Friday 12 February 2010

Professional Standards

The Meat in the Sandwich: The National Government's determination to impose its education policies over the near universal objections of teachers and scholars has more to do with ideology than pedagogy - and New Zealand's children will pay the price.

WHO WILL WIN the battle over National Standards – and at what cost?

History suggests that in any confrontation between blue-collar workers and the forces of the State, the State wins. The historical record is not so clear, however, when it comes to confrontations between the State and professionally trained white-collar workers.

The stunning success of former Alliance MP, Laila HarrĂ©’s, "Nurses Are Worth More" campaign highlights the huge risk John Key and his National-led Government are taking by casting the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) – the primary teachers’ professional organisation – as Public Enemy No. 1.

If the Government is eventually forced to back down, Key’s hitherto all-conquering reputation will be seriously damaged, and the political career of his Education Minister, Anne Tolley, will be over.

The use of the term "professional organisation" – as opposed to "union" – in this context is quite deliberate. White-collar workers with tertiary qualifications generally eschew the more proletarian designation "union" in favour of less inflammatory nouns like "organisation" (NZ Nurses Organisation), "association" (Public Service Association, Post-Primary Teachers Association, Association of Salaried Medical Specialists) or "institute".

The entirely voluntary nature of the membership of these professional bodies (which long pre-dates the Employment Contracts Act) is another pointer to their collegial status. Like the tradespeople of the so-called "craft" unions, the professionals’ primary goal is the preservation and refinement of the hard-won bundle of skills they have acquired. Proper recognition and remuneration for those skills is important – but it isn’t paramount. A carpenter’s identity derives from his craft – not his income. Teachers are no different.

So why on earth has John Key drawn the battle-lines over National Standards so crudely?

At a post-caucus press conference held in the Beehive Theatrette on 2 February the Prime Minister declared: "There will always be those that resist change, who fear increased accountability and who put their own vested interests ahead of New Zealand’s young people. We will not bow down to those critics."

Describing the NZEI as "a union protecting their [sic] members", Key went on to frame the issue as one of unaccountable teachers versus powerless parents and their ill-served children.
Parents, said Key, shouldn’t have to put up with "declining education standards, being kept in the dark about their children's progress or creeping political correctness in our schools."

This is an extraordinary statement – not only because all three of the charges levelled against the New Zealand education system and its teachers are false – but also because it sets forth in the most unabashed fashion the stridently ideological objectives of the Government’s National Standards policy.

An uncompromising commitment to "lifting education standards" – most typically by focusing on the "Three Rs" – has become a common feature of conservative party manifestos across the English-speaking world. That such policies have failed miserably wherever they’ve been introduced (most notably in the UK and the USA) has in no way lessened the enthusiasm of their right-wing promoters.

It’s this apparent indifference to the real-world harm inflicted by National Standards regimes upon the very children they’re intended to assist that betrays the conservatives’ true (albeit unacknowledged) objectives.

As the President of the NZ Principals Federation, Ernie Buutvelt, told Radio New Zealand on 3 February:

"Originally we were talking about standards for students and we were looking forward to what useful benchmarks we could make for that and suddenly its been turned into performance measures for teachers … Suddenly we’ve found where the Government’s original starting place was ... a tool to bash schools and blame teachers."

Modern conservatives’ obsession with disciplining teachers, and their profound dissatisfaction with the objectives and methodology of modern pedagogy, both stem from what they see as the profession’s deliberate failure to adequately prepare their children for the rigors of twenty-first century capitalist life.

Conservatism’s "tough love" approach to learning is neatly encapsulated in the "Why National Standards?" section of the party-political pamphlet currently being distributed (at the taxpayers’ expense) to the parents of New Zealand’s primary and intermediate schoolchildren:

"Many parents tell us", report the pamphlet’s National Party authors, "they’re not happy with the ‘politically correct’ and ‘sugar-coated’ school reports they receive."

