Why our teachers have gone two steps too far

17:00, Jun 23 2012
BACKED DOWN: Hekia Parata.

In the wake of forcing Education Minister Hekia Parata to back down over proposed teacher-pupil ratios in primary schools, the teaching profession has taken two steps too far.

Any goodwill that it might have won from the parent community has evaporated in a little over a week, with their twin call to abolish public notification of school decile ratings – and to stop public access to league tables.

At the heart of such darkness is a desperate desire not to be accountable. There's a strange belief that parents cannot be trusted and that the public are mere simpletons. And, more importantly, it's an attempt to socially engineer society by unelected zealots.

Because that is what teacher unions are. And even the supposedly sensible are seriously afflicted. Cue Patrick Walsh, head of the Secondary Schools Principals Association, and his rationale for abolishing the decile ratings of all 2500 state-funded schools. Although the abolition is intended for parents and public only. The rating would remain, it's just that we won't be told this information.

Why? As Walsh explained last week, it's because such publication frustrates "the development of a multicultural society". Yes, that was my response too. What?

Walsh and teacher unions believe the publication of such decile ratings has led to "white flight" as Pakeha parents ferry their children away from poorer and browner schools. Walsh says this is unfair and that the best way to stop this is by denying parents such information.


At which point you realise such teacher activists clearly think parents are thick. And this explains why they don't want national standards or the publication of the dreaded "league tables". We might just use that information inappropriately. Best not have it at all.

The reality is that those "white" parents who bypass their neighbourhood school for another are actually the kind of parents New Zealand needs: that is, parents motivated by their kids' best interests and who think about the quality of schooling.

It may well be that their local school's decile rating is a factor. But it doesn't need to be published for them to know. A school acquires a local reputation all of its own. In addition, its ethnic composition can be a factor for white and brown parents alike. For many parents, it is not unnatural to desire a school culture closest to your own.

Then there are the acknowledged problems with poorer schools, for example higher percentages of ferals and their unfortunate influences. Which is why I regard teachers in lower decile schools as a breed apart. Being required, on an hourly basis, to deal with the human detritus they do, must be exhausting. As is the frustration of watching their input negated by the child's home environment.

Not unnaturally, caring parents will want to reduce the risk of their children being introduced quite so early to the antisocial. Those low-decile schools that do make a difference need no reputation protection.

But teacher opposition to national standards results being released publicly is even less principled. And it is being done for one reason only: to lessen the accountability of schools to their communities. All parents know that children from decile 9 and 10 schools will outperform children from decile 1 and 2 schools. And we are all informed enough as to why.

But the real comparisons we will draw is between the same decile schools. For example, if a decile 1 or 2 school is producing results consistent with higher decile outcomes then we will be seeking the reasons. And seeking to replicate them elsewhere.

Similarly those schools with higher ratings, but lesser results, will face more intensive questioning from their trustees and parents. And for good reason.

It may well be that national standards are currently insufficiently robust, and moderated, to produce the league tables secondary schools have had published these past two decades.

But NCEA had exactly the same problems when introduced. And that didn't stop the results being made public.

This past week I also interviewed a decile 2 primary school principal, Sandra Smith, from Linwood North school in Christchurch. With no-nonsense style, she ticked off the problems that low decile schools have with their constituent base. She placed transience at No1 – 60 per cent of her roll churned every year.

But she made the best point of this entire debate: if you are going to use national standards, then use it to measure the "value added" component that teachers and schools contribute every year.

And she is right. That is the test we parents will apply. We want all the information, yes. That's the part that we will really focus on. And the part many teachers secretly fear.


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