5 October 2011
Teachers in schools are trained, registered and paid to attend to student achievement. Principals, middle managers and anyone with responsibility in a school is expected to know a little more about student achievement than those without it. School Boards have a responsibility to oversee student achievement in the school. In addition to this there is a plethora of assistance available to schools by professional development, tertiary education specialists, private consultants and suchlike – that can provide further assistance and add to this focus on student achievement in schools.
And yet we learn that 30 “Student Achievement Practitioners” have been appointed at salaries in excess of $100,000 to provide advice assurance to schools.
The question has to be asked – why is this necessary when we have Principals, middle managers and trained and qualified teachers all of whom can be expected to have specialist knowledge in and of – guess what? – student achievement?
Well the answer to that is clear. We have a problem with student achievement in this country. Students are not achieving to satisfactory levels in sufficient numbers. Why?
Lets discard the popular opinion loved by those who call talkback radio that teachers are incompetent. There is not a shred of evidence that this is true. The same systems of teacher preparation, professional development, leadership and delivery that produce this worrying level of student failure also produces the best students in the world.
Lets also put to one side any suggestion that principals do not know what they are doing. There are issues of balancing the demands of being an administrative, professional and instructional leader and it is likely that there will be some struggle to be effective in all three to the same degree. But there are many opportunities for principals to get support should they need it. There are even I believe a group of “Senior Advisors” available to schools to support the principal and board.
I am left concluding that the issue with student achievement in New Zealand boils down to one thing – too many schools and too many teachers encouraged by too many principals are simply doing the wrong thing. They are working with diligence, flair and competence but they are not hitting the target.
If ever the statement “less is more” had meaning it is surely when it is applied to schooling. The demands made on schools is simply to do too much about too many things. There once was an expectation that schools had done their job when a relatively restricted range of objectives had been met. Prime among these were at primary school the foundation skills of reading and writing and mathematics now perhaps usefully called literacy and numeracy. Where schools fail to bring students up to good and agreed standards in these areas they have failed regardless of whatever else they do.
Developing in students a sense of their history and their culture is also useful. Above all, exciting young people about learning and also doing these things – literacy, numeracy and a sense of who they are – is the hallmark of a good school where the talents and training of teachers is being directed towards positive outcome.
At the secondary school the single most important purpose is to build on these basic skills and prepare them for whatever is to follow – university, trades, employment, citizenship and so on. Sports and other activity such as school balls are nice to have, but never have in themselves a sufficient goal of schooling.
At a UC Berkeley football match I went to a couple of years ago they had a parade of the university’s sports teams. Mid-parade the stadium announcer solemnly advised the 80,000 people present that “no sports person is parading tonight who has not maintained an academic grade point average of 3.5.” In other words, make no mistake about it, learning comes first.
How do we reconcile the brilliant annual Polyfest in Auckland each year with its outstanding display of Maori and Pasifika performance with the grim statistics of Maori and Pasifika educational attainment in those very same schools?
If ever there was need for a group with the grunt of a Royal Commission or a Review it is now. We have to get back to making effective use of the skills of our teachers before we are overwhelmed by the issues of achievement. We need to reinvent the primary school and the secondary school and give fresh primacy to learning in every classroom.
Without fundamental and widespread change, Student Achievement Practitioners will be just one more attempt.
Imagine the concept being translated into the health sector. Patient Healing Practitioners would be a notion that would struggle to get traction.
Having said all of the above I was greatly unimpressed by the attack on the SAPs by the leaders of the primary principals organisation who went for a blatant ad hominen attack. He was mighty lucky that no journalist thought to ask “Why do we need SAPS in schools?”