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Month: December 2020

Back to normal is not the goal

A Statement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Patrick Methvin  

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.  This one is no different.  It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. — Arundhati Roy
If a pandemic creates a portal, then what exactly does our current environment – a combination of a health crisis, an economic crisis, and reckoning with longstanding racial injustices – create? None of us really know. We can cling to our security blankets of stock market forecasts, political prognostications, and vaccination modelling, but the truth is we don’t really know. Any one of these variables could affect the others in ways we can’t imagine.  

So if we can’t predict the future, what can we do with these portals to the unknown?  We can, as Roy also suggests, “choose to walk through [them], dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred…or we can walk lightly with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.  And ready to fight for it.”   

There are some education “carcasses” that we should leave behind:  Inequitable funding that provides institutions serving predominantly Black, Latino and Indigenous students 20% less resources than others. Arcane credit transfer rules and incentives that result in wasted time and money (for both students and taxpayers).  Students’ pathways (into and through postsecondary) that are unclear, inequitable and do not focus on student success. Climates in our colleges, universities and places of employment that are not equitable and fail to draw out the talent of all of their people.

And what can we fight for in this period of uncertainty?   Systems that count all students and hold us accountable for their equitable social and economic mobility. Policies that reverse discriminatory financing and pathways and, in the process, create stronger and more reliable roads to opportunity for today’s students. Teaching and advising approaches emerging this year from innovative faculty and staff who are marrying the best of technology and human engagement to help their students survive and even thrive. Institutions that boldly pursue transformation to ensure they are engines of equitable social and economic mobility. It should come as no surprise that I don’t have a particularly strong appetite for the phrase, “When we get back to normal….” I don’t want to get back to normal, because “normal” in American higher education is not currently living up to its potential as an engine of equitable social and economic mobility.  

But we are optimistic that this enterprise can live up to its potential, which is why we continue to invest. We don’t have all the answers, but through partnership, we believe we can take dramatic steps toward this vision. My greatest admiration and appreciation goes out to you, our partners and friends, for your resilience and brilliance during this most difficult year. The end of this year will not magically lift present-day uncertainty, but we feel fortunate to have you walking with us through whatever portals present themselves in 2021.
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Reason to Celebrate

I have been to two wonderful End-of-Year Prizegiving ceremonies.

The first was at Aorere College where I had been Principal in the 1990s when the school was changing its demographic complexion rather rapidly. Well, that process is complete and those who received awards were Mᾱori, Pasifika reflecting all the South Pacific, Asian, and a range of other ethnicities. It was a parade of success at a school that set the tone and the standards in so many ways. Pakeha were noted for their absence.

Some things I wondered about – the gaining of an excessive number of credits at each level raises questions of the necessity of this. Would students have been better to meet the requirements and move on to the next level? Or was it perhaps an organisational matter where the clarity in course requirements became clearer as the student progressed, or perhaps essential credits appropriate to pathways had become more apparent as the year proceeded was the simple explanation. The practice in the US is to guide the students with academic plans which set out pathways frown on over-crediting – food for thought? Whatever the reasons there was great delight when it was announced that successful student after successful student had received every one of their NCEA credits at “Excellence” level.

This school over the thirty years since I left had virtually doubled its role to 1600 students. Does our system understand that the new high performing schools are emerging from schools such as this one? It is tragic that so many students across South Auckland still daily migrate to a central city school where the evidence that it is in their best interests is flimsy. Perhaps they will gain a few more credits but cultural competence and leadership emerges from the south and this is a desired outcome in the diverse future NZ is rapidly becoming.

Overall it was an exciting afternoon to be followed the next day by more.

The prizegiving at the Manukau Institute of Technology School of Secondary Tertiary Studies (more widely known outside the school as the MIT Tertiary High School) was different, it needed to be if it was to reflect its mission to cater for those who had been left behind by the school system. The school group (1,500 students have been at the MIT THS since its establishment in 2010) is comprised of those who are in danger of disengagement or, in some cases have already multiple reasons seen the relationship between students and school become broken. The group as a whole carry with them a range of pressures, of family setting issues and a host of other potential setbacks. But underneath each of the different personae there beats hearts and greatly hidden talent.

The setting for the event was decorated in a wonderful display of outstanding art, of cultural reminders and this set the tone. In the course of the morning achievement was recognised. Some also received recognition for attendance (100% was the standard) and the message that this was important was part of the mandated engagement drive that characterises the school.

But the real highlight for me was the celebration for a group of five students who had achieved BOTH NCEA Level 1 and NCEA Level 2 in the course of 2020, one year – two levels because they were motivated and able to do this with the encouragement and support of teachers. The students move at their own pace rather than follow the conventional path of 1 year – 1 level. At last the promise emphasised by officials in the late 1980s and early 1990s that in the STANDARDS-BASED NCEA ENVIRONMENT WOULD BE DEAD has had instantiation at the Tertiary High School. Is this the only known case of such an outcome.?

