In 2014, the Government plans to install one of the country’s first charter schools in Christchurch. Some argue this is part of a wave of neoliberal reforms brought in from overseas to change the country’s education system. PHILIP MATTHEWS investigates.
Everyone talks about Finland. If you work in public education, and you value its traditions and ideas, then you find yourself thinking, time and again, of Finland.
This even applies in New Zealand, which in geographic terms could not be more remote. So, what is it with Finland?
Advocates for the Finnish system refer to the Pisa Survey, conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In the 2009 survey, Finland placed second in science, third in reading and sixth in maths, ahead of all other European countries in every category.
The Shanghai region of China was number one in all three categories.
East Asia dominated, with high placings from Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.
But New Zealand did very well too, coming seventh in both reading and science, and 13th in maths.
Based on those Pisa results, we have a better education system than Australia, the UK, the US, France and Germany.
With the US coming 17th in reading, 23rd in sciences and 31st in maths, it’s no wonder so many there look to Finland for answers. But in New Zealand too, Finland is held up as a model.
A man named Pasi Sahlberg is considered the Finnish education guru to those outside the country looking for answers.
A Finnish Ministry of Education official, he published a book late last year titled Finnish Lessons.
He does speaking tours and his YouTube clips of lectures are shared by fans and education activists.
In the US, Diane Ravitch, a respected critic of the charter school model and the ongoing erosion of public education more generally, wrote a piece titled “What Can We Learn from Finland?
”It turns out that there is much to learn."
Ravitch noted, as others have, that “for the past decade, 15-year-old Finnish students have consistently been at or near the top of all the nations tested in reading, mathematics, and science.
And just as consistently, the variance in quality among Finnish schools is the least of all nations tested, meaning that Finnish students can get a good education in virtually any school in the nation.’’
In other words, ‘‘that’s equality of educational opportunity, a good public school in every neighbourhood”.
Massey University professor of education John O’Neill is one of those paying close attention.
What are the Finnish lessons? First, the Finns recognised that they had a problem in education, O’Neill says.
That was about 30 years ago. They saw that there were “no quick fix, magic bullet solutions”.
They recognised that “there is a strong correlation between poverty, particularly intergenerational poverty, and educational achievement”. And they “had a strong commitment to equity”.
In Finland, equity means “a relatively homogeneous schooling system”, O’Neill says. When Sahlberg went on a US speaking tour, some were amazed to hear that Finland has no private schools.
Lastly, O’Neill says, the Finnish starting point “is to consider the child as a person, not as a cipher in a table of aggregate achievement data”. Finnish kids get a hot meal at school every day.
The curriculum is geared towards developing independent thinkers and creative approaches to solving real-world problems. There is a low stakes assessment regime.
“Most of Sahlberg’s commentary has been about how Finland explicitly rejected the standards and accountability regimes that were being pedalled by neoliberal advocates in the rest of the world,” O’Neill says.
“They said, our starting point is we want an egalitarian society.
"We want a schooling system that reflects that, so we will invest a lot in educating our teachers and trusting them to get on with the job, but equally we’ll maintain this notion of the integrity of the child.’’
On the same European tour that saw her impressed by the Finnish education system, Diane Ravitch went to an international education conference in Germany.
She wrote that researchers from Europe, Asia and Latin America were alarmed by the education “reform” movement in the US, and were “fearful that the same trends — the same overemphasis of standardized testing, the same push for privatization and markets, and the same pressure to lower standards for entry into teaching — might come to their own countries”.
Is this sounding familiar?
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There are many who think Ravitch could have added New Zealand as one of those alarmed countries.
The New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) is a teachers’ union that campaigns on education issues.
In an email, NZEI communications director Stephanie Mills talks about “GERM”, which is education sector shorthand for the “Global Education Reform Movement”.
It probably helps that the acronym sounds like something damaging and destructive.
In essence, GERM is an international movement that pushes for privatisation and competition in education policy.
It stresses the role of the market and often argues for performance pay for teachers. It likes strict testing regimes that can rank schools, and even teachers, in league tables.
In New Zealand, this has manifested most clearly as education policy that promotes or creates national standards and the plans, driven by the ACT Party, to open charter schools by 2014.
A joke has circulated that says these ideas are so closely modelled on reforms overseas, particularly in the UK and US, that New Zealand no longer needs its own policy analysts, just a good internet connection.
For Mills, the hiring last year of Lesley Longstone as Chief Executive and Secretary for Education at the Ministry of Education, was a physical embodiment of this reliance on overseas models.
In the UK, Longstone had introduced charter schools, which are known there as free schools.
“I think national standards and charter schools are pretty serious,” says David Small, a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury’s College of Education.
“It’s not something where people in New Zealand have sat down, looked at the problem with a clean slate and thought, what would be the best way to do things. They’re very clearly tied to similar trends overseas, particularly in the US.’’
One of Small’s interests is the way that neoliberal politics has played out in New Zealand since the 1980s, from the 1984 Labour Government onwards.
