Archive for February 2009

Digging for a solution

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.7, 27 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Hi Ho Hi Ho , Its off to work we go!!

It wasn’t just Dopey, Grumpy Sleepy and their mates that sang this refrain – it was pretty well the chorus from everyone who once left school. From the late 1940’s through to the late 1960’s New Zealand achieved pretty well full employment and young people knew that ahead of them lay work.

That all changed when New Zealand decided that 6% unemployment would be something of an acceptable going rate and the dream that New Zealand kids had of slinging their metaphorical shovels over their shoulders and marching down into the mine with the Seven Dwarfs was over. Little wonder then that at a time of real crisis there should be a gathering to address the issue of employment – instead of going down to the coalface the wise ones head for the summit.

There is in our community a significant group of people for whom “economic crisis” is not an event but an environment in which they live every day of their lives.

The current focus on saving jobs for those already in work, on retraining those whose jobs are at risk and on finding positive activity for those with days on which there is no work is responsible and right. But they will be actions that address the here and now, a response to a crisis at one point in time.

Underlying this is an ongoing and more fundamental economic crisis that will not be addressed by these actions and which will one day prove to be the defining crisis – too many of our young people are not only unemployed they are also unemployable. Such young people are clustered into communities of disadvantage with all the issues that this brings – violence, poor housing, bad health and a lack of social cohesion that all have a cost associated with them.

Department of Labour figures show that the Auckland region is home to 35% of the young people in New Zealand. In Counties Manukau there is a concentration of young Maori and a third of all young Pacific people live in this region. With 17% youth employment in this region, the issue is not that the current crisis will take people out of work but that even when we are not in crisis we get too few people into work, especially young people.

The figures quoted above are from 2006, a time of robust levels of employment in New Zealand. With overall unemployment figures now expected to reach double figures, this issue will escalate quickly. Young people in Manukau, 48% of them, work in businesses that have over 100 employees. When such companies take a hit (such as that seen recently at Fisher and Paykel) the impact is serious.

There is in New Zealand up to 25,000 young people who are NEET – not in employment education or training. These people exit the education system without a pathway into further education and training and in most cases without the skills to enter employment. Not all stay out of work but the road into employment for those who need a second chance at preparing themselves is painful and expensive. The cost to the individual is significant and the cost to the country even greater.

A recent Ministry of Social Development report, Youth Transitions Series 2003,  points to “those who are inactive for prolonged periods of time have a heightened risk of poor outcomes including: lower earnings; greater reliance on social assistance; and higher rates of unemployment, criminal offending, substance abuse, teenage fertility, suicide, homelessness and mental or physical ill health.” If not a powder keg, inactivity is at least a potent and dangerous brew.

The seemingly worthy goal of preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist is something of a luxury when young people are not prepared for jobs that do exist! And the task is one that cannot solely be the responsibility of the formal education system. Those with inactive parents are likely themselves to be inactive. The social construct called “the disadvantaged community” is discouraging to those on the margins of engagement.

Employment is not a pair of socks that you put on when your toes get cold or something that you clip on your belt when the whim to work takes you. It is the result of a long process in which three dots must be connected.

The first of these is access to two years of quality early childhood education. Longitudinal studies show that the advantage of this remains with young people throughout their formal schooling. The second is the completion of secondary school – those who disengage at some point in their secondary schooling are immediately at risk. Completing secondary school makes it more likely that a young person will go on the complete a postsecondary qualification, the third dot. Connecting those dots creates the desire to work and the ethic required to sustain employment.

Long term, the solution to the economic crisis is tied up in these three key dots. We simply must minimise the supply of those who fuel economic crisis by their inability to contribute productively. Yes there will also be those who need a helping hand but we could also do this better if we have eliminated the waste of human resources that we currently see.

It would be tragic if in addressing the issues of an economic crisis for which global causes are blamed, we failed to see the home grown crisis steadily but not so quietly creeping up on us. Our ability to sustain an economy of the kind that has brought a sound standard of living and a life with prospects to most (but not all) New Zealanders relies both on our getting through the immediate crisis and our willingness to tackle the larger and more fundamental crisis of youth unemployment.

That family of countries I have written about so often – New Zealand, Australia, Canada. United States and Great Britain – share a grim statistic outside of education but not unrelated to it. Around the period 2025 – 2030, they will reach zero or even negative growth in the working age population. There will be fierce international competition for skilled young people. Will we be ready? Or should we carry on and just whistle while we work? 

A Treasury of advice

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.6, 20 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The briefing papers prepared for incoming governments by the various ministries in Wellington are a triennial ritual that attempts to strike a tone somewhere between the welcome home of the prodigal child and the stern lecture from Grandpapa delivered to the child about to leave for university in Dunedin.

