By Kelvin Smythe
Over recent days in the NZ Herald, Simon Collins has written a generally praiseworthy series on poverty in New Zealand. As the series developed, the sincerity of the writer became clear, but how would he handle two key challenges: education and overall solutions? His concluding article was weak, but that is a matter for another posting, but his one on education was unfortunate, becoming entangled as it did in the prevailing government education narrative and never breaking free. This entanglement demonstrates that the narrative has become so dominant in the media (and public mind) that even a compassionate and experienced a journalist such as Simon Collins could not rise above it.
The government narrative goes that, yes, New Zealand has a public primary school system that performs very well for most children, but for many Maori and Pacific Island children it has demonstrably failed. Hence the need for the government to step in on behalf of those children and, with the bureaucracy and certain academics and consultants, impose solutions. Progress will only be made, the narrative continues, by heroic outside intervention, through supermen (and women) appearing out of the bureaucracies, academia, education businesses, foreign education systems, and globalised corporations – all willing to work within the boundaries set by their patron, the government.
And while we are about it, the narrative continues, as good as public primary schools are, they could do better as well, so we will not be exempting higher decile schools from those solutions. As a result we have the existential situation in respect to lower decile schools of a non-solution for a problem that does exist, and in higher decile schools a solution for a problem that doesn’t.
For all schools, the narrative continues, those solutions will not include more finance because all government expenditure is being cut, and education can’t be immune from that. Teachers will just have to work harder as any new policies will need to be funded from changes to existing funding, for instance, teacher-children ratios being increased. And at the extreme end of this government-generated narrative we find the prime minister finding himself able to declare in a televised election debate that New Zealand public primary schools are ‘letting New Zealand down’.
Simon Collins is only on the outer edges of this narrative but he is definitely there and very harmfully so given his obviously good intentions.
He begins his schools’ coverage of the poverty issue by saying that the OECD in its PISA report ‘implies that our schools are the worst in the world at helping students overcome the disadvantages of being born into poor families.’ Simon Collins, led by the narrative, seems then to have looked through the statistics to find a set consistent with it, and thought he’d found one, which is most unfortunate because he hadn’t.
He stills doesn’t twig to his mistake when he reports that ‘the gap in children’s reading levels between the top and the bottom quarters is slightly wider than average, so the effect of socio-economic status is more amplified in New Zealand than in any of 38 other countries.’ The interpretation hinges on the word ‘gap’. He doesn’t get the message that the gap was pronounced because New Zealand did so well in the teaching of reading for most New Zealand children. This does not mean, however, that New Zealand teachers were not teaching children from lower decile schools, relative to their poverty, at least as well as other countries. In fact, and this is what the government narrative is intended to obscure, New Zealand teachers are teaching them considerably better. America is teaching children from poorer homes a lot less successfully than New Zealand but the gap is not so wide because it does not teach the children from more privileged families anywhere near so well.
I invited Professor John O’Neill of Massey University to comment on Simon Collins’ statistics and interpretation.
John O’Neill writes: ‘Throughout the report New Zealand is referred to as a high-performing country, with students achieving well above the OECD average in reading performance.’
‘The PISA report also shows that fourteen percent of New Zealand students achieve below Level 2 (the OECD benchmark for life success). The OECD average is 19 percent. Sixty-six percent of New Zealand students achieve at Level 3 or above. The OECD average is around 57 percent. New Zealand has 37 percent of ‘resilient’ students, those who overcome disadvantaged backgrounds. The OECD average is 31 percent.’
My own investigation into OECD surveys shows New Zealand is consistently ranked in the top three or four countries in literacy. The countries that surpass New Zealand are only the ethnically homogenous ones such as Finland, Korea, and Japan. In literacy, pakeha students usually have a mean score higher than any other country.
As for children from poorer families, Ivan Snook, in a review of the highly regarded book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better poses the question: ‘Why does New Zealand do much better on the measurement of educational achievement than its degree of inequality would predict.’ The answer no doubt is complex, but certainly contributed to by the high status of Maori culture in New Zealand society and the endeavours of its education leaders, and just as certainly by schools doing an outstanding job.
But with the ‘failings’ of New Zealand public primary schools re-verified through his woeful misinterpretation of statistics, Simon Collins proceeds, not unkindly I reiterate, to fit his story to a scaled down superman narrative – the superman in this instance taking the form of the Auckland University academic, Professor Stuart McNaughton was once a great academic hope for the New Zealand reading tradition, a likely staunch defender of faith in the classroom teacher, but he chose instead a successful career within academia. The name for this current programme at work in South Auckland happens to be Starpath.
A decile 1 school is referred to that has lifted literacy levels to the national average by monitoring children’s achievement and changing approaches when required.
This is good news in one way, but in being presented as news is bad news for the status of schools. I go into many low decile schools that have lifted children’s literacy levels to the national average without the aid of a superman. Having academics around, and other forms of supermen, can be helpful at times, but they are by no means essential.
But there is an opaqueness in the academic’s comment: What does ‘lifting literacy levels to the national average’ mean? Is he referring to standardised tests or is he referring to national standards?
I suspect standardised tests – fair enough and all the better.
The point is, though, that the national standards’ policy is serving to deeply confuse interpretations, practices in reading and literacy, and the ensuing debate.
There are no national standards – there are no national standards because there is no moderating of national standards, and with no school moderation, we have no national standards, only confusion. There is only the oxymoronic of individual school national standards. National standards have wrought havoc with accurate information about school performance. I have been in schools claiming great success in national standards as against schools of a similar decile, only to find the raw data is about the same. As well when children from contributing schools move on to intermediate, very little differentiation between schools is detectible.
The academic then goes on to say that to improve some Tongan boys’ reading comprehension, they ‘deliberately restructured the year 5 and 6 to capture [their] interest and engagement.’
Well done that academic, but if he, as well as doing his admittedly worthwhile work in schools, could help in the campaign to get the government out of classrooms, so schools could get back to conversations amongst themselves, we wouldn’t need a superman to rediscover Sylvia Ashton-Warner.
The academic goes on to point out the emphasis the Starpath programme places on increasing parent-teacher relations, also the attention it is giving to providing children from some Tamaki schools with laptops.
Once again, our superman is right on the button, but his programme, in a wider sense is a distraction, and an escape clause for government inaction. Our superman’s programme is akin to charity, when it is not charity that is needed but a direct empowering of schools through greater professional freedom and increased finance. Greater professional freedom, though, will not be allowed because, as the narrative goes, schools have been shown to have failed in the task of helping children from impoverished families, so they cannot be trusted. And, as well, more finance will not be allowed for the same reason – schools cannot be trusted, teachers being hidebound, accountability-shirkers who have been shown to let New Zealand down, and would only waste the money.
What hope for the media, when a writer as compassionate and experienced as Simon Collins gets it so wrong and ends up harming the very group he set out to help but, then, that is the dynamic of the times – all government programmes end up harming the poor, none more so than those with the express purpose of helping them.
Read this and other articles on Kelvin’s blog: http://www.networkonnet.co.nz/index.php?section=latest