When the National government introduced National Standards four years ago, I didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. I’d been watching our older son acclimatise to public schools in New Haven, Connecticut, where kids and teachers alike struggled to breathe freely in the toxic atmosphere of No Child Left Behind.
You can read that story – my long, slow realisation that the testing-tail was wagging the educational dog – here, if you haven’t already. Go on. I’ll wait. It’s a good one.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked at the time.
I was pretty confident of two things:
a) that the US model, or something like it, was indeed where the National/ACT policy was eventually headed (with the side effect -- some would say ultimate goal -- of disrupting the professional educational organisations)
b) that New Zealanders would never fall for something so transparently second-hand, dodgy, and unkind to children.
Over the past four years, the jigsaw pieces slotted into place; and each time they did, I retweeted the heck out of that original piece. At times, I wondered: am I being too suspicious? Am I drawing a line where others would see random dots? Are the National Party and their ACT colleagues really disingenuous enough to serve New Zealanders these warmed-up leftovers and think we won't notice?
Hey, maybe it’s just a coincidence that the Prime Minister had a cup of tea with a Minister who suddenly got all excited about charter schools, and it’ll just be a nice surprise when they bring their corporate mates - running out of options overseas, keen for fresh markets for their educational snake oil - into our schoolyards under the cover of “lifting achievement”. It’s just, y’know, pollies making policy. Flying a few kites, sinking a few cuppas.
Then, in an interview with the Herald published yesterday, Education Minister Hekia Parata blurted out her plans to link school funding to student “progress.”
Even the Herald was amazed that she should champion a “policy [that has] served only to increase the gap between the top schools and the bottom ones, penalising children at the latter.” Ms Parata, they wrote in an editorial, has “revealed the Cabinet's firm conviction that freemarket ideology is as applicable to purchasing school education as it is to buying a BMW or a nice dinner at one of Simon Gault's restaurants.”
The Minister’s advisers are apparently scrambling to correct any misapprehensions. Or as the Herald has it: “her advisers are unhappy because she has been caught out - caught out telling the truth.”
This morning, the Minister fronted on National Radio to say that she'd been mischaracterised. She conversationalised, conversationally:
“I think that at the point where a longer conversation is held on how we fund into our system there will be a whole range of factors that need to be taken into account - but they will be part of a conversation with the profession itself."
(Did I hear a loud snort from Christchurch at the notion of a "conversation" with the Minister?)
Ms Parata further clarified her position, which is to say, smokescreened mightily with:
“I think that when we’re having a discussion about funding there will be a range of factors that will need to be taken into account. But we’re not having one at the moment.”
Although even a child can translate that as "Just you wait till after the election." If you're still in any doubt, she followed up with this blanket statement:
“There is no review of funding.”
The meaning of which, as a far wilier politician once reminded us, depends on the meaning of what "is" is.
I’m no longer doubtful about whether I’m drawing a long bow here.
It's always fascinating to me to see how stories like this take shape and sneak into our discourse, one step at a time. Especially intensely ideological stories that present themselves as series of commonsense logical notions, which is something this government and its advisers are generally very good at. (Help me out if I’ve missed any steps here; relevant links appreciated).
The first move is to point out, quite reasonably, that some children are failing in most schools. It's a truism, but a reliable one for setting the citizenry on edge. Ignoring all relevant socio-economic factors, quickly rephrase this thought as “some schools are failing our children.”
Which ones? Well, let's introduce a testing/assessment regime, y’know, just to measure the scale and scope of the problem.
Reassure parents that this is “just to reassure parents.” When you get pushback from schools who already carefully assess children and their progress, ask them what they’re trying to hide.
Remind the people that numbers don’t lie. Lie to the people about which numbers are important.
Look a bit surprised when this data is used to assemble “league tables” that rank schools in order of average achievement on a variety of tests. Say that wasn’t at all the intention. Look even more surprised if it should happen that those who can afford to start flocking to more well off schools, tilting the achievement numbers even further. Goodness. Look at the failing schools failing even harder! What's wrong with them?
Look very surprised indeed if any schools that can get away with it start filtering out special needs children – not actively, just passively discouraging them from being there.
Meanwhile, casually introduce the notion that some people just do teaching better than others. Hard to argue with, right? Because everyone has a story about that one crappy teacher; encourage them to extrapolate. (NB avoid the corollary, which would be that some kids just do learning better than others, because that wouldn’t fly - you’d have to ask why. Hunger? Poverty? Racism? Moving around too often because housing is insecure and unaffordable? Whoa whoa, too-hard basket. Hush.)
