There has been a great gathering of the good in Wellington last week – the International Summit on the Teaching Profession.
Like most international gatherings, the whole affair was choreographed in the interests of giving everyone a fair go at the air-time that was available. This doesn’t always allow for the real issues to emerge as there is an element of chance in the chosen country reports actually having something to say on the designated issue.
And this was the case with the plenary session on equity. Excellence and equity are the themes of the summit and why not. It is an OECD supported organization and their PISA activity is an instrument that makes explicit the relative performance of education systems in this regard. New Zealand does very poorly on the second of those measures – while high on excellence, it performs poorly on equity.
This is not to say that we don’t care about equity – we do but the path towards lifting performance on that measure is seemingly not becoming clear very quickly and the indicators are stubbornly slow to encourage us. So I looked forward to the afternoon that was to be devoted to a discussion of equity.
What did I learn? Well, that everyone seems to be struggling a little (and in some cases a lot) and the three or four high performers were annoyingly quiet on the issue. The warts are never going to be exposed in a setting of an international summit.
I learned a little more the next morning when walking from the hotel to the venue. I spotted a fellow with the right sort of conference satchel walking along Lambton Quay so I fell into step with him.
“Where are you from?” I enquired. “Finland” he replied. Ah, I thought, the holy mecca for those who seek the way, the truth and the light of equity.
We chatted and I shifted the topic away from the fact that the streets of Wellington appeared to be deserted (it was 8.00am on a Saturday!) and mentioned that I had read Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons, and felt that there were in that book some lessons for New Zealand.
“He was one of my teachers at High School,” my fellow Finnish walker replied exhibiting no relish at all for following up on that opening.
Change of tack. “Of course Finland took a bit of a slide down in the last PISA results,” I offered. We had stopped at a traffic light and he turned to face me. “That is because the students have got so slack.” “Is this perhaps the result of becoming famous for doing so well?” “I don’t know, I think that the parents care more about taking their kids to hockey practice and basketball games instead of seeing that they are doing their homework.”
The lights turned green and I wondered aloud why each of the Scandanavian countries had slid back a little. His instant analysis told me that Norway, it seems, is going to the dogs because it has so much money – he suggested that in a couple of years they would have so much money that they would be able to abolish income tax. There was a tinge of envy in his voice I thought.
By then there was a couple of people walking along the footpath towards us so I was able to comment on how busy Wellington was becoming. Perhaps first thing in the morning is not the right moment to get a conversation going about equity.
And so Day 2 started. First country up was Singapore addressing the question “How are learning environments created that address the needs of all children and young people?” A crisp, clear exposition of Core Values (Respect, Responsibility, Resilience, Integrity, Care, Harmony) and a clear set of 21st Century Competencies free of the clutter that often surrounds such discussions.
I had the feeling that Singapore understood quite a lot about equity. No wonder they have a picture of a classroom on their $2 note.