The education proposals outlined by John Key in his State of the Nation speech have blossomed spectacularly today – like Auckland’s ‘Corpse Flower‘ – attracting a surprising band of over-awed onlookers.
The intent of the education initiatives is clear enough.
In fact, same intent as usual; but very different tactic. And, of course, suitably different given that we are now in election year.
More generally, it’s also become very clear from this announcement and news about the economy, that the ‘all’s well‘ good news ‘vibe’ will be pushed, relentlessly, by National for the next nine months or so.
Time, then, to turn up the scepticism dial to ‘High’.
There’s an old tale about the sun and the wind competing with each other to remove the coat off the back of a man walking along a track on the earth below: The wind goes first, blowing furiously with increasing intensity.
At last it gives in. All its fury achieved was to make the man clutch his coat to himself more tightly.
The sun then takes its turn: It shines down with apparent benign intent. Slowly but surely the man unbuttons his coat and then, as the sun smiles triumphantly, removes it and tosses it aside.
If I was in the teaching profession I think I’d be a bit startled by the sudden change in the weather. One day (well, actually, for quite a few years) the skies have been dark, foreboding and positively stormy.
Then the sun breaks through in a dazzling display (of money, at least). We’re all now used to dramatic weather events but even late-stage climate change couldn’t explain this dramatic reversal.
Or perhaps it’s not a reversal.
Clues that things haven’t really changed in this government’s view of education aren’t difficult to find.
To the proposals, then.
John Key has announced a range of new positions for Principals and teachers:
The four positions – which will not be put in place at every school – include:
Executive principals will provide leadership across a community of schools, and be paid an additional allowance of $40,000 a year. Each will work with an average of 10 schools.
Change principals will be employed to lift achievement in schools that are struggling. About 20 of these positions will be needed a year, and principals in this role will be given an additional $50,000 a year.
Lead teachers will be “highly capable” school teachers who will act as role models for those in their own school and those in their area. The Government anticipates around 5000 will be needed.
Expert teachers will work with executive principals and include experts in areas like maths and science.
The Herald estimates the following numbers for the package which will involve $359m over three years:
• 250 executive principals
• 1000 expert teachers
• 5000 lead teachers
• 20 change principals (appointed each year)
• Executive principal – paid additional allowance of $40,000 a year
• Expert teacher – paid additional allowance of $20,000 a year
• Lead teacher – paid additional allowance of $10,000 a year
• Change principal – paid additional allowance of $50,000 a year
As I said, the intent of these changes is clear: It is to achieve the goal of creating an environment in the education system that reflects the broad neo-liberal and corporatist environment that dominates most other parts of the public sector and economy in general.
That involves competitive workplaces, performance pay, corporatist practices and attitudes (goal-setting, ‘KPI’s’, performance management, outcome measurement and monitoring, efficiency assumed to be a function of measured outputs as a ratio of financial inputs, etc.).
It also has the effect of undermining collective approaches. With the prospects of some 6,000+ teachers and principals competing for such lucrative opportunities expect a fairly major, and possibly brutal, division of the teaching profession into two tiers with quite distinct and conflicting interests.
By creating an elite band of teachers, personal ambition will be suitably stoked which has the inevitable by-product of increasing individuals’ focus on their own career trajectories.
Teachers may be genuine and committed professionals but they are also only human. There is no reason to suspect that, in the long-term, they will react any differently from any of the other social groups to which this treatment has been ‘delivered’ (often through harsher means).
And, of course, teachers – and their representatives – should not be blamed for welcoming the possibility – for around 10% of them, at least – to achieve significantly higher salaries while still being involved in some form of ‘teaching’. One of the outcomes of having kept teacher salaries depressed is that this carrot no doubt looks very edible.
Once this structure beds in, then stand by and watch as attitudes, values and commitments change – perhaps only subtly for those currently in the profession but quite sharply for new entrants. (In case of any doubt, current use of the concepts of ‘collaboration’ and ‘best practice’ is generally newspeak for ‘economies of scale’ and ‘standardisation of practice’.).
