Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).
They say that the first question people from Christchurch ask each other when they meet is “what school did you go to?” I’m not from Christchurch, and I hated school — high school especially.* I’m not a teacher, though for three (long) years I did teach — mostly in public schools, albeit in another country. I liked teaching no better than I liked being a student, but both experiences demonstrated to me how integral public schooling is to a society, and to the individual communities that make it up.
The principal of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Trevor McIntyre articulated the importance of schools to communities in Christchurch on Nine to Noon (starts about 36 minutes in):
You talk about a community, a community has a heart. You’ve got rural communities which are clearly defined, but in a city like Christchurch you’ve got suburbs. And traditionally those suburbs have contained a heart, and typically the heart was a general store, a post office, a hall, a church and a school. And if you look around the city, the general stores are gone, to supermarkets. The post offices are gone. The halls have gone because they’re too expensive to maintain and now we’ve got bigger and better facilities. The churches, if they were still there, have been damaged in the earthquake and are probably not going to be retained. The last vestige of a community centre is a school.
On the face of it, this is why the government’s slash-and-burn approach to Christchurch’s schools is destructive: because it further damages communities that have already suffered considerable harm from two years of earthquakes and a global financial crisis. The fact that the government’s education restructure in Christchurch is proceeding in tandem with the government’s roll-out of its charter schools policy makes it worse.
Public education is of the community, by the community, for the community. Public schools are run by boards of trustees — members of a community, elected by their peers. Zoning ensures the right of those living in a community to attend their community’s schools. Teachers usually commit to a school and a community, often across generations. For all their differences in socio-economic background, culture, ethnicity and so on, New Zealand children share the right to a high-quality education in the same classrooms as each other; not only learning the same curriculum, but learning it together — with each other and from each other. There are exceptions like the Grammar Zone phenomenon, but by and large this generalisation is true. Beyond education, this socialisation is crucial to building the tight-knit, diverse communities that we all think New Zealand is made up of — and I’d argue that this effect of universal public education is more important to the nation’s wellbeing than a curriculum increasingly tuned to producing effective workers for the neoliberal economy.
Charter schools, by design, will tend not to produce this community socialisation effect. They will likely not be run, staffed by, and attended by the members of the communities in which they exist, and will certainly not be ubiquitous within those communities. Due to their special character and possible discretion in granting admissions, pupils at these schools will tend to be demographically and culturally — and maybe ideologically — streamed, and will be similarly taught. As such, charter schools will tend to fragment communities rather than unite them, producing silos of different levels of education, different norms of behaviour and belief, within a society that is already stratified, and is becoming more so.
This is unfortunate, but their niche status and diversity is not the worst thing about them — vive la difference, to an extent at least. The worst thing is the fact that they are to be funded by New Zealand communities but not accountable to those communities; they will not be a positive-sum addition to the diversity of New Zealand’s society and its education system, but a zero-sum substitution. Funding for charter schools will contend with funding for public schools, and the growth of charter schools in a community will constrain the growth of public schools operating there. Even this in itself would not be a terrible problem if it were a level playing field, but charter schools will not be subject to the same requirements as public schools are. They will not be required to teach the same curriculum, to accept all applicants from their communities, to employ qualified and registered teachers, and will be exempt from other measures of accountability.
This is a breach of the social contract under which schools operate. If you take a community’s money to run your school in place of a public school, you inherit the obligations that such a public school would bear — obligations to teach the children of those communities well, to teach them together, and to teach them to the community’s standards. Charter schools fail at all three. They may teach well, but they may not, as they are not required to teach to the curriculum or employ properly-qualified teachers. If they exercise control over who they accept, they cannot legitimately be said to be teaching their community. And as they are not required to be run by members of their community, again, if they end up teaching to their community’s standards it is by good fortune rather than good design. That they will be able to take money out of community schools without being bound to deliver education to the community’s standards is an obvious breach of these obligations, and the sort of violation that is crystal-clear to the proponents of charter schools in other areas: they are perfectly happy to impose all manner of onerous and punitive constraints upon struggling solo mothers on the grounds that we are “funding their lifestyle”, but are disappointingly unwilling to accept the same when it applies to their own enterprises.
