OPINION: Education Ministry chief executive Lesley Longstone finds herself in disodour with teacher unions for saying this country's education system is not world class.
Cue reproachful brandishing of evidence that our educational outcomes are right up there. Which most of them indeed are.
Ms Longstone was not, however, seeking to belittle the areas of educational success. She was drawing attention to the distressingly large tail of failure that includes a disproportionate number of kids from Maori and Pasifika families and kids from communities that are struggling socially and economically.
The problem here is not who's wrong. They're both right.
The problem is the extent to which Ms Longstone and the unions are ignoring each other, or at least indulging in the sort of angry agreement that essentially treats each other's case as somehow beside the point.
Ms Longstone is open to the criticism that she's just created a definition of "world class" that scarcely exists, if at all, in the real world. One that's so resolutely aspirational that it should never have been expressed as a slapdown for the actual and hard-won achievements by a legion of teachers in the face of many obstacles - more than a few of which they would say were imposed by her own ministry and its political overlords.
It must be galling to teachers to have failures pointed out to them as if this was, somehow, a revelation. It's hardly as though they haven't noticed and been hammering the point themselves.
If anything, her comments are nicely timed for the PPTA , which is now able to scold her on the basis of "tell it to your ministry's bargaining team".
The secondary teachers' union has been negotiating a new collective agreement in which it depicts its own claims as having a focus on excellence and equity for all students. Now it can challenge the ministry to come up with evidence of the same approach.
However, for her part, Ms Longstone should scarcely be in the gun for trying to prevent us from being all that comfortable with outcomes that are, themselves, so damaging for so many young people and the society in which they live.
If that sounds perilously close to concluding, yet again, that society is to blame, then let's just say we must always bear in mind the problems that the education system is inheriting. Teachers are part social workers anyway; it goes with the territory. But that doesn't mean they can solve quite as many of our problems as we would like.
As the Quality Public Education Coalition insists, it's not the fault of our education system when children come to school too hungry to learn. Or change schools frequently to escape the worst effects of poverty. Or when potentially effective programmes are starved of funding. The coalition might well have added the generational problem - that so many of these kids are being raised by parents who were themselves the product of the overlong tail of failure that our world-class education system has.
Is it really that much of a stretch for either side in this argument to accept that if we carefully calibrate any assessment of our existing system against not only world standards but also our own hopes for our kids, we are entitled to conclude that we are simultaneously world class and seriously short of the standard to which we must rightly aspire. And that we cannot look to even our best teachers to sort everything out for us.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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