Start musing about where all that taxpayers’ money goes. Start murmuring about exciting, new, alternative ways to deliver education, which is quite a trick when you're simultaneously yammering on about back to basics. Maybe, if we really loved our children, we’d try different kinds of schools, and “Oh, look: here’s one I prepared earlier.”
But do make it a surprise by not mentioning it during election campaigning. People love surprises.
Call the proposed schools something friendly and disarming: how about “partnership schools”? Who doesn’t like partnership? Not even lefties, LOL! Fudge the fact that New Zealand legislation already provides for different kinds of schools, and that many such schools are doing measurably brilliant things, notably the kūra kaupapa. Emphasise that you’re just adding options. Only the churlish will object to options, or ask why those options can’t be offered inside of the existing system, or point out that the new options look strangely similar to ones that have failed overseas.
Invite applications to run partnership schools before you even pass the legislation, so you can get off to a flying start. This will be easy, as you’ve been in talks with them all along, including those nice people from America, and you’ve removed any barriers to entry, like pesky teacher registration. While you’re at it, rule out the public being able to have a look at the school’s books, financial or otherwise. Speed, efficiency, are the name of the game. No need for local representation on the school board, either: what do the locals know about what they need? Hurry up: open the schools, get some kids in. Remember, you’ll need to be harvesting a year of demonstrable student “progress” just in time for the upcoming election.
If the partnership schools run into trouble getting started, give them more money, because that’s what struggling schools need. No, silly. Not all struggling schools, just these ones. (Meanwhile, chuck some more money at schools that are Doing Well – the private schools. The more resources they have, the better they do, right? Just those ones, though). When the partnership schools can’t find a way to teach all the subjects, let them “borrow” teachers off the other schools. You know, the bad schools. Presumably they’ll borrow the good teachers.
(Meanwhile, just for giggles and distraction, have a hack at intermediate schools. What a waste, eh, putting those kids into their own special space for a breather between infancy and adolescence? What could they possibly learn with two years in their own bubble, apart from social skills, time-management, open-mindedness, confidence, speaking skills, technical subjects, water safety, art, drama, music, sports, the nicely compressed opportunity to experience being junior and then senior in a given situation, and a chance to figure out who they are and what they’re interested in without the pressure of Choosing Subjects and Thinking About Careers? Jeez, who needs that kind of woolly nonsense, especially at that age? Go on, close some intermediates and set up a few mega-schools in a city that’s not in a position to fight back – do it quick, you’ll need to be harvesting those “progress” results in time for the election, too.)
Then, ever so casually, reintroduce the idea (you were knocked back on this before, but don’t let it stop you) of linking school funding to student achievement, thus "incentivising" achievement. Kids doing well? Here’s some extra dosh. Kids failing? No more money for you, fail harder. Laugh merrily when asked if this could possibly lead to any of the following:
- teaching to the test
- a curriculum based on learning answers rather than generating questions
- the steady loss of “non-testable” subjects, except in private schools and high-decile ones (art, music, sports, water safety) (even in high-decile ones like Lorde’s old school)
- a culture of cheating and tricks and fudges (at the worst, the Atlanta teacher pizza parties, where teachers spent weekends erasing “wrong” answers and putting in right ones, because otherwise their schools would lose funding.)
- the government closing “failing schools” and bringing in, oh for example, outfits like KIPP to run them.
WHOOPS! WAIT! Mistake! Pull up! Don’t mention the funding thing before the election! Because if you do, voters might actually join the dots! Especially if they’ve watched The Wire, or House of Cards.
And if you go off half-cocked on this one, voters might even get to wondering what other nasty surprises are being held in readiness for after the election in all the other sectors that matter to them.
That’s the trail of stale breadcrumbs – well, some of them anyway. Follow the path, children, deep into the corporate-education forest. All the way to the rotten gingerbread house.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
Of course, mine is just one way to tell this story. Having brought our kids back to New Zealand two years ago in large part because of what we were observing in US schools, it’s been horrifying and disappointing to watch these developments unfold here, one step at a time, each step cloaked in disingenuous denial about the destination.
Teachers in all sorts of schools would tell the story from slightly different angles. Parents of children with particular learning needs would tell it another way. Māori, Pasifika, immigrant parents would ask different questions about the way this is playing out. Citizens of Christchurch would certainly have their own version of this narrative.
