Our education system has seen a lot of quick change in the last few years, with potentially still more to come.
National standards, league tables, charter schools – much of the change introduced by the Government is motivated by a desire to ‘lift the tail’. That is, bring up the achievement rates of the bottom percentile of students, many of whom are Maori or Pacific Islanders and most of whom come from low socio-economic communities.
(The statistics are tidy: 20% of kids leave school with no qualification; 20% of kids grow up in poverty.)
The theory goes, if some form of measurement that is ‘standardised’ across schools is brought in, parents, teachers, children and government can all work towards achieving those standards in a way that leaves no child behind. So difficulties with reading, writing and maths are spotted and sorted out in the early years before they become a real issue.
The problem is humanity. No two humans are alike and no two ways of learning are the same. But what about teachers, should there be a national standard for them? Or is it enough to have a nice smile and a firm hand.
“A lot of the emotion attached to education is around an experience of schooling that happened 20 or 30 years ago,” says Mark Johnson, principal of Greenmeadows Primary School. “Everyone is an ‘expert’ on schools because everyone went to one.”
Almost everyone certainly has an opinion on teachers, their conditions and the quality of the work they do. Schools are adamant that teachers put in the hours, and tease out results that are, on an international scale, above average. The frustration for parents potentially lies in the lack of transparency. Teachers are assessed, but the findings of those assessments are kept confidential. Parents have ERO reports and word of mouth to go on. Schools say, “Trust us.”
“If I was looking for a new doctor, would I be able to check up and see what kind of success rates they had? No.” Mark Johnson says. “What can I go on? Word of mouth. I can’t read their personal performance reviews or find out how their patients fared. I can only base my choice on what people say, I’m not privy to appraisals.”
Geraldine Travers, who has led Hastings Girls’ High School for the past 14 years, knows how much the evaluation of teachers has changed.
“In the mists of time it may have been right to say that teachers were not accountable for student achievement, but now that is simply not the case. Thirty years ago the teachers’ responsibility stopped at the exam, but now achievement of students is directly linked to the teachers. If there’s an issue, the first place we’d look is the teacher.”
Where is the time to teach kids?
Rather than a deficit of measurement in schools there is perhaps a glut. There are appraisal systems, personal goal setting and all-school goal setting. There are peer reviews, self reviews, warrants of fitness and student evaluations, and external consultants are brought in to review and cross-check. There is perhaps so much review and assessment it begs the question: where is the time to sit in a classroom and teach stuff to kids?
Tamatea Intermediate School has in place a multiple part system where a WOF is carried out on every teacher each year. Teachers must keep comprehensive professional development logs as well as a “Teaching as Inquiry” plan, designed to focus them on reviewing their own teaching practice and style.
Roy Sye, principal at Tamatea Intermediate, says, “People have no idea what teachers do outside the classroom. There’s a lack of respect. Teachers work very hard and people don’t realise what’s going on.”
Coupled with a lack of understanding from the public, Roy sees recent Government initiatives and attitudes towards teachers as unhelpful and unsupportive. Goal posts keep moving, new initiatives and processes are introduced, grand and sweeping changes are forewarned with little or no dialogue with schools.
“Teachers and principals are seen as the enemy by the Government and we’re marginalised. There’s a lack of trust, no transparency from the Ministry of Education and no communication,” says Sye.
“We don’t feel like we’re partners in education, the Government just comes along and says, ‘Here’s the next change, and here’s the next’. “
Guilty until proven innocent
Tamatea Intermediate has 25 teachers and 460 students, with another 240 coming into the school to do technology. There is a also a special needs class at Tamatea, which is a decile 4 school. “In many ways, we’re middle New Zealand,” explains Sye.
Sye agrees that although assessment of teachers is happening and to quite a large extent, the lack of transparency may be a challenge for some parents. “There will be parents who look solely at academic results but they will be a small minority. For most parents, they are looking for a general feel and for most that is enough.”
Rather than teachers being innocent until proven guilty, it could be argued that the opposite is true. The onus is put on teachers to prove their competency, and that takes a lot of extra work for a workforce that is already stretched thin.
Sye is concerned that the need to rectify potential issues may be leading to rushed and ill thought-out changes to our education system.
“Comparing achievement within schools is hard enough, comparing achievement across schools is near on impossible, it’s just not apples with apples,” says Sye. “My hope is that the Government doesn’t simply want us to fail at national standards so they can bring in national testing.”
One plus one doesn’t always equal two
The Government seems less inclined to hear the views of principals and teachers, and instead are lending an
ear to the great omnipotent collective it calls ‘Parents’, who it says want greater transparency and accountability for the performance and achievement of their children.
“Twenty parents will look at twenty different things; a quality that is good for one may be totally wrong for another,” says Mark Johnson of Greenmeadows Primary.
Standards and tables are also skewed by a variety of impacts, including homelife, environment and the children themselves. Therefore using academic results as an indicator of teacher performance may not be as simple as one plus one equalling two.
“The best teachers often very willingly take on the most challenging kids, the ones that will always struggle to meet standards. Those kids can make huge progress with that teacher, but it is very hard to measure that against what is happening with other children, or in other schools,” says Johnson.
