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.

Why I disagree with lowering the school starting age

Kindergarten has so many cool toys

Image: Flickr user Squiggle

Children in New Zealand, probably 99% of them (a big guess on my part!), start school when they turn 5. It makes me wonder how many parents think that this is the legal age that children must start school. The legal age for attending school in New Zealand is 6 years and you must stay in school until you turn 16 (unless you get an exemption).

Labour MP, Louisa Wall, who I must admit is possibly the flavour of the month in NZ politics at the moment is proposing that the school starting age be lowered to 4 years. [Article here] It turns out, according to Labour Leader, David Shearer, that this is something that Louisa has been talking about for a few weeks now, but mostly at a localised level in her electorate of Manurewa [see end of this video from Breakfast from about 4:25].

I think the point made of getting more children into some form of Early Childhood Education is valid. It will definitely help set them up for school. However I think that there are a lot of students who simply are not ready for school at 5 or even 6 years of age. Especially boys. They need time to play. And play is a very important factor in learning at that age. By putting formal education in front of them, they will not cope.

As a father of 5 children, 3 who are currently at school and one at kindergarten (the other is nearly 3), at least one of the older three could have done well by starting school a bit later. At least one of them was ready to go to school at about 4 and a half. We need to recognise that all children are different. The biggest concern I have about starting compulsory schooling at 4, would be that it would become too formal and structured. The Te Whariki early childhood curriculum in New Zealand is I believe well regarded around the world. It’s principles encourage relationship building, development, family and community connections and empowerment. From what I understand (I’m certainly no expert on this!!!), learning from play and encouraging participation is a big part of this.

Children are all different. They need time to develop at their own pace. They need opportunities to learn in their own ways, including learning about things that are of interest to them. Starting school at 6 years old is perhaps a reasonable compromise. I think that free play needs to be encouraged in the early years of school to help these children develop. Even as I watch my own children play at home, I can see them developing. The way they (boys and girls) play with the Lego and build structures and machines, I can see how their thinking and skills have developed over time. They are like little engineers – and pretty good ones if I say so myself – however I don’t want to push them to keep doing that. If they choose to, that is fine, but I want them to have a range of opportunities and interests.

We need to let our kids be kids! Let them play, to explore, to try out various things and see what happens! They need opportunities to succeed and to fail. They need to learn that it’s okay to fall, and getting hurt is part of life – but let’s keep the adventure going!

UPDATE: 5:32PM 10 September

After writing this post, someone posted a link to this article on Facebook where an academic suggests that children shouldn’t be starting formal education until age 6.

WHAT?! Don’t worry about unqualified teachers??

There is something about 2012, education and the National Party that has had me thinking a lot more about politics this year. Right now I think that the National Party should be quite concerned about the apparent double standards of Prime Minister John Key.

On the one hand, the PM has stated that those people who want to become teachers will need to have a degree already and then go on to complete postgraduate study in education. However, on the other hand, he has said today that unqualified, unregistered teachers will be able to teach in charter schools. So he’s made it more difficult to get teachers qualified, but made it easier for anyone to teach if they choose to teach in a charter school.

Link to news article

I notice also that the PM has stated that they will close down charter schools that are not successful as quickly as they’re setting them up. Surely this statement alone means that we should focus on what we’re currently doing instead of trying something new – essentially having our children as guinea pigs in something that the government itself is unsure whether it will work.

I still wonder why the Prime Minister is not the Minister for Education, as he seems to be the main spokesperson for anything to do with it at the moment and was during the first year of National Standards also!