No justification for wholesale changes to education

Last updated 13:00 04/09/2014

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Sorting out the reality from the rhetoric in the education debate might help people decide how to vote, writes Peter O'Connor , who tackles answers to some key policy questions.

Is there a crisis in education?

The evidence is clear. No. There isn't a crisis, and those who would create one for their own political or ideological ends need to look hard at their motivations.

The evidence is clear that New Zealand has a world-class state education system that does a good job for the vast majority of our kids. Much of that is because of the quality of our teachers and the strength of our national curriculum.

The evidence clearly indicates there is no justification for radical wholesale changes to the system. There is no evidence to suggest further radical changes, including the further privatisation of the state system, through charter schools or voucher systems is necessary. And, of course, the international evidence is overwhelming in determining they are of little value anyway.

What are the most important factors affecting children learning?

The single biggest factor that impacts on student learning is what happens outside the school gate. It's what they bring into the classroom that makes the biggest difference to what they take out. And the biggest single factor is poverty.

Many children in this country go to school without anything on their feet, no food in their stomachs and from cold homes where there are no books.

The most reliable indicator of how well you do at school is the number of books in a house, the clear marker of the social and cultural capital you bring into a classroom.

Of course poverty in New Zealand is not new, and it doesn't define who you are, or who you will become but it limits the life chances of people.

The evidence suggests the group we must concern ourselves with most in education are those who have been left behind in the great economic experiment/disaster of neoliberalism. And then we must address at a wider level why we are creating a country with such unequal wealth, with the few with so much at the expense of so many with too little.

What are the in-classroom factors?

The quality versus quantity debate is how much of this discussion has been framed. And yet those of us in education know it is far more complicated than that. It's not either quality or quantity. The evidence suggests it's both.

The research doesn't actually say the single biggest in-class factor impacting on student achievement is teacher quality.

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The research says it's the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student. The prime minister was right when questioned about the quality-quantity debate. He said "people don't remember the size of the classroom, they remember the teacher who made the difference".

What they remember is not what that teacher taught but instead they remember the teacher who knew them, cared about them as a human being, encouraged them, accepted them when they failed.

That's easier to achieve in smaller classes. It's vital for the most vulnerable of our children who are not succeeding that they are in smaller classes because that's where more personal human relationships can be created.

It's both quality and quantity.

Do national standards make a difference?

The international evidence is clear. Measuring and testing does not improve student success. The evidence suggests a regime of constant testing means kids get better at the test but that doesn't mean they are more successful in their learning. You might improve achievement in the tests but success is far more complicated than that.

We know from international and national evidence that national standards impact on the culture of schools, they become less creative, less critical, narrower, more factory- like. There is a loss of discipline knowledge, science, history, geography, the arts are strangled out of the classrooms.

A broad curriculum disappears and with it a sense that schools are more than places where we test kids on how well they can read and write.

No-one argues that testing literacy and numeracy isn't important and vital, but it isn't all schools do. National standards don't measure the wider promise of them.

Schools serve a multitude of purposes, they are the rocks and refuges for communities when disaster strikes. We know many of the schools that did this in Christchurch and are now closed.

Schools in poor areas are already hubs, places where families congregate to celebrate their communities, create a sense of belonging beyond themselves.

Education is about how we see the future for our children. It should be the most important factor determining our vote.

- Peter O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the School of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland.

- The Dominion Post

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