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Speech: English - Raising Education Standards

Speech: English - Raising Education Standards

Hon Bill English MP National Party Leader

17 September 2003

Speech to Rotary Club of Wellington North, Grand Hall, Parliament Buildings.

Raising Education Standards

Holding the Government to account is just one of the jobs of Opposition, and it has become an interesting job. Credibility is a valuable political asset, hard to build and easily lost. But the more important task we face is that we have to build a vision for a better New Zealand, so people know they have a viable choice in 2005.

National will campaign for one standard of citizenship, and to close the economic gap with Australia. Education is part of both stories - it provides the opportunity to give every child the start deserved by a New Zealand citizen, and an appropriately educated workforce is critical to higher rates of growth

In the next few weeks National will release a discussion document on education aimed at excellence in schools.

I have watched our schools closely for over a decade - and I've had children in our schools for the last 10 years.

I have been struck by how our schools are often slow in responding to the changing climate. These organisations should epitomise to our children a learning environment. Too often they have been dominated by complaining and resistance to change - two things we try to teach our children not to do.

But my real concerns focus on two corrosive problems I want to change.

The first is what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations. A generation of politicians, bureaucrats, teachers and parents have been bombarded with statistics and philosophy that tell them some children can't succeed - that their social background, how and where they were born, and to whom, pre-determines how much they can learn and how much they can achieve.

Related to this is the second corrosive belief that the teacher can't make much difference, no matter how much training, or how much money goes into our schools.

The sum of these two beliefs is that we collectively believe some children will fail, from the start, and we tolerate it. The results of this attitude can be measured by international comparisons of New Zealand performance in literacy and numeracy.

The day I started school we were number one for literacy. Now we are 13th. Among English speaking countries in the developed world we rank second to bottom for literacy. For numeracy the picture is not much different.

More importantly, we have the largest disparity between our best performing children and our worst performing children in the developed world. Our best are among the best in the developed world, and our worst are in the third world. The top 20% of New Zealand children achieve brilliantly by any measure. Our average isn't too bad either. It's testament to an education system that works for children who know how to learn.

But the best reason for state funded schools is the democracy of the intellect, the capacity to open doors for every child. It's a right of citizenship for our children, and an obligation on every taxpayer, to make sure those doors are opened.

But we have failed.

The bottom 20% of New Zealand children have third world levels of literacy and numeracy. We owe them more, and we need more from them.

As the population ages there will be fewer young people, and to support growing standards of living, they need to be more productive, with higher not lower standards of literacy and numeracy.

The apathy has to go. These children deserve aspiration. Turning it around will need a common sense of purpose among teachers, government and parents. And it needs tools we haven't had before.

The good news is there are some. A few months ago the Minister of Education published some remarkable research, carried out by Auckland University in South Auckland. It's the most startling education research I have read in 10 years. Its significance was largely missed by the media, but I suspect not the Government who laundered its politically incorrect conclusions.

The research is primarily about professional development of teachers, and literacy teaching. The report sets out to answer the questions - to what extent did professional development impact on teachers' expectation of student achievement? And to what extent did it impact on a teacher's ability to alter that achievement?

The report notes, and it is well documented, that teachers' expectations make a difference to children's achievement - but surprisingly little research has been done on how teachers expectations might be changed.

The report itself is written in education research code - but its conclusions are stark * Children's literacy can be measured * Teachers can understand and use the measurements * Teachers can learn how to change their teaching for children who are not progressing * Testing works where schools believe the data and use it to change teaching practice. * Successful literacy teaching depends on the expectations that all children can learn

This all sounds like common sense. Set goals, measure progress, adapt your methods, if progress isn't good enough.

Now this happens in some schools and not others. Each of these conclusions is controversial.

There are some formidable barriers to this common sense approach - let me give you a few quotes from this report.

It talks about constant reinforcement of low achievement by research that links failure (in schools and socio-economic status, failure and cultural difference). "It is hard to believe that these children can possibly be successful after their teachers have been so thoroughly exposed to so much negative indoctrination".

A teacher puts it another way. "We say that we believe that children can learn, but few of us really believe it".

