During 2004 I wrote a book “What’s up with our schools? a New Zealand principal speaks out”, published in 2005 by Random Press. Here is an extract from the chapter that I called “Conspicuously Politically Incorrect”:
“The worst thing that politicians seek to impose on our school system is equity at the expense of excellence. Much is made of the decile rating of schools. The Ministry of Education regularly uses census information to give each school a decile rating. Each school receives a rating between one and 10 depending on: the household income of families with children at the school; the occupations of the students’ parents; the number of people making up the households; the qualifications of parents; the level of income support being received; and the number of Maori and Pacific Island students. The purpose is to indicate the extent to which a school draws its students from low socio-economic communities. Decile-one schools are the 10 percent of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities, while decile-10 schools are the 10 percent of schools with the lowest proportion of such students. And there you have the explanation for everything that happens in New Zealand schools! Well, you certainly have an explanation as far as many politicians, bureaucrats and sectional interests are concerned. It is oh so easy now: that school is successful because it is high decile; those kids are failing because they go to a low-decile school. What absolute rubbish – they’re just myths that match the politically correct myths of left-wing politicians. I am now going to be unequivocally politically incorrect: expectation is everything.
Too often, I think, schools fail because school leaders and teachers have expectations of students that fall below those students’ own levels of self-esteem. It’s too easy for liberals to cite a need for equity and provide socio-economic excuses for youngsters who fail. It’s too easy for teachers from low-decile schools to drive their nice cars back to their leafy suburbs thinking of the good works that they have done during the day, yet making excuses for the number of students failing. What is so hard about forgetting where youngsters come from and aiming for excellence for each of them? What is so hard about setting goals for students and expecting them to reach those goals? Young New Zealanders do not need adults who make excuses for them, or who don’t expect enough of them. They need adults who believe in them, who encourage them to succeed, and who role-model success for them.
Excellence does not occur because a school has a high decile rating, nor is it denied children in low-decile schools. Excellence stems from a state of mind: it has no decile rating; it is not a socio-economic condition. It comes from adults and the messages that adults send to children.”
Nothing that I have seen or heard in four years as a Member of Parliament has changed my view. Indeed, I am stronger in my views than I was even when I wrote “What’s up with our schools?” in 2004. We have to rid our schools of what I referred to elsewhere in the book as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. It is almost like we need some of our schools and a quarter of our children to fail just so a liberal elite can feel good about itself and the excuses that it makes for why some schools and children fail. I find it hard to disguise my contempt for the excuse-making that has become an industry within the education sector.
The principals and teachers that I admire most are those who say things like “we expect all of our students to achieve to at least a national standards level” and “we are a no-excuses school”. The principal who dreamed up that phrase was a genius!
And the answer is so simple. What I wrote in 2004 is as valid now as it was then:
The key lies in establishing the right culture in a new school or in changing the culture of existing schools. Forget about decile ratings; forget about money given out of political expediency and the pitfalls of low expectations. We will start to make real progress when we get politicians who understand that learning will improve only if students are more engaged in it. And that is the biggest complaint that I have about the number of New Zealand schools that are failing many of their students. It is because those students are not sufficiently engaged in learning.
Too often those who would seek to improve schooling for children actually do no more than tinker around the edges of the problem, rather than going to the heart of it. Over the years New Zealand has invested millions of dollars and goodness knows how much effort, and governments have used up huge amounts of political goodwill, trying to improve schools. Too often this has been to little or no avail, and why? Because w
e missed the point. So much investment goes into explaining why children are not learning. Think of the transformation if that same investment went into expecting children to learn, and into expecting children to behave in particular ways that are conducive to learning. Too much effort goes into trying to explain why some schools make children learn and some don’t. Too many of these explanations involve belittling the efforts of successful schools so that failing schools don’t look too bad. Not enough attention is given to why so many youngsters are not engaged in learning and to the simple solutions to that reality.
Schools that make that simple shift in focus away from excuse making and into expectations and engagement in learning improve rapidly. And that is why some principals who take over failing schools are so particularly successful and why others are not.