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Pathways-ED: Charter Schools – what would they add?

Stuart Middleton
8 December 2011

Who would have predicted that the idea of Charter Schools would have emerged from the volatility of an MMP election? It is a time for quiet and calm reflection on the matter rather than our usual search for the boxing gloves for three rounds in the ring.

Charter Schools go back to 1988 in the USA when the notion that the introduction of autonomous public schools with a clear focus on student achievement would address the stubborn issues in English-speaking education systems (and especially the USA) of the poor performance of too many students who seemingly were clustered in too many schools. Nothing unusual in that and New Zealand then and still (like the USA) continues to address that very same issue.

Charter Schools were to have a charter, an agreement between the state, the government, and the school, increased autonomy, a more flexible reach for students that went beyond the mandated zones and an ability to access funding from outside the conventional public / state funding.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. Because in 1989 the New Zealand government handed to all New Zealand schools the very same degree of autonomy. Every school was to be a charter school, there was to be increased flexibility of access (the zoning system was to challenged), funding could be used by the school flexibly (it was called bulk funding) and relationships between schools and business was to be allowed to flourish. All this followed the development of state integrated schools – early precursors of the charter model.

No education system in the world gives schools the autonomy they have in New Zealand but it is beyond the scope of this short piece to provide a commentary on what happened to all this but the point is that the notion of a “charter school” is not new to New Zealand and the concept has by and large been found to not be a silver bullet.

The critics of the charter school idea are silly to claim that the idea has been tried and has failed in the USA and the UK. It is just as silly to claim the idea has been an unqualified success. The truth is that charter schools have been about as good and as bad as public / state school systems. The jury is out on this idea. It would be foolish for us to go chasing after the concept at this time and there is no sound educational argument that we should.

Of course, the ideological argument which is really no argument at all, might win the day and we could continue the tradition of New Zealand claiming what it sees as its God-given right to suck up ideas from other education systems regardless of evidence of success or appropriateness. As for a trial or two – the road to hell is paved with good intentions and failed / stalled / forgotten education pilot programmes from New Zealand.

We need step changes at this time if we are to more successfully get on top of the issues of student achievement and success and the irony of the charter school proposal in both its nature and its timing is that the current government is on some productive tracks towards making progress in doing just that.

Regardless of whether teacher unions and principal associations like it or not, National Standards or something like it is essential to maintaining public confidence in state education. It was a lack of confidence in public education in the USA that unleashed the charter movement. New Zealand has never experienced the comprehensive lack of confidence in state education that other systems, the US, the UK and to a lesser degree Australia, have had to cope with. But it is not a given and we need to work at it. The primary sector needs to get on with the job of making National Standards work and the secondary sector should look forward to their introduction in some form or other for Years 9 and 10.

At the senior secondary school the government (and its MMP partners) would be advised to have confidence in its Youth Guarantee policy setting that seems likely to not only address achievement issues but articulate the school system into the wider world in ways that will enhance student success.

Continuing access to a free education in places other than the secondary school is both equitable and already successful. This is achieved within the existing education and training system at about the same cost as the conventional tracks in which so many of the students would simply fail.

The development of alternate ways of completing secondary schooling through mixed mode programmes (such as trades academies and secondary tertiary programmes) or through programmes such as the Tertiary High School are already leading increasing numbers of students to successful outcomes and qualifications.

The development of Vocational Pathways within NCEA is adding the sophistication to NCEA that was always meant to be there but was thwarted by the pressures to turn it into another examination system.

Meanwhile the performance of students at the top end of academic achievement is simply second to none in world terms.

In short, given continued commitment to the directions currently being pursued, we are likely to have success in addressing the issues of educational outcomes. Not only that, we will have found ways of doing this which are a good fit with the way we work – this is New Zealand and this is how we do it! A new maturity will emerge in an education system that has in the past lead the way.

One final point. There is neither the tradition nor an appetite in the New Zealand business and philanthropic communities to use its money to take over what it sees as the responsibility of the state in the ways that there is especially in the USA. Relationships? Yes. Lending complementary skills? Yes. Partnerships? Yes. Picking up the tab for failure? No.

We have some frameworks in place, now we need focus and commitment, not distraction.


Published inEducation

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