And kids will tell you how it feels for them, if anyone will take the time to ask.
The child described in my earlier blog post is now a well-grounded Year 8 who is punishingly articulate on the subject of his own education, among many other things. He’s been reading over my shoulder this morning, and his initial response was largely unprintable. Then he started talking more calmly, and I started transcribing.
“They’re going to ruin the schools. How do you pass these tests of “progress”? By doing worksheet upon worksheet upon worksheet. But what do you learn from that? You don’t learn how to manage yourself and your time. You don’t learn how to think your way around a problem. It stifles creativity. Maybe you do better on your test score, but how are you going to manage in real life? Sure, I got high scores on those stupid tests in America. But when I got back to New Zealand, I had to learn how to cope with everything else. And the everything else is really important.”
And yet like every schoolkid in New Zealand (except for half of the top class – commonroom voter registration drive, anyone?) he is voiceless when it comes to the polls. Which is where you come in.
Education is a universal election issue: in the recent Colmar Brunton poll, it was the top issue for voters regardless of political orientation.
It’s an easy issue to push voters on, and it’s an easy one to bamboozle them on with persuasive talk of the "long tail", and lifting student achievement, and so on.
If “education” is indeed the first thing that pops to mind when you’re asked what you care about this election season, I’d encourage you to re-read my original post, and then read more widely on the subject. I’d ask you to think about what it is you really want New Zealand schools to do, and look like. Which is also to say, what you really want New Zealand to do and to look like.
Even if you’re of a mind that the New Zealand education system needs fixing – and heck, everything has room for improvement, that’s sort of the point -- ask whether the answer is really more secret plans and cronyism and a perverse system of “incentivisation” that punishes children and teachers for factors beyond their immediate control and encourages prioritising numbers over human beings.
Ask how these policies think of schools: as a key part of the democratic social fabric that binds us together, community spaces, collectively funded, open to all and open to inspection? As places where every one of us can learn not only what we're capable of for ourselves, but how to play our part of the bigger story?
Or as vectors to individual advancement, easily consolidated and trimmed like so many factories, judged by their balance sheet, with "failing" schools - or students - handily bundled together for sale to the lowest tender?
Ask, too, what it means when even the US poster child for charters -- Amistad Academy, a school that has spent a decade and a half demonstrably lifting test scores for underachieving kids by dint of long school days, no excuses, and a culture of hard work and tireless passion - is now starting from scratch and redesigning its approach entirely. Why? Because they say "charter schools have focused too much on teaching to low-rigor standardized tests and are ready for a “disruptive” change" -- to a model that embraces precisely the "everything else" my son articulated above.
Here's some numbers: if a National coalition is re-elected and allowed to plod down their pre-ordained path in the footsteps of their corporate education idols, expect to see NZ partnership schools pulling a similar 180 away from drilling for test scores in 2029, at which point my 12 year old will be 28, an entire generation of our children may have been schooled in the No Child Left Behind manner, and we'll look even sillier for playing catch-up with those guys when we had something so good in the first place.
Look at the kids you know -- and the ones you don’t know yet, but who’ll be running this place when you’re old and dependent. Look very closely at this government’s track record of dissembling about their plans. Do your homework. And then vote accordingly.
Yes. All of it.
Christchurch • Since May 2011 • 2899 posts Report
I'm starting to think that this might have rather a lot to do with it -
Auckland • Since Mar 2010 • 107 posts Report
This one post might be the most important document for an entire generation. Share this one, and share it hard. The kids currently can't, and they don't deserve what sewage is coming down the pipe, fed through to us from a failing system elsewhere and seemingly -- irony isn't even close, here -- unfiltered by critical thinking. Share it for the kids. And, god help us, the rest of us.
Now back in Aucktown • Since Dec 2006 • 86 posts Report
This post is so fucking righteously badass I want it engraved on stone tablets.
Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report
That some teachers are better than others is both incredibly obvious and important. More than that, it's entirely within the Minister of Education's purview, making it incredibly relevant (unlike poverty, hunger, or racism, which are somewhat different in that regard).
Hamilton • Since Feb 2012 • 24 posts Report
Danielle, in reply to
But this isn't about improving teachers: it's about undermining the union. It's always, ALWAYS about breaking up the union.
Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3828 posts Report
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An excellent post, Jolisa, thank you for putting so eloquently what I feared was happening. I have also seen these things happen in the UK, further dividing a very divided education system. I hope as many people as possible read this and that it informs their choice at the upcoming election.
Auckland • Since Jul 2008 • 53 posts Report
Great post Jolisa.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 10657 posts Report
After a decade of lurking, I have signed up in order to say thank you for this. Keep em coming!
The conversations I was part of about yesterday's news showed kiwi teachers - and I know some *excellent* ones - are feeling acutely demoralised by the trail of breadcrumbs you describe.
My mother, a teacher for her whole adult life, called it 'an act of abandonment'.
So schoolkids will suffer not just because their day is dominated by teaching to the test but because many of their best teachers, particularly those who have clear alternative career opportunities, will leave.
I'm currently obsessed with the idea of unschooling, but simultaneously proud to hear from friends around the world how very good our education system is, in relative terms.
I guess MPs' kids mostly go to schools that will get more money in the brave new world. I don't mean that they want to change policy to benefit their kids (if they thought hard they'd realise their kids would be worse off) but that they perhaps don't have a lot of personal stake in thinking hard about the damage it would do to poor schools.
Wellington • Since Mar 2014 • 5 posts Report
There, fixed it for you Ms Parata.
I too spluttered into my coffee when I read about Hekia Parata’s plans to link school funding to student “progress.”. The stupidity of such a statement would have shocked me had I not known where it came from.
Now I shall draw a long bow…
It is obvious to me that if you want to sell something you have to have some objective measure of its worth, like its ranking with other offerings of its kind, otherwise how would you know how much to flog it for? Plus, a business is surely worth more if its workers have no power?.
Oh excellent post BTW
Peria • Since Dec 2006 • 5521 posts Report
Brilliant, Jolissa, And what you describe is *extremely* infuriating. Destroying what you don't- can't won't- understand is vandalism. That's what I see - combined with concern-troll murmurs of 'killing them with low expectations.'
Hope Chris Hipkins really get's his teeth into this.
Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 2118 posts Report
I was reading this post and thinking to myself "jesus do none of these clowns watch The Wire" and there you are - linked straight in to it. I both snorted and chortled.
My daughter starts primary school later this year. I won't be voting National or Parata for many reasons. I'm not sure if I agree it's been a policy striptease - slowly revealing the true horror underneath or just a complete cock-up of off the cuff policy driven by sound-bite without any evidence-based input.
Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 67 posts Report
NZ schools // UK hospitals. Demoralise, downgrade, sell off.
Wellington, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 325 posts Report
This, this, all of this.
Auckland • Since Apr 2007 • 31 posts Report
The real trick here is there's an enormous amount of money to be had. With a partnership school all your incomes are higher and all your outgoings are lower and it's government guaranteed forever, or at least until people stop voting for the bastards.
I mean, it's not as rich a pickings as the private prisons, because you can't just arbitrarily double your private school population like you can with prisons, unless you shut a randomised bunch of public schools each year or something.
And there's the trick. Pull all the top teachers and students out of the poorest schools, hand them more money for leaving, then close the school that got "worse" in their absence so you can do it all over again. The awesome thing with the constant testing is there's always somewhere going to be headed downhill over any particular school year.
And all you have to do to start a "partnership" school of your own is donate some dosh to the National party. Easy as tau.
Since Nov 2006 • 611 posts Report
Having watched the coach of a 'top' auckland private boys school blatantly cheat (yelling false information at the opposition team to put them off) in the last minute of a sports game yesterday (when two schools were locked neck and neck) i kept thinking - performance pay - performance bonus. The expression on his face when they ultimately lost wasn't a good one for young men who should be learning grace and dignity under pressure. If that's the future, we need to do everything we can to keep it out of our public schools.
On a more constructive note: every study i have seen shows parental education background and early childhood as the biggest predictors of successful life outcomes. Any party that really wants to address these issues needs to ensure children are born into health, unstressed, literate homes. It's a long game, but the only way to change anything.
Auckland • Since Mar 2011 • 40 posts Report
Euan Mason, in reply to
So hunger, poverty and racism don't influence education? It really doesn't affect your education if you and your parents live below the poverty line because their skin was the wrong colour for the boss, and you go to school hungry? Yeah right.
Great post Jolisa, really f-ing great post. This issue makes me so angry. Keep up the good work, and let's shout this from the rooftops throughout the election season.