It seems to me that encouraged by NZQA and years of doing the conventional that schools have simply replaced School C with NCEA Level 1, Sixth Form Cert with Level 2 and Bursary with Level 3 to retain the time-served habit. I was going to say that there are only two institutions thatdo this but I was wrong, one of them gives time off for good behaviour!

So two schools, both excellent in what they do, engaging students and enhancing lives enjoyed happy events in what has been a difficult and somewhat broken year.

But so very different in the way they do this.

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The Emperor’s New Lesson Plan

We know what succeeds but just can’t bring ourselves to do it!

New Zealand cannot continue to countenance the level of school failure that prevails in New Zealand. For years, we (i.e. the teaching profession, government officials, think tanks, parents and the employment sector) have known that the stubborn New Zealand statistics of failure are not good for  the community, families, the economy, business sector, the health system and the young  people themselves.

Bill Gates realised this, for each of the English education systems share the same sorry story. He concluded that:

“Once we used to say that school failure was not good for all those young people not succeeding and we must do something about it. Now we realise that we must do something about it because it is no good for us!”

The picture paints a sad and sorry story, a tale that has persisted for many years. 20+% of 16 year-old young people are not in school when the school legal leaving age is reached. The accumulation of NEETs (15-24-year-olds Not in Employment Education or Training) shows no sign of either diminishing of its own accord or responding to programmes to turn this around. There is talk from the education sector that absentees from school reach 76,000 each day – that is the equivalent of 2,533 empty classrooms!

Perhaps we should be reporting some of this along lines similar to the way that we have effectively made the community aware of the status and progress of the Covit-19 pandemic. Education failure is also of epidemic proportion, let’s go hard and go early!

How did this situation occur? Older members of the community will recall the situation 40 or so years ago when students often celebrated their 15th birthday by leaving school to get a job. My own high school presented me with a Fourth Form Certificate in Form 4 (Year 10) aimed at giving students something tangible – that at a time when about 15%studies for School Certificate. Students did not stay in secondary school unless they wanted School Certificate or University Entrance.

The young people who took vocational and trades subjects were imbued with the view that the purpose of education and training was to equip oneself for the world of employment. Scenarios that predicted that in just a few years we would not recognise current jobs, we would all be in the information age, and so on were simply figments of the hallucinations of the trendy. It was not true, it never happened. Even today occupations bear great similarities to how the picture looked 60 years ago.  Never mind, education kept up the mantra that “more schooling was better”. Technical subjects and the applied trades disappeared from school curricula and reappeared in the tertiary sector.

In 1960 around 20% of students stayed at secondary school for 5-years but by 1990 that proportion had grown to 65% accompanied by increasing levels of failure.

The message is clear: more does not mean better.

But there have been developments which are bringing considerable success to students – all is not lost in fulfilling the aspirations of young people and opportunities are being presented to them to proceed to careers. This is being achieved through high levels of collaboration between secondary and tertiary education sectors.

 2011 New Zealand saw the first Tertiary High School introduced at Manukau Institute of Technology. Students who had disengaged from school at around Year 10 (age 14-15 years) and if the truth be told,  well and truly withdrawn from school and learning were offered a chance to come into the Tertiary High School programme. Right from the start they were identified as tertiary students and studied a range of subjects – Level 1 and 2 NCEA and Tertiary Trades programmes (four in the first two years) and a range of programmes and activities to grow their confidence, their social skills and their line of sight to employment. The brilliance of the NCEA qualification was that it enables these flexible programmes to happen easily. From NCEA Level 3 for those proceeding to degree study. Others continued heading towards a career in the trades continuing to other entry levels for the trades.

This programme was radical and required the government of the day to make enabling changes to the NZ Education Act. The creation of the category of programmes characterised as Secondary / Tertiary Programmes and the changes to the Education Act allowed for a further development – the creation of Trades Academies in secondary schools. This development sees students selecting to attend a tertiary institution for one day-a-week for a Level 2 NCEA trade programme or two days-a-week for a NCEA Level 3 programme.

There are twenty-six providers offering these programmes. The largest is the Manukau Institute of Technology where success rates in were 87% for Maori students and 90% for Pasifika students. Evidence shows that progression rates into higher studies and/or employment are very high.

Having in place programmes that meet the needs of the student groups noted above, Manukau Institute of Technology is now implementing, in collaboration with three other Tertiary Institutions, a programme of research into effective ways of increasing levels of Learner Success at all levels. Work is proceeding on a detailed survey of the issues students face in the journey into tertiary study, the issues they face during their period of study and effective and early interventions to keep the students’ study momentum building all the way through the programme. This will take a holistic view of the student.

This work will build on the very successful programme developed at Georgia State University (GSU) which through careful and detailed analysis of the needs of students resulted in moving the GSU Priority Learner Groups (Hispanic and African American students) from being the least successful in terms of results to being the highest performing groups in the University.

Manukau Institute of Technology shares the aspirations to see the same shifts. There are answers to issues of performance to be found, developed and implemented – if only eyes were open to them and having seen the prospect of increased student success were prepared to go after it.

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