Opinion: Is IES a solution to the ‘achievement challenge’?

2014

Massey University Associate Professor JOHN CLARK takes a closer look at the proposed Investing in Educational Success (IES) initiative and finds the problems it hopes to solve to be more complex than IES can manage.

On 17 January 2014, the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, signed off a document, Investing in Educational Success: The Learning and Achievement Challenge, which noted the decisions of the Prime Minister and Ministers of Finance, Tertiary Education, and Education to introduce the Investing in Educational Success initiative to strengthen the profession in order to lift learning.

In the introduction, reference was made to “the longstanding achievement challenge across the New Zealand education system which successive national and international studies have reported” (s2) and that the “Joint Ministers have agreed system changes to significantly and substantially strengthen the profession’s teaching practice and educational leadership” (s3) on the assumption that “These changes will lead to measurable gains in learning and student achievement” (s3).

Achievement challenge

According to the Minister, “New Zealand has an achievement challenge” (s4) and few would dispute this: “Our top students are doing as well as students anywhere in the world, but there is a big gap between our top performing students and those who are not doing so well. International studies also tell us that we are not keeping pace with other high performing countries and jurisdictions and are falling short of our previous results” (s4). The international studies are PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS.

Solution

According to the Minister, “Joint Ministers have agreed system changes to significantly and substantially strengthen the profession’s teaching practice and educational leadership” (s3) such that “These changes will lead to measurable gains in learning and student achievement” (s3).

Further, “The evidence shows that supporting continual improvement in the quality of teaching practice is critical to delivering significant and sustained improvement in educational outcomes in schools, the quality of teaching and leadership has the biggest effect on raising student achievement” (s15). So, new roles in teaching and leadership will be established.

In this regard, “The proposal provides significant opportunities to strengthen the system and support individual schools as there is wide disparity within schools and between schools. We need to address both. Other systems have shown they can. We must, too. We expect to see measurable gains in learning and student achievement as a result of these changes” (s8). Thus, “Delivering and capturing improvement over time is itself a key characteristic of successful education systems that sustain success over time, and are reducing or eliminating the gap between their highest and lowest performing students” (s56). Attention is drawn to other places: “Examples of how this is achieved elsewhere are Singapore’s Professional Learning Communities and Hong Kong’s Research Endowment Fund. These kinds of structures and mechanisms are significantly under-developed in New Zealand” (s67).

Finally, “we also have a programme of work addressing the out-of-school effects on student learning and achievement. The evidence is clear about the impact of parental, family, and whānau engagement with their child’s learning and school and the impact of expectations the community holds of and for children” (s21).

Note: “Further design of the proposal will be undertaken … through a working party” (s9) – “there may be changes to details but not the thrust and objectives of the proposal” (s10). Because this critique is directed at the proposal itself rather than the details, no attention is given to the working party report on details.

Critique

Given the resources being poured into the initiative ($359 million over four years, 2015–18), it would be a matter of great concern if there were not some improvement in student learning within and between schools. It is plausible to suppose that the introduction of new teacher/principal positions will have an impact on some students, even many of them, in various ways as evidenced by, for example, teacher observations, classroom tests, National Standards, and the like. This is what might be called educational achievement and it is of immediate interest to parents and students, as well as teachers. It is formative assessment that bears directly on the lives of children.

But the achievement challenge of which the Minister and others speak is about how New Zealand children perform in summative assessment at the international level. It is evident from the results of these international surveys of literacy, numeracy, and science that New Zealand, compared to countries with similar national scores, has one of the widest ranges between highest and lowest achievers, and also that while some countries have, longitudinally, improved both their scores and their rankings, New Zealand has shown no improvement in its scores and dropped in the rankings.

The question to be asked is this: can the Investing in Educational Achievement initiative reduce, or even better, eliminate, the gap in achievement?

Before an answer can be given, some analysis of the issue must be laid bare. The causes of the inequality in school achievement are located beyond the school in the wider environment where children live their daily lives. At the age of five when they begin school, they bring their advantages and disadvantages with them – they are not left at the school gate but are brought right into the classroom. The factors that impact on children’s learning prior to school, and during the years of their schooling, are those shaped by the social, political, and economic forces at play that leave their differential mark on a raft of family circumstances such as income, nutrition, health, technology, caregiving, and the like. These are beyond school factors outside of the control of schools and teachers but they are the ones which carry the greatest weight in how children learn and what they learn and their resultant school achievement.

Within school, solutions of the kinds proposed by the National-led Government (e.g. National Standards, charter schools, Investing in Educational Success) fail to address the causes of the gap in achievement and so lack the causal capacity to provide effective interventions to reduce the achievement gap. Schools do not cause the inequality, although they maintain it and may even widen it, so there is no reason to suppose that schools can have any causal effect in reducing or eliminating the beyond school inequality which holds the school inequality in place.

Until serious political attention is turned to the beyond school forces of – in particular, government economic and social policies that cement wider inequalites into the fabric of society, and the resulting business decisions about capital and employment that reinforce the structural inequalities – then no progress will be made on reducing the inequality of school achievement. Why it should be thought that Singapore and Hong Kong, with their very different social, economic, and political systems, ought to serve as exemplary models for how New Zealand might go about solving the achievement challenge is far from clear.

The success of the initiative in regard to the achievement challenge will be evaluated against measurable gains in student achievement. The measurable gains are easily set.

  • Identify the years ahead when PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS surveys will be undertaken.
  • Against past performances in PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS, make predictions about the level of future performances that would indicate a closing of the achievement gap, an increase in the scores, and a rise in the rankings.
  • If there has, over time, been an improvement in all three indicators, then we may be led to conclude that this initiative, either alone or in conjunction with the raft of other interventions introduced (National Standards, charter schools) to address the achievement challenge, has been successful.
  • Conversely, if improvement in the three indicators fails to materialise, then we may conclude that this initiative, and the others, have been a costly disaster.

Until the Minister and the Government are prepared to signal the criteria that would indicate success and failure regarding the achievement challenge, along the lines outlined above, then the policy lacks any bite in this most critical respect, which is the avowed reason for its introduction.

A caveat

This critique does not imply that there are not other benefits of the initiative that are worth supporting. Teacher collaboration and the sharing of ideas, as well as more experienced teachers helping less experienced ones, and capable principals getting struggling schools back on track, are things that ought to be supported. Whether this initiative is the way to achieve these and other things remains to be seen. This seems to be the issue that divides primary and secondary teachers and their respective unions, NZEI and PPTA.

Conclusion

Is Investing in Educational Success a solution to the ‘achievement challenge’? The simple answer is: no. Until such time as governments of whatever kind take the beyond school causes of the inequality of school achievement seriously and address them with appropriate policies, then the achievement challenge will remain with us, unresolved.

 

Ed. What is your view about IES? Will it be a godsend for New Zealand education, or is it simply an election carrot for the battered education sector? Please comment below.


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