Throughout New Zealand, school boards of trustees (myself included) are debating National’s recent announcement to spend an extra $359 million to create four new teaching and leadership roles working across schools – Executive Principals, Expert Teachers, Lead Teachers, and Change Principals. The purpose of these new roles is to lift educational achievement in all schools.

My initial ‘google research’ on the announcement seemed to play out true to form – one side of the political spectrum blaming poor student achievement on rubbish teachers and school leaders, the other end hitting straight back with the usual ‘kids can’t learn if they’re hungry’.

But as I made my way through the various press releases, blogs and articles I observed a noticeable lack of heat in the debate. According to my more experienced and cynical colleagues, apparently ‘any major education policy announcement usually sends the whole country completely bats**t for weeks’.

Patrick Jones

Was the lack of more debate clever political timing (we all got busy getting back to school and work), clever distraction (hooray, let’s talk about the flag instead!), or possibly, was it because the ‘establishment’ were all eyeing up what they could personally gain from the announcement, unwilling to rock the boat just yet? Or, take a deep breath, is it possible the ‘establishment’ might actually think this policy has some merit? From voices not typically known for moderation, I read phrases in press releases like ‘cautiously optimistic’, ‘has potential’, ‘significant’.

So what thoughts could I offer the average BayBuzz reader on this topic? National didn’t say it explicitly, but this policy is aimed directly at poor and/or complacent teaching and leadership in some schools, right? I quickly made the huge generalisation – based on the types of services and products advertised in this publication – that it is very unlikely that most readers’ children are in one of those schools.

So why should you even care about this announcement?

In some ways you have to give credit to National’s education announcement in that it didn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. They didn’t pretend that this policy would do anything to immediately address the fact that 25% of our nation’s children live in poverty. In his state of the nation speech John Key asserted the many things his government are already doing to address this. But at the end of the day, even if we start to improve the home lives of those 25%, a poor teacher and/or poor school leadership is still going to be exactly that.

But like a hungry belly, you can’t ignore the grumblings from the left either. The Greens came up with a proposal to make schools hubs for social services (lunch included) and Labour offered better starts to childrens’ lives. Both of these are admirable, but neither actually said anything about how their parties would address teaching and leadership performance.

Could the fact they didn’t argue back signal that we all agree there is an issue to address here?

After all, let’s not pretend that crappy teaching and leadership exists only at the ‘worst’ schools that have the ‘worst’ social issues to deal with. Poor performance can exist in schools with wonderful resources and reputations and I bet lots of readers would have examples of that, albeit isolated examples.

The reality is poor student achievement occurs in a context. There will be crappy and brilliant teachers teaching hungry kids; likewise, crappy and brilliant teachers teaching well-fed kids. I think most would agree with that.

So if we all agree that poor performance in schools needs addressing, the conversation can turn to what an acceptable level of achievement might be. If this policy lands in the ‘worst’ schools first, what results would you want and how quickly would you expect some return on that investment? Determining acceptable levels of achievement within various ‘at risk’ factors is a minefield of a topic to write about. Fortunately though, some of my teacher friends provided inadvertant insight.

Progress is relative

I and two brilliant and experienced teacher friends were having a lovely chat when one of the kiddies with us was overheard to ‘name drop the big guy’ (i.e., blaspheme). One of my teacher friends remarked that they were trying to stamp down on that type of language at their school. Fair enough. The conversation moved on. But later on, the other teacher friend quietly commented to me that, where they worked, they’d happily take a few ‘goddammits’ if they only replaced the ‘f**k its’ and ‘f**k offs’.

The chat reminded me that achievement does need to be considered within the context the teaching is delivered. And more importantly, achievement is actually measured by progress; that is, how far you have come to get to where you are.

Getting a child to ‘well below’ against a maths national standard might be an outstanding example of excellent teaching performance when the child starts school not knowing the difference between a number and a letter, or perhaps not actually knowing a number or letter. When a child actually uses the term ‘f**k off’ as normal vocabulary, not attaching any social inappropriateness to that, then you start to realise for some poor wee souls, the journey along the national standards grid is starting in some category way worse than ‘well below’.

Perhaps your child’s school has very small percentages of students in the ‘below’ and ‘well below’ columns. So whilst you might worry about your own child’s progress at times, you don’t worry too much about the overall progress of the school. The nation’s poor student achievement is someone else’s problem, right?

But just how sure are you about the standard your child’s school is presently meeting? The school that might not seem bad when compared to the low decile schools in ‘those’ suburbs might not look so flash when benchmarked against schools with similar characteristics and cohorts. If you don’t know what your school’s stats look like, visit www.educationcounts.govt.nz/find-school and be amazed and scared at what information is held on every school and is so easily accessible and comparable.

If the government is true to its word and involves the profession in determining how and where to start, the likely reality is that the first ‘worst’ performing schools to be addressed will probably have poor student achievement, huge social challenges, and poor educational leadership (which leads to poor teaching in some cases).

Don’t for a second make the assumption that those first off the rank schools and communities will resist this offer. After all, if the government offered you additional guaranteed one-day-a-week expert mentoring linked explicitly to performance improvement in your business, would you take it? I’ll bet some schools are already banging down Hekia’s door asking to be picked first. Some of these schools may have been struggling for many years to turn things around, but it’s hard to attract and keep talent when, for the same money, quality teaching professionals might choose to take an ‘easier’ job elsewhere.

So perhaps the challenge for those of us whose realities lie in schools unlikely to be initially impacted by this announcement might actually be to butt out. Let’s not pretend that just because our children’s schools run efficiently and have satisfactory achievement that we automatically have the answer (and right) to making this work in all schools.

Let’s also not fall into the trap of thinking that we could get some ‘kudos’ (or worse, some financial gain) from releasing some of ‘our experts’ to help in ‘those’ schools. If a teacher or leader from your well-performing school is appointed to one of these important roles, let’s view that not as a statement about how good our school is, but as a statement about how good that individual is. Let’s get behind them and give them every opportunity to make a difference to someone else’s child’s life, which in turn might bring benefits to yours.

On that note, one of the potential ‘side’ benefits this policy might highlight is the wealth of teaching talent we already have – thousands of unsung educational heroes who, despite all the swearing and lunch boxes filled with crappy life stories where sandwiches should be, already make a huge difference in the lives of some of our most needy cohorts of children. Let’s hope they shine as the amazing people they are.

Meantime, your call to action might be to take a more active interest in your school to ensure it is doing the best it can and does not become complacent in its performance.

This announcement puts all schools on notice. When the gaps start closing between the currently ‘worst’ schools and those schools who don’t currently stand out, schools and communities who have previously not been too worried about achievement might find themselves asking if they are really doing as well as they could be.

And is that a bad thing?

Patrick is Director of Policy and Projects at EIT, and board of trustees chairperson at a local primary school, with many personal and professional connections within NZ’s education sector.

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