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Dr Muriel Newman

Education – a three way partnership

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Andre Agassi dropped out of school in the 9th grade to pursue his tennis career. He turned professional at age 16 and went on to become a world champion. But he deeply regretted the fact that he didn’t have a quality education. This belief – that nothing has a greater impact on a child’s life than the education they receive – led him to establish a charter school for underprivileged children in a disadvantaged area of his home-town of Las Vegas.

Opening in 2001 with year 3-5 students, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy expanded every year until it is now a full new entrant to year 12 school with a roll of over 600. Students are chosen by ballot and almost all go on to college. There is a waiting list of over 800.

The school has very high expectations for students. No matter how disadvantaged their background is, the school philosophy is based on a belief that each and every child has the potential to succeed in education and go on to college. A superior learning environment is provided for the students – including a school day that is extended by an additional two hours, weekend tutorials, and summer schools.  Crucially, parents are expected to play a key role in not only supporting their child, but in contributing to the school community as well.

The school formalises the commitment to each child’s success with a three-way signed contract between teacher, parents, and the child.1 Essentially, teachers commit to doing whatever is needed to ensure the student will achieve the standards necessary to graduate from high school and gain a place in college.

Parents are helped to understand the key role they play in a student’s educational success. They must ensure their child attends school well nourished and ready to learn, that they are well behaved, honest and respectful, that they always do their homework, and that they spend some time every night reading. During the year parents are required to attend parent-teacher conferences, to participate in at least 12 hours of voluntary work for the school, and to go to at least two school board meetings. Parents are also held directly responsible for their child’s behaviour.

Students are asked to commit to working extra hard so that they can attend college. That means always doing their homework, being respectful and well behaved, and promising to talk to their teacher if they don’t understand something or have a problem. In addition, they are required to perform community service under the direction of their teacher as an important part of character development.

The school’s long-term goal is to rank in the top 100 high schools in the nation on the US News & World Report rankings by 2016, and for all of their graduating students to attend and compete at the country’s top 100 colleges and universities.

This striving to achieve a high national ranking – no mean feat for a school that draws on an underprivileged community – is in sharp contrast to the hysterical opposition by the teacher unions to the publication of New Zealand National Standards data.

Last Friday, National Standards data was published on the Ministry of Education’s website HERE, and the week before that, on the Fairfax newspaper website HERE. The data provides an interesting snapshot of schools including school rolls and school funding (which generally ranges from $4,000 to $6,000 per student, although it can be far higher).

National Standards were introduced into primary, intermediate and some secondary schools in 2010, in order to provide guidelines for the tracking of student progress and achievement through the first years of school. The idea is that if a child falls behind, National Standards will highlight that a problem exists and the school can take steps to help the child to catch up. The standards are used to assess all children in years 1 to 8 (aged 5 to 12) as being above, at, below, or well below benchmarks in reading, writing and maths. This is the first time that schools have been asked to report their National Standards results to the Ministry of Education. Some 1899 schools provided the information, while 188 schools failed to do so. Maori language schools not required to provide their data until next year.

The results paint an interesting picture of educational achievement in New Zealand. Of the 360,000 or so primary-age students who have been assessed, 76 per cent had reached or exceeded the national standards for reading, 72 per cent for maths, and 68 per cent for writing. Broken down, the figures show that the outcomes for the 76,000 Maori students were lower – only 65 percent had reached or exceeded the national standards for reading, 63 percent for maths, and 58 percent for writing. And for the 35,000 Pasifika students, the results were lower still with 58 percent reaching or exceeding the standards for reading, 57 percent for maths, and 54 percent for writing.

Differences could also be seen between girls and boys. While the outcomes were pretty similar in maths, in reading, girls outperformed boys in reaching or exceeding the national standards by 80 percent to 72 percent, and in writing by 75 percent to 61 percent.