A final effect of such changes will be to lay further groundwork for the incremental introduction of the private sector into the public education system. Once an identifiable pool of ‘elite’ teachers is identified then the temptation – for such teachers as well as the government – will be to introduce private providers who can cherry-pick.
Charter schools are the obvious entry point – given that their operations (including salaries) are beyond the reach of the Official Information Act. But there are other mechanisms – increasingly well-funded private schools (courtesy of increased taxpayer contributions), well-endowed integrated schools and the like. The ‘demand’ for private sector participation (and remuneration), that is, will increase – and, inevitably, will also start to come from teachers; the psychological logic of ‘the way the world is’ will start to bear down on even the most saintly.
In the education sector this is indeed a major piece of engineering; but what it also represents, given the centrality of schools to many communities and families, is a major piece of social engineering – of a scale perhaps not seen since the 1980s and early 1990s. To change the material and economic structures within which education functions is to achieve something quite deep in a modern society.
Unlike previous attempts to introduce these changes into the compulsory education sector, this proposal eschews the coercive approach which, to date, had been favoured.
Somewhere deep in the bowels of the National Party strategic command, the penny dropped. That penny was basically that a better way to defang the stubbornly collective education sector may well be to drop plenty of pennies onto the education sector.
And, just like the 1978 TV series ‘Pennies from Heaven‘, we have had the surreal experience of most commentators – even union representatives – suddenly breaking out their tap dancing shoes and miming to upbeat tunes that surely haven’t been hummed since some previous golden age of innocence.
From the Herald again:
PPTA President Angela Roberts said she was “cautiously optimistic” and welcomed the extra resourcing to support teachers, as well as greater collaboration between teachers across schools.
She said its ability to work as intended would depend on how it was implemented, but welcomed Mr Key’s promise that the profession would be involved in implementing the new roles.
She said it provided the potential for good teachers to advance their careers without having to leave the classroom to take up leadership positions.
“It feels like what they have done is not just recognise and reward the great teachers, but once they’ve recognised those great teachers they will treat them for what they are, which is a great resource, and enable them to support their colleagues.”
Angela Roberts was outdone in the positivity stakes by Phil Harding, Principals’ Federation President:
“It’s hard for me to say it but I’m pretty damned impressed. It is a huge amount of new money and I have never seen such a transformation of ideas and discussion into policy and money in my life. It has gone from a theoretical discussion about how the system needed to evolve and change just last year to the appropriation of significant resource.”
He was hopeful it would work as intended and believed the $50,000 financial incentives for good principals to take on challenging schools were sufficient. [Gasp! Did anyone think it wouldn't be enough, given that it represents a bonus greater than the median income?]
“I’m very confident there are people out there would will choose [sic] this career pathway. Most people would say $50,000 is a pretty big financial incentive. But people don’t really do it for the money, they do it because they have the capability and they’re looking for a challenge.”
[It's a shame Phil Harding hadn't told the Prime Minister that people don't really do it for the money. On the Herald's figures, Key could have saved, per year, about $1m on 'Change Principals', $10m on 'Executive Principals', $20m on 'Expert Teachers' and $50m on 'Lead Teachers'.]
In turn, Phil Harding was outdone by Secondary Principals’ Association President, Tom Parsons:
Secondary Principals’ Association president Tom Parsons called it a “wonderful initiative“.
“It’s super, what a game changer, what a tremendous thing.
“They’ve taken the politics out of this [in election year, too - truly amazing!] and are just looking at the welfare and the benefits for every New Zealander at school now, and in the future.”
Parsons, who is principal of Queen Charlotte College in Picton, has been a critic of many Government policies in the past two years, including the introduction of national standards.
So much positivity can take your breath away – but a few calm, deep breaths and a little attention to detail can bring the positivity meter back to something slightly more credible. The clues to that more credible vista are actually plain to see.
Let’s start with the names of the new positions: Executive; Expert; Lead; Change. Straight out of the Corporatist lexicon – think ‘Change Manager’, ‘Chief Executive Officer’, ‘Team Leader’, ‘Expert …’ well, just about anything.
