Billionaire Steven Jennings has blamed teachers as the cause of lower rates of achievement in low decile schools. Not only is the whole education system ‘failing’ according to Mr Jennings, but poor teaching and nasty unions are entrenching inequality for (predominantly) Maori and Pasifika students.
Of course, the facts suggest otherwise. Participation, retention and achievement for Maori and Pasifika learners is improving every year, while international surveys show that New Zealand teachers rate amongst the highest in the world. Further, Ministry of Education statistics actually show that when socioeconomic factors are controlled for, the achievement of students in lower deciles is comparable to those in higher decile schools.
While nobody would suggest that everything is rosy for all Maori and Pasifika learners (or, for that matter, all low decile, alternative education and special education students), a blanket pillorying of teachers because statistics show a percentage of these learners aren’t achieving at the same level as kids in higher decile schools is not only unjustified – it is deliberately misleading.
Prior to New Zealand’s entry into the ‘free market’ (where Mr Jennings began accumulating his massive wealth through his involvement in the selling down of state assets), 50% of secondary school students failed their national examinations. That was how the system worked. Nevertheless, many of these students had access into trades and employment in local industries which are now largely gone (a result of the deregulated ‘global market’ which moved manufacturing to the lowest wage economies in order to return the greatest profit). The greatest impact of such ‘free market reforms’ were of course on those groups who had previously worked in these industries – predominantly those who had not been on the right side of the bell curve at school.
While an education system that provided pathways into the types of work the society needed probably made some sense – sadly, the deregulation and competition that these reforms engendered saw a massive increase in inequality. That is, those who benefitted (such as Mr Jennings) did so at a time where the employment of ‘lower status’ workers became much more precarious.
Where were teachers in all of this? They, (through their unions), worked to change the system.
The development of a broader Curriculum in the early 2000s (with a focus on students being able to demonstrate their competencies against a range of objectives across and within curriculum areas rather than in a high stakes exam) paved the way for more students to achieve – (However, no assumption was made that this would mean all students would subsequently achieve all of them: The strengths and interests of learners are of course diverse). Sadly, the great strides taken by ‘lower decile’ students since this change have not yet been able to offset the entrenched deprivation of those communities whose jobs have been moved offshore because the labour is cheaper or who have found themselves victims of casualised and unsavoury employment practices.
The impacts of entrenched poverty should need little explanation: students whose families cannot afford food, uniforms, access to technological devices, students who arrive at school carrying the burden of stressed and at times help-less parents who exist from week to week and are afraid to check the letterbox for fear of the next bill - preparing these students for assessment is often not the same job.
Despite this, teachers are having an impact: the engagement and achievement of many of these students is increasing at a time where house prices make it difficult for even white collar workers to get on the ladder, by individualising learning programmes, building culturally responsive pedagogy and sharing best practice. And largely, they are doing it themselves (continuing with strategies to meet the needs of groups of learners even when the Ministry of Education stops funding proven programmes such as Te Kotahitanga).
Sadly, when billionaires are given a soapbox these facts don’t seem to be examined too closely. Instead, Mr Jennings suggests that 10% of teachers are failing (likely a calculation based on the fact that a tenth of teachers are in the lowest decile schools) and has even taken aim at teacher appraisal, saying 99% of teachers are promoted every year – a figure he appears to have plucked out of the air.
Here again Mr Jennings seems happy not to let the facts get in the way of a good time. Teachers are appraised against the 12 Professional Teacher Criteria every year (which involves classroom observations of their practice and providing evidence of their competency against these criteria), they undertake Professional Inquiry, must participate in Professional Development (which they often have to find and fund themselves – in their term breaks) and are increasingly held to account for the achievement rates of their akonga. In fact, the steadily increasing bureaucracy involved in teaching is causing some teachers to leave the profession – because it takes them away from teaching, exponentially increases the scope of their professional role (without providing access to professional support) and increasingly holds them accountable for redressing factors outside their control.
While those of us in the bottom 90% of earners might see it as pretty cynical to interpret high rates of promotion as suggesting we need more appraisal to weed out more teachers - it appears Mr Jennings has no such scruples. He, and other ‘educational experts’ such as Mainfreight Chairman Bruce Plested, suggest that Performance Pay for teachers is the answer. (One wonders how much extra teachers might be offered. Starting salaries are in the $40,000s -no wonder teachers can’t afford to live in Auckland). Ironically, if a Performance Pay model was implemented in New Zealand that took account of the additional hours teachers put in to provide education to students from diverse, impoverished and challenging backgrounds it would bankrupt the country. (An alternative economic model would be bulk funding where you cap how much $ there is and take the extra for the crème de la crème from those at ‘the bottom’: not so helpful in generating collaboration or retaining new grads one would imagine).
In contrast, Teachers and unions want all teachers to be supported to be great teachers. We take the view that this requires professional development and collaboration.
Even if you could create a set of criteria to gauge top performance that took account of the complexities of the job and the variance in what learners from different backgrounds bring, without access to mentoring, professional development, a significant reduction in bureaucracy and space to collaborate and share best practice the idea is fraught.
Where highly paid ‘expert’ teachers have been marketed in other countries they have failed spectacularly to bootstrap professional practice. Borrowing a model that says you rain money onto the top echelons at the expense of those at the bottom simply doesn’t work – it means you have less teachers willing or able to put themselves through the ringer, lower trust and a pecking order that erodes collective endeavour. Mssrs
Plested and Jennings need only look around to see what happens when you run this market ideology – you end up in precisely the situation they decry as our nation’s shame: massive inequality.
If you summarily dismiss 10% of the workforce as Mr Jennings does, or implement a more competitive model as Mr Plested sees fit to endorse, you increase class sizes for everyone left, create barriers (on top of the financial ones that currently exist) for our brightest and best to consider teaching as a career and continue the precedent of blaming teachers for things outside their control.
Of course, vilifying teachers as the cause of inequality and suggesting they need to be held to account with more draconian appraisal (for the princely sums they receive) is unlikely to help recruit and retain good teachers – there is already a supply crisis for teachers who can’t afford to live in Auckland and it appears that the Education Council are bumbling their way to erecting further barriers for relievers, itinerant teachers and new grads who can’t get permanent employment.
Surely as someone who has benefitted from deregulation, Mr Jennings’ can understand that increasing bureaucracy, demanding additional barriers to advancement and blaming teachers for social ills is unlikely to improve recruitment and retention of high quality teachers.
Unfortunately, this understanding is missing from his oligarchic pronouncements to our nation.
While it is acceptable for a man who surfed the wave of privatisation in the 1980s to have a personal view of the power of the market, perhaps he should turn his focus to ‘fixing’ Auckland housing – and let teachers teach.