States study tour opens principal's eyes

17:00, Jul 29 2014

Murray McDonald doesn't know who put him up for a fellowship that allowed him to clock up almost 13,500 kilometres checking out American schools and universities.

But the principal of Aberdeen School in Dinsdale is certainly grateful for the Woolf Fisher Fellowship.

"I don't know how I got the opportunity but I grabbed it with both hands and I made the most of it. . .Trip of a lifetime," he said.

"Everything was an eye-opener."

Actually he thought news he'd won one of the fellowships - which can't be applied for - was a scam letter at first.

But the chance to head overseas and look into different teaching practices was real.


Once their itinerary was approved, he and wife Vivienne Cory-Wright headed off for the 10 weeks of term two.

One of the eye-openers was San Diego's High Tech High, which started in 2000.

Students chose their teachers based on the topic they were offering, McDonald said.

"I might be a teacher there and I say ‘I'm going to do a 10-week block on aeronautics'. So you get kids aged from X to Y who will choose you as their teacher because of the subject . . . And all subjects, like maths, English, are taught in the context of this big project that they'll engage in for a period of time."

In another town he visited "either extreme", he said.

One school of 700 students had its own chef and a little "eating garden".

"Five miles down the road another school had to feed 950 children a day lunch . . . There was only four toilets for girls and four toilets for boys in that school," he said.

"There are those with and those without in the States. And, in the same system, those with are so much more advantaged than those without."

The large numbers of students moving between schools was an issue for many, and better-off schools often head-hunted the best teachers.

Some differences between New Zealand and the States were more cultural.

New Zealand principals had a closer and more effective relationship with the Ministry of Education, he said.

"If Hekia Parata was sitting here I would be able to have an intelligent one-on-one conversation . . . We would be able to establish common ground."

And many American teachers had after-school jobs - for example, 20 of one principal's staff of 25, McDonald said.

"They'd be gone by five past three. In America, in most states, you can only keep your staff back two hours a fortnight for professional development and learning. Here, my teachers voluntarily come here at school at seven o'clock for their meetings."

New Zealand principals and teachers had freedom to tailor the curriculum, whereas Americans were more driven by textbooks.

Budgets were also smaller in New Zealand, McDonald said, and here school fences were decorative.

A short leadership course at Harvard finished off his trip - though the university was closed the day before due to a bomb threat - and McDonald was pleased to hear respected Kiwi education researcher and professor John Hattie cited often.

Now he's come back with a goal.

"The school should be at the heart of community and I'm going to be working a lot stronger on that," he said.

"I'm going to hammer it."

Waikato Times