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Putting ‘Investing in Educational Success’ into context

Putting ‘Investing in Educational Success’ into context

Opinion: Martin Thrupp
June 9, 2014

Last week saw the release of a report on the Government’s Investing in Educational Success (IES) proposals as announced by John Key in January. This is ‘the detail’ of the proposal to introduce new teaching and leadership roles (although there are some more particulars to come) as developed by a working group of 11 early childhood, primary and secondary education sector organisations. These organisations were asked to be ‘in the tent’ with the Ministry of Education to influence the detail of the policy, the broad outline of which had already been decided by Cabinet and that came out in January. Some of the organisations went in willingly and some with much more reservation. The divergent press releases put out on Scoop by the PPTA and NZEI reflect these tensions.

The IES working group report is a lot to grapple with but in some ways I think it is the ‘backstory’ that is just as important to understand. Here I mention various broader contexts within which I think the latest report needs to be read and understood. I look at the problems of inadequate media scrutiny, of valued and ignored expertise, and of the school system becoming hollowed out and less principled. Then towards the end I make some more direct comments on the report. I write as an established academic in the area of New Zealand education policy but also in the spirit that as academics we sometimes need to give a broad account of what we are seeing.

Media coverage
It would be nice to think that potential problems with the IES proposals would be highlighted by the scrutiny of the media. But these days it is hard to find really searching mainstream coverage of New Zealand educational reform, although Radio New Zealand has generally been better than print or TV. Given the sheer scale and complexity of the IES and the number of people within the process, good coverage of this particular reform seems even less likely. When the policy was announced in January it seemed to catch most journalists in holiday mode, as they dutifully reported it but with little investigation. The situation was not helped by various uncritical voices from within the sector.

Now this sizeable two-part working group report has come out and it appears the media won’t really have the time or inclination to follow it up. Good on the Manawatu Standard for a front page article, there has been an article in the Wairarapa Times-Age and there have been opinion pieces on Stuff from the NZEI and from right-wing think tank, the New Zealand Initiative. Perhaps we will see only see more coverage if National wins the election, the policy moves forward and practical problems start to emerge. With the National Standards policy there was no substantive print media coverage of concerns in the year leading up to the launch in October 2009. It was only afterwards that it started to become feasible to get better coverage of the issues around the National Standards. But it may also be that the IES reform will prove too complicated for the media to feel they can make much of a story of it for the general public.

Valued and ignored expertise
My first response to the IES is to ask where the Government has been getting its ideas from, as it wouldn’t be my choice of how to spend an extra $359 million to improve our education system. (I would go for reinforcing professional cultures through higher quality professional development and more resources especially more teachers and teacher aides. And I would put more money into special education). There is a section of the report on ‘Evidence’ but despite its various qualifiers it is weak. In particular few of the sources are from refereed academic journals. We should be concerned about the repeated use of McKinsey reports, described by Frank Coffield in the Journal of Education Policy as having ‘an impoverished view of teaching and learning’, a ‘thin’ evidential base and ‘implausible’ arguments. The IES working group report also draws on the education ideas of the OECD and Andreas Schleicher but these have been causing concern to education experts around the world. And then there is Michael Fullan, whose perspectives are ambiguous enough to have wide appeal.

There are a few New Zealand academics referenced, ones often cited by the Ministry of Education. They are not all bad, but it would be good to see the Ministry trying to get alternative advice for a change. Its unlikely though, as this has been a particularly ‘tribal’ government in the sense that people with expertise are considered either ‘in’ with it or not, in which case they are persona non grata. I’m certainly in the latter group although when I ran into Hekia Parata recently, she told me not to take her Ministerial dismissal of my research personally. And when the Hon. Anne Tolley mentioned me in the newspaper, it was to invite me to keep my seditious views to myself.

The IES working group report also includes a statement from the NZEI that explains that the evidence section was only produced by the Ministry towards the end of the deliberations underlying the report. This is interesting as the limited depth of analysis does indeed suggest post-hoc rationalisation. (Again a similar thing happened with the National Standards). Originally the proposal might have been partly about PISA shock - the sense of political crisis and knee-jerk policy reaction that typically occurs when a country drops in the OECD’s test rankings. On the other hand the IES is very much a business approach to quality – using financial incentives to get the job done – and such corporate perspectives are pronounced within the Wellington beltway. Finally there is bound to have been enthusiasm to rein in ‘the teachers’ as they have not taken well to many of the policies of this Government.

Hollowed out
There are good reasons for teachers to be unhappy (and why primary teachers are especially unhappy, see below). It seems to me that what is happening to New Zealand schools involves a thinning or hollowing out of the education culture that most New Zealanders grew up with. I am talking about the not-so-gradual decline of professional development, professional resources, educational research, teacher education, curriculum coverage, special education, funding, support for leadership, morale, moral purpose and security of work. There may be a few brighter spots in this generally gloomy picture of schools such as some kinds of targeted interventions and parent involvements, digital learning and ‘modern learning environments’. But in general it’s hard to see that much has really been getting better in New Zealand schools since the 1980s, with some substantial steps backwards under the current government.

