For every complex problem there is always an easy solution – neat, plausible, and wrong. Or so once quipped HL Mencken, the American journalist, satirist and scholar.
Nothing illustrates Mencken’s meaning better than the crisis in secondary schools, which this month has been the focus of two enlightening but rather different reports.
First up was the New Zealand Herald’s Under the Bridge documentary, a 30-minute video tracking Papakura High School’s inspirational new principal, John Rohs, in his quest to turn around one of Auckland’s poorest performing schools.
Rohs’s challenge is no easy task. Papakura’s 2015 Education Review Office report was uncharacteristically blunt. The school, it said, continues a history of poor performance, and it listed a litany of problems, covering curriculum, achievement, planning and leadership.
Sadly, the problems are not new. For a decade or more, the ERO reports on Papakura High School have told a story of failure. Were the school a student, it would have been expelled.
If the documentary paints an accurate picture of Rohs’ impact in his first year, it is truly impressive. At the same time, he is unrelentingly positive, rejecting the notion that factors such as poverty, domestic violence or a gang culture are an excuse for young people failing at school.
The Herald supported the launch of Under the Bridge with a series of articles proposing the solution to Papakura High School’s plight. And it's here things start to go wrong.
Under the heading "Wealthy Schools Succeed at the Expense of the Poor," the Herald cites educationalist Bernadine Vester, claiming the problem lies with the rapid growth of South Auckland’s successful schools.
More bureaucrats urged
According to Ms Vester, the solution is easy. To avoid the drain of the best pupils, the competitive pull from the top schools should be “better managed.” To do this, Ms Vester proposes a new nationwide network of regional educational bodies, sitting between the Ministry of Education and individual school boards to manage which schools parents are permitted to send their children to.
When we have more than 2500 public servants in the Ministry of Education supervising the country’s 2500 schools, you might wonder why we need any more. But that is not the main thing wrong with this proposal.
Surely the good news with South Auckland is that some schools are succeeding? The last thing we should want is to hold them back. Why is it our educationalists so often want to level down, rather than lift the bottom up?
After all, we don’t restrain Toyota from building more cars because its success is hurting the competition. Nor restrain access to the latest cancer drug because of nostalgic fondness for a less effective rival.
Persistent school failure is a serious matter. Failing schools fail their students and the worst of them have been doing so for more than a generation. We must find out what is at fault and fix it. And we can’t continue to rely on the occasional educational hero like John Rohs turning up and taking charge. We need more enduring solutions than this.
The search for ways to improve school performance is the subject of this month’s second report on school underperformance from The New Zealand Initiative. Entitled Fair and Frank: Global insights for managing school performance, it is part two in a series of three reports researching solutions to school failure.
The first, Signal Loss: What we know about school performance, showed that the ERO and the Ministry of Education do a poor job in evaluating what strategies for reversing school failure work, what do not, and why. As a result, there is no systematic approach to fixing failing schools like Papakura High School.
Fair and Frank documents the Initiative’s overseas research in five jurisdictions to identify what effective reform of failing schools looks like. The results are eye-opening. As you might expect, in no jurisdiction did success involve either restraining successful schools, or restricting parents from choosing the best school for their children.
Instead, we found policies that enabled failing schools to be taken over and successfully turned round. We saw reforms that improved teacher quality and teacher remuneration.
We observed chains of schools emerging, spreading best practice in education into some of the poorest communities in the countries we visited. And we saw a careful focus on incentivising high performance, and a relentless focus on accountability.
Most significantly, we witnessed outcomes that were transformational, lifting the achievement of students who might otherwise be left behind, and for whom the reforms could be life-changing.
Nowhere were the reforms easy. And among the successes there were also failures. But as we know from Mencken, if a solution is too easy – and too neat – it is probably wrong.
Even though the solutions may be challenging, we must keep trying. The futures of our students depend on it.