“Our educational system is inquiry-led and holistic. We are trying to build the whole child and that is something that is hard to measure. Rather than looking at academic results solely we look at the child’s attitude and how comfortable they are in the learning environment. Putting measures on that and communicating it is very hard.”
No room for creativity
Geraldine Travers agrees opinions on education are often coloured by experiences parents had of their own education. “I guarantee if you ask parents in the street about education they will say negative things about teachers and schools in general, but if you ask them about their child’s own teacher, they will say good things.”
For Travers, the public’s opinion is often based more on hearsay than on fact. She quotes figures from recent international scoring systems to reinforce her belief in the strength and quality of the New Zealand education system.
In the PISA rankings for education in OECD countries, New Zealand scores low in only one area: of 29 countries we are 20th when it comes to government spending on education. In reading and science we are 4th, in maths 7th, in teacher hours worked 3rd.
Many of the initiatives being proposed or introduced by the Government have been tried in other countries. So rather than wishing for a crystal ball through which to imagine our future education system, we can look overseas.
“We are copying the failed experiments of other countries,” says Geraldine Travers.
Phil Carmine is deputy principal at Hastings Girls’ High School and has the task of analysing NCEA results and other measurements across all subjects.
Although he agrees that transparency around individual teachers’ achievement is lacking, he feels there is good reason for this. “Some parents would be interested, but it would be like publishing personal performance appraisals. Analysing statistics and results is a pretty blunt tool. It can guide, but a black and white piece of paper that ranks teachers isn’t everything.”
Carmine is also concerned that too much focus on measurement of teachers will have a detrimental impact on the passion and commitment it takes to bring quality educational experiences into the classroom.
“Teachers looking at statistics run the risk of losing something creative in their teaching. They will always be asking themselves: ‘Can I afford a week out of my assessment to explore this idea with my class?’ Our energy needs to go on our students, not on filling out boxes.”
When you’re 12, what makes a good teacher?
Jakob Flynn, Head Boy; Melissa Tahere, Head Girl; Isobel Barretto, Deputy Head Girl; Peter Laferty, Deputy Head Boy. All in year 8 at Tamatea Intermediate School. For half an hour we sit together and discuss what makes a good teacher.
In preparation for my visit the four children have written some suggestions on a whiteboard, but except for Principal Roy Sye popping his head through the doorway a couple of times, presumably to check that I haven’t eaten any of the kids, we are left to our conversation.
“Good teachers have fun and they’re humorous,” begins Jakob. “But they also show respect to their students and they bring discipline to the classroom so it’s a healthy place for people to learn.”
Jakob, backed up by the others, explains how important balance is.
“It’s hard to learn when it’s too quiet or when it’s really loud.”
Peter agrees. “Good teachers keep the class at a reasonable noise level, so you can get to have a discussion but it’s still a good working environment.”
Melissa believes the school values (perseverance, respect and responsibility) play an important part in the equation and that they’re not just for kids. “Teachers have to show our virtues too or else they stop meaning anything. They have to be an example to us in what they do and say.”
A good relationship with a teacher needs to be mutual, according to Peter. “A teacher that likes you and you have a connection with makes a big difference, and trust is really important.”
Honesty and integrity are important to Jakob, “If they don’t show you who they are then you can’t trust what they say. I can pick a faker a mile away, even just by the way they walk. Some people walk with a swagger and they’re just too confident. It’s fake.”
As with students, attitude can be all important. “Attitude can affect your learning. If a teacher is on a down-buzz then you won’t be able to learn. My favourite teacher doesn’t care about answers, he cares about how you get there,” says Jakob.
For Peter, a teacher’s perspective on his work is a vital learning tool. “Feedback and feedforward are both very helpful.” He adds: “The way a teacher teaches is more important than their personality.”
Isobel has a direct comparison in her class, with two teachers job-sharing one role. “It’s interesting to see the difference between the two of them. One’s nice but quiet. I’m not quiet so I don’t so much like the quiet teachers.”
Jakob has definite opinions and is confident in sharing them. “I’ve always been above at school but I like teachers who help people that don’t cope so well. You never know where that person might go in life.”
It may be a generalisation to say girls benefit from group work, but Isobel and Melissa certainly enjoy the process.
“I prefer teachers who let us work in groups,” says Isobel.
Melissa adds: “I like group learning because I like helping people. Everyone has a different opinion and that can help you think about things more.”
Both girls enjoy being set work, having things explained and then being left to get on with it.
Melissa: “You feel independent and good teachers help with independence. [A favourite teacher] holds back a bit and lets us learn for ourselves.”
When it comes to bad teachers, all four children agree that yelling is a big negative.
“Yelling makes me really just want to leave the room,” says Jakob.
Inconsistency, particularly in terms of discipline, is another bugbear.
“When one person does something really naughty, then the teacher picks on that person,” explains Isobel. “Then for the rest of the lesson if anything happens the teacher pins it on that person, whether it was them or not. And if they do anything, even tiny like scrape their chair, the teacher yells at them.”
To conclude our session I asked the children what they wanted to do once they finished studying.
Jakob would like to study law at Harvard, or be a geriatric anaesthesiologist. Peter wants to do something practical like engineering or building. Isobel tells me she hasn’t found what she really loves yet. And Melissa says she’s also uncertain: “I’m just living in the moment.”