While National Standards provide an indication of the educational achievement of younger children, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides an evaluation at secondary level. The Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) is an international assessment of the reading, science and mathematical literacy of 15-year-old students that takes place in 3-year cycles. With education being regarded as the single most critical investment a country can make to raise its long-run growth potential, the OECD uses PISA to assess half a million students from over 70 countries (which account for nine-tenths of the world economy) to provide rigorous international assessments of educational performance.

In the latest results, published in 2010, New Zealand was identified as a top flier: “The new PISA identifies several top fliers. These are Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Of course, the precise ranking varies according to the test in question, ranging from reading literacy to mathematics, or science. However, these countries stand out as the strongest overall performers.”2

The OECD believes that by enabling countries to compare their performance in education with that of other countries, it will be easier for them to find ways of improving the efficiency of their system and gain the greater benefits a better educated workforce would provide. As they say, it is not only a matter of resources but “how to make students learn better, how to make teachers teach better, and how to make school systems perform more effectively.”

An issue that has long challenged the education sector is how to improve the performance of boys, who are increasingly over-represented in statistics relating to disengagement with school.  This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Dr Barend Vlaardingerbroek, Associate Professor of Education at the American University of Beirut – an Otago PhD who maintains a special interest in the New Zealand education system. In his commentary Making schooling work for all (even those problem teenage boys) he examines the lagging achievement of boys:

“Boys are over-represented in special needs classes, drop-out and expulsion figures, and more of them leave school without qualifications. Committees and commissions in several countries, NZ included, have looked into the problem of the educational woes of boys as a group.”

He asks, “Why has it become such an issue in the past 20 or so years? Answer: the economy has changed. The labour market lost its appetite for unskilled youths, the traditional apprenticeship almost went out the window, and governments responded to youth unemployment by raising the school-leaving age. Many adolescents find themselves staying on in an environment they don’t much like with little light at the end of the tunnel to goad them on – and a disproportionate number of the ‘losers’ since these game-changers have been boys, specifically working-class boys who once left school at age 15 and got a job (problem solved) or gritted their teeth and stayed on to complete School Certificate at the end of Form 5 so they could get into an apprenticeship (problem solved).”

He explains how many European school systems channel learners into academic, technical and vocational career tracks, which enable ‘problem boys’ to successfully pursue occupationally linked career pathways.

Finding ways to improve a country’s educational achievement is not an easy task, but the National Standards data helps to show the way. It is clear from the figures that pupils at the lowest-decile schools are more likely to perform below national standards than those at the highest-decile schools. But claims by the unions that ‘poverty’ is the problem and extra funding would fix it are misguided. As school principals are quick to point out, just because a school draws on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, does not mean that they cannot achieve at levels equal to or better than other children. Nor are children from higher-socio-economic areas miraculously endowed with extra brain-power.

One of the main factors in some schools achieving higher benchmarks than others is the strength of the three-way relationship between parents, students, and their teachers. When that relationship is strong, children will do better, and if this is commonplace throughout the whole school, it will be reflected in the school’s attainment in National Standards. This applies irrespective of the background of the children.

That is exactly what Andre Agassy found in his school – that children from even seriously disadvantaged backgrounds could succeed, but it helped immeasurably if they had the support and commitment of their parents. That led him to introduce the three-way contract between parent, child and teacher as a binding pledge to the success and achievement of that student in education.

There will be many schools that have successfully embraced such an agreement between teachers, students and parents – probably not overtly and as formally as the Agassy school, but more likely informally through the culture of the school and inspired leadership. Those schools will undoubtedly have better results than those struggling with disengaged parents. Yet it would be difficult to find a parent who in their heart did not want their child to succeed at school – it’s just that the complications of life mean that many do not fully appreciate just how important their support and involvement actually is for the success of their child.

It should be the role of every school and every parent to recognise that a child’s educational success is a partnership between the child, the parent, and the school – and everyone must understand their responsibilities to that partnership.

  1. Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy,  Commitment to Excellence
  2. OECD, PISA 2010 Results