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Teachers shouldn’t be blamed for social problems

Media Release
18 April 2008

Teachers shouldn’t be blamed for wider social problems.

Over-emphasis on the quality of teaching ignores the wider social causes of underachievement, University of Waikato professor of Education Dr Martin Thrupp says.

Dr Thrupp, who is also on the executive of the New Zealand Child Poverty Action Group, was the opening keynote speaker at the PPTA professional conference, ‘Secondary teaching on the move’, last night.

Dr Thrupp began his talk – Secondary teaching, social contexts and the lingering politics of blame - with examples of recent media articles showing both Minister of Education Chris Carter and former cabinet Minister John Tamihere both emphasising the difference effective teaching had on student achievement, and both ignoring the wider social context of the students’ lives.

“The Ministry doesn’t want to talk about wider social causes of underachievement such as poverty, it wants to argue that teachers make the difference and for teachers to take responsibility for student achievement,” he said.

Mr Tamihere went one step further in terms of Maori education, denying the impact of families, dysfunctional communities and poverty and encouraging parents to “start thumping the school desk” to demand more from their teachers.

The Government and Maori commentators were asking teachers to accept responsibility – and therefore the blame – for student underachievement, he said.

“I think teachers can do a lot, but not as much as they are being asked to. In fact, I think over-emphasising the power of quality teaching has the effect of scapegoating teachers for wider problems”.

This over-emphasis was a problem because it ignored the struggles teachers faced, detracted from child poverty in New Zealand and ignored ways of addressing background issues, he said.

A publication soon to be launched by the Child Poverty Action Group “Left behind: How social and economic inequalities damage New Zealand children” shows some alarming statistics:
* In the last decades of the 20th century New Zealand had the fastest growth in income and wealth inequality in the OECD
* Despite the better economy and significant increase in paid employment, between 2000 and 2004 the proportion of all children in severe and significant hardship increased by a third, to 26%.
* Using the 60% of median income line the New Zealand child poverty rate is among the worst in the OECD
* New Zealand children have higher rates of preventable illness and deaths from injuries than children in almost any other OECD country. They have comparatively high infant mortality rates and low immunisation rates.

All of this suggests that we as a country need to make sure teachers are not being asked to address issues better addressed by wider government policy, he said.

“It is ironic don’t you think that the Ministry of Education bang on about the importance of quality teaching when, just a couple of streets away in Wellington, the Ministry of Social Development is putting out reports which show the poor are getting poorer in New Zealand”.

Dr Thrupp feels a better understanding of the context children are learning in would be much more helpful in terms of combating underachievement in schools.

He also says the key is for teachers to refuse to accept too much responsibility for student achievement in the first place.

“I think the message to the policymakers and the public at the moment should be ‘yes of course we can improve our practice and make a difference to children’s achievement and to their lives, but don’t look to us to solve all the problems of student underachievement because it’s not fair on us and you are going to be sorely disappointed too’,” he said.

The PPTA professional conference will continue through to Saturday and is being held at the Waipuna Hotel and Conference Centre in Auckland.


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