Saturday, October 06, 2012

Educational failure - it is all about poverty

Biology beats political ideology
Right - wing, or conservative politicians, place the blame on peoples lack of achievement in life on the individuals themselves - and this particularly applies  to the 'poverty is no excuse for school failure' politicians.
Not on teachers side!
In New Zealand the current Minister of Education Hekia Parata parrots endlessly that it is not good enough for schools to have 1 in 5 students  leave school as failures. During the run up to the last election the Prime Minister bluntly said that teachers had let down  students. The simple message - teachers are not up it.
The government's agenda is clear. Create in the mind of the public that schools are failing so as to make way for privatisation , or corporatisation, of education; the development of charter schools.

Against earlier promises the government has allowed the publication of 'League Tables'  based on National Standards as  so as to allow parents to see where their school's achievement stands.
Lets forget about the consequences of such public data ( called 'ropey' by the Prime Minister), which will narrow the curriculum and encourage teaching to the tests, and instead focus on what the data shows about the effects of poverty on school achievement. One fifth of New Zealand children live below the poverty line - 270000 students -  a statistic that correlates to the Minister's one in five students failing!

Lower decile school students are falling behind. The question is  'what to do?' Obviously imposing National Standards, publishing 'League Tables' , or introducing 'high stake' standardised national testing is not the answer. Results from countries that have done so, like our neighbours Australia, are less than impressive.

There are obviously students at all decile levels that struggle but it is painfully clear that it is students from low socio economic groups ( students who attend low decile schools) that are in greatest need of help. These students, largely made up of Maori and Pacifica children, surely ought to be the focus for our Minister of Education not the vague 1 in 5 students failing?

Pasi Salberg
It is all ironic considering New Zealand scores higher than both the United Kingdom and the United States leaders in the field of national testingThe most equitable and highest achieving country (with the smallest achievement gap between high and low achieving students) is Finland which has chosen approaches that New Zealand could learn from.

With all this in mind it was enlightening to read in the  July 2010 New Scientist that biology should inform policy. The article begins by saying ' Left-leading politicians have traditionally blamed the structure of Western society for the feckless and antisocial behaviour of its underclass.Now biologists are chiming in.' The solution they continue 'is to improve the health and well being of the poorest in society and give all young people the prospect of a good job and a stake in their future.....In Recent years, though, we have gained considerable insights into the pre-requisites for human fulfillment. Health and security may be at the top of the list, but we also thrive on community, fairness, bonding, altruism, playfulness and celebration. Politicians would do well to look to these biological principals.'

In the New Scientist article large scale UK research found, 'that babies born in the poorest areas have slower cognitive development, which compromises their education and prospects in earlier life....Overwhelmingly the poverty into which a baby is born is going to be a big influence.'

'People in deprived areas face two kinds of hazard. First , there are constraints on what they are able to do to mitigate their situation.Diet is a prime example....Then the environment is often physically more dangerous and unhealthy.'  High unemployment, particularly for the young, adds to the mix.  'These are things the poor cannot really do much about, which trigger a downward spiral of risky living and less attention to health.'

 In New Zealand 25% of people between 18 and 24 are unemployed! The solution is just not about addressing material poverty, it is also about addressing the poverty of hope. The increase in the effects of poverty, on peoples self confidence and and self worth ( leading to risky behaviour),  increased dramatically as a result of the 'market forces'  political ideology, introduced in the 80s, and which still drives the current government's policies.

So what is the answer the article asks? Developing 'shonky' National Standards and 'ropey' League tables and blaming teachers obviously isn't an answer. For all that schuuls do need to do more to develop the gifts and talents of all students. Such issues as grouping by ability, streaming, or teaching if isolated rather than integrating subjects needs to be questioned. Finnish educational provision provides direction in this respect as does a long line of New Zealand creative teachers.

Nothing a government does will ' change the situation if young people don't see a decent future for themselves.'.... 'To change behaviour we have to change the environment, which means that actually reducing poverty in the most deprived areas is likely to do a much better job than education...'

The New Scientist article continues, 'reducing poverty alone isn't enough'.

In their book "The Spirit Level "  authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate  Picket, respectively , emphasize the degree of income inequality in society rather than poverty per se as being a major factor in inequality. 'They show that nations ,such as the US and the UK, which have the greatest inequality in income levels ... ( have the worst) range of social problems'. 'Inequality seems to change the quality of social relations in society'.

Since the publication of the article New Zealand now has the widest income gap in the Western world accompanied by a full range of social problems.

'In unequal societies trust drops away, community life weakens and society becomes more punitive because of fear up and down the social hierarchy. Really dealing with economic inequalities is difficult because it involves unpopular things like raising tax' . The article continues that, 'politically it is much easier to pump money into education programmes even if the evidence suggests that these are, on the whole, pretty ineffective .

In the "Spirit level"  it suggests there are two quite different ways that society can be made more equal. ' Some countries, like Sweden, do it by redistribution, with high taxes and welfare benefits.In others like Japan, earnings are less unequal in the first place'. In such countries citizens have higher life expectancies and lower levels of social problems'. 'Other important factors', say the authors, 'are strong unions and economic democracy.'

'The bottom line', if young people are to avoid becoming disadvantaged,  is that ' they need  reasons to believe they have a stake in the future'.

We have a long way to go in this country to give all citizens a real stake in the future and not just the so called 'winners'. 


Allan Alach said...

Great one, Bruce. Very timely, following the fresh air resulting from Pasi Sahlberg's visit. The tide is turning at last.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Allan. It does seem like some of gloss is fading off the PRO of the National Party - their leader and their education minister

Anonymous said...

The National Party must be blinded by their ideology if they ignore the devastating effects of poverty on student achievement and a range of other troubling social issues. Great blog.

Teacher as Transformer said...

Sorry, my experience after Pasi Sahlberg visited my part of the world (Alberta) nothing has changed, but the rhetoric. I hope that will not happen in New Zealand and elsewhere.

What I am seeing is a real persistent and aggressive move towards a public education system that takes care of the few at the expense of the many.


Bruce Hammonds said...

Nothing will change in New Zealand Ivon until we have a change of government - which is slowly beginning to look likely. Currently , as anon mentioned above, the current governmnt is blinded by their market forces agenda.