Thursday, August 18, 2011

Winning the battle but what about the war? Allan Alach speaks out - someone has to!

School principals spend more time reviewing everything leaving no time to develop exciting learning programmes. Measuring the pig does not make it fatter! As one wise old rural adviser once said, 'teachers have two important things they need to protect - their time and their energy - if  they waste it on bullshit they can't teach.'

In his recent posting, Bruce discussed the simplistic (and dare I say, ignorant?) view that is held by “Ministry bureaucrats, politicians, and many parents” about the teaching and learning process. I’d add one more group to that, possibly the most significant one.

Economists feel that schooling comes under their ‘discipline’, although whether economics is a discipline is a debate in itself. The vocabulary of cost/benefit analysis, measurable outcomes, inputs and outputs, targets, and so on, is from economics.

Kelvin Smythe discusses this business/economics connection in his recent article, which then goes on to to highlight recent research showing that “phonics teaching results in long-term reading disadvantage.” If you’ve not yet read this, then you’re missing a gem!

Governments in many countries are using the PISA testing results to beat schools and teachers over their collective heads. Ignoring the misuse of the results, let’s consider that the PISA tests are run by the OECD (“Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development”).

What? This is the organisation rating the world’s school systems? An economic think tank?  Google ‘supply side education.’ You will find many economic websites that include plans for education. Once again, play ‘spot the similarities”. Those amazing coincidences discussed in previous articles will magically reappear.

To close the circle:

Supply side economics’ (technically Neo-Classical economics) is the current financial orthodoxy of the Government, Treasury, Reserve Bank, Business Roundtable, and so on. It goes back in time through Don Brash, Ruth Richardson and Roger Douglas, to their mentor Milton Friedman, who believed in corporatisation of the schooling. Treasury provides all incoming governments with briefing documents, and education is not excluded from this. Need I say more?

Fighting this simplistic view of schooling is a major battle that we must win.

Seeing education as teacher ‘teaching’ and children learning’ lies behind the standards and associated ideologies. As economists and the business community are heavily influencing education policy it is not surprising that a factory view of teaching and learning is favoured. The omission of educational experts shows that minds are indeed very closed.

This ignorance is spread by a compliant media. The editorial in the Dominion Post on Wednesday 17th August is a typical example of this hegemony. If your blood pressure can handle it, track down and read this diatribe.

 Amongst the many illogicalities and misrepresentations is this gem:

“….the future labour market will be even more demanding than it is today. Those without skills and qualifications will face a bleaker future than they do now. It is thus not enough for a pupil to achieve at the level of their peers, hence national standards setting a high bar.”

Excuse me? This is implying that standards are designed to create a success/failure regime, so that some will achieve above the ‘level of their peers’.  That in itself blows the ‘raising achievement’ argument to pieces.

Standards used this way means perpetuating and enhancing a “have/have not” society, especially when we know that the key factor in children’s learning is socio-economic. So much then for the Beeby/Fraser vision I quoted in my last article.

The second interpretation is the belief that raising the bar will increase ‘achievement’.

Assuming this to be correct and that all children will ‘achieve’, we will find ourselves back where all pupils will be ‘achieving’ at a similar level to their peers. Raise the bar again, I suppose? And so the circle will continue until we arrive at the inevitable outcome of the ‘haves/have nots’. I don’t see a third interpretation of this statement.

The hidden bias of the author drips through the whole article. How about this?

“...the Official Information Act means that the data will be accessible to everyone. Then, parents who care about their kids’ achievement will be able to see which local schools do well and which do not.” 

Parents who care?  The use of this qualifier immediately reveals the author’s mindset.

A whole article could be written on this editorial alone; however I suggest you do read it. As well as the obligatory (and yawn inducing) attack on the NZEI the whole article is emotive and illogical, with barely a fact to be found.

The key warning for us is that the media are not objective and make use of the same emotional levers used by the government. Appealing to the baser emotions such as greed, fear, prejudice and many others, is an obvious strategy. Why do people buy into this?

The National Party targeted parents’ fears for their children’s future by continually stressing the one in five are failing line in the last election campaign. The Dominion Post editorial has played the same cards, to the point where the whole article reads like a National Party press release.

The fall of the Murdoch empire is showing how the media manipulate the public for their own ends. Murdoch seems to have been caught out, but we’d be foolish to think his companies are alone in this. In a later posting I will looking at the way the Government and Ministry of Education, in conjunction with the media, use language in shaping our thinking about education and how we inadvertently reinforce this.

What can we learn from this kind of ‘claptrap’?

We must not play by their rules. Instead, we must be able to argue from a position of strength. This will come from having an in depth knowledge and understanding of all the issues around national’s standards, and from having an extensive and rich understanding of learning and pedagogy. Unfortunately I’m often left with the uneasy feeling that far too many principals and teachers just don’t get it.

Your homework is to become very familiar with all the sound arguments against the very worrying developments in education. Become an educational expert.

Your career will depend on it. More importantly, the educational opportunities of present and future generations of New Zealand children depend on us winning this battle. The time to do this is NOW.

To paraphrase Shakespeare:

To fight, or not to fight, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

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