Being passionate about education

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues.

Last week a fifteen year old schoolgirl created an uproar in the education sector when she dared to publicly criticise the teaching profession. Asked to “write a persuasive speech” about something year 10 students had strong opinions on, Anela Pritchard of Napier Girls’ High School wrote about the school system and teachers. After delivering her speech, she emailed copies to teachers and posted it up on her Facebook page.

The reaction to her address was extraordinary. Instead of recognising that Anela was essentially just a teenager exercising her right of passionate free speech, she was told to stay at home until she and her father could meet school principal Mary Nixon. Ms Nixon claimed the speech had shocked and upset colleagues and students, but said the matter had been “resolved”.

It had been resolved because Anela didn’t go back to the school, saying: “A lot of teachers and students now strongly dislike me and I didn’t want to put myself in that situation, where it is everyone against me”. She is now moving to Sydney where she is enrolled in a school and will live with her brother.

So what was said that caused such offence?

Along with insinuating that some teachers are only in the job for the pay cheque and questioning the relevance of some of the material being taught – such as going “over the treaty Waitangi every year since I was literally 5” – Anela’s biggest gripe was that too many teachers failed to properly help struggling students: “You know….the school system is really screwed up …. We have all these teachers that don’t enjoy their jobs and are all angry about the cut backs in their pay checks. Making us feel like complete idiots and making us feel useless. Like it’s our fault that we don’t understand the work! Maybe some of us just don’t understand it! Or maybe the teacher didn’t teach it very well, but we’re the ones dealing with the consequences of failure.”

She believes that negative teacher attitudes are partly responsible for students dropping out: “Its teachers like this that make us students want to skip class and not go to school because we think we aren’t good enough for the certain subject. Like we are stupid and will never understand it…. Teachers are PAID to TEACH us… not paid to hand out a piece of paper with words on it and sit around and do nothing!!!!!!!”

She ends with a plea for better teaching: “I’m not saying all teachers are bad, and I understand that us as students need to make an effort. But our teachers chose this career and need to try to cater for each individual’s education. We spend 7 hours, 5 days a week, plus extra hours on top of that going over the day’s work, revision, studying, completing unfinished work and also homework, working to please every single teacher, the least they could do is have some understanding and simply teach.”

It was a passionate speech – some might say it was courageous, even heroic – one for which Anela should be congratulated. Unfortunately, it seems some of our teachers do not appreciate passion and courage, when they are being criticised.

The reality is that the anger Anela’s speech generated is symptomatic that all is not well in our education system. For teachers to be so sensitive to criticism suggests that deep down they know there is truth in what she said.

Certainly our national test results indicate that not enough is being done to help struggling students. An analysis of the 2014 NCEA results, just published by Stuff, shows that when roll-based measures are taken into account only 72.9 percent of secondary school students passed Level 1. That means more than a quarter of fifteen-year-olds failed to achieve a basic level of education. While this is a significant improvement over the situation ten years ago, when the pass rate was only 55.2 percent, it still means that far too many young people are being denied the skills they need to gain a decent job.

The country’s poor performance in the basics has been showing up in international education studies for some years. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which compares the performance of 15-year-olds in 65 countries in reading literacy, maths and science every three years, showed New Zealand has slipped from 5th place in reading, 11th in maths, and 7th in science in 2006, to 13th, 23rd, and 18th place respectively in 2012.

Similarly, in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which is held every five years, New Zealand 9-year-olds finished equal last in maths amongst peers in developed countries in 2012. In response to the fact that almost a half of the children tested could not correctly add 218 and 191, the Minister of Education was considering a return to basic arithmetic for primary school children. Further investigations by the Ministry of Education revealed a third of students hitting high school did not know their times tables, and had only a limited knowledge of division.

Problems with the teaching of mathematics are not new. Following concerns raised in the 1990s, the Ministry of Education introduced the Numeracy Development Project in 2001 to improve the confidence of primary teachers in teaching maths. While the aim was to lift student achievement by prioritising problem solving strategies over basic skills, the project appears to have made the situation worse.

While many readers of this newsletter will have memorised their times tables as a child, rote learning fell out of favour some years ago with the educationalists who designed our national curriculum. As a result, many of today’s youngsters struggle to perform the mental arithmetic that underpins most mathematical processes.