There are two other destructive aspects to this policy: first, it is a legislative end-run around one of the strongest remaining functional union movements we have, the teacher’s unions who, contrary to the propaganda, have played a crucial role in maintaining the high quality and low cost of our education system. The government has figured that it can’t bust them, so it’ll just bypass them.
Second, this is large-scale social engineering, an experiment being conducted on the damaged communities and struggling people of Christchurch who, resilient although they might be, need to retain and rebuild what remains of their communities, rather than have them redefined and renovated from afar and by private interests with private motivations. It’s an experiment that places at risk a generation of students and teachers, and the communities they form. It is an experiment being conducted on people who, the government seems to think, are vulnerable and still too busy trying to put their lives back together to organise a meaningful resistance. I guess we’ll see about that.
Quite apart from the hypocrisy of this government, which was swept to power by backlash against the Clark government’s “social engineering” policies, this sort of experimentation is unethical. The government owes Christchurch better than to treat it as a petrie dish. They’ve suffered enough; let the clipboard-bearing wonks poke and measure them no longer. The government’s responsibility is to support Christchurch and to assist it in rebuilding its communities, and to this end the government has a responsibility to fund and support public schools that are of, by and for those communities, around which people can rally. Special character schools are well and good for what they are, and if people want to teach in their own ways and to their own standards, let them do so — but let them pay for their privilege themselves. No funding without accountability.
* I hated it, and for the most part it hated me, but I should say I met most of my dearest friends there — including my wife. Again: community.
At the Dim-Post, a searing explanation of how class-size dogma works in the real world, by a teacher. He or she describes The Dumb Class of 15, who struggle with the assistance of their teachers to barely pass; and The Smart Class of 30, who are underresourced and consequently underperform, but pass because they’re, well, smart. And then Treasury looks at the data.
They look at one sheet of results and say â€œLook here â€“ the class with 30 all got Achieved, and the class with 15 all got Achieved too. That means, statistically, class size doesnâ€™t make a difference. Letâ€™s cram forty of the little firestarters in there next year!â€
No word on what happens to The Average Class, who have neither the advantage of adequate teaching resources, nor “smarts”.
But clearly, it’s all the fault of the teachers. They’re messing with the Natural Order Of Things.
By wasting so much resource on The Dumb Kids who are never going to amount to anything anyway, they disadvantage The Smart Kids, preventing them from realising their potential. Those Smart Kids are essentially being forced to subsidise the underclass — in their childhood as it will inevitably be in their adulthood, supporting the unproductive bludgers all around them.
So no sympathy for teachers. If they would just let The Dumb Kids fail, as the laws of nature and the market intended, The Smart Kids would perform to their full ability, soon enough we’d have all the productivity growth we could possibly want, and the government would have plenty of money to afford tax cuts for The Smart Kids’ parents. Since the teachers have sabotaged the education system by trying to tilt the scale in favour of The Dumb Kids, the government really has no choice but to implement a system that reverses that tilt by rewarding excellence, to ensure that the education system performs to operating spec, where The Smart Kids succeed and The Dumb Kids fail.
Just as nature, and the market, intended.
Edit to add: Phil Sage has obliged us all by making pretty much this exact argument on the square, in comments on the original thread. Thanks, Phil!
Education minister Anne Tolley has tacitly threatened to go nuclear on primary principals who refuse to comply with National Standards directives, or who speak out against them. In a speech to the Principals’ Federation conference in Queenstown today, she said:
Itâ€™s much quicker [contacting me with concerns] and you will get results, rather than going to the media and making threats, which is just politicking, and achieves little.
And while weâ€™re on that subject, you are pretty unique among public servants who can speak freely in the media. May I remind you that I made representations to make sure that continues.
However â€“ no public servants have ever been granted the privilege of picking and choosing which Government laws they choose to administer. Lawyers, accountants and all the other professionals working in Ministries can offer opinions. But itâ€™s the Government that makes policy decisions.
