25 August 2011
The first three letters to the editor in my newspaper yesterday were about education – Teach First New Zealand, Don Brash’s “let the successful schools set up franchises and National Standards.” They were all against what they wrote about which seems to be the prevailing mood in education discussions these days. Everyone seems to know what they don’t like, won’t have and can’t tolerate. You get very little sense of a positive contribution based on what they would support, will have and can believe in.
I think it too simplistic to say that all this is simply the mood of the change averse. Teaching is too hard and education too difficult an environment unless you have resilience that, it seems to me, has at its heart not only in understanding that change happens but also a commitment to making it happen. So what is behind all this?
The notion that there can only be one track into teaching and that is through the conventional pre-service or postgraduate teacher education programmes has never been true. Teachers have come into teaching without that track for a good part of the history of education systems, have come into teaching with little or no qualifications at different times, have come in as pupil teachers at other times – there has not always been this one way that has developed especially in the last thirty years.
In 1980 I wrote with a colleague a proposal for a different kind of teacher education programme based in the secondary school, supported by the teachers college through a short preparation, block courses etc. It had all the components of a professional teacher education but was located in a different place. This was in response to the view held strongly at that time in the developing of multicultural schools that the colleges were not meeting their needs. The proposal was read with politeness and shelved.
So it is not new to think that there might be a different way and Teach First New Zealand might well be that way. It is to happen in the controlled and professional environment of the school so school students will not be at risk. If it attracts more quality young graduates into teaching then it will be a good thing. That it is supported by the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland suggests to me that the quality will be sound.
Now the franchise idea. There is a franchise of Catholic schools operating in New Zealand, one of certain private schools – this might be an idea that has some merit. There is certainly a logic in the centralised administration of a franchise that says that resources might be more effectively used and various functions might well be managed better. But is it the solution to lift schools of moderate performance and would all students under such an approach benefit? Who knows?
The experience in other countries of highly “successful” schools taking over “failing” schools is mixed but there are examples where the one kind of school has informed improvement in the other. What accounts for these dramatic changes? In North Caroline USA, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has responded to the national call to close failing schools down or to hand them over to outside expert organisations to fix and instead is linking schools and swapping staff and seeing marked changes. Now Brash went much further than this and I wonder what frightens us. If we have got it right with our current model then such an experiment would not have impact. On the other hand, what if it worked? I remain doubtful. But it is better to both promote and reject ideas through argument rather than blind faith.
Finally, the old chestnut of National Standards – I still wait to hear from the education community, a new argument based on a better idea. If educators are not going to come up with one then the field is wide open for anyone to have go. Letters to editors that say that schools are already doing it and much more, seem to me to support the idea rather than reject it. Why isn’t the case against National Standards put succinctly, in plain language and based on evidence? That is after all what the National Standards is seeking in reporting to parents.
All three letters are essentially about topics that coalesce into one – a desperate search for solutions to what is seen as the intractable issue of failure in education – failing to get the right people into teaching, replacing failing schools by replicating schools perceived to be successful schools and addressing issues of students who fail.
Letters to the Editor are an interesting read. I acknowledge that they are selected and I know who does the selecting and wonder about that – they are certainly not a reflective slice of opinion. But why are they too often simply a rejection of an idea rather than a contribution to a discussion?
PS: I acknowledge that the writers of the letters might not be teachers or have any specialist knowledge of education but that is another issue and a challenge that faces us.