving students excited about learning and more personally confident, it will be ephemeral and mindless. Top teaching is not about cramming for results on limited measures of learning. It is about leaving students with greater enjoyment of reading, writing and mathematics and feeling confident about new learning in these areas. It is also about opening students' minds to the rich curriculum offered in the arts, sciences, languages, technology, health and physical education and the social sciences. If we select lead and expert teachers from a limited pool of literacy and numeracy specialists we will restrict the opportunity to inspire all children to contribute to a more creative society.

The Prime Minister has referred to the influence we have all felt from inspirational teachers. Fortunately for us, and for our society, these teachers are reflective of the broad fabric of the school curriculum.

It is to be hoped that expert and lead teachers will also be trained.

For the past three years Professor Stuart McNaughton, supported by generous funding from the Woolf Fisher Trust, has worked with lead teachers from more than 15 schools in a specially designed masters programme focused on improving achievement in their schools - an innovative precursor to the initiatives announced this week.

We have recently developed a post-graduate programme with the Manaiakalani schools in Tamaki to support the digital learning, community-based programmes they have developed across their cluster.

Each of these initiatives requires the university to work differently and flexibly - to itself be humble about that fact that we learn as much from working with teachers as they learn from us and that together we will advance knowledge.

The initiatives announced last week have the potential to expand research and development partnerships with universities to mutual advantage and to the ultimate and greater benefit of New Zealand children.

Professor Graeme Aitken is Dean of Education, University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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