Failure starts before a child has even set foot in the classroom, writes Jim Traue.

The debate on how we deal with the "tail", the one in five pupils Hekia Parata says are seriously under-performing, has been skilfully channelled down one path, that of the failure of the schools. They are at fault and have to make major changes.

In the United States such a path has lead to charter schools, taxpayer-subsidised for-profit schools, a narrowing of the curriculum, regular testing of pupil performance (but only in maths and literacy), performance pay for teachers, rewards and punishments for schools, financial rewards for pupils who pass tests, and yes, in Dallas, $2 for each book read by second graders.

Here we are looking at improving the quality of teaching, possibility with performance pay for outstanding teachers, and flirting with charter schools. I have argued elsewhere (Press, 20 July) that a simplistic reliance on economic rewards could increase the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Others have argued that separate schools with Maori values will lift the performance of Maori pupils.

Before we go further down this narrow path, of changing the schools in order to "lift up those left behind", it might be wise to look at what five year-olds are bringing to the school's doors. Just how level are their classroom floors?


Take the child from a stable middle-class home, intensively engaged in conversation with adults since birth and read to regularly by parents since the age of two. That child knows that writing goes from left to right and top to bottom, that black marks on paper make letters, that letters make words, and that words make stories. She also recognises that printed words represent spoken words, that spoken words are made up of sounds, and that letters convey these sounds. Take at the extreme another who has had little conversation at home, never been read to, never seen a book. That child knows nothing of these things and has no knowledge of the connections between those marks on paper and spoken language.

By the age of three the first child will be using over twice the number of words in conversation than the second. By the age of five that first child has heard some 32 million more spoken words than the second. A major source of the first child's repertoire of 10,000 words at age five will have been the books read to her.

The first child arrives at school with a rich intellectual capital on which teachers can build readily. Within two years that child will have begun to read fluently and be poised to read to learn. The second child, lacking this platform, has been plunged into an alien world of incomprehensible black marks on paper, will feel inadequate, humiliated, and a failure. There is more than an 80 per cent chance that child will fall further behind and end up in the netherworld of the semi-literate.

The first child's experience of books and learning to read will be associated with home, with security and love. The second's will be that of struggling to read at school, of inadequacy, failure, of being called a dummy, difficult, not trying hard enough.

In the past there was less inequality for the school entrant. The development of children's literature in the twentieth century, especially that of picture books with brief text, tilted the field in favour of the children of educated middle-class families.

Many progressive teaching practices, while they liberated the advantaged child, unfortunately increased the gaps between them and the disadvantaged. "Whole language" reading in place of phonics presented few problems for a five-year old child with a rich repertoire of 10,000 words and their associations. Student-centred inquiry learning, with the teacher as a facilitator allowing pupils to acquire knowledge independently, was a doddle for the child from a supportive home. Reducing content in favour of teaching pupils how to learn was great for those who had already learned much of this content at home.

There are alternatives to the road being promoted. One is to reduce the economic and social inequalities that have produced the intergenerational impoverishment of young minds. Another is to fully acknowledge the present inequalities and adopt strategies to level the floor inside the school. What about trying the "genre pedagogy", specifically designed to lift the reading and writing performance of the children of migrants and the working class in Australian cities and indigenous children in the outback, developed in Australia by Rose and Martin?

* Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library.