Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A teacher's response to National's 'Education in Schools' policy

This is an opinion piece written from the perspective of a third year primary teacher who is currently pursuing post-graduate study in education. I have written this in response to National’s newly released ‘Education in Schools’ policy. I have included some of my own personal experiences and those of my teaching colleagues. The views presented here are mine alone and do not necessarily represent those of any school I have worked at, the Ministry of Education or the education union NZEI Te Riu Roa, of which I am a member.

I have only made a select number of points on some of the aspects of the policy, as time is short before the election. As a teacher I see considerable issues with Public Private Partnerships in schools and League Tables as well. Additionally, I consider National’s stance on Early Childhood Education to be woefully inadequate, and their Early Childhood Education policy highlights some inconsistencies in what they’ve been telling us about ECE and the need for qualified teachers in this sector.

Maori and Pasifika Students and ‘the Tail’ of underachievement

‘New Zealand’s top students are some of the best in the world. However, one student in five leaves school without the skills they need to succeed in a modern economy.

Too many young people remain heading for a life of unskilled work or welfare dependency. Too many of these are Maori and Pasifika, or from poorer homes. National is working hard to turn this poor performance around.’ (page 1, ‘Education in Schools’)

The points which follow in the section ‘Initial Teacher Training’ outline why the changes National are proposing in their policy will do nothing to help our Maori and Pasifika students or those from ‘poorer homes’.

National Standards

‘The data from National Standards will show areas where schools need more support, possibly in literacy or numeracy, or work with Maori or Pasifika students’ (page 5, ‘Education in Schools’)

The text surrounding this quote indicates that a National Government would use data from National Standards to direct extra support for students and staff. National Standards have only been developed for numeracy and literacy, not in any other of the learning areas (Science, Technology, Social Studies, Visual Art, Performing Arts, Health or PE). This suggests the level of support these other subject areas would receive would be minimal. My experience has been that schools and teachers are already unhappy with the level of professional development offered to teachers in these subject areas.To add to that, we already have a well documented shortage of students coming out of high schools and going into the science and technology fields. Any teacher would be able to give you some simple areas the Ministry could increase funding in to improve student and teacher performance in Literacy and Numeracy (eg. Teacher/student ratios, support for special needs students, the availability of Reading Recovery and maths support programmes to students). Then we would not be getting professional development in those subjects at the expense of other important learning areas.

Teachers like myself do not object to measuring student performance and reporting to parents in a way they can understand. We are professionals and we want to increase the level of professionalism in teaching to make it a desirable and respectable career choice. We object to the National Standards, which are flawed and untested and we do not want them trialled on our children. We also object to these standards being used to inform league tables, which will drive competition between schools rather than the sharing and co-operation that National’s policy says they want from schools.

Our new curriculum is a process driven document, rather than content based. This means that teachers (and ideally students) drive the content based on what is meaningful and relevant to the individual students in that class. It is a world-leading document based on highly personalised learning. New Zealand adopted this curriculum because we acknowledged that the one size fits all approach simply was not working in our highly diverse classrooms. National Standards do not fit within this model at all. Rather than recognising that students learn at different speeds it requires them to reach milestones within certain timeframes. Learning is not a linear process – it is ongoing, never stops. In a classroom learning should be constant and tailored specifically to the needs of those students regardless of their level of ability. Our new curriculum promised to be the tool to enable us to do this in our classrooms and National Standards are now stopping us from ever achieving those ideals.

Initial Teacher Training

National will ‘Improve the quality of initial teacher education, including a move to a post graduate qualification and minimum undergrad entry requirements, as well as a formal assessment of a “disposition to teach”

‘Make it easier for schools to employ people, with specialist skills who may not be a registered teacher, but who can undergo basic teacher training. That training may be on-the-job training.’

‘Attract highly-qualified graduates into teaching by supporting programmes that provide intensive training and fast-tracking.’

‘We consistently struggle to attract highly-qualified teachers with specialist skills into low-decile areas’

‘National has set aside $200,000 for 20 scholarships to attract highly-skilled graduates to those areas’ (page 7, ‘Education in Schools’)

Now this is where things really start to get scary. Teaching is not the kind of job where ‘on-the-job’ training is ever going to be appropriate. Once you are in a classroom, in front of the students YOU are responsible for their learning – the buck stops with you. My initial teacher training was in the form of the Graduate Diploma in Teaching (Primary). Prior to that I had completed a Bachelor of Arts and had worked within the publishing industry for two years. I am the kind of ‘highly-skilled graduate’ National are referring to. The Graduate Diploma is a truly intense one year course with three placements in schools and a full lecture schedule at all other times. I felt that it did not adequately prepare me for the reality of teaching. Graduates of the Graduate Diploma programme have been feeding back to the universities for some time now that they think it should be an 18 month course.

The universities are now, under the direction of our National government, moving away from offering the Bachelor of Education (considered by most schools to be preferable to the Grad Dip) and the Graduate Diploma in favour of short post-graduate teaching courses. The University of Auckland will be offering in 2013, through an outfit called Teach First New Zealand, a post graduate programme which has only seven weeks of full time training before bonding the graduates to ‘hard-to-staff low-decile secondary schools’ for two years ( Teach First New Zealand have been unable to provide me with any information about how these teachers will be supported once they are in the classroom, and I am skeptical that this support will be anything more than the advice and guidance programme already in place for new teachers.

