Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Where is the achievement gap?

Literacy -means or end? Posted by Hello

The Ministry of Education’s mission is focused on closing the achievement gap. No one can argue with this, particularly as we have in New Zealand a long achievement ‘tail’. As the data is mainly focused on literacy and numeracy this is naturally where the emphasis is being placed. This emphasis is reinforced by regular press reports about students who cannot read and do maths after passing through our school system.

However, closing the ‘achievement gap’ has been one of most frustrating goals of public education worldwide. In recent years the emphasis has focused on the quality (or lack of it) of classroom teachers. Teachers with high expectations, using ‘best practices’, and with parent cooperation, are now being seen as the key to success.

Perhaps we are going about the issue in the wrong way? We are putting all our efforts into improving the skills of teachers and focusing everything on improving test results. In the UK test scores, which initially improved due to their literacy and numeracy hours, have now flattened out, and in the US, increasingly teachers are teaching towards the tests. Both strategies have resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum offered to students.

Gov. Schwarzenegger of California has added his wealth of educational knowledge to the debate blaming teachers in general for the 'disaster' of their schools. His answer is performance payment for 'successful' teachers. No consideration that teachers have been doing their best to assist students, many who enter schools from a dysfunctional society, while at the same time trying to implement the latest changes imposed by experts. Politicians, as always, like a simple solution to a complex problem. Scapegoating teachers is too easy.

What is required is an education that is focused on meeting the real needs of all students. This requires a personalized education that focuses on ensuring every students ‘voice’, thoughts and culture is valued. Everything in school should contribute to the development of every child’s talents, dreams and passions.

‘Students ‘voice’ is missing in many classrooms. A personalized classroom would , ‘illustrate’ the personal stories and expression of students; value student’s questions; and make full use of their cultures and immediate environment as learning resources. If this were to occur then literacy and numeracy would be improved by default. Writing and reading (and maths) are vital if children are to make personal meaning of their experiences – but real life challenges are vital to provide the motivation.

This personalized education was once a strength of creative New Zealand primary programs but to be of real value such programs would need to extended throughout the school system; a personalized curriculum for every learner.

But even this would not be enough to close the ‘achievement gap’. As well intentioned as the above efforts are they ignore the real problem, that of the wider social and economic conditions, and the lack of understanding of cultural issues that impcat on learners. As a consequence of earlier government policies we are now seeing a growing ‘under-class’ of disadvantaged citizens. Add to this cultural differences and alienation, and current solutions hardly begin to scratch the surface.

Children from poor socio economic status do not come to school with the same advantages as the ‘middle class’ children – or to put it another way, schools as they are structured, are more suited to the backgrounds of middle class students. This is not necessarily a deficit but a cultural difference. Parents of students from poor socio economic, or cultural backgrounds, have different styles of child rearing, different values, expectations, and different ways of relating to children, which create communication differences, which in turn 'mask' student’s abilities.

A move towards a personalization of education would require a transformation of schools as we now know them – particularly at the secondary level.

But even if schools were able to help children ‘catch up’, in the end, schools and teachers cannot solve the problem alone and it may be unfair to place such a responsibility on teachers.

We need politicians to develop an inclusive vision for New Zealand, one that really faces up to issues of poverty and economic exclusion; a vision that is based on the need for the reinvention of a sense of community; and the ability of all to contribute.

If this were to be achieved schools could then become centers of community renewal and talent development. To re-engage schools with their communities is the real challenge. Parents, community and school collaboration might be the real ‘achievement gap’ to be bridged.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let's hope personalisation and valuing students 'voices' become the new catch-cry words of the next few decades!