The ‘Change Principal’ is a particularly interesting position. Take it away, Prime Minister:
The final change I want to announce today is that we are also going to better match up schools that are really struggling, with really excellent principals.
To do this we are going to establish a new role of Change Principal.
Change Principals will be top principals who are paid an additional allowance of $50,000 a year to go to a struggling school and turn it around.
Around 20 Change Principals will be appointed each year, for up to five years.
At the moment, the incentive is for principals to go to larger schools, where the salary is higher, rather than to schools that are the most challenging.
And, in some further detail,
Change principals will be encouraged to work in lower decile schools to lift their performance. [Presumably such 'top Principals' don't already come from lower decile schools?]
Mr Key says it is designed to give teachers the opportunity to further their careers in front of the classroom.
He says they’ll be chosen by an expert government appointed panel.
“They’ll have to be assessed, like everyone that applies. Any teacher, or principal will be free to apply.
A Change Principal, and an Executive Principal, is appointed by an “expert government appointed panel“. Expert Teachers, in turn, are appointed by their Executive Principal: “Executive Principals will oversee the appointment of Expert Teachers and the appointment will be for up to four years.” (from John Key’s full speech).
Change Principals sound remarkably similar to the current role of ‘Limited Statutory Managers‘. An LSM can be appointed to Boards to direct schools in relation to specific aspects of governance, including ‘student achievement':
A limited statutory manager (LSM) is appointed for the board of trustees by the Secretary for Education, at the direction of the Minister of Education, to work on a particular aspect or aspects of the board’s governance role, while the board remains in existence. This is because of risks to the operation of the school, or the welfare or educational performance of the students. A component or components of the board’s responsibilities are temporarily removed from the board and are vested solely in the LSM. The person appointed to this role is selected because of the skills required and their compatibility with the school environment. The extent of the board’s role and responsibilities that is vested in the LSM is formally stated in a New Zealand Gazette notice.
Change Principals, apparently, would not be imposed upon Boards as are LSMs, yet “[a]round 20 Change Principals will be appointed each year, for up to five years“. If nobody wants them would they just sit, waiting?
But the biggest clue to the kind of ‘change’ National can really believe in is provided by the constant reference to student ‘performance’ and ‘achievement’. Here’s a sampler from the Prime Minister’s State of the Nation speech:
Executive Principals will have a proven track record in raising achievement and they will pass on their knowledge and expertise to other principals.
They [Executive Principals] will provide leadership across communities of schools, supporting other principals to raise student achievement.
Expert Teachers will have a proven track record in raising the performance of their students, particularly in maths, science, technology and literacy.
And from here,
“We want the best teachers and principals to lead a step change in achievement and we are going to pay them more to get it,” he said.
There’s a reason for this focus on ‘achievement’ and ‘performance'; and John Key provides us with it:
A mountain of evidence shows that the quality of teaching – inside the classroom – is the biggest influence on kids’ achievement.
International studies also show that we are not keeping pace with achievement in other countries,
There’s a slight problem with the first reason, though:
A study published earlier this month by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend. Another study, published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, reports that the effort put forth by parents (reading stories aloud, meeting with teachers) has a bigger impact on their children’s educational achievement than the effort expended by either teachers or the students themselves. And a third study concludes that schools would have to increase their spending by more than $1,000 per pupil in order to achieve the same results that are gained with parental involvement
So parents matter — a point made clear by decades of research showing that a major part of the academic advantage held by children from affluent families comes from the “concerted cultivation of children” as compared to the more laissez-faire style of parenting common in working-class families.
… [and, it's the kind of talking parents do with their children]
a study conducted by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics found that two-way adult-child conversations were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking. Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter. As they grow older, this feeling helps middle- and upper-class kids develop into assertive advocates for their own interests, while working-class students tend to avoid asking for help or arguing their own case with teachers, according to research presented at American Sociological Association conference earlier this year.
