Warwick Elley: Fixing struggling schools not as simple as A,B,C

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

At first sight, Prime Minister John Key's proposal to establish four new teaching positions, designed to raise achievement in low-performing schools, looked attractive. However, when politicians frame radical policies for schools, they are rarely inhibited by research findings or school practicalities. This proposal to spend $359 million of taxpayers' money deserves widespread debate.

First, who are these "best" teachers and principals? There are so many ways of being a good teacher, and few tick all the boxes. One teacher instils a life-long love of literature, while another makes science fascinating. One expands the horizons of gifted children, while another shows compassion for unhappy children. Most schools encourage a diversity of talents among their teachers. Choosing one for big bucks, on narrow criteria around literacy and numeracy, has the potential for envy and division.

Who will select these shining lights? Our school inspectors of yesteryear were independent and experienced in evaluating teachers, and appointing principals.

Principals are now appointed by amateur boards. Mr Key suggests test scores as a major component. However, National Standards grades are assessed by teachers' judgments, not external tests. Furthermore, these standards are so vaguely expressed and poorly moderated that teachers, pressured from above, can easily paint a pretty picture of their students' achievement. Now that two-thirds of NCEA units are internally assessed, these too, are easily boosted. The evidence shows that they frequently are.

Furthermore, all these assessments fail to measure the "value added" component. They reflect, in large measure, the cumulative effects of students' family background, the attitudes they bring to school and the contribution of earlier teaching. Fair selections must allow for such factors.

Has Mr Key reflected on the fact that only 20 per cent of children's waking lives is spent at school? The differences in our entering 5-year-olds are huge, and schools can do only so much to reduce them. Large-scale surveys regularly show most of the variance between New Zealand schools, in core subjects, is the result of out-of-school factors. The promised millions could be better spent, then, on enriching the early experiences of disadvantaged kids, offering more support for their parents, and providing medical and social services in needy schools.

If the Government's aim is to achieve more NCEA Level 2 passes, this can be achieved by increasing further those internal assessments. Then teachers can continue to "game the system" by not offering difficult units, and by coaching students on a narrow range of exemplars - leaving more gaps in their knowledge.

However, if the Government seeks to make genuine improvements in the kinds of important abilities measured in those independent Pisa surveys, it should reform NCEA, which has seen a concerted and accelerating slump in our scores since 2003, along with four other countries accompanying us down this seductive garden path. Educators in Britain, USA, Sweden and Australia have seen parallel slumps, and all are dumbfounded.

Whenever nations attempt to spell out "clear standards" in academic subjects, assess students against them, and report each school's results in public, their performance levels have dropped.

While our minister proudly boasts of more passes in NCEA, those independent surveys tell a different story. Each cohort of 15-year-olds is poorer than its predecessors - in interpreting and responding to text, in analysing and solving mathematical problems and in explaining scientific phenomena. Why? Because the incentive systems for students, the curriculum coverage, and levels of quality assurance are all weaker than before. That is one price we pay for NCEA deficiencies. However, when authorities maintain subject-wide, comprehensive examinations, supplemented by internal assessments, and/or they prevent the reporting of league tables - as in Poland, Germany or Singapore - Pisa scores have shown a steady rise.

There are other drawbacks in the Government proposals, for example, what works in one school often doesn't work in another, especially when the school cultures are quite different.

All children deserve quality teaching and equal opportunities to excel. Our current policies encourage good teachers to move to high-decile schools, creating shortages and instability in those they vacated, and increasing the differences between schools. There could be merit in paying bonuses to outstanding principals who are prepared to work full time in low-decile schools.

Some teachers might be enticed to such schools with special training and preparatory sabbaticals, and/or by making quick promotion contingent on working there for a period, as in our former policy of Country Service Bars.

Education certainly needs an injection of millions to attract more bright young graduates into teaching, but the PM's proposals in how to spend these millions seem naive to this taxpayer.

Warwick Elley is a former Professor of Education at the University of Canterbury.

- NZ Herald

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