Now, there’s an implication here that the minister might retract her “representations” to make sure that the rights of teachers to speak freely are preserved, but there’s nothing to this. Any move to constrain teachers’ views or their expression would immediately draw furious and justified denunciations of the government for politicising and propagandising the education system, such as no liberal political movement could withstand.
In the final analysis she’s 100% correct about the government setting policy and the sector implementing it. By way of remedy, the ministry can take over the running of a school which fails to implement education policies adequately, and Trevor Mallard suggests the ERO has already started heavying truculent schools to set an example to others.
But it is an empty threat. For one thing, you can’t play the bossy schoolmarm with schoolteachers and principals — they wrote the book on it, and know all the tricks of the game, having put up with them from students for their entire professional lives. Not to mention that, as career educators they have far more invested in the quality of their education system than a minister who’s only been in the job two years and could be gone in the next cabinet reshuffle.
More crucially, though, the minister is up against old-fashioned collective action: a heavily unionised workforce which knows it is indispensable and irreplaceable. So what happens if it’s not just one school? What happens if it’s a dozen, or a hundred, or almost all the primary schools in the greater Auckland area, or the schools of two National heartland electorate regions at either end of the country, or as much as 94% of the sector overall?
Later in the speech, Tolley said:
Iâ€™ll say it again â€“ we are going to get this right, for the students, and for their parents.
But when push comes to shove, National Standards simply cannot be implemented by fiat. Teachers, directed by principals, are those who must undertake the implementation of the policy. While I cite them reluctantly because I don’t entirely agree, it’s somewhat like what the Randians are saying about Obama’s response to the BP oil spill: no amount of threat or bluster can provide any additional incentive to progress a cleanup whose failure or undue delay will spell a certain end to the company. No matter how you slice it, there are not enough Ministry of Education staff members, non-unionised part-time relievers or teachers who are happy with National Standards as proposed to do the complex and important work of assessing all the students who need to be assessed; cataloguing, moderating and communicating those assessments to parents and the ministry in a coherent manner. This is ignoring the fact that you can’t simply parachute a compliant teacher or apparatchik into an unfamiliar classroom and have them do it with any legitimacy. The teachers who stand up in front of that class of kids day-in and day-out are the only ones who can properly assess them, and they know it.
The sector also knows it’s in the right. Educators’ opposition to National Standards is neither ideological nor capricious, and they have have consistently levelled principled and pragmatic arguments against only the proposed implementation of the policy, backed by the best local and international experts in the field. They support assessment standards in principle, and have repeatedly suggested reasonable alternatives to the proposed implementation. The problem isn’t with their willingness to work with the minister; it’s that the minister isn’t interested in working with the sector.
So ultimately one of two things will happen: one side or the other will compromise sufficiently for the issue to progress, or the minister will be faced either with backing down in abject failure or sacking a significant proportion of the education workforce, with the consequent failure of the policy by default, not to mention a massive outcry from parents who’re forced to take time off work because their kids can’t go to school (and from their bosses, and bank managers, and almost everyone else). There’s no better way to bring the country to its knees.
Tangentially, this situation illustrates a branding risk I’ve been meaning to post on for a while: if you name a policy initiative after your party or some other core bit of your identity, you had better be damned sure you can get it through to full implementation without a hitch, lest its failure tarnish your good brand. Quite apart from any concerns with the policy, his National government has failed to do so with its National Standards. Not only is the policy programme and its attempted implementation against the wishes of the only people who can implement it a catastrophic mistake, but its naming looks like a spectacular failure as well. If it’s not pulled out of the fire soon, in future, all National’s political enemies will have to do to score a point is recount some of the more embarrassing events of this episode and say “these are National’s Standards”. It’s already happening — I’ve seen that very sentence used at Red Alert, for instance, regarding something unrelated to education reform. Instant conversion of a wonkish policy criticism to a gut-level identity observation which will resonate with the folk who just wanted their kids to go to school, those who wanted nothing more than to teach them as best they could, and ultimately the kids themselves. For this reason, my instinct is that the long-term damage to National’s brand and electability on this matter will become too high a price to pay for the perceived win over the sector, and those with a more strategic view of National’s situation will require that the wound be cauterised. Although it’s a backdown, over the long term this will be good for the party. More importantly, it will be good for the country.