Small describes the current period of education reform as the biggest neoliberal assault on education since the failure to impose bulk funding in the 1990s.
‘‘They’re coming back for more — unfinished business, as Roger Douglas called it.”
Small describes national standards as “neoliberal theory seeking to reduce education to a commercial transaction”.
“These neoliberal models look only at outputs as measured, for example, by scores in standardised tests,” Small says.
“Neoliberals want to encourage parents to shop for their schools as they might shop for their clothes, ignoring the fact that the biggest determinant of a school’s aggregated exam results is the pupils who are enrolled in the school in the first place.
“They encourage parents to incorrectly conclude that a school with higher test results will give their child a better education than one with lower results.
‘‘The effect on schools is to give many of them an unfairly negative or unfairly positive reputation, and in the climate of competition between schools that neoliberals seek to foster, these false reputations result in some schools getting advantages over others for no legitimate reason.
"They also mislead parents who are just trying to make the best choices for their children.”
In short: “It’s not good for schools. It’s not good for parents. It’s not good for anyone.’’
This month, the NZEI president Ian Leckie said in a media release that “we’re now into the era of naming and shaming schools, teachers, students and their families”.
He referred to the creation of league tables from national standards as “especially tough on those schools that have a significant number of students who do not meet the narrow national standards benchmark”.
The competition that follows will go against the sense of collegiality and cooperation that traditionally exists between teachers in schools and even between schools.
Instead, schools will focus their teaching on “a very narrow part of the curriculum in order to compete with other schools rather than focusing on individual learning”, Leckie says.
How much of this reform movement does the public buy into?
David Small believes that there is a disconnection between the National-ACT Government importing education policies from elsewhere and the demand or reception locally.
When Education Minister Hekia Parata announced an increase in class sizes earlier this year, she could not have anticipated the public hostility that followed.
It suggested that the Government was prepared to lose the support of teachers but baulked at the idea of losing parents.
“I think they might have got a surprise, but if they did, they really read the tea leaves wrong,” Small says.
Again, go back to the 1980s and the start of neoliberal reform.
The infamous Picot Report assumed as a starting point a widely held dissatisfaction with public education, a sense that “something is seriously wrong and things needed to be done about it”.
But, Small adds, “I just don’t think there was any evidence that people were clamouring for a radical change to our dreadful education system.
"It’s not a widely held view amongst the public that our education system is a shambles and needs some radical fix.”
To promote a reform agenda, you need to convince yourself that everyone is dissatisfied with the current model, Small says.
Take for example the controversial comment from Prime Minister John Key that charter schools could employ unqualified teachers.
“It seemed as though he was thinking off the top of his head but I think it was calculated to undermine the standing and reputation of teachers,” Small says.
Another notion imported from the US with charter schools is “a mistrust and antagonism towards unions,” Small says.
Again, he sees this as an imported idea that doesn’t fit the local context.
“I don’t think there is that bedrock of hatred towards unions in New Zealand. People generally don’t perceive groups like the NZEI and the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) as part of the problem.”
Despite myths of teacher laziness and job protection, most parents who have direct experience of teachers see motivated people who enjoy teaching and interacting, Small says.
As for national standards, while he can see that “there are aspects of national standards that have a superficial appeal to people”, the next logical step is that they will become ‘‘the measure of absolutely everything”.
The activities of teachers would be closely attached to the outcomes of national standards and “they will start defining the worth of teachers according to the results”.
Imagine if you applied such a results-based policy to medical professionals, Small says – you would never get any staff in an emergency department.
Similarly, based on the assumption that league tables will tend to follow decile rankings, which reflect socio-economic context, you would never get anyone to teach in low-decile schools.
Social inequalities would increase not decrease.
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Speaking of inequality, John O’Neill was one of the 12 Massey University College of Education experts who concluded in April that the Government’s charter schools experiment is more likely to increase inequality rather than diminish it.
The 12 looked at charter school models in the UK, US and Sweden, which are the three jurisdictions that the National/ACT model is inspired by. In the charter school model, private organisations run schools with public money but are free to teach in their own way.
Its critics see it as privatisation by stealth.
The Massey experts found that even if some students gain from charter schools, the gains come at the cost of further disadvantaging non-charter school students and the local community as a whole.
As for the much-touted academic success of the scheme, the best statistics on the US charter schools show that 17 per cent perform better than matched public schools, 46 per cent are no different and 37 per cent are worse.
Just last week, a British progressive think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, released a report on UK charter schools.
It found that “evidence on the efficacy of increasing competition between schools is weak” and that “systems that have introduced market-oriented reforms are not sitting at the top of the international performance league tables”.
Instead, “more competition-oriented systems tend to produce higher levels of educational segregation with richer and poorer children more likely to attend different schools”.
The wholesale importation of foreign models has problems.
Not only does the imported charter school model not fit the local environment, but “the policy borrowing doesn’t really take into account the original reasons why those things were developed in those jurisdictions,” O’Neill says.
