22 March 2012
It looks as if the stars are coming into alignment in education. First there was the Prime Minister with clear statements about education and training and some inarguable goals followed by a minor distraction from what has turned out to be a falling star, Nick Smith.
Now we have the Secretary to the Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, in a speech on the kind of economic leadership needed in these somewhat unusual times, providing an evidence-based commentary on the importance of education and the role of schools in lifting the levels of New Zealand’s skills.
The importance of education as is made clear. “A skilled workforce is crucial to raising growth and productivity… better skills make us more adaptable… and education is like a factory for opportunity and ideas.” Acknowledging that improvement in education is a necessity right across all forms and levels, like so many other commentators he focuses on the school system.
The response to the Treasury Briefing to the Incoming Minister noted that class size was a mechanism for freeing resources that might be used for improvement and Mahlouf rightly brings some perspective into this – the issue is not the number of students in a classroom, it is the achievement that comes out of 13 years, 38-40 weeks each year, 25 hours each week, of schooling that is the real issue.
This is not the first time that Treasury briefing papers to an incoming Minister have been the starting point for education reform. In 1987 a very substantial briefing led to the reforms of educational administration and wide-reaching tertiary reforms. Is this the trigger for another period of reform?
He does pick his targets carefully. Despite the use of a rather flattering and kind measure for achievement of NCEA Level 2 (a global figure of 70% rather than the much more challenging Maori and Pasifika outcomes) he questions whether three out of ten students are “simply too hard to teach or are incapable of learning basic skills” and concludes that “the system is failing some students.”
I recall a Treasury official walking into my office some years ago and getting straight to the point by asking me to tell him who in the country is accountable for educational failure. I replied, without hesitation, “no-one!”. And this has remained the case.
The speech develops a theme around two points. First, the critical factor in student performance is the quality of teaching and, secondly, education like all of us will have to seek improvement within the existing resources that it has.
Jacques Barzun many years ago asserted that it was not the competence of teachers that was the problem; rather it was the fact that too many good teachers were doing the wrong thing. That probably still applies and the remedy is clear – find out what is happening in classrooms, establish what curriculum and practices would affect improvements in student outcomes and put into place professional development that addresses it. This raises issues that we shy away from in education.
We find it hard to accept that there are differences between teachers that result in variable student outcomes. We find it hard to accept assessment of teacher performance that would guide us towards helping those teachers who are off the mark in leading students to positive outcomes. We find it hard to believe that the curriculum needs scrutiny and continue to treat it as if it were a holy document when clearly it is playing a part in driving us towards those variable outcomes.
And we love discussions that distract rather than enlighten. The reactions to Treasury’s earlier suggestion that class size might be a mechanism for generating the resources to achieve the remediation of the performance of the schooling system unleashed the tired old responses. Every Mum in the country knows that to make ends meet she must either find extra money or shift what money she has around when a new household expense comes around. When one option is not open, the other is the only way. Mum has to decide priorities.
Makhlouf tidily sums up just such a priority: “Class size matters but the quality of teaching matters more.”
I hope that this speech and the material accompanying it is a starting point on an urgent and serious discussion of the central issue in economic recovery, growth and development, the level of education outcomes for young New Zealanders.