OPINION: Auckland University's Peter O'Connor is inciting parents to oppose the Government's plan to pilot a New Zealand model of charter schools ("Education wars will only intensify in runup to charter schools", June 22).
Mr O'Connor, associate professor at the School of Critical Studies in Education, views charter schools as an assault on teachers and state education generally.
It's hard to follow his argument. The pilot, one of several government measures focused on lifting educational achievement, is designed to provide more parents with local state school options that might be more effective in enabling their children to achieve their potential. The model being developed is a partnership one, an opportunity for the state to partner with a community or private sector organisation to drive innovation in education, and better meet our communities' diverse needs.
The broad charter school concept has two distinctive characteristics: freedom and accountability. Such schools have greater freedom to innovate to engage students in learning, in exchange for much stronger accountability for the results they achieve.
The concept has several essential elements. The schools are funded by the state on a per-child basis (in much the same way as early childhood and tertiary education are funded here now), at the same level as regular state schools.
Parties seeking to operate such schools are subject to rigorous authorisation processes. They must have a distinctive, ambitious, measurable mission and the capability and capacity to achieve it, demonstrate how they would engage with parents and their local community, and ensure enrolment is open and non- selective.
Such schools are free to innovate in terms of teaching practice, curriculum, school organisation, management and employment arrangements. In return for these freedoms, they are monitored and judged on outcomes such as student achievement, progression, retention, attendance and community engagement.
There is no reason for teachers and parents to oppose new ways of enabling students to succeed within the state system. No-one would be forced to attend such schools or to teach there. And while the state is responsible for ensuring every child has access to a good education, that surely doesn't mean it has to run every school in the same way.
Mr O'Connor also argues against publishing information about schools' comparative academic performance, claiming it won't help parents assess what schools achieve, nor tell them whether a school is helping young people "make sense of the world they live in" or creating "critically thinking people".
It's hard to see how students can become critical thinkers or make sense of anything without being able to read, write or add up. And it is patronising to suggest that parents trying to size up which school might give their child the best start in life could not make sense of information on numeracy and literacy achievement, along with other factors they regard as important.
Motivated parents are already finding ways to get their children to the school they perceive as most likely to unlock their potential.
It's worth noting that Sweden's move some 20 years ago to introduce a form of charter school was not opposed by the teacher unions. Instead they saw it as an opportunity for teachers to gain professionally from more alternatives and innovation in education.
This has since been borne out in surveys which show significantly higher teacher satisfaction rates for teachers in "free" schools compared to their counterparts in regular state schools.
The pilot of the New Zealand model is being designed specifically in response to the needs of communities which are not well served by the current system and where educational underachievement is most entrenched.
It is not an attack on existing schools in such areas but recognition that one size simply does not fit all needs. It will draw on elements of the many high- performing schools throughout the country, and on best practice from around the world.
Our top students rank with the world's best; but we rank low for equity. Around 31 per cent of our students, including 52 per cent of Maori and 41 per cent of Pasifika leave school lacking the basic skills required to enter adulthood with confidence and go on to lead fulfilling, independent lives.
The cost of ignoring this inequity and its impact on the lives of these young New Zealanders and on our communities is high indeed. Interest in the charter school project from such communities and among schools, iwi and other groups around New Zealand has been widespread and positive.
Mr O'Connor and others who feel threatened by the concept should open their minds to the opportunity it presents and to other moves to find solutions for our most educationally disadvantaged families.
Catherine Isaac is chairwoman of the New Zealand Model of Charter Schools Working Group.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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