Since the "deficit" explanation for the under-performing tail in our schools was demonised as culturally insensitive, if not racist in the 1970s, there have been regular waves of new theories and matching government policies. The so-called "deficit theory" held that children disadvantaged by a cluster of factors including socio-economic status, child-rearing practices, access to books, the literacy of parents and their aspiration for their children, were less successful at school and compensatory measures were required to level the classroom floors.
One theory to catch the eye of government in the 1970s was that the schools themselves were responsible for the under-achievement of the Maori children in the tail. The curriculum, teaching methods, and teachers' attitudes had to change to accommodate the different cultural needs of Maori pupils. They were under-achieving because of an insecure identity. The real deficiency was young Maori's lack of Maoritanga. Immersion in the Maori language and culture would lead inevitably to improved educational performance and employment success.
A professor of education concerned at the paucity of evidence for this theory lamented in the 1980s that in 20 years the children of young urban Maori were still likely to be unemployed, but they would have the advantage of knowing the Maori words for out of work.
After 1984 governments became infatuated with the business model as the solution to all issues, not just economic ones. Education was an investment that produced higher achievement and economic growth. Schools were in the business of manufacturing products, and a wastage rate of one in five without qualifications was a result of poor management. Continuous measurement against standards was essential to reduce the defective products, just like in a factory. Accountability of the managers (teachers), incentives, targets, and ultimately sanctions for poor performance were part of the prescription.
When the theory ran into the problem that measurement of educational success, unlike the manufacture of widgets, was very difficult, the system was restructured to shift the emphasis away from content to skills and competencies that were easier to measure. Thus the fragmentation of NCEA into unitised competencies in the secondary school and the introduction of achievement standards in literacy and mathematics in the primary school.
Despite 40 years of investment in these theories the under-performing tail is as stubborn as ever and will remain so as long as educational policy is driven by ideologies rather than evidence.
Decades of research by educational sociologists have established that the amount of cultural capital brought from the home to the school door at age 5 has a major effect on a child's capacity to master schoolwork. Recent research into learning by neuroscientists using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity has revealed the processes by which this cultural capital is created and stored in the brain.
The brain we are born with is incredibly flexible. There are billions of neurons and neural connections potentially available, many of which will die if they are not used. The neurons are constantly receiving information through the senses, assessing it by comparing and contrasting with what is already known, rejecting the irrelevant, putting it into context and creating new neural pathways which change the brain. The more a neural pathway is used the stronger it becomes and the faster the brain performs. The efficiency of the brain depends on the volume of facts, definitions, dates, events and words stored in the neurons. Unlike a computer, which doesn't get better at remembering things as its database gets more crowded, a child with knowledge about a topic becomes better at acquiring more knowledge and remembering.
If you have never encountered an idea or a word the brain will find it difficult and time-consuming, if not impossible, to deal with it.
Compare a child from a stable middle-class home, intensively engaged in conversation with adults from birth and read to regularly since 2, with one from an unstable family with limited exposure to adult conversation who has never seen a book. The first will by 3 be using twice the number of words in conversation and by 5 will have heard 32 million more spoken words and have a repertoire of 10,000 words, most of which will have come from books read to her. The second will recognise few of the words spoken by a teacher and see printed words as incomprehensible black marks on paper. The difference in brain content, measured by the denseness of the neuronal pathways, will put that first child two years ahead when they first enter the classroom door.
The first child is like a rocket waiting to be ignited by school, primed to read to learn, and her orbit will be only marginally affected by the quality of the school.
The key to learning is neural efficiency based on the content stored in the brain and constantly boosted by more content and until educational policy fully recognises this we shall continue to chase and never catch our under-performing tail.
Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library who writes on social issues when his annoyance levels are high enough.