Now is the time to face up to our education challenges

Dr Michael Johnston
The Post
27 September, 2023

In a recent survey[1], New Zealand voters were asked to nominate the issue of most importance to them in the forthcoming election. Unsurprisingly, hip-pocket matters topped the list, with the cost of living on 28% and the economy on 17%. The top-five list was rounded out with healthcare (14%), crime (9%) and the environment (8%). Education was in seventh-equal place, on 5%, alongside housing and government operations.

Why education doesn’t rank more highly is something of a puzzle. All voters have been through school themselves and many have children or grandchildren at school. Whether or not their children are getting a good education is something that concerns most parents. Most New Zealanders understand that a sound education system is a key to both individual and national prosperity.

I suspect the reason that education is not rated more highly as an election issue, is that the consequences of its failure are not immediate. Inflation is happening in real time, causing day-to-day economic pain for many households. Poor-quality or delayed healthcare and being a victim of crime cause similarly immediate suffering.

The effects of policy failure in education are more delayed. Parents may worry that their eight-year-old is struggling to learn to read, but the dire consequences of not doing so may not be fully felt for another ten years. But the fact that the damaging effects of poor education take time to manifest does not make them less serious.

Young people who leave school without at least basic qualifications are at risk of underemployment, welfare dependency and negative encounters with the justice system. Just as importantly, they are deprived of potentially fulfilling modes of self-expression.

At the societal level, a poor education system has ramifications for many of the issues that voters rate most important – the economy, crime, and healthcare (doctors and nurses need to be well educated). A well-functioning democracy relies on an educated populace. If voters care about those things, then they should care about education too.

Our school education system has been in decline for many years now, under both Labour- and National-led governments. Neither party has a strong track record in education reform. Ministers of Education tend to focus on surface issues that they think will appeal to parents. They do not typically delve into the structural problems in our education system.

Usually, Ministers begin their tenures with flagship policies, which they task the Ministry of Education with implementing. Either because the policies themselves are misguided, or because the Ministry botches their implementation, they fail to shift the dial. Meanwhile, a generation of young people has been sold shamefully short.  

Any education system rests on two main pillars – its curriculum and its teachers. In New Zealand, the school curriculum and the way in which we prepare teachers for the profession both have serious flaws.

The New Zealand curriculum is very thin on content and provides insufficient guidance to teachers. It lacks any clear structure or progression. Prospective teachers who train through university programmes spend too little time in the classroom, and the quality of the mentoring they get during these placements is too variable.

Underlying these flaws is a deeper philosophical issue. We have moved from a system in which teachers are seen as primarily responsible for their students’ learning, to one in which knowledge is ‘co-constructed’ by teachers and students. Teachers directly communicating knowledge to students is seen by many in the education establishment as authoritarian, outdated and dull.

These objections are straw men. Structured teaching can and should be accompanied by warm relationships between students and teachers and, far from being outdated, it is based on recent research from the science of learning. Structured teaching is certainly not dull when it is practised by a skilled teacher.

A structured approach to education, including a well-ordered curriculum and direct instruction by teachers, has evidence on its side. On the other hand, co-constructive and ‘child-led’ approaches often do not work. A case in point is literacy.

For years, the teaching of reading in New Zealand has been based on the ‘whole language’ approach. The basis of this doctrine is that children will ‘discover’ how to read by guessing words from pictures, context and other hit-and-miss cues. But evidence from the science of learning shows that the most effective approach is to start by teaching them the regular correspondences between spelling and sound. Once those are mastered, children can ‘sound out’ most words. This gives them a great start and builds confidence. From there they can tackle irregular words and develop fluency.

We might wonder how we have ended up where we have. We could blame the Ministry of Education. We could blame the major political parties, both of which have tended to treat education as a political football. But in a democracy, ultimate responsibility lies with voters. In this election let’s make education policy count.



To read the full article on The Post click here.

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