Canterbury • Since Jul 2008 • 259 posts Report
Steve Barnes, in reply to
Come September I hope we see the true nature of NZ voters and not the realisation of the National Propaganda Machine's spin.
We are continually told that "Life under Labour and the Greens will be a disaster greater than any disaster that has gone before"
We are continually told that "National is ahead in the polls and Labour and the Greens are sinking like a stone"
We are continually told that "John Key is the only person that can pull New Zealand together, he is the "chosen one"'
We are continually told that "Everybody on the opposition benches is an idiot or a fool"
We are continually told that "Only National has the answers"
We are continually told
We are continually told
We are continually told.......
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
There are those that say he never said it but that, I fear, is just another lie.
Peria • Since Dec 2006 • 5521 posts Report
Before the last (or was it the one before?) there was no mention of Charter Schools yet the planning had begun especially with the employment as CEO Education of that English woman, who surprise surprise was well skilled in Charter Schools. After the election it became a demand from ACT, apparently, when in fact the groundwork had already started.
Now we have the spectre of Bulk Funding (solve the NOVApay problem?) and sooner or later Performance Pay, and funding of Schools by the Performance/progress of the children. Thin edge etc.
Jolisa. A brilliant portrayal and a dire warning to parents and kids.
I wonder if the Herald would publish your work, or North and South?
Bleneim • Since Aug 2008 • 135 posts Report
Sofie Bribiesca, in reply to
I’m thinking maybe Scoop might take an opinion piece but whaddoIknow?
I've already suggested Chris Hipkins might peruse. If others push the opposition MPs, maybe they can get behind a concerted campaign to advise the public quickly
here and there. • Since Nov 2007 • 6796 posts Report
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I have to disagree with you about the conservatives thinking one step further and realising they would create a society that's ultimately damaging to their own interests. I disagree because I think that it a fundamental misunderstanding of the conservative mind, as opposed to the liberal mind. The extremist conservatives who are running the country truly believe that some people are better off dead. They think it will improve the gene pool. I have had discussions for example on drug policy with conservatives who are very very well aware that their policies lead to more deaths. They are happy for this to happen for the reasons I've given. The conservative mind is also driven by fear. The problem in the small world of NZ politics is that liberals are swamped by extremist conservatives on their end of the spectrum.
Auckland • Since Jun 2013 • 119 posts Report
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And the private school system is no silver bullet. At least from my own jaundiced experiences, private schools are less about excellence, and more about grooming the next generation of old-money and new-money snobs. And with high-decile public schools, they're really just cherry-picking the kids from stable and affluent families - there were allegations of school zone gerrymandering not too long ago.
I fear for the brilliant but autistic and other PDD-NOS kids who get written off by the GERM warmongers. My folks found out the hard way that square pegs didn't fit in round holes, even after making the hammer bigger, and what they ended up with was a pale imitation of a hikikomori. They ultimately put the blame on Tomorrow's Schools, and had they been in the know at the time, they would have sent me to a public school with the help of a teacher aide.
And one more point: how many charter school owners and advocates would actually send their kids to one?
The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5446 posts Report
The worst teacher my daughter had, the one that handed out worksheets with 1950s geography to fill in and whose idea of creative writing was getting them to re-write a previous student's poem would be considered the best under an assessed-by-simplistic-multi-choice-test system.
We've just volunteered to help the Greens this election
Since Nov 2006 • 104 posts Report
Kumara Republic, in reply to
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To cut a long story short, it's a branch of Shock Doctrine disaster capitalism. In my view, disaster capitalism is the most recent manifestation of mistaking the Broken Window fallacy for a training manual.
And is it putting on a tin-foil hat to suggest that the Novopay debacle is a covert method of attempting to wear down the teacher unions' fighting spirit?
The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 5446 posts Report
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What makes this all the more depressing to me is that I'm a) training to be a primary school teacher at the moment and b) already pretty disappointed by how National Standards have led to only two parts of the curriculum (English and Mathematics) being taught (the other six parts tend to be taught in the spare hour teachers manage to find in a week; not joking). So, now I'm thinking "Is this really the profession for me?" and if I'm thinking that, an awful lot of registered teachers must be thinking that to. If I were a conspiracy theorist (as opposed to a conspiracy theory theorist), I'd think this was part of a plan to rid the world of our existing teachers and bring in a new class of people who ready students for their weekly pieces of assessment.
Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 441 posts Report