Those from Treasury are an interesting collection.

Education was centre stage in the Treasury briefing papers of 1987 when an entire bound book was devoted to it. This was the occasion to develop at length the notions that postsecondary education was a private gain and that the rot that had set in to the leaky system was the result of provider capture. Snook (1994) described the Treasury briefing to the incoming government in 1984 as “an amazing document from a department of state, which is supposed to give financial advice to the government. It is a work, not of economics, but of social philosophy.”

Teachers colleges received a going over, state intervention compromised equity and the administration of education was something between inept and serpentine, We all know what happened as a result. A frenzy of reform was unleashed that was unprecedented in the history of education in this country. But did things change really? The papers of 1993 stated that the experience of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms demonstrated just how difficult it can be to make substantial changes in the education sector.

Looking at the Treasury briefing papers between then and now encourages one to believe that there is some truth in this. Recurring themes are clear and repeated every three years. A key one is that the education system is not making the contribution it might to improving New Zealanders’ skills and adaptability (1990). This is expressed variously over time. A responsive and efficient education sector is necessary to improve the skills of the future workforce (1993). There is evidence that many young New Zealanders are leaving school somewhat less skilled than their international counterparts (1999). In 2001 there was the wish that the government should fund courses that that lift the skills of those participating in them. This was a goal greatly to be aspired to but seemingly difficult to achieve.

Another recurring theme was the juxtaposition against this were various expressions of pleasure at increasing participation. The irony of this seemingly passed by the writers of the papers. We now have a clearer view that increasing participation per se is necessary but not in itself sufficient to bring about increased educational outputs (that’s a good Treasury word!). The increases in participation noted in the 1993, 1999 and 2002 are finally put into context as the papers over time start to show a realisation that  those who were disadvantaged continue to be so in spite of what looks like progress in terms of numbers.

The 1996 papers somewhat awkwardly note that socio-economic background, along with innate ability, is a significant influence on educational outcomes for young people.

The papers are not without amusement. In 1993, in a list of “significant risks” they included implementing “Education in the 21st Century”. It was not made clear whether the risk was in implementing it or in not implementing it. This was the report that spelt out the notion of seamlessness and attempted to set up an education system without barriers. We opted for shapeless rather than seamless. Had we really tried to understand the notion of seamlessness we would now have been 15 years into the journey of developing personal pathways, of increasing pathways for students, of getting many more students through to successful outcomes in terms of qualifications and employment.

The papers of 2001 introduced the concern for the 18 to 24 school leaver cohort and noted that participation in this group is not growing. Since then we have come to understand better the phenomenon of disengagement and the growing issues of NEET’s – those not in education, employment or training. In that same year Treasury also noted the importance of early childhood education was critical and that a wise use of resources would be to concentrate on funding children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Current facts would suggest that this advice has not been acted on.

And so we move on to the recently released latest papers, 2008. Old Polonius Treasury adopts the second person giving them a more dramatic tone. The old Treasury themes are there – improving quality of expenditure, increased numbers of degree graduates and looking at the benefit system. When they get into a more derailed policy driven discussion the advice is clear.

In summary, schooling improvement should be achieved by increasing completion rates through a wider variety of options and pathways for senior secondary students who are more actively engaged. More controversial is the promotion of the idea of increased funding for independent schools and removing capacity restraints where schools are popular. Like chickens that eat eggs, once they start doing it is hard to stop them. Treasury officials have had egg on their beaks for a long time on this one.

The papers are stronger when they discuss the Youth Guarantee and the Trades in Schools policies. The need for more responsive and flexible secondary schooling and on identifying and supporting those at risk of disengaging (the word finally appears) is seen as a necessity. It is acknowledged that alternatives to school may be suitable to some students but the outcomes of such alternatives need to be robust.

Treasury is spot on in noting that changes to school funding rules and regulations could encourage partnerships with polytechnics to provide a wider range of vocational training courses. The recommendations in this area are sensible – expanding options for students, retaining schools’ accountability for under-18 year olds, increasing schools’ ability to use other providers while retaining students on their books and getting a greater focus on foundation skills for those students not currently succeeding.

It seems that much of the advice on education over the years contained in Treasury briefing papers, is not acted on. There are some key pointers in this latest set that deserve to be noted and the direction they suggest could, if acted on, save them having to continue to make the same points in 2011, 2014, and 2017.

Research-based teaching

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.5, 13 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

I once went to the theatre to see the complete works of Shakespeare delivered in the space of a little under two hours. It was dazzling and in a bizarre way succeeded in getting across the essence of the Bard both in terms of language and the larger themes and concerns. There is something of a feeling like this in the release of John Hattie’s Visible Learning, and in trying to write about it in 1,000 words!

