No surprises - the schools divide thrives

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 05:00 01/10/2012

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Dave Armstrong

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OPINION: Back when I was a struggling teacher in a mid-decile school, a parent came to see me at a meet-the-teacher evening.

I told him that his daughter was a bright, pleasant student doing well in maths, though there was definitely room for improvement. I suggested various ways that he could help her but he wasn't interested. The girl didn't live with him and they didn't get on.

''Just tell me where she is in class,'' demanded her father. ''In the last test she came sixth, but that's not really the point,'' I stammered. ''Yes it is,'' he angrily exclaimed, ''now give me a percentage!''

I tried to reason, but he didn't want to help his daughter, he just wanted a mark - perhaps so he could punish her if it wasn't high enough. ''All right,'' I squeaked, ''68 per cent.'' He left satisfied, never to return.

I was reminded of this parent as the debate about publishing national standards information continued last week.

No, the sky did not fall in when the information was published, and hundreds of thousands of parents accessed the shonky data that, in many cases, would simply confirm their prejudices.

And, shock horror, the biggest conclusion one could make is that, overall, students from low-decile schools don't perform as well in literacy and numeracy as students from high-decile schools.

Tell me something I don't know.

I secretly hope rugby league is added to the national standards tables. It would really stuff up the spotless statistics of the high-decile schools.

And it would be fun to see the education minister having to hire rugby league ''consultants'' from South Auckland to help out schools in Karori and Khandallah with their tackling and fending.

But it wasn't only parents who exercised their democratic right to draw incorrect conclusions from the raw data, but journalists as well.

According to one report, the data apparently proved Hekia Parata's assertion that large classes had better results than small.

However, the article conveniently failed to mention that many low-decile schools had smaller classes, and that kids with learning or behavioural difficulties are sometimes taken out of larger groups.

I look forward to more ''open'' information being released by the Government. Perhaps releasing raw data on the number of cock-ups made each day by our spy agencies and the effective tax rates of our 1000 richest citizens would be a good start?

That numeracy and literacy is deemed worthy of national standards attention by this government but not science and technology is mind boggling.

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Isn't scientific innovation one of the ways our country might get out of the economic mire?

It is also interesting that our Maori education minister is the spokesperson for a government that relegates te reo to an also-ran while ''important'' subjects such as the three Rs will get the most funding and attention.

Not that Ms Parata had much time to reflect on national standards last week.

In a brilliant display of ''failed to achieve'' in the oral comprehension area, she had to take three or four goes to answer a simple question from Labour MP Chris Hipkins in Parliament.

The question was about consultation over the Christchurch school closure fiasco. I suspect Parliament's cleaners went home early that night as The Hipkid had already swept the floor with hapless Hekia.

So parents now have the information they apparently want about their local primary schools.

Never mind that experts reckon about 80 per cent of a student's academic achievement at school is determined by their socioeconomic background. Parents can continue to chatter at dinner parties about ''good'' and ''bad'' schools.

I suspect national standards information will continue the trend for our higher-decile schools to become whiter and richer, and our lower-decile schools to become poorer and browner.

That's the real tragedy of the current education debate, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Perhaps one unintended benefit of publishing the damned national standards information is that New Zealanders may start to realise that schools are probably more a reflection of the increasingly unequal society that is Planet Key than the cause of it.

- The Dominion Post

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