Friday, October 01, 2004

Students chronically disengaged

On the news last night, the Ministry of Education was reported to admitting to 86000 unjustified absences every week. Can this be right? Jim Hopkins ( NZ commentator) said, on radio today, that if school were factories they would be closed down - although he was referring to the news about struggling first and second year teachers. He however is right - secondary schools are 'factories' and if not closed down they need to be re-invented into organizations more suited to the new millennium. Robert Blum ( James Hopkins University professor and pediatrician) cites research in the US that states 50 to 60% of all students are 'chronically disengaged'. A similar figure would apply in New Zealand? We know that we currently send out into society 19% of students who have acquired no qualifications to show for their time. Even an inefficient factory wouldn't put up with such a failure rate.

In contrast to the above depressing figures we now know enough to be able to create 'new' schools where all students can succeed. This knowledge is more than just recognizing the power of good teachers, pedagogy and high expectations that the Ministry is keen on talking about. Ironically these same good teachers have been frustrated the past decade trying to implement and assess incoherent curriculum documents imposed by the very same Ministry!

The Education Ministry needs to face up to the painfully obvious fact that it is the system that teachers work in that is the problem. This is something an inspirational Minister of Education ought to be facing up to if he really wants to tap into the creative energy of teachers and students. As David Hood says, in his excellent book, 'Our Secondary Schools Don't Work Any More', there is nothing natural or given about how schools are structured. Schools are bound by traditions that face the wrong century and are just not able to cater for the students now forced to stay at school until they are 16.

No point in catching truants and giving them more of the same medicine! There is no point in blaming students, or teachers, or parents. What we want are some new experimental schools set up to engage disaffected students and frustrated teachers.

We need to ask why do we organize secondary schools so they resemble no other institution in the world? Henry Ford would be at home running one of our current big schools! There will be little real change until communities, parents and the press demand something better rather than continually tinkering with a failing system.

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