For example, instead of learning the nine-times table so that in response to 6×9, the answer 54 pops out, children are encouraged to use problem solving techniques. The Ministry of Education’s NZ Maths Easy Nines resource, shows three ways of working out 6×9:

Method 1 – “Using my 10 times table: 6 x 10 = 60. One group of 6 less: 60-6=54.”
Method 2 – “Down a decade and digits adding up to 9: It will be in the 50s. 5+4=9, so it’s 54.”
Method 3 – “Using my 3 times table: 6×3=18. Double 18 is 36. Add 18 and 36 to get 54.”

Rather than helping to improve overall student performance in mathematics, this approach appears to have confused children, teachers and parents alike, causing a serious decline in the understanding of basic maths.

The big question is, what should be done to arrest New Zealand’s slide in educational performance?

While parents obviously play a significant role in helping children to succeed – those who value education give their children a great start and support them as they go through school – family is not the biggest determinant of educational success. Some studies estimate that home background and socio-economic status account for only around 15 percent of the explained variance in student success.

The key is the culture and climate of the school, especially classroom discipline, teacher quality, educational leadership, school autonomy, a knowledge-based curriculum, and most importantly, high expectations for students – the over-riding belief that all students can succeed.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is leading Australian educationalist, Dr Kevin Donnelly, the Director of the Education Standards Institute and co-chair of Australia’s school curriculum review, who argues that school autonomy and a market-driven approach lifts educational standards:

“In Britain, the recently returned Conservative government has signalled a significant overhaul of state education, announcing plans to transform an additional 1,000 underperforming schools into independently managed academies by 2020. Academies were introduced when Labour’s Tony Blair was prime minister and have become a key plank in reforming England’s education system, endorsed by both major parties.

“The British academy schools operate in the same way that charter schools in the US and Sweden and Partnership Schools in New Zealand are operated. Schools are managed locally and are free of top-down, bureaucratic control in areas such as staffing, budgets and the school curriculum.

“Initially championed by US economist Milton Friedman and more recently by two economists specialising in educational research, Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, charter schools are based on the argument that the best way to overcome disadvantage and lift standards is to allow a more market-driven approach.”

Those economists are also behind a new study from the OECD, “Universal Basic Skills: what countries stand to gain”, a global survey of education standards amongst 76 countries. The report argues that “poor education policies and practices leave many countries in what amounts to a permanent state of economic recession.” By showing the link between education and economic growth, the researchers suggest that all countries should adopt, as a minimum goal, that “all youth achieve at least basic skills as a foundation for work and further learning”. They explain that the resulting lift in economic growth would be significant, citing how the country at the bottom of the table in 76th place, Ghana, would increase its current GDP by 38 times if all 15 year olds achieved basic skills.

Singapore was ranked at the top of the table with the highest education standards, followed by Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Finland was in 6th place, Switzerland 8th, Canada 10th, Australia 14th and New Zealand was ranked in 17th place.

The study estimates that one in five New Zealand youngsters leave school without reaching a basic level of education, and it calculates that if all students were enrolled in school and acquired basic skills, the country’s growth potential would increase by 172 percent – adding US$286 billion to our economy.

The report debunks the myth that national wealth is the key to educational success, by pointing out that many higher income OECD countries including New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France and Norway have at least 20 percent of students who lack basic skills. It explains how Singapore, which had widespread illiteracy in the 1960s, transformed itself to become a world leader in educational achievement through its commitment to lifting standards for all students.

Included in the report is a case study of South Korea, which also had extensive illiteracy, but deregulated the school system in the 1990s to lift standards. By 2000, Korea’s performance in the PISA test was on par with New Zealand’s, but since then it has improved to rank in the top three in the world.

Korea’s attributes its accomplishment to a number of factors including new assessment tools that enable the public education system to be held to account, and that also track the performance of every student to identify where additional support is required.

A further key to their success is the quality of teachers – not only is great store placed on improving the performance of struggling teachers, but also on providing pathways for professional development.

In fact, all high performing countries understand that excellent teachers are the key to lifting performance across the board. That’s why, whenever they have to make a choice between smaller classes and better teachers, high performing education systems will always opt for better teachers.

Excellent teachers have high expectations of all of their students: “Top school systems expect every child to achieve and accept no excuse for failure. They realise that ordinary students have extraordinary talents and they embrace diversity with differentiated instructional practices”.

Ordinary kids in New Zealand also have extraordinary talents. All Kiwi children have the capability to achieve wonderful results, but some need extraordinary teachers to help them realise their potential. Ensuring Kiwi teachers have the skills and motivation to do that is the key to our future; which is exactly what Anela Pritchard said. 


Should Anela Pritchard have publicised her speech?


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