Last night I chaired an evening with visiting US founder of the KIPP Network of Charter Schools – 14 charter schools from Pre-K through to Grade 12. The visit to NZ by Dr Mike Feinberg was sponsored by the University of Auckland, Partnership Schools, The New Zealand Initiative and the Aotearoa Foundation.
A group of a little over 100 heard a presentation full of enthusiasm and much that everyone could relate to. The US faces a situation that is about the same as we do in New Zealand – disengagement, high drop-out rates and middling achievement at tertiary levels. (The Minister released data on Maori and Pacific Island student achievement yesterday and this morning the Principals Federation described the information as unhelpful!) Fienberg posed the question: Do we accept that this is simply destiny or do we accept that we can do something about it?
That is the question that is being asked constantly here in New Zealand right now. The Minister’s Cross-Sector Forum is focussed on just that issue and on the Better Public Service Goal of 85% of all 18 year olds having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent by 2017).
The audience was asked to accept that we, the professionals had to have the mindset and a belief that such targets were possible – and I for one had no issue with that. In fact I still find it puzzling that this is not easily accepted by some professionals who still cling to all the excuses of factors outside of the school.
Interestingly, Feinberg’s “five pillars” for his charter schools were simple and closely connected to some of the reforms currently being considered in New Zealand:
- have students work a longer school day, school week and school year;
- have unwavering high expectations;
- provide choice for students but along with that demand commitment;
- give to students the power to lead;
- focus on results.
All this is sound. Much of it underpins the approach of the Tertiary High School which is achieving wonderful levels of success for a wide range of students (e,g. easy completion of NCEA targets well within 2 years, enrolled in a University of Auckland degree in Year 3, on track to MIT degrees and completing MIT diplomas in 3 years to go alongside NCEA completions and so on – good results are clearly possible.)
Feinberg had a lot of other material that was engaging:
- emphasise the “J Factor” – joy in learning;
- give school leaders the freedom to lead, choice as to resource use;
- demand results from leaders;
- allow students not simply to survive but also to thrive;
- make all schools “choice schools”;
- giving choice to students and parents is the “game changer”
So where was the controversy in all this business of charter schools? It was question time that brought out the concerns of some in the audience – use of unregistered teachers (response: Feinberg generally uses registered but also gives students exposure to a wider range of people), attrition rates from KIPP schools (questioner: there is research that says its poor, response: there is research that says it isn’t – duelling with statistic left the audience unclear) and the whole question of choice.
Interestingly, the questioning resulting in several statements from people that action was needed urgently, that Pasifika were sick of waiting for effective education for their children and so on (Disclosure: I also chipped in with this.)
Feinberg used some good quotes from Dr Seuss and it was clear that the classrooms in his Charter Schools were pretty lively places. But then again, so are most classrooms in New Zealand. Clearly, he felt his teachers were excellent, so too are teachers in New Zealand schools. The charter school regulatory environment in the US gives freedoms to schools, well you don’t get a more permissive national framework than we have in New Zealand.
So what are the points at which our system seems to be sticking? Is it focus? is it time spent? Is it the basis of employment of teachers?
I think it might be more in an almost throw-away comment that Feinberg made. Having established middle schools, he saw that he needed to establish elementary schools and secondary schools so that students could have a flow in the schooling that they were getting. Perhaps a key message is that the current organisation of schooling into pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary bits works against student progress.
It was good to have an evening at which ideas about education were tossed around – it doesn’t happen very often these days and it really isn’t scary.
Oh, and Dr Seuss. What about this?
You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!
(Oh the Places You’ll Go)