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Is Peter Hughes the luckiest man in the public service, or would this trifecta of fails have been avoided if he was still in charge?

To recap. A few weeks ago we discover the bulk funding zombie is back, rebranded as the ‘global budget’. The sector revolts.  Then special ed changes are announced that will shift resourcing from schools, at the same time as telling us there are significant increases in demand. Parents of special ed students go wild. Finally, an announcement that we’re getting publicly funded, online schools and, worst thing of all, they’ll be called ‘cools’. Everyone freaks out (stuff commenters most of all).

I don’t know where Hekia can go from here. Maybe she’ll have another crack at the payroll system, and call it ‘coolbucks’.

But seriously. These are some appalling policies.

Let’s look at the latest one. The Ministry of Ed consulted on some changes to the Ed Act late last year - most of it was reasonably uncontroversial, and on the parts they consulted on there are some decent proposals. These do things like introduce a purpose statement, simplify reporting for boards, and one pretty good change which is make it somewhat easier for the Ministry to enforce school zones.

But did they consult about introducing online schools? Not at all. This section of the bill was completely outside the scope of the consultation and dropped on Tuesday like a most unwelcome bird poop from blue sky.

All we have to go on in terms of policy background for this is the regulatory impact statement (RIS), something that ministries are obliged to produce for legislation. No cabinet paper, no research report.  And what a risible RIS it is.

There is no research cited that supports the main contention that online only learning for school age kids is something that we should be encouraging, or that this model, of private providers competing with public schools, is the way to do it.

The main piece of research that’s used, referenced twice even, is from an obscure journal and is about blended learning rather than full online. And blended learning isn’t something that you need to rewrite the Ed Act to achieve, as anyone who’s set foot in a school recently would know.

So it should be good that the RIS does refer to the National Education Policy Centre (NEPC) Virtual Schools Report 2016.This is balanced and authoritative research from  a credible university, based on masses of studies of online school results. But how the Ministry uses it is either an undergrad C-  essay or straight up dishonesty.

Behold:

“Research on open-access online learning suggest that full time online learning has certain advantages. Because it is more flexible that its face to face equivalent students can study in a manner that suits their other commitments or personal preferences. It can also provide students with increased exposure to self-directed learning and technology that they may not have experienced in face to face schooling. Increased flexibility and agency over their learning may increase the likelihood of students’ ongoing educational engagement and in turn their achievement. [This para has no references ]

However, student outcomes in this setting are variable [reference here to the NEPC study] and while “online learning may allow for educational improvements… it certainly does not guarantee of these potential benefits”.

This is like saying Donald Trump has variable support amongst educated urban liberals. The NEPC study is absolutely damming of online only schools. “Virtual school outcomes continued to lag significantly behind that of traditional brick and mortar schools” and so it goes on.  Because of this, its main policy recommendation is to stop opening more of them until they work out why they’re doing so badly. The Ministry’s RIS doesn’t give a whiff of this.

The most high profile recent report on online schooling, Stanford University’s Online Charter School Study, 2015, isn’t even mentioned in the RIS. Its main findings include “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule”.

So there are two things that could be going on here. One is that the Ministry is too incompetent to provide the high quality advice it’s supposed to give, the other is that the Minister told them that she didn’t want to hear it. Either way, it’s a mare.

Peter Hughes dodged a bullet (or three) moving to the SSC when he did. The Ministry’s fallen back into its old ways awfully quickly, or maybe it had never really changed at all and he’d just been papering over the cracks.

 







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I don’t envy the officials who are writing the new purpose statement for the Education Act. I’ve been on two boards of trustees which did something similar with our school charters, and it’s tortuous trying to find the balance between competing views and priorities (in one school even), let alone coming up with words that are pithy, honest, and hopefully vaguely inspiring.

No doubt many of the submissions to the review referred to the statement written in 1939 for the minister of education, Peter Fraser, by the young assistant director of education, C.E. Beeby:

The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers

This statement, an expression of the idea of equality of opportunity, became something of a ‘foundational myth’ for our public education system, and helped cement Beeby’s place in the hearts of progressives, and eventually pretty much everyone involved in education in New Zealand. Illustrating this, until recently a bust of Beeby sat on the counter of the ministry national office (during some of the ministry’s less glorious periods he would certainly have been ‘liberated’ by various defenders of his legacy if he wasn’t so heavy).

Over fifty years after writing his most famous words, Beeby reflected on the purpose of education and the hunt for a statement to sum it up, and his words are a caution to the public servant following in his wake today:

“My search for a realistic and lasting statement on the objectives of education led me to recall a lecture at Canterbury College in 1921, where an earnest fellow-student of mine, anxious to see the relation between Shelley’s invigorating presentations and the routine lectures at training college, asked Shelley when he was going to give a lecture on the aims of education. Shelley replied, ’You tell me the aims of life and I’ll tell you the aims of education.’ It may have been the wisest thing I ever heard Shelley say. For administrators, defining the objectives presents an insoluble dilemma. If they set out to itemise their objectives in what I earlier called a grocery list, they know that there will be competition between the items, either because the conflict in principle or because they are competing for limited funds; if they spend more on jam they will have less to spend on bread. But if they express their objectives in broad abstract terms, they are aware that their words can be interpreted to mean different things, and that academic theorists are standing by to perform the useful task of spelling that out.

Oh dear. Let’s put ‘the aims of life’ into law aye….  Where could this possibly go wrong?

But, he continues with this:

Yet the public and the teaching profession have a right to know, in clear and simple terms, the overall policy of those who control the national education service…”

So, this makes things interesting, in that really what we need to know is what Parata and her colleagues think the purpose of education is.  I’m not sure about this, but maybe it would be better that this was set out in a speech (like what Beeby did for Fraser back in 1939) rather than written into law.

 

Anyway, good luck to whoever is writing this section, I hope Beeby’s muse appears for you.

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Quotes in this post are from C.E. Beeby's The Biography of an Idea, Beeby on Education (NZCER, 1992)

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Something that Minister Parata has made a point of recently is how keen she is to raise the status of the teaching profession. From asking business audiences to ‘speak well of teachers’ to saying she wants teaching to be a top choice for graduates alongside medicine and law, she’s  resisted opportunities to bag teachers (such as that provided by the recent NZ Initiative Report on maths) and stuck solidly to her line of ‘backing teachers to win’.

This is cause for some optimism in our bargaining for the secondary teachers’ collective agreement. The Minister is aware of the pay cut that secondary teachers have had over the last five years. She will know that as teacher pay gets closer to median pay rates (with other sectors’ earnings growing much faster than teachers’) that it becomes less and less desirable to become a teacher, or stay in teaching, particularly in subject areas like technology or science.

The Minister likes to be able to list things she’s doing to further her government’s policy objectives – and at the moment some of the ones to ‘raise the status’ of teaching look pretty weak.*  I’m sure that she would love to be able to say, “This government values secondary teachers, and that’s why we’re ensuring that they don’t suffer a permanent pay cut as a result of the recession.”

Is this a sign?

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The Minister may have to tough time to convince her Cabinet colleagues of this, but she can make a strong case that this government’s legacy in education can be a strengthened teaching profession, and this investment for the future is one that’s far more important than roads or fibre.

 

 

* Of course I’m aware that one of these, EDUCANZ, actually does the complete opposite. But the professed intention is to ‘raise the status’…

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