In fact, the Prime Minister didn’t even have to read “decades of research” or go to sociology conferences to discover this point.
‘Treasury’s Advice on Lifting Student Achievement‘, while arguing for improving teacher quality (and probably informing the current proposals), had this to say about the evidence on what most affects student achievement:
Research on student learning consistently shows that the largest source of variation in student learning is attributable to differences in what students bring to school – their abilities and attitudes, and family and community background – factors that difficult for policy makers to influence, at least in the short-run.
Perhaps John Key just ‘mis-spoke’ on that claim that “[a] mountain of evidence shows that the quality of teaching – inside the classroom – is the biggest influence on kids’ achievement“. Perhaps he meant to say “[a] mountain of evidence shows that – inside the classroom – the quality of teaching is the biggest influence on kids’ achievement“.
Or maybe not.
But there’s an even more important point, once again very clearly made, concerning ‘student achievement’ and ‘performance': How is this ‘achievement’ and ‘performance’ going to be determined?
After all, not only is ‘lifting student achievement’ the underlying problem that the Prime Minister claims is the intended target of these proposals, but, vitally, it is on proven ability to do just this (lift student achievement) that Executive Principals, Change Principals, Expert Teachers and Lead Teachers will be identified (and, consequently, appointed).
Does the government perhaps have a sense of how ‘lifting student achievement’ can be identified?
Well, yes. And it’s less about ‘clues’ than it is about explicit statements.
National standards have taken time to bed in, and we’re working to improve the consistency of assessments. But the information they provide has been invaluable in determining where to put resources and effort to lift achievement.
Because lifting achievement, each year and in measurable steps, is the whole point of going to school. [Now they tell me!]
Also, of course, John Key, in the same speech, referenced that other test-based measurement system of achievement; the OECD PISA tests:
In fact, we have been on a gradual downward slide [in PISA] since the early 2000s.
In 2000, for example, our 15-year-olds were ranked fourth in the OECD’s study for achievement in maths, with only Hong Kong, Japan and Korea ahead of us. Now we’re ranked 23rd.
Today’s 15-year-olds in New Zealand are performing worse, on average, than 15-year-olds in 2000.
Further, Hekia Parata has been chatting to the man who runs PISA:
Last year Education Minister Hekia Parata hosted the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, who designed the Pisa system, and was told that top-performing countries ensured the most talented school leaders and staff went to the most needy schools.
In Shanghai, which topped the most recent results, vice-principals at successful schools can only become principals if they show they can turn around one of the lowest-performing schools.
Mr Schleicher told the Herald at the time that some New Zealand schools in disadvantaged areas did much better on the Pisa test, and the reasons for that needed to be shared across schools.
Yes, for this government at least, ‘achievement’ is ‘performance’ on one or other test. Oddly, when the latest PISA rankings came out in December, The Listener ran this article:
But as Pisa’s influence has grown, so has the attention it gets from academics. And 13 years in – with a towering stack of policy and reforms and reputations at stake – some who have examined Pisa closely are adamant that the whole thing is built on swampy statistical ground. Many believe there are problems with the way data is collected and analysed. These problems go so deep and matter so much, some say, that we should ignore the rankings completely – and certainly stop using them to drive changes to the way we teach our children.
As the management aphorism puts it, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it‘.
Of course, it’s also true that ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t measure it‘ – but I guess that’s defeatist.
For me, the saddest aspect of these announcements is that they represent one more step in re-engineering New Zealand into a depthless country where the siren calls of ‘achievement’ and ‘aspiration’ have infiltrated into every nook and cranny of our lives.
We have now almost totally refashioned the world – into which we bring our children – into one that screams out to them from every direction that to live is to be judged, measured, compared, evaluated and – as often as not – found wanting.
Recruiting ‘Executive Principals’ and ‘Expert Teachers’ to that task is simply the latest plodding step to a dreary endpoint.
In his speech, John Key claimed that:
In the end, these initiatives are about kids.
The Corpse flower blooms spectacularly, and only briefly – but its stench lingers.