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This week’s OECD report on low performing students in the 2012 PISA tests demonstrated again the significant impact that out of school factors, such as demographics and socio-economic status (SES) have on student achievement.  So far, so sadly predictable.

What it also gave was some pointers towards what to do about it. In New Zealand, as the headlines said, being from the lowest SES quarter of the population means you’re six times more likely to be in the low performing group. In some countries the rate is far lower – in fact in the Netherlands, the difference is so low it’s not statistically significant.

 The final section of the report gives policy advice, based on what the countries that are doing well and improving have done. This comes with the usual caveats, which generally disappear when a politician has a microphone in their face, i.e. there’s no silver bullet, countries are different from each other, and every country, at all times, has had an achievement gap of some kind.

Bearing those sobering points in mind, the Netherlands is still an interesting case. One of the strategies that is used there, highlighted in the report, is “….allocating additional resources to schools based on the number or proportion of disadvantaged students enrolled…“ and that this “…can be an effective and equitable way of supporting low performers.”

To some extent we do this already in New Zealand, through the much discussed decile system.  There’s a lot of misunderstanding of decile, mostly by people who seem to think it has some sort of relationship with the quality of the school. But what’s often lost is just how small the decile related components of school funding are.

Decile related funding ranges from 9.5% of total funding (operations, staffing and locally raised) in decile 1 schools, which are the 10% with the highest proportion of students from low SES communities to 0.5% of funding at decile 10. And just to be clear what this means, the purpose of this funding is “..to help … overcome any barriers to learning that students from lower socio-economic communities might face”, so we (i.e. governments the public has voted in over the last 20 to 30 years) think that less than 10% above base funding is enough to overcome these barriers.

The contrast with the Netherlands is stark. There, the nearly 15% of schools that serve the highest proportion of disadvantaged students receive 80-90% extra funding, as this 2010 paper describes. In practice what this means is that the schools which serve the most disadvantaged students have much lower teacher : student ratios (around 60% more teachers ) and many more support staff, along with other advantages.

Of course, there are a lot of factors which have to be interrogated closely about the comparison, and I’m certainly not advocating picking up the Dutch system wholesale – for one thing, in the Netherlands one of the main identifiers for educational and social disadvantage is being a recent immigrant, where in New Zealand new immigrants tend to perform well in school. But it seems as if this concept is one which we would be crazy not to be looking at closely.  There’s a review of school funding happening at the moment, and I sincerely hope that this type of information is being taken seriously.

So perhaps successive New Zealand governments are right that less than 10% extra funding is perfectly adequate to overcome the barriers to learning that the poorest students in New Zealand face, and perhaps there are quite different things going on which lead to the persistent achievement gap that so closely correlates with socio-economic status. On the other hand, this evidence from the Netherlands, and increasingly also from the USA where the impact of court-ordered school funding reforms has been tracked now for several decades, does seem to indicate that significant extra resourcing to schools which serve our poorest children makes a real difference.

Of course, there are lots of questions that have to be answered about this, like how disadvantage is identified and measured, what are the appropriate ratios or weightings, and what are the right mechanisms to deliver the extra funding. But we’re keen to try and find answers for these questions, and we’ll work with anyone else who wants to do this crucial work too. 

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As New Zealand edges towards shortages of secondary teachers in some regions and subject areas, it's worth considering what the impact of this will be on students. 

Experience in schools tells us that students don't do as well when they don't have people skilled in their subject area teaching them. And in the voluminous PISA 2012 reports there's real evidence of this, and evidence that it was happening in some areas of NZ even then, when recruitment issues were less than they are now.  

Worst of all, the impact of shortages of specialist teachers is felt heaviest on the students who need the most support and are most at risk of not achieving. 

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This report is primarily about maths achievement, one of the areas that principals are increasingly reporting they are having trouble recruiting suitable teachers. 

Now correlation is not causation, and this report doesn't  claim that the difficulty recruiting teachers of maths in low SES schools leads directly to lower achievement. But the fact that at that point in time principals in low SES areas were more likely to report difficulties recruiting in specialist areas should have been cause for concern to the Ministry and Minister. 

A Ministry of Education survey at the start of 2014 showed that 47% of secondary jobs were advertised more than once. This seems to signal a fairly widespread supply problem, and there is no indication that things have improved since. 

How we go with this year's STCA round could have a big impact on this. The relativity of teachers' earnings to other jobs matters for people who have other options. Teachers have not just been falling behind inflation as we all know, but our wage growth has been slower than average increases in the private sector. Earlier this year Bill English said we are looking at average wage growth of 2.9% a year for coming years. 

If this government is happy to let teachers earnings shrink relative to both inflation and other professions, then they should expect to have increasing problems recruiting teachers. As PISA warns, the impact of this on students won't be good, and it will fall disproportionately on the students who need the most support.

 

 

 

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