Disadvantaged students at risk

Last updated 08:43 20/07/2012

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Performance pay for teachers will probably work to the detriment of under-performing students, writes Jim Traue.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has written that ''our educational system is among the best in the world. Four out of five kids are getting the qualifications they need from school''.

If she is right, that the problem is how to get ''five out of five'' succeeding, the big question is whether ''investing in better teachers'' linked with rewarding outstanding teachers, possibly through performance pay, is actually going to solve the problem.

Imagine yourself as a teacher, with newly acquired better teaching skills, making rational and self-interested calculations about your economic interests. This is the model homo economicus beloved of Treasury officials.

If you had a class in which 20 out of 25 were already capable of performing to gain NCEA or pass literacy and numeracy tests, and five were not yet capable, where would you choose to concentrate your efforts?

If you were to be rewarded for pushing up the mean student scores for the class, surely you would concentrate your efforts on the 20 who have performed above average and have the potential to perform better, rather than on the five under- performers.

It would take a major expenditure of effort on those under-achievers to increase the mean compared to a minor increase on the other 20. And if most of your new superior teaching skills were expended on those five pupils might there not be a risk that the performance of the other 20 would not improve, or even decline thus pulling the score down?

If you were promised rewards for increasing the percentage of passes to above 80 per cent, where would you concentrate your efforts?

Would you concentrate on the really difficult two at the bottom, or on the one or two at the margin who are more likely to respond to more attention?

If your rewards were to depend on the whole 25 succeeding, in most schools you would be frantically looking for ways to make the five under-performers someone else's problem.

Performance pay would be more likely to motivate teachers to treat under- performing pupils the way a business treats under- performing assets. Either you starve them until they wither and die or offload them as fast as you can.

The solution to the problem of the tail of underachievers in our schools now being offered, that of better teachers and economic rewards, is flawed. It will result in a misallocation of scarce resources and disillusion and it is likely to increase the gap between the winners and losers in our schools.

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The economists, administrators and politicians propounding these ideas were all winners in the schooling system. They have no experience or understanding of the profound differences between advantaged pupils like them - who arrived in the school system with a rich intellectual capital on which teachers could readily build - and those who lacked such a platform.

A child from a home in which books and reading, and conversation, is the norm has a conceptual headstart over those from households lacking these advantages.

Research on the functioning of the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that the neurons in the brain are constantly receiving information through the senses and assessing it.

By comparing and contrasting with what is already stored in the brain, working out what is new and what is already known, rejecting the irrelevant and putting information in context, new neural pathways are created that change the brain. This is the learning process.

The efficiency of the brain in learning depends very heavily on the facts, definitions, dates, events and words (correctly spelled) stored in the neurons. It is not the spare space but the amount you have already stored in the cupboard that substantially determines how much more can be stored in the cupboard of the brain.

If you have never encountered an idea or a word before, or anything remotely resembling it, the brain will find it difficult and time consuming, if not impossible, to deal constructively with it. Children with well-developed neural pathways are primed to learn; those with meagre pathways are set up to fail in the school system.

Better teachers will definitely make a difference, but disproportionately for the advantaged child who has come from a supportive home backed up by intensive pre- school enrichment of the neural pathways. Better teachers are unlikely to solve the problem of the one in five failures.

The outcomes are more likely to match the last big idea dreamt up by theorists drawn exclusively from ranks of the educational winners, that of reducing content (now scorned as ''legacy knowledge'') in favour of teaching pupils how to learn.

It worked well for those who already had the intellectual capital to benefit but increased the gaps between them and the disadvantaged.

Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library and a commentator on social issues.

- The Press

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