This book is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses from the education research on effective learning and achievement. In short, it sets out to grapple with the answer to the question “What really makes a difference in helping learners to reach high levels of achievement?” It brings together a huge body of research – 15 years work as an educational researcher, 50,000 quantitative studies reworked in 800 meta-analyses and, the easy bit (I think not!), the writing of the book.

All of this seemed to matter very little to many of those who responded to early media interest in the book over the holiday period. The media, in their inexhaustible quest for the story and the controversy, highlighted the low ranking of class size as a factor and the stories focused largely on this. Hattie concludes that class size ranks 106th in a list of 138 factors that influence achievement. Cries of “rubbish”, “I know better!”, “we need more teachers” pretty well sums up the responses proving once again the desire of education to not be a research-driven profession in the way that characterises law, medicine, engineering and technology. Oh no! We know best! 

I have refrained from comment until I have read the book unlike all those who grabbed a radio opportunity.

It is easy to be impressed by the statistics of the study itself but that misses the point. This book deals honestly with the issues of meta-analysis and disarmingly sets out to be just that – a synthesis of meta-analyses. But this is exactly the process by which educational research can hope to have an impact. The world of teaching and learning is not short of research, it is simply ignorant of much of it and books such as this set up a group of professionals to engage with a body of research in chunks that can be understood and more importantly acted on by classroom teachers.

There seems both a degree of irony and appropriateness that I write this while the TV shows pictures of bush fires in Australia. A useful device in the book is a kind of Forest Fire Danger barometer, an arrow positioned over an arc that portrays the level of impact of a factor on student achievement.

So what does make a difference? The top five factors in terms of measured impact on achievement are:

Self-report grades

Hattie concludes that students have a “reasonably accurate understanding” of their achievement and that this is based on their experiences except for minority students who were a little less realistic in self reported grades. Do teachers, I wonder, inflate their assessment of minority students? But the message is clear, expectations are important so make sure they are right! Students need to know where they are, where they are headed and what they must do to get there.

Piagetian programmes

The conclusion is that Piaget got it right for mathematics and almost right for reading. The point is that there are stages and as teachers we had better understand them.

Providing formative evaluation

When I was doing my PhD at an advanced age I constantly asked my supervisor when he enthused about a chapter or something “But is this going to be a PhD? How am I going? Will I get there? Am I at the right place? Learners need to know where they are and who can tell them if the teachers can’t? A PhD candidate is in no different a position from a Year 3, Year 10, Year 13 student in this regard.

Micro Teaching

Goodness me, this seems like a theme from the past. But it is a wake-up call for teacher education. Teachers will become more effective when they develop their skills in a micro-teaching environment. This happens in some teacher education programmes but this begs the question of what happens with beginning and new teachers and too experienced teachers. Medicine wouldn’t risk it but we do in education. In at the deep-end depends entirely on whether you can swim or, perhaps even, whether you want to stay alive. Worse, while a lack of micro-teaching is not ideal for teachers, it is less satisfactory for students who clearly benefit in terms of achievement.

The challenge for schools is to organise so as to allow for micro-teaching.

Acceleration

When I got this bit I really could hear celestial choirs! At last, I thought, at last! The evidence is clear – that students should advance as quickly as they are able. But what do we do? Year by year, happy birthday by happy birthday, four seasons in a row, curriculum Year X to curriculum Year Y – the modern western education system is the myth of Sisyphus and we do untold damage to our best students. Perhaps we want to own them as slaves for our own gratification in the gladiatorial battle of assessment. 

Put more crudely and without the benefit of x studies and y meta-analyses – why do we restrict students to the lock-step system that is demonstrably in favour of teachers and schools. It is certainly not a reflection of what we know about learning. And NCEA gives us the ideal vehicle to achieve increased levels of acceleration.

So they are the top five factors (don’t forget that the book covers a further 133 factors that have varying degrees of impact on achievement.) Education research relies on such syntheses and analyses – there must be brokers who translate the outputs of research for the practitioner. They interpret, they generalise, they simplify, they turn a myriad of detail into a clear single command.

John Hattie is inarguably one of our best education researchers. This book should be read by each and every school. It should inform teacher education programmes. It should be an almanac of research evidence kept within reach and consulted.

Or we could ignore it and just carry on.

Tomorrow’s schools today

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.4, 6 February 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

There are currently 28 schools in New Zealand where a commissioner has replaced the Board of Trustees for one reason or another. This is roughly 1% of schools so that puts the issue into perspective.