Little does it matter, apparently, that the bastion of Wahhabist extremism and medieval authoritarian gender/sexual Â weirdness has never fully repudiated the 9/11 attacks and offered nothing outside of its borders to combat that scourge even though most of the 9/11 perpetrators were Saudi (if anyone can name a Saudi combat deployment anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia or the US overflight zone in Yemen, you are welcome to correct me). Never mind that its pressure influences US policy vis a vis both Israel and Iran. Never mind that its human rights record is abysmal. Never mind that the Saudi as well as other oil-rich Arab children of the elite get to use NZ as a convenient educational stopping and gathering point on their way to arranged marriages and the material comforts borne of the exploitation of Â others.
The National government believes that it is all good.
For National, the issue here is that there is serious money to be made off of these Arab aristocrats, and NZ’s claims to moral authority in defense Â of universal human rights need to take a back seat to monetary self-interest even though the NZ’ers who will have to directly interact on a daily basis with the Saudi students have not been consulted as to the advisability of increasing their numbers. To say nothing of what other countries, even when considering the hypocrisy that is the mainstay of diplomatic rhetoric, will think of this abject bend-over act to a country that pretty much represents the antithesis of so-called NZ values.
Security vetting, anyone?
There’s incoherence in the government’s rollout of the new national educational standards regime which goes beyond the unreasonable use of statistics I noted yesterday, and it’s illustrated most crisply in the differing approaches taken to mainstream schools and kura kaupapa MÄori. Simply put, standards are being implemented on a trial basis (audio link) in KKM, and without a trial process in mainstream schools. The problem is not about a lack of background: Anne Tolley made this clear last year in response to a Parliamentary question from Te Ururoa Flavell, saying that there existed “a significantly robust research basis from which to develop national standards in kura kaupapa MÄori.”
The mainstream education sector — without whose buy-in any such implementation will certainly fail — are understandably furious since their main problem with national standards has not been one of principle so much as a lack of confidence in the details of any regime’s implementation and an understandable desire to have input into a system which will fundamentally change the nature of their work. A substantial part of the reason they are suspicious is because National spent its nine (long) years in opposition taking every possible opportunity to deride the education sector as Labour toadies and teachers as walk-sock-and-cardigan-wearing fat-bottomed do-nothings, and as NZ Principal’s Federation president Ernie Buutveld says in the interview above, the sector’s suspicions have been confirmed: national standards is less about measuring students and more about measuring teachers, with a punitive view to demonising them in the eyes of parents. This is the political motive: driving parents to vote for National rather than for Labour. I suppose the reasoning goes something like, if teachers are well-respected and regarded and generally vote Labour, Labour will be similarly well-respected and regarded amongst parents. Or something like that.
The problem with measuring teachers on the performance of their students, however, (and I speak as a former teacher), is the same as the problem of judging a football team by its fans. A team doesn’t choose its fans, and schools or teachers don’t choose their students. There is only a certain extent to which a given teacher, however inspired or well-meaning, can influence the social, cultural, economic, health and other factors which feed into educational success; even more so when there exists a strictly results-focused teaching culture, rather than an improvement and engagement-focused culture, as there certainly will once standards are bedded in.
This is not to say that KKM should be denied their national standards trial process. But that is what National should be saying, in order to be consistent. Because the stated reason a similar trial has been repeatedly denied the mainstream education sector is urgency — the sense that we must move swiftly and make the changes so that not one more child will be left behind. This sort of incoherence in policy and rhetoric (or, as it is in this case, between policy and rhetoric) always yields flaws which can and should be exploited, and here’s the flaw in this. One of the two following statements is necessarily true:
- The Government’s justification for rolling out national standards in mainstream schools without a trial period (urgency) is false and misleading, and accordingly the government’s motives in rolling out the trial period are different to their stated motives; or
- The Government doesn’t care about kura kaupapa MÄori students or schools, and doesn’t consider their educational standards a matter of urgency or substantial importance.
So, Anne Tolley and John Key, which is it?
