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Talk-ED: Sailing in a new direction or being all at sea


It might have been appropriate that in the week that the Americas Cup is all tied up in international juries, data and rules that New Zealand has hosted the visit of Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director at the OECD and a specialist in evidence and data about student performance and system improvement in education.

Yesterday NZ Herald journalist Nicholas Jones had a full is page spread on his visit and it was a great pleasure to have this rare contribution to knowledge about education to consume with my breakfast.

Jones starts his piece……

“New Zealand’s education system has been treading water and its students will lose out in the global race for the best jobs unless change is embraced, a visiting expert warns.”

The appropriate nautical imagery in the context of a race has appeal in a  coastline hugging nation. And as we are asked to be interested in the Americas Cup even more so. That spring event is governed by some rules, that’s what the arguments seem to be about. Education is also governed by rules and that is what the argument is about!

Schleicher is reported as being in favour of National Standards and that is simply a rule. The arguments are not about evidence or even the light accountability that National Standards imply, it is about the rules. But change is imperative. Jones again….

“His [Schleicher,] reasoning for change  is that while New Zealand has a by good education system, if compared internationally its performance over the past 10 years has plateaued.”

We aren’t going to win the Americas Cup is that is also the case with any element of the effort to produce and sail a world class boat. In a country where we defend pretty well all that we do on the grounds that “we have a world class system” it all starts to look increasing hypocritical in the face of the evidence. If the boat won’t go any faster and the educational system can’t perform any better we will end up in the doldrums.

Spend more money on education! That is the clarion call from many. But Jones / Schleicher assure us that this is not necessary……

“Analysis shows poor kids in Finland, Canada and Shanghai do far better relative to their more privileged peers than poor kids in New Zealand and other countries.”

It is not the syndicate with the most money that necessarily wins the Cup! And yet we hear social class and parenting and markers of social class such as nutrition are unfurled as defences of a system in ways working that toss too many students overboard.

The article nicely lists actions that different groups can take. Parents can daily show interest in “what happened at school today”. This we are told has greater impact than “hours of homework”.

Teachers must deploy its best teachers to the most challenging classrooms.”  This is offered as a way of “prioritising and targeting the quality of teaching.” This it appears is better than to uncritically spray professional development over all the crew. Making the teaching profession a “high status profession”. Note that in Finland the profession was designed to be a high status profession – it doesn’t happen by chance. A ten foot tinny won’t become a high speed hatch simply by tying it up at the wharf and taking the odd fishing trip. Making the career for a teacher “more diverse and challenging for teachers.”

When it comes to schools the warning that has rung out throughout the week was repeated….

75% of students who are reflected in our low equity results are in schools where  there are not apparent issues with manifestly low achievement. This is not solely a low decile school issue but one for all schools. If New Zealand is to lift its achievement it can only do this through lifting its equity outcomes. Equity and equitable outcomes are a responsibility for everyone in the system.

The kinds of commentary inevitably produces a level of unease and even discomfort. But data is data and is of no account if it is ignored. The OECD data is based on over 70 countries  and  28 million students.

Nicholas Jones concludes his excellent article with a wonderful quote from Schleicher: 

I can see the challenges……But in the dark all schools look the same, and all students look the same. Unless you have some light to illuminate the difference, there is very little you can do about it.”

It is as if the Americas Cup is sailed at night – that would be very scary. But it is also scary to carry on in the darkness that the lack of data can impede the progress of students and the improvement of both equity and quality in the education system.


Published inEducation

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