The Teach First New Zealand programme is modeled on the Teach For America programme, which has been disastrous for schools in low socio-economic areas in the USA. It recruits university graduates (primarily liberal arts majors), puts them through the same seven week training and places them in ‘poorer’ schools. Many TFA teachers have been unhappy themselves about the level of support offered to them once they are in the classroom. To make matters worse, for some time TFA was actually promoting the fact that their teachers do not remain in the classroom much longer than the compulsory two years. It promotes the course to prospective students as being something that will look good on their CV and show that they have done service to their community for when they begin to apply for jobs in the corporate world. There is a wealth of information online about TFA including some good insider experiences from participants themselves.

Data on the Ministry of Education website shows that approximately 14% of our teachers who are not currently in management positions are over the age of 60. Less than 8% of this same group of teachers are under the age of 30. This suggests that we can be expecting a shortage of teachers fairly soon. There is also evidence to indicate that we will have a big influx of five year olds shortly. So why are National supporting a shift in teacher training that is unlikely to result in the retention of teachers? We do not want to be faced with the same situation that we had in the 1990s where we had to recruit teachers from overseas.

Our low decile schools are already difficult to staff because the work is stressful and can be emotionally draining. The children in these schools, by and large, do NOT perform as well as those in schools in more affluent areas. The children at our hard-to-staff schools often have many barriers in place restricting their learning. They often come from stressful home backgrounds. Their parents often have little choice in which school their children go to because they have little social mobility. We need to put the best teachers we have in front of these children in order to make a positive impact on their lives. We cannot put another barrier in front of them that will stop them being successful at school. Fast-track teacher training will hurt these children immensely. It is these children who make up the majority of students who leave school with poor results and low self esteem. These are the children our Government has a mandate to help. The teachers educating them should not be a commodity that we wait to come off the production line as quickly and cheaply as possible.

When we are trained as teachers, we are taught to see each child in our classroom as an individual. We are assessed on how well we differentiate learning for children with varying needs in our classroom, because everything we know about teaching says that people learn in different ways and learn at different speeds. Training as a teacher involves learning curriculum knowledge (as a primary teacher in seven different subject areas), teaching methods, strategies for teaching those with special needs and abilities, basic education psychology and New Zealand’s educational history. There is already evidence that not enough time in teacher training is dedicated to learning about special needs and abilities. Many parents of special needs and gifted children are unhappy with the knowledge teachers have about their child’s barriers to learning. So how on earth are those brand new to education supposed to have this information when they step into a classroom after seven weeks at university? This is not a factory line and teachers are not commodities to be produced as quickly and cheaply as possible. If we want to have quality teaching and learning in New Zealand we have to show that we value it.

The Education Review Office

National have ‘changed the ERO’s reporting cycle so 258 high-performing schools can have fewer reviews, and under-performing schools are worked with more intensively.’ (page 3, ‘Education in Schools’)

The ERO are now able to deem a school good enough to not review it again for five years (previously, the maximum interval between reviews was three years). Five years in the lifetime of a school is more than long enough for the school to undergo a complete overhaul of staffing, particularly if a principal resigns. This reeks of cost-cutting and is unacceptable. An ERO visit at a school is a stressful time, but very necessary. A lot can change in three years, let alone five.


I am saddened that this is the direction National want to take with our education system. We have a world-leading curriculum and (as National agree) excellent performance from our top students. However, we also have a long tail of underachievement, primarily from our Maori and Pasifika students and those from poorer backgrounds. Teacher input is only one aspect of learning – it is difficult to learn if you are hungry, tired or worried.

National’s ‘Education in Schools’ policy does not even mention the children in our schools who have special needs, are from a non English-speaking background or who are intellectually gifted. What about their needs?

Underprivileged kids, those with special needs, those who don’t speak English, those who are gifted and (perhaps most importantly) those who don’t want to learn are considerably more difficult to teach than kids who are happy, fed, speak English, don’t have physical or intellectual barriers to their learning, aren’t bored and want to be at school. Children who fit into any of the above categories require specific knowledge, skills and caring that are possessed by our best teachers. Our underperforming schools need the best teachers available, not whoever is left after the cream of the crop have been snapped up by high-performing schools.

We have a lot of hard-working, dedicated and intelligent teachers. We also have a lot of very stressed and under-supported teachers who acknowledge that they are not sufficiently trained and who would benefit hugely from extra professional development. Good teachers spend all day facilitating learning and they value the idea of ‘lifelong learning’ that is prominent in our curriculum – they will welcome an opportunity to better their practice, I guarantee it.

Please make sure you consider this information before you vote on Saturday. I know education is only one aspect of the running of our country, but the damage that could be done to our schools and our children in the space of three years could take many decades to repair. Regardless, we will continue to have to support those who are unsuccessful in society through welfare and our court system. An investment in education is an investment in our future, so let’s do it right! Our children deserve it!

Sian Brown, Auckland

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