Maori underachievement in education should be a concern for all New Zealanders, not just Maori. Everyone loses when Maori pupils fail to achieve their potential and leave school without qualifications.
For that reason Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples is correct to call attention to statistics showing that only 63 per cent of Maori boys and 67 per cent of Maori girls leave school with at least a level-one NCEA qualification. The comparable figures for Pakeha are 83 per cent and 89 per cent.
He is wrong, however, to suggest that the solution is to give Maori open access to universities. Not only is the idea of special rights for one section of the populace contrary to New Zealand's egalitarian principles, it is also impractical. Maori educational underachievement cannot be eliminated by the stroke of a pen.
If the failings of the education system could be corrected by decree, the Government might as well go the whole hog and confer a degree on all Maori children, in fact all children, when they first enrol at school.
Dr Sharples must know from his own studies (he has a doctorate in anthropology and linguistics) that succeeding in education requires discipline, hard work, sacrifice and good teaching. Student prospects are also enhanced by a supportive environment.
Students who arrive at university without those attributes are unlikely to succeed, however they get there.
Dr Sharples speaks of establishing special learning centres to prepare ill-equipped Maori students for university studies, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Those centres already exist. They are called secondary schools. If they are not meeting Maori needs, changes should be made so that they do. That is something Dr Sharples, as associate education minister, is ideally placed to influence.
Parents, teachers and pupils all have a role to play - parents in providing a supportive environment and instilling in their children a desire to succeed at school, pupils in taking advantage of the opportunities offered to them, and teachers in ensuring that they teach effectively.
Research by Waikato University's School of Education has uncovered evidence of a major disconnection between those involved in the education of Maori. It found that Maori pupils, their parents and principals believed the most important influence on performance was the quality of face-to-face interaction between teachers and pupils.
In contrast, the research found the majority of teachers believed the major influence on Maori performance was the pupils themselves and/or their family circumstances and/or structural issues.
In other words, many teachers had low expectations of Maori pupils because of matters they believed were outside their control - expectations that tended to become self-fulfilling prophesies. The same research found that spectacular improvements in Maori performance could be achieved by changing the way teachers taught.
Rather than proposing silver bullets that cannot work or seeking to make headlines, Dr Sharples should use his position to promote pragmatic initiatives that have been shown to work. If he does, both Maori and non-Maori will have cause for gratitude.
- The Dominion Post