The Education Elephant in the Election Room

Guest Post

I went to a country high school.  Despite it being many moons ago I have a vivid memory of the good teachers who taught us so much, inspired us to excel, passed on important values and lifted our performance.  I also remember the not so good teachers – generally lazy, poorly prepared, not particularly interested and clearly inadequately trained.  They did little for our education.

That experience would be true for most people.  We appreciated the top teachers and made fun of, even despised the poor ones.  The difference between the two types of teacher was and still is a couple of country miles.

Mr Broad was one of those memorable teachers.  We learned so much from him in his subject areas but also about life, about what it meant to be a productive, positive contributor to our community and what our responsibilities were as citizens.  He turned in long hours, was a tough disciplinarian but loved a bit of fun, got involved in sport, tramping and social activities.  He was a good bloke that we respected.   

Sure, that is not a professional or academically derived teacher assessment.  It doesn’t need to be.  We simply knew and any honest evaluation would have confirmed our views.

Independent research on education quality focuses on teachers and, in particular principals.  There are numerous examples – here is just one.

Additionally, Rivkin et al. (2002) analysed the achievement outcomes of about half a million pupils from 3000 primary schools in Texas in order to measure the value added by teachers. These researchers concluded that: The results show large differences among teachers in their impacts on achievement. Our estimates, which are based on just the within school variations in teacher quality, reveal the effects of teacher quality to be substantial even ignoring any variations across schools. They indicate that having a high quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socio-economic background (Rivkin, Hanushek et Kain, 2002, p.3).

So, how come that no mainstream party in this election has done anything more than make passing reference to teacher quality or teacher training in their education policies?   Sure, the ACT party has a partial solution but why nothing from National and Labour?  No indication they even understand the importance of the issue.

Plenty of sexy side issues around new tech options, free stuff for universities, more classrooms and new schools but alarmingly quiet on the really critical issue of teacher quality.

Improving teacher quality means improving teacher training.  We need to invest more heavily and in a more focused way in teacher trainees and in a continuous improvement programme for teachers going forward.

It also means rewarding better performance.  In almost every other profession and business we reward the diligent, the application to excellence, the better trained and we do so without a murmur or dissent.  Differently rewarded staff work alongside each other in every situation knowing that their performance counts and better training gets recognised.

Only the teaching profession push the idea that they are different.  They push collegiality – a misnomer for lowest common denominator outcomes or plain old socialism.    They claim it is impossible to find a “fair” way to identify and reward better performance.  It’s not about “fair”; it’s about justice – justice for our children.  There is a huge body of science and practicality around assessing and rewarding performance in every other job sector – why not in teaching?

We know why the election policies avoid discussing teacher performance and training, too.  Labour are in the pocket of the unions, including the teacher unions.  They won’t rock any boats that may upset their paymasters.  But, why the avoidance by National?  Are they too weak to deal with any angst that may come from the unions?  Is their unwillingness to deal with teacher quality in a comprehensive way telling us that our children’s future is less important to them than a few votes and a quiet life for the Minister of Education?

If we had to identify key issues that would impact on New Zealand’s future prosperity most of us would rank a good quality education very highly.  It would always be in the top three.  We also know that top quality teachers are the most important element in securing that high quality education.

Making tertiary education free is not a solution that deals with the underlying problem of teacher quality. It’s a cheap-shot bribe for the younger vote that tells you Labour will sell their principles for any mess of voter potage.  In any other context they would hammer the well off to transfer wealth to the lower income bracket but they happily turn a blind eye to millionaires’ offspring getting a free university ticket to woo the student vote.

So, when do we face up to reality and deliver?  ACT are at least talking about it but they need a more comprehensive approach that drills down into training of teachers and rewarding best performance.  Let them make it a condition of guaranteeing supply for National and then we would have progress.


-Name withheld by request

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.