8 March 2010
Let’s get to grips with the issues of student disengagement and the role of sectors in it.
The issue of student disengagement is not one of teacher competence. As in all lines of work there are teachers who could be performing better for one reason or another. And there will be a group of teachers who are competent, but after having taught for too long without refreshment are simply doing the wrong thing. Another group of teachers with less experience will not have responded to pre-service teacher education in its present one-size-fits-all configuration and need a different, perhaps longer, perhaps more “pupil teacher” approach.
Yes, there are things to address in this area but in themselves they are not the root cause of disengagement.
The issue of student disengagement is not located solely in the student. Students bring with them to school a wide variety of challenges for schools but it is not outside the wit and wisdom of teachers to work on the features that are less likely to lead to progress. Issues such as transience, language background, poor living conditions, health issues, truancy, appropriate curriculum and so on, to varying degrees, make the job of teaching challenging but they do not in themselves make it impossible. Access to quality early childhood education is a huge help to teachers in schools – that’s another issue.
Each of these issues could be systematically addressed and picked off in the order that they impact on student progress but that would not see disengagement disappear.
The issue of student disengagement is not generated by curriculum issues. We could keep on reviewing and revising the curriculum till every educational cow has come home and it wouldn’t be the silver bullet we search for. Yes, the curriculum is too crowded. Yes, it doesn’t ensure that basis skills are taught. Yes, we lack clear statements about what students should know at certain critical points.
But we have had major curriculum revisions in the 1940’s with the Thomas Report, after the Currie Commission in the early 1960’s, during the Educational Development Conference of the 1970’s, there was Merv Wellington’s effort in the 1980’s and Lockwood Smith’s multiple reviews of the 1990’s and the latest round has just been completed. Despite this diligent re-arrangement, the indicators keep going south. This regular cleaning up of the curriculum seems, like suburban inorganic rubbish collections, to not be able to get on top of the issue once and for all.
Having looked at the issue of student disengagement seriously for quite a while I have come to believe that the issue is systemic and structural. Or put more bluntly, we have persisted with the kind of education system we have to the point where we must acknowledge that it is no longer entirely fit for purpose. Great Britain, the United States of America, Australia and Canada are all faced with the same issue.
I do not intend to repeat here the catalogue of evidence that we now have that leads to the conclusion that disengagement, dropping out of education systems, is now the number one issue of English-speaking education systems – but just one little statistic. In the United States of America it is estimated that one student drops out of school every twelve seconds. If this is right this means that while you have been reading this column, the US has lost 1,500 students from its system. Add to that what is happening in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and here in New Zealand. We might have the best education system in the world – and that is the boast we often make – but what does that mean in light of disengagement? Simply that we have the best education system in the world for some students.
Our current structure is, in my view, dysfunctional. The arrangement of education in a set of sectors is designed to meet the needs of the adults in the education system rather than the students it is meant to serve. Our system is, in short, a parade of disconnected sub-professions which serve different sets of students organised only on the basis of the number of birthdays they have had. The decision to shift young people out of one sub-profession onto the next is determined solely on the basis of the fifth birthday, followed by critical Christmas holidays at the end of Year 6 possibly and certainly at the end of Year 8 and Year 13.
Well, the Year 13 Christmas holiday is critical to only some of our students. A small number have made the decision to shift earlier and a greater number has simply dropped out. This last fact is unpalatable and must be the focus of policy development and new ways of working. The recent figure of 30,000 daily truants added to the 20,000 who disengage from school prior to age 16 means that teachers can’t do their work with a large number who will never be touched by the curriculum - however good it is – or teachers – however superb they are.
Sectors introduce gaps into our responsibility for students. Sectors introduce a careless approach for the management of student progress which has never been nor will ever be the lock step choreography of learning that we want it to be. Sectors mean that we lose touch with students as they move on. And no one is responsible in New Zealand for educational failure.
What do we know about students that requires us to have sets of teachers that have different qualifications, different preparation, are represented by different professional bodies, paid on different pay scales and have no ongoing, meaningful and functional connection with each other? It is over to students and their families to manage this complexity.
A review of sectors does not mean wholesale disruption. Sectors only grew by accident. There were originally only two sectors – school (and that meant primary) and whatever came next, with “Higher Education” being the only purely education group at this level. But a commitment to and achieving of universal primary education and then post-primary education and then (in theory) postsecondary education has seen sectors solidify like geological strata and they have become quite impermeable.
Unless we address structural issues in our education systems we will continue to be frustrated by the evidence that dealing with everything else seems not to be effective.