John Key made a speech today. Some of it was about education. There’s been a lot of trash talk about it on the twitter-verse, and I find myself out of step with it.
I think the policies Key put forward for new roles in the profession are good.
“A mountain of evidence shows that the quality of teaching – inside the classroom – is the biggest influence on kids’ achievement.”
That is correct. It’s correct because he said “inside the classroom”. Teacher quality is the absolutely crucial factor inside a classroom. We all know, of course, that there are plenty of important factors outside the classroom, but let’s put that to the side for just a minute.
“The evidence also shows that, after teaching quality, the second biggest influence on achievement is school leadership.”
I think the evidence is a little less clear here, but it is certainly true that it is a very important factor. I have worked with three principals. The difference between the dud and the two strong ones is huge. A dud principal’s incompetence flows through the whole school impacting on everything and severely reducing the success rates of students in that school. Competent principals run a complex organisation well and keep everything moving forward and morale up.
“New Zealand stands out among other countries for the wide gap we have between our top students and our lowest-performing students.”
This is clearly true. Our top students are world leaders but our tail goes on and on in PISA tests.
I said we would come back to the point about outside factors in a minute, and our minute is up. I think it is right to ratchet up pressure on schools and quality in the profession to get every ounce of success that we can out of students (in whatever form that success comes – Key’s definition of what success looks like is too narrow), but it is also pretty silly to pretend that those same students aren’t connected to their families, and that some of those families live in concentrated areas of disadvantage with historical, cultural and familial legacies that shape their paths enormously. A truly profound change in policy direction across all the linked areas of Education, Health, Housing, Justice and Welfare would be required to start truly bringing the tail up. It would be a slow process but the change would be genuine and sustained.
John Key does not represent this kind of change. He does not believe in it. He believes in capitalism and competition and measurable gains in definable areas. Because this is the dominant discourse of the Western hegemony this seems “normal” and he can claim to be “realistic, sensible and mainstream” as he and his friends drive us off the environmental cliff, and fail to take any action to address an iniquitous society. The only major party that offers a genuine alternative to this “mainstream” thought is probably the Green party.
Like it or not (not), John Key and the National Party are, however, the single party with the most support in New Zealand right now, and they are the government and we have their policies to actually deal with.
“We want to keep top teachers in the classroom rather than having to go into management positions, or leave teaching altogether, to progress their careers. At the moment, our best teachers work their way up the career ladder by doing less teaching, and that shouldn’t be the way it works.”
This is bang on. The best teachers are often promoted out of the classroom because there is no way for them to progress financially and stay in the classroom. I am at the top of the scale now and I am 40. I love being in the classroom and have a shocking indifference to my salary, but I can imagine becoming frustrated at some point over the next 25 years that my pay rate will remain so static.
“We want to support a culture of collaboration within and across schools. That means the really good principals and teachers spending a lot more time sharing what they know, and how they work, with other principals and other teachers.”
Collaboration is also good. Schools working together in an area is a powerful force especially if it is both horizontal and vertical. When I became a Year 9 Dean it surprised me how little contact or connection there was between the bottom rung of the local secondary school and the top rung of the local primary and intermediate schools. Shouldn’t we be linking up our ideas in some way?
The four proposed roles are all good. Two new kinds of principal who are paid more to lead a school area, or to lead a poorly performing school, and two new kinds or teacher who are paid more to lead a school area, or develop programmes around specific subjects.
The devil will be in the detail of course. Taking teachers out of classrooms and principals out of schools too often is not good. Any time away impacts your students. How these top teachers are selected would also be a potential area for ideology to sabotage the process. If a top teacher is defined by pass rates of students on standardised tests then we really are on shaky ground. If Change Principals are foisted on schools then there is a potential for disaster, but if they apply for jobs as they come up then I can’t see that this would be bad. At least the sector will be involved in sorting out this detail.
It is true that this policy announcement ignores what goes on outside the classroom, but this is an education policy not an outside the classroom policy. For that kind of policy there would need to be a different kind of government and I think that even with a new kind of government this policy could stand because it is an intelligent policy that has the potential for positive impacts in education.
I think shouting this announcement down weakens the real and genuine critiques that need to be sustained against a government who I feel is going in alarming directions in so many areas (including education). Shouting down everything ends conversation, and we need conversation. The issues for me remain inequality created by a thirty year old mindset, and the environment (which continues to be dismantled thanks to the same mindset that promotes inequality). On these issues I remain opposed to pretty much everything National says. On this policy, however, I think they have a good idea. It is up to people like me now to convince all those National voters that their party is on the wrong track with so many other things. If we can do that we can change the story at a more profound level.