What is happening is that children and young people are being commodified and schooling is becoming less genuine. There is a foreshortening of possibilities for school leaders and teachers in resolving their daily problems and a general decline in the vitality of teaching and less opportunity for progressive practice. Where teaching is not in decline it is often because educators are working against the grain of policy rather than being supported by it. To borrow from Brian Picot, it's a worsening system but still some good people.

There are already some significant elements of privatisation in all of this and it seems there will be much more to come unless we have a change in direction at the election. One of the concerns about the IES is that there are other policy developments occurring in the background around legislation, funding, roles, structures and digital technologies to which the IES will be linked in ways that are yet to become apparent. This is why the working group requested information about the links to other policies as outlined in Part Two of the report.

It is into this general context of decline and uncertainty/threat that the IES is being dropped and seen variously as a silver bullet, a life raft, another form of control or as largely irrelevant to the real problems faced by schools. Although it is described in the report as ‘a system change’ (in a favourable sense), this requires much faith in this form of collaboration and incentivising having a positive impact on school culture. Its easier to see the new arrangements being harmful or not making much difference. The IES is also not going to simply undo the various problems within the system as mentioned above and these should not be overlooked during the debates around the new policy.

Finally it is important to be realistic about the impact of wider social pressures on schools, a point made repeatedly by the NZEI over the least few months. The changes mentioned above are coupled with wider shifts that are also hollowing out society such as insecure housing and increasingly unequal incomes. The IES could easily contribute to the politics of blame where schools are being increasingly held accountable for the effects of these wider concerns. Certainly the evidence section of the working group report gives the most optimistic reading of research around teacher and school effects. A more realistic reading would not attribute so much power to any school-based intervention.

Less principled
Our school system is also becoming less principled by the day as it is infected by managerialist politics and as it gradually becomes more privatised. The problem is most acute in the education agencies as they are in a contractual relationship with their Ministers and it is that relationship that has to be prioritised. And a profit motive is generally central to the private organisations the agencies contract out to. But other national organisations that support schools are also in trouble. STA is clearly in the pocket of Government rather than really representing the interests of the boards it works with. University researchers and teacher educators have the benefit of their ‘critic and conscience’ clause but are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. NZCER is the same. Funding for university-based professional development has become insecure from year to year, or even a few months ahead.

Within the school system the rot is mostly in the early childhood sector (now highly privatised but fighting to stay authentic) and in secondary. Secondary school principals are effectively running large businesses and schools compete with each other for students. Where they enthusiastically market themselves, there is often little honesty about how schools gain advantage on the back of their intakes nor much concern about the impact of marketing on other schools and on the good of the overall student population in the area. It is the prosperity of the individual institution that nearly always counts.

The primary sector is the least infected by managerialism so far (less privatised, less need to be competitive, less big business, less able to cope with ‘paperwork’) with most within this area remaining committed to a broad, progressive, child-centred education. This is why they were willing to create such a fuss over the introduction of National Standards and it was a wonderful thing to see people standing up for what they believed in. But the Government pushed on with the Standards and the tone of the primary sector is also now slowly changing towards making a virtue out of political necessity.

This situation probably helps to explain the very different responses of the PPTA and NZEI to the IES (along with the more obvious differences between the sectors). Whatever other justifications they may raise, PPTA would struggle to go further in promoting a social justice agenda to their membership ahead of the undoubted financial incentives. The environment of collaboration implied by the IES is also seen as a good thing by the PPTA given the competitive climate within their sector. In contrast the membership of the NZEI will see little merit in the IES for the culture of the primary sector. Their concern will be its potential for being controlling and divisive and many will see it as yet another blow to the work they are committed to.

And a few other points about the report
There are some other noteworthy points in the report. It’s not going to be compulsory for a school to be part of a ‘Community of Schools’. But it effectively will be as promotional prospects are involved and ‘access to the new roles …and to Inquiry Time would be contingent on membership of a recognised Community of Schools' (p.1).

The new roles open up plenty of scope for new power differentials and resentments within and between schools. Tensions will also arise because ‘Communities of Schools’ are expected to be especially responsive to particular groups who are currently not achieving well. This is fair enough as national policy but at the local level within communities of schools these groups will be very unevenly distributed across schools.

It is noted that ‘Boards will need support to fulfil their role in IES’ (p.2). Boards of Trustees already have too much responsibility for a voluntary role. In many schools it falls back on the principal to know what to do anyway.

Finally, there is to be the development of new sets of professional standards for each role and the use of independent experts to assess them. The problem with this plan is that professional standards, except of the broadest kind, tend to stultify practice and be unresponsive to local contexts. These ones are clearly not intended to be of the broadest kind (see p.12). They will be very time-consuming to develop and assess. Lucky old those who end up on the ‘Writing Group’, don’t you think?

*************

Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato.

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