The land of the long tail of under-achievement

If you know anything about New Zealand education, you will have heard about this long tail of under-achievers. 20% of New Zealand children are not achieving. Most of these are Maori and Pasifika children. Often we would be celebrating that 80% of our children are achieving – and yes, this is great! But of course we want to capture every student – and rightly so. 1 in 5 children is far too many to slip through the cracks of our world-class education system.

So what are we, as a country doing about it?

Well, our government has agreed there is an issue. A good start. So what do they do. They implement an untested system of National Standards. This is the main thing that they seem to think will improve achievement in our country. I really don’t understand this. The National Standards, for one, are anything but STANDARD. They require to much judgement to be a standard in my opinion. To me, they are also not an assessment, but a benchmark. They rely on all the other well-tested and well-used assessment tools to gather data to manipulate into making a judgement based on the National Standards. This to me also tells me that we don’t need them, as we already had far better, tried and true, tools for assessing where a child is at and where they should be. So, our government heralds the National Standards as seemingly the saviour of our education system (which, by the way, didn’t need saving), yet they are not giving us any information that we didn’t already know.

One of the other things our government is choosing to do is to introduce charter uh, I mean partnership schools (changing the name really doesn’t change the fact they are charter schools). The issue I have with these schools is that they are modelling them off failed approaches in the UK and US. Now, I would be very happy if they prove me wrong, and look at those models and make appropriate changes, or stay away from the issues, but right now I really don’t think following those models is the best plan. Why not take our current world-class system and tweak it or improve it further to try to capture those 1 in 5 children? Why put it to one side and try something completely new?

This is where I like what Labour leader, David Shearer has done recently. He hasn’t just looked at the tail and thrown things at it hoping it will improve. He’s made practical suggestions. Some academics are saying that these things won’t fix the problem, and perhaps they won’t, but at least his suggestions are sensible and practical. National Standards will not reduce the tail. They are just another way of showing where the gaps are. Making sure our kids are not hungry when they’re at school is a practical suggestion with proven results. We know that we don’t learn well (or do anything well) when we’re hungry. Reading recovery does work. It might not be the perfect solution, but it’s got to help some of those kids. National Standards won’t help those kids. If anything they will demoralise them further when they find out they’re below or well below the standard. What does that information really do for a child?

I like David Shearer’s ideas. I’m not saying they are the answer, but he’s come at the problem with, what I think are some practical things to try out. Let’s put our money into actually trying to raise the achievement of students rather than just another way to measure it.

By the way, wouldn’t it be nice if the New Zealand government talked to the people at the chalkface (for want of a more up-to-date term) for their suggestions. You know, the ones actually having to work with these children on a daily basis. These trained teachers actually do have some great, innovative ideas, they just don’t always have the means (money!) to put it into practice.