Consider for a moment what’s being rejected here. These parents do not want the school to treat their children as unique, multi-faceted human-beings who will engage with the learning process in their own way and at their own speed. On the contrary, they want the school to treat their children purely as future components in the global economic machine. And all they want the school to tell them is how much bigger (or smaller) their little components are – compared to all the others.

This ruthless competitiveness gives the lie to the by-now-familiar conservative claim that all they want is for there to be "no child left behind", or, as Key puts it in the pamphlet:

"New Zealand deserves a future with more highly-skilled citizens, who have better job prospects, greater life choices and, in turn, who live in a society with less dysfunction, unemployment, welfare dependence and crime."

But such a future cannot be realised under a National Standards system which, by permitting the publication of "league tables" distinguishing "failing schools" from "succeeding schools", makes the elimination of the 20 percent "tail" of functionally illiterate and innumerate New Zealanders ever more unlikely.

The NZEI is more than equal to the task of explaining all this to the nation’s parents. Facts are stubborn things, and the more frequently and dramatically the NZEI places the facts before the communities in which its members live and work, the more untenable the Government’s position will become.

And if Key and Tolley remain unwilling to compromise with the NZEI (in stark contrast to their conciliatory approach to the Kura Kaupapa Schools) there is always the option of mass civil disobedience.

The Prime Minister may disavow any intention of seeking "a showdown in the courtroom", but the NZEI and the Principals Federation have the power to make him do just that.

Policemen carrying principals and primary school teachers out of their offices and classrooms and into waiting paddy wagons. How will that look on the Six O’clock News?

Boards of Trustees barring their school gates against the Education Ministry’s statutory managers? Is that the bitter legacy parents are seeking from the Government’s education policies?

Are those the "National" standards they’ll be voting for in 2011?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 11 February 2010.


Paul Barker said...

Thank you for this article. I am interested in why the NZ Herald, DomPost and last week the Listener are so pro this policy. It seems in each case that there has been little or no thought given to the governments propaganda around them or that they too want a far right approach to education. Why would that be? Why too are private schools - which we all fund - exempt from this policy?

Anonymous said...

I always thought that the introduction of National Standard is merely a precourser to Tomorrow's Schools Part II.

I am interested to read of changes to education law to allow corporate entites or other schools to take over the running of 'failing' schools.

It doesnt take a rocket scientist to put two and two together.


Anonymous said...

This is going to be an interesting test for the Educational Police State. Initial indications are not looking good. Much foot stomping coming up. I guess they will find a way to make it look good, by lowering National Standards most likely!

Andy said...

The NZEI are scared because they already have the results of the stanine tests that have been running for the last few years. Every principal knows , every teachers common room knows and parents who talk , already know the the useless teacher(s) in every school.
The one teacher who doesn't give a damm and hates the little sh**s they to manage.
Every school has one.

Every principal already has a folder on each teacher detailing their yearly assements and the last half dozen stanine results where little Johny came in at a Reading / Writing level x and left , a year later , not advaning a year but only six months.
A problem for John , but since the rest of the class went down the same path , as did the previous class and the class before that. Johnnys teacher needs a bit of correction.

The principal is powerless, they cant fire them. They cant force retraining. they prey that the useless will leave , but they dont. Way too much tied up in pensions and only five more years to go.
So everyone suffers till they retire (or get promoted :) , my hope is that a national standard will force the useless and the lazy out.

Therein lies the NZEI's "problem" what do you do if you are a useless teacher. Obvious, join a union and every professional organistaion and prey you can dive for cover for another five years.

FWIW , I'm not interested in school league tables on who got the most A grades , I would like to see what schools and classes have the highest stanine results. What do they do and how can it be repeated.
I want to see teacher names and their years individually ranked by their stanine scores and the bottom 5% retired , retrained or fired.

cbmilne33 said...

We must not forget that the NZ National Party membership has been stealthily standing in the School Boards of Trustees elections and that as Matthew Hooten has said in the National Act Business Roundtable Review they are gearing up to do a number on the Primary teachers like the British Tory/Conservative Party did on the British Mineworkers.