Some Questions

Last week I talked about the illiterate 20% of New Zealanders who are in prison – or that’s what the rhetoric would have you believe.

Those asking for the ‘reform’ of our public education system have used this magical 20% figure as a reason. It turns out that 20% of Kiwi kids leaving school don’t hold the appropriate level of literacy or numeracy. Depending on what information you hear, this 20% could be either unable to fill in a job application and/or filling up our prisons.

Now, mainstream media rantings aside, after I did a little digging, I found there could be a grain of truth in this with the Education Ministry’s own figures suggesting around about one fifth of students don’t meet the requirements for sitting NCEA.

The only problem missing is any real analysis of why there are so many kids leaving our schools without qualifications.

Current centre-right ideological neoliberal thinking often gives us very simple solutions to complex, multifaceted problems. Problem: regular traffic chaos in Auckland. Solution: Build more roads (where the alternative would be to plan for the next 40 years and spend billions of public transport initiatives like other large cities around the world).

Problem: one fifth of kids could be leaving school without being literate or numerate. Solution: it’s the teachers fault, punish them (with performance pay based on national standards results).

The first question you need to ask when you are looking at kids leaving school is why. Why are they leaving? The answer generally lies somewhere in the vicinity of: they are leaving because they see school as irrelevant to their lives.

At the risk of sounding like the very neoliberals I’ve come to loath, back in my day…

I’m nearing my mid-40s. I still hark back fondly to my days as a student at Gisborne Boys High School. Because I was a border, some of that fondness is coupled with intense terrors and night-sweats, but generally high school was a pretty good time. It was that time in your life when you are beginning to find yourself and make your own decisions about your life.

It’s a time when you think about your place in the world, what you want to be, and who you want to be.

It’s also a time when you quickly realise if the sit down, shut up, instructional, writing down off the board style of education isn’t for you, then you are just hanging around until the time when you can leave and do something else.

Rodney Hide thinks you leave school to steal the stereo out of his BMW and that you’d probably be a dole bludger except you can’t fill out the form because you left school to steal the stereo out of his BMW.

There is also that time before high school. Primary school can also be a struggle if you haven’t been set up correctly. In New Zealand we have an early childhood education system that has its own curriculum. Many kids start school at 5 ready to go, but a large number don’t.

So, here are some questions about the 20%:

  1. How many kids who start school are unable to read and write?
  2. How quickly do those kids progress compared to kids who start school with some literacy and numeracy?
  3. How many kids come to school having not eaten that day?
  4. How does this impact on their ability to learn new things?
  5. How does hunger impact on national standards – that is, do kids who eat 3 meals a day perform better in national standard assessment when compared with kids who only eat once a day (or less).
  6. If you were to effectively deal with the hunger issue, how would that impact on learning?
  7. You (the neoliberal GERMists) say charter schools will allow organisations to be free from the curriculum so they are able to more effectively cater to this 20%. Where is your proof they will cater more effectively? Or are you just saying that because it sounds good?
  8. What would happen if high schools started focusing on those disengaged kids to see if you could spark their interest in something before they decided to leave school?
  9. What if those disengaged kids just did practical stuff – in the old days it was woodwork and home economics – and not necessarily focus on the reading, writing and maths unless it was required for the projects they were working on? Would this contextual learning lead to more interest in the basics and more kids leaving school to go on to higher education?
  10. If charter schools are going to use public money, does that mean there is going to be less money for existing public schools?
  11. How are your national standards going to impact the literacy and numeracy in those kids who are digital natives (if you don’t know what that means my neoliberal friends then you are more out of touch than your rhetoric suggests).
  12. Has anybody, anybody at all, promoting the charter schools idea here or abroad ever worked as a teacher?

Of course, I have only scratched the surface. You may want to add your own questions in the comments section. Please feel free.

My many points of previous weeks remain. Nobody promoting charter schools is, or has ever been a teacher. The research showing charter school performance in the UK and US shows they are neither better or worse than public schools. If they were so amazing then the private sector would be falling over themselves to open them up with their OWN money, not yours.

Here’s hoping a Labour-led government gets in at the next election. Their education spokesperson Chris Hipkins is saying some very sensible things.

Mr B.


One response

  1. How many of the 20% come from families that don’t value (or don’t understand the value of) learning or getting an education?
    Why do all kids have to reach the same ‘standard’ at the same time?


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