Update: Sage wisdom on this topic from Gordon Campbell.
Honestly. Anyone who thinks this is a meaningful statement needs remedial numeracy work themselves.
It seems that Australia is considering a measure which would give 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in federal elections.
There are some aspects of Australia’s political system which make this sort of measure perhaps less controversial than in NZ. Australia’s electoral system is more complex than NZ’s; there are many more levels of representation, with two chambers at federal and state level (excluding Queensland); the right being proposed only extends to federal elections, not to state elections which are arguably more important to local electors; and it is a right to vote in a country where adult electors are required to vote. In a sense, proferring the opportunity to vote to those young’uns who consider themselves sufficiently informed and engaged to do so could limit cases of people being thrown into the deep end of compulsory voting in a complex system without a clue.
Politically, this was poison in NZ not so long ago, with most of the vitriol directed at Sue Bradford (who sponsored the Civics Education and Voting Age Bill), and the Greens’ secret conspiracy to take over the country.
But wait a minute, didn’t that bill include civics education? Wouldn’t that make NZ’s electorate more aware of and engaged with political systems and norms? While those with an ideological barrow to push would deride the teaching of civics as a propaganda exercise wherever it didn’t take their particular viewpoint, it is perfectly possible to teach the broad strands of political history, principles of government and representation and the bones of the major ideologies in a non-partisan manner – not an unbiased manner, mind; in a manner which makes the presence of bias clear and obvious enough for students to go and educate themselves. As far as I’m concerned, civics education and democracy should go hand in hand – and civics education and compulsory voting must go together. As it stands, we rely exclusively on the media to give us the information we need to be free and self-governing – without any sort of formal idea about what it means to be free and self-governing, or any critical tools to judge whether we are, or whether the information we get is sufficient to that end.
So, while I’m unconvinced that 16 and 17 year-olds should vote, the idea of them voting with a civics education is frankly less frightening than the idea of adults voting without one.
A few thousand primary school kids, dressed mostly in high-visibility gear and carrying (or wearing) makeshift traffic cones, lollipop signs and banners, have just marched through Wellington CBD escorted by police motorcyclists, ambulances and led by a highland band (bagpipes and all).
I work in a media office. Most of us spend hours every day scouring the news as it comes in – on paper, over the airwaves and on the interwebs – as a matter of our daily work. Not one of us had the faintest inkling what the march beneath our window was about, who had organised it or what end it aimed to achieve. We guess from the (excellent) adornments worn by the wee nippers and their guardians that it’s to do with proposed speed limit reductions around schools. But that’s just a guess.
Whoever organised this has achieved a remarkable feat: coordinating thousands – ok, maybe it was hundreds – of kids (which is like herding cats), gaining approval from their parents, the police, the City Council and signing up a marching band, without anyone in our esteemed media establishment hearing a word about it. That person should probably be put in charge of corporate communications for a big company or government department with a lot of bad news – one of the power companies, perhaps, or a trading bank.
Incidentally, if school speed limits is the cause being protested, then I fully support it. There’s a school near where I live which is at the bottom of a 70k/h hill, and the thought of sending their precious dear things down that road each day must give local parents conniptions. I have it on good authority that the local AOS sergeant, who has a kid at the school, spends his off hours parked up there issuing tickets in addition to his ordinary policing workload. Not ideal.
In the United States for a long time the Christian Right and the Economic Right existed in parallel trajectories. They campaigned for different things, they didn’t co-ordinate, and they didn’t overlap in membership. Then they started flirting, they each recognised the political power the other had. The issue that brought them together was public funding to religious schools; it was something they both wanted. For one it was direct funding, for the other it was tax payer subsidisation of the education of the rich. The Republicans, keen to draw in the conservative Christians hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools
In Australia as John Howard built his brand off his Methodist values, rolled back liberal measures and developed and used the conservative Christians, his government hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools.
In New Zealand, as the Brash and then Key led National Party fought against a liberal incumbent and developed its relationship with the conservative Christians both leaders promised church groups that they would increase funding to religious schools. Now they have been elected and are promising to nearly double the funding to private (religious) schools.