In 1998 it was the 10th anniversary of the Picot Report into the administration of education in New Zealand that led to Tomorrow’s Schools and the administrative system that we currently have. A conference was held that marked this end of the first decade and my contribution was a paper that I called Planting Cabbages and Expecting Cauliflowers : The Reforms and Multicultural Schools.

We mark the 20th birthday of the Tomorrow’s Schools approach with two high profile instances of school Boards being dismissed to be replaced by a Commissioner.

In the paper I wrote ten years ago, I focussed on the impact on the multicultural schools in my patch in Manukau and argued that the reforms had not in themselves produced administrative weaknesses but had made explicit weaknesses that had always been there masked by various elements of the previous system which I will come to shortly.

The Picot Report (Administering for Excellence) wrote about the problems faced by the administration of education in New Zealand. It was a report that spoke in generalities and at a macro level. It did not speak about our schools in any detail.

Where it did speak of “South Auckland” its comments were at best polite and at worst mealy-mouthed. Take for example, the comments on failure. Cutely called a form of “consumer disaffection”, the report (p36) referred to the 26% of pupils who leave school with no qualification of any kind. “We are told,” the report states “[that] these students leave school thoroughly disenchanted with a school environment they have merely endured, rather than enjoyed.”

20 years later and the rhetoric booms out a similar message. Where’s the action?

Curiously in other specific references to South Auckland the Picot Report created a new area called Southern Auckland. Perhaps this was a tactic to soften the negative impact of the media’s use of “South Auckland”! Whatever the reason it was noted that “half of the 26 secondary schools in Southern Auckland had more than 25 percent of the students leaving with no qualifications” and that “seven schools had more than 50% leaving with no qualifications.”

In stentorian tone the report thundered that “This clustering of failure is certain to lead to personal, social, and economic catastrophe. It cannot be allowed to continue!

20 years later……. where’s the action?

Back in 1988 the report failed to mention such factors as the generally benevolent attitude of the Department of Education at a regional level which as a “near-centre” appeared to be more capable of understanding the situation than was the “remote-centre” (i.e. the national office). But there were other issues too: the way new schools were planned, difficulties with staffing secondary schools, the growth of communities that put challenges into a small number of schools that most of the rest of the country had little or no understanding of, the lack of capacity in some communities to support the schools with cash, the growth of formulaic approaches to resourcing, and so on. There were winners and losers in the imnplementation. For instance, the creation of the level playing field saw the very schools that needed benevolent staffing levels lose significant numbers of teachers. (It had been a favourite Department of Education regional office response to offer a bit of additional staffing to solve any issue but now the formula was written on a tablet of stone.)

The worst element of the reforms might have been the placing of the burden of governance onto community members with little experience of it and with little support to do it. Would the business community risk such an approach?

Now this issue is confused by the reaction to such a suggestion which righteously argues that local communities should have a voice, that the local community should be involved in the governance of their own schools and that governance should emerge from the streets and houses served by the school. Well of course all that should happen. But the distance between a group brought together to do this in some communities and the central administration is not only measured in terms of the kilometres to Wellington but also in terms of huge distances in experience, understanding, values and aspirations between these communities and a central administration.

The reform in New Zealand turned each school into a school district in USA terms and therein is a possible solution.

It might well be time to consider establishing some form of Local School District governance provision to work with a cluster of schools at a governance level and with authority to back up and support the school-based groups. Such groups would be appointed rather than elected and would ensure the balance of skill and experience that good governance demands. Each school would continue to elect its “governance group” that would contribute to the process and would be a special reflection of the precise community served by each school. But they would not serve alone – rather they would be backed up by skill sets and experience that local election processes might not necessarily produce.

Such Local School District Boards would be governance groups not administrative groups (albeit that one role of governance is to ensure sound administration of resources, processes and outcomes). A Local School District Board serving state early childhood, primary and secondary institutions in a defined area that has a community of interest would enhance the work of the local Boards of Trustees. It w also stop fractious behaviour and outside interference of the kind that has disrupted Boards in some instances.

How many decades should pass before the template put in place by Picot, Lange et. al. is modified? Will we simply continue to smugly believe that one size really does fit all?

T S Eliot in Choruses from The Rock tells us that the “end of all our exploring will be to arrive at the beginning and to know the place for the first time.” Covey said much the same – “the end is where you start from.” Do we know and understand where to start from in all this?

The implementation of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms was flawed – schools are not generally free to purchase services and some are less free than others, Community Education Forums were not established, education service centres were not put in place, some schools will never be able to buy in additional resources, the contract between “the school and the state” is a very lop-sided arrangement.

It would be a brave assertion to claim that those reforms of the state sector in the 1980’s got it all right in one hit. And nowhere is this more open to question than in the governance of education.