The report also talks about teacher efficacy - the belief that teachers can make a difference. Many believe they can't. It's easy enough to see that if teachers are constantly told children's learning is strongly affected by influences outside the classroom; they are likely to believe they can't make much difference inside the classroom. This will affect the way teachers set goals, and the lessons they learn from children reaching or not reaching those goals.

The report provides fascinating insights into how attitudes in the classroom can be changed. And attitudes were changed by the literacy project.

Before the project started teachers, like anyone else I suspect, gave these sorts of reasons for low literacy achievement. "Lack of interest from parents" "A lack of oral language" "The children come to school with limited experiences"

This is the official line - nothing much can be done - these children can't be expected to achieve.

However, after the literacy training, they were much more likely to see the school as an influence on literacy with reasons like: "I've been given skills to use which I didn't really think I had before" One teacher says that the assessments made her realise her pupils knew more about books than she realised. This from another teacher "The contractor said that we had to work harder to make things easier for children. I resented that because I was working hard. Now I see what she means - what I do changes how the children learn".

The research study paints a picture of well-motivated teachers who respond positively when they are shown how they can make a difference.

The study then goes on to look at how this approach can be sustained. It looks at factors that sustain achievement in literacy in 7 schools over three years. The schools divided into three groups. Group three having the highest literacy achievement.

The study shows the differences in achievement were not related to the usual suspects - decile rating, children's skills when they started school, or class size. Nor were they related to the teachers' good intentions - all had good intentions.

Instead, different achievement levels among the children were related to emphasis the schools put on achievement. The schools showing better achievement followed a simple recipe. First, they used the data from tests as an objective measure of whether a child had sufficient levels of literacy. Second, teachers in the top achieving schools met regularly to discuss how to fix problems with specific children whose measured achievement fall short of expectations. They looked at the effectiveness of their teaching and worked out how to change it.

One of the biggest debates in education is about how to use measurements of achievement. The study shows that if teachers believe measurements are used to improve teachers' effectiveness, and children's achievement, they will use the data. As the study says, teachers need to be able to trust the system, so they believe that problems evident in the achievement data would lead to support in how to teach more effectively, not blame for failing to do it right. It's time to cut through the political correctness around testing. We owe it to our children to use the best tools we have to give them the best chance. A well-motivated teaching workforce will adopt these methods if they can see the objective is better achievement for the children.

However, we have a long way to go. We spend over $100 million on professional development of our teachers, but the report throws real doubt on the effectiveness of the spending. This is what the report has to say:

"In New Zealand, participatory rather than achievement requirements become institutionalised traditional measures of effective professional development - sometimes referred to "happiness quotients" and participating requirements, are insufficient to improve achievement".

This means we measure the success of support for teachers by whether it makes them happy. In fact we should measure support for teachers by whether it helps them increase achievement.

So there is a way to beat predictable failure. Measure literacy levels against national norms, analyse why some children fall short, and support teachers to find ways to improve the children's achievement.

We can do this, one by one. It's common sense, and it won't cost much more. It won't need better computers, or experts, or revolution - just teachers helping teachers help children based on objective data. In the century of the knowledge economy, it can't be too much for our children to expect.

I expect the views in this research will be controversial when they are better understood. It shows that even in our decile one schools, our poorest schools, we can get children to normal levels of achievement in literacy. So it slays some sacred cows. It will certainly help shape National's education policy.

Shortly, National will release a major discussion paper on Education. The main priority it addresses is raising standards of literacy and numeracy. You will see many of the initiatives we want discussed have that as their goal, enabling our children to be the best that they can be.

There is far too much political correctness about failure in our schools. There are too many inspired teachers frustrated by the lack of tools to do as much as they can. It's time for honesty about how improvements can be made.

I believe every child has potential, and we believe in that potential sufficiently strongly that we must act, rather than just talk. This research, in our least likely schools, should give us all hope and that we can lift the nation's children, one by one out of the third world to a first world future.

Schools should be able to raise the prospects of every child - that was the original vision of those who set up public education. It's an opportunity to better fulfil the promise of citizenship of New Zealand.

We will debate other aspects of citizenship - the role of the treaty, the place of ethnic definition, and what it means to say 'I am New Zealander'. The purpose of that debate for me is to hand to our children the solutions of unity rather than the problems of division.

But first we can hand on to them the ability to learn and to understand, or it won't matter what other promises we make to them.


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