“The model of charter school that is being promoted here carries a number of other things with it, like the removal of the requirement for teachers to be registered, like the idea that it won’t necessarily be the state that provides state education — you can have private or philanthropic interests doing that,” O’Neill says.
“That removes that last barrier to privatisation of state education. It’s being done in the guise of the crisis that says we have large amounts of students who are underachieving and we need to do something radically different in order to meet our obligations.”
Is there really a crisis? It’s a fact that despite our high rankings in the OECD’s Pisa surveys, we do have a significant amount of student underachievement in New Zealand.
Charter schools working group chairwoman Catherine Isaac and Hekia Parata like to quote the figure of 20 per cent of New Zealand students leaving school without even level one NCEA.
O’Neill’s view is that will always be a small element of truth in any populist policy.
“Most people would accept, I think, that the New Zealand schooling system does a pretty good job for most kids,” he says.
“If you take into account the level of state investment in schooling, and the horrendous differences we have in terms of child poverty and the growing underclass, you might argue that it does an exceptionally good job.
“In recent months you’ve heard the Minister of Education using that language and saying, yes, on the one hand, for four out of five kids we do a really good job, but for the other one in five, we do a bad job and therefore we need these other things to address that.”
Following this logic, arguments that we need to concentrate more on the quality of teaching start to seem plausible.
“But it’s such a broad, nebulous concept that you can put basically anything into place under the guise of saying that we’re improving quality of teaching,” O’Neill says. “The classic example is the class size debacle.”
In that instance, the public was told it would mean only one or two fewer teachers per school and a few more students per class, but it wasn’t told that our class sizes and student-teacher ratios are already above the OECD average, and that we already spend less money than the OECD average per student, O’Neill says.
Citing British research, O’Neill has argued that increased class sizes actually harm socio-economically disadvantaged students – the very group the Government claims to be most concerned about.
The average class size in New Zealand ranges from 23 to 29 students. The Government’s abandoned proposal was to standardise class sizes at 27.5 students. In Finland, the maximum class size is 20.
So, should we start impersonating Finland? O’Neill sees that there are elements of what the Finns do that should happen here but he also urges us to remember the problem of “politicians who simplistically borrow policies from overseas”.
We could not replicate Finland here, but we could talk about issues like adequate teacher education. The University of Auckland is exploring a “fast-track teach first” scheme, based on US, UK and Australian models.
Is that the way to go or should we follow the Finnish example of wanting people to have post-graduate qualifications, up to masters level, “before they’re allowed anywhere near the classroom”.
It seems like a rhetorical question. The Finnish way is about “saying that teaching is a complex, professional, skilled occupation. You prepare people adequately, you invest in sufficient resources and then let them get on with it.”
As well as Finland, there is a fair bit of talk at the moment about the high-performing Asian systems, as those dazzling Pisa results would suggest.
O’Neill saw an Australian think-tank’s report on how to catch up with those Asian countries. It downplayed the crucial point that in China and South Korea, teachers have much fewer contact hours.
This means that teachers spend as much time planning and thinking about how they are going to teach as they do actually teaching.
In China, a teacher might teach between 15 and 17 hours per week, compared with “nearly 30 hours in the US and 20 hours-plus in Australia and New Zealand,” O’Neill says.
“If you’re constantly teaching, you’re not thinking about your teaching.”
In Finland, direct teaching hours are at the Chinese end of the spectrum, at around 16 hours per week.
Of course, to be Finland, we would also have to address the much bigger, harder stuff. Things like income disparity and poverty.
“If you looked at the research data, you would say the best way to address educational underachievement is by getting rid of poverty, because that’s the strongest correlation,” O’Neill says.
“It’s what goes on in households and families, in disadvantaged circumstances, that is the strongest indicator of subsequent educational achievement.
“We have one in five kids in this country who are living in poverty, probably one in seven or eight in abject poverty, and there is no talk about eradicating poverty as there has been in the UK.
They haven’t done anything about it like they have in countries like Finland and yet they still expect that the harmful effects of social disadvantage can just be put aside by good teaching.
The latest research is that if those harms are created in the early years or the pre-birth months, then they can be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to get rid of.”
But if there is the expectation that the effects of social disadvantage can be taught out of existence, what follows when this doesn’t happen? Will teachers be scapegoated or blamed?
The Government could say that there are schools and classrooms where teachers have beaten the odds. If some decile one schools do an amazing job, why can’t all decile one schools?
“That’s where academics have a responsibility to point people to the complexity of the research data, and point out that a decile one label is a fairly broad label that doesn’t say anything about the culture of the school, the quality of the teaching staff, the level of transience of students, and so on,” O’Neill says.
The NZEI and other professional bodies quote figures that only 20 per cent of student achievement – whether good or bad – can be attributed to teachers.
O’Neill’s view is that while teachers are responsible for what goes on in classrooms, and the relationships that follow, they cannot be held to account for student results, “as these are by and large beyond their control”.
“Education is an extraordinarily complex activity,” he says.
“You’ve got to look at all the evidence to try to come up with the answers.’’
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