Monday, May 13, 2013

Zombies: eating the brains and heart of the education system

A couple of weeks ago I asked a political insider what the Maori party was up to. The response was concise and immediate: waiting to die. However, with the news that ACT's grotesque charter school bill is about to pass unamended with the support of the Maori Party, it seems the insider was overstating the case for life. Rather, they are more like zombies: addled by some mixture of a dream of tino rangitiratanga, confusion about what charter schools will mean for low-income urban Maori, and, presumably, lobbying by the Iwi Education Authority  (whose spokesperson Pem Bird is President of the Maori Party), the Maori Party's parliamentary wing has allowed its life blood to be sucked away in exchange for...what? A bigger bauble? 

Zombie education: New Zealand schools take a hit from another batshit idea.

This is a harsh assessment so perhaps some backfill might be helpful. The charter schools legislation was introduced by ACT (another zombie party) as part of its confidence and supply agreement with National. Briefly, the Bill provides that private entities - iwi groups, Destiny Church, Goldman Sachs etc - can use public money to set up and run private schools. This means less money is available for public schools. The Bill excludes charter schools from any of the usual public accountability including being subject to the Official information Act; charter schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers or follow the national cirriculum, or have any parent representation on the school board. Tellingly, charter schools are to be foisted on low-income areas - no untrained teachers and flakey cirricula for the children of the well-to-do, thanks. Former ACT party president and Welfare Working Group ideologue Catherine Isaac has hilariously described charter schools as being about 'freedom' and 'choice'. Elsewhere and more candidly, Ms Isaac has described charter schools as "an experiment aimed at lifting education outcomes for the bottom 20 per cent of pupils. These schools should be looked on as the R&D arm of the education system."  Got that? When it comes to 'freedom' and 'choice' you don't need evidence. It's enough that poor kids in Christchurch and South Auckland will be subjects in National/ACT's education R&D.

There's no denying that New Zealand has a problem with the high proportion of Maori young men leaving school without qualifications. Some can't even read and write, and many of these in turn end up populating our prisons (about 70% of prisoners are functionally illiterate). The 2007 PISA report found that New Zealand scored higher than any other OECD country in the relationship between socioeconomic background and school performance. Given that Maori and Pacific people are more likely to have low incomes, it is surprising that the Maori Party has not pushed for greater economic equity instead of supporting the cynical Charter School Experiment, wherein many of the subjects will be Maori.

A report (linked above) on the Iwi Education Authority's submission on the charter school Bill quoted Pem Bird as asking where was the accountability for Maori underachievement? The answer, of course, is that in a democracy accountability lies with all of us. It is certainly difficult to see how legislation that removes all the normal accountability is going to be an improvement on a system that is at least subject to the Official Information Act and has elected boards comprising parents and members of the community. Suppose iwi charter schools achieve the same or worse results than state schools? To whom are they accountable for taxpayers' money? 

Maori frustration is understandable but Maori educational underachievement is not new (and just to note here that not all Maori underachieve, and most do OK). It happened in the 1970s but in a time of full employment and readily available jobs, no one much noticed. A 1988 report by the Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare recommended "investment in urban and rural districts to promote the social and cultural skills of young Maori people and to promote training and employment opportunities for them." This has never happened, and it won't with charter schools, either.

It also seems very odd that the party which has traditionally been so ready to scream about Maori privilege is suddenly so concerned with Maori educational achievement. In the past, initiatives aimed at closing the gap between Maori and Everyone Else have been closed down where possible by various ACT hacks, up to and including the party leader, blathering about 'one law for all' and 'equality before the law'. Suddenly, shelling out money to iwi organisations is OK? No. ACT is using Maori education as a Trojan horse to get corporates into the provision of education and undermine New Zealand's world class education system. Siphoning public money to the private sector via education has been described as 'the big enchilada' for corporate investors.
The CREDO study found that on average charter schools do the same or worse than public schools

So the million dollar question is do charter schools work? Do they pick up lazy public school doofus's and turn them into rocket scientists? The evidence suggests not. A national (US) study by Stanford University's CREDO research unit found about one in five charter schools had better test results than public schools while double that had worse ones. Lack of public accountability has also led to 'serious problems' of mismanagement and profiteering. Where charter schools have achieved better results it is because they have enrolled students already getting above average test scores, have excluded poorer or special needs students, have received additional private money or have been subject to far stricter accountability regimes than anything envisaged by the New Zealand legislation. In New Orleans, a city with a higher proportion of charter schools than anywhere else in the US, there are now serious questions about the ability of disabled students to obtain an education in charter schools (and see here). In general, there is no methodologically sound evidence that charter schools consistently produce the amazing results their proponents claim.

So what might work better? What might we do to address the serious inequalities in outcome between Maori and Pacific children and others? Well, we could start by looking at countries that consistently do well in international studies. In 2009 Finland was ranked 6th for maths, 2nd for science, and 3rd for reading. Countries coming in ahead were from South East Asia. New Zealand ranked well ahead of the US in all three categories. 

The guiding principle in Finnish education is equity - every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn. This means that those who have less shall receive more (see here and here). All children receive free meals in schools, access to healthcare and individualised guidance. Finland invests much more money in early childhood than do either New Zealand or the US, and has low levels of child poverty. This means children are not bringing a bunch of other problems to school. Finnish children do less homework than their peers elsewhere, enjoy more creative classes in school and are not subject to standardised tests as they are in the US and now New Zealand. Teachers are highly skilled and accordingly respected. But most importantly, Finland receives these impressive results within a fully state-funded and organised system. There are no private schools as we understand them, and the few that exist receive state funding and are not allowed to charge fees. So they're not siphoning millions out of the education budget to support a few elites. ALL children are considered important, and all are given an opportunity. Given Finland's success, it is a shame New Zealand is heading in completely the opposite direction.

And to wrap up, there is a broader political economy at play here. Charter schools, like other trendy quick-fixes to social problems, not only fail to address entrenched inequalities, they have used the language of choice and freedom to mask the lack of choice many citizens have in their day-today lives. To paraphrase one commentator, the discourse around charter schools relieves the rest of us 'of any semblence of social responsibility and commitment'. Talk of diversity and democracy by charter school proponents do not address the power and racial inequalities that manifest in the educational underachievement of too many young Maori and Pacific people. It is a shame that is its zombie-fied state, the Maori Party appears to have chosen the interests of corporate investors over its commitment to excellent public education for all.