National’s back down last week over school staffing cuts was a significant victory for the union movement. Two of the country’s most powerful unions – the New Zealand Educational Institute and the Post Primary Teachers Association – flexed their muscles and the government caved in. This is bad news for not only for children and parents but for the long term future of the country, since improving workforce skills is crucial for faster economic growth and rising living standards.
In the 2012 Budget, National announced they were going to rationalise education spending. Instead of the on-going focus on reducing class sizes, their new focus was to be on improving the quality of teaching. In spite of government spending per student on education increasing by over 20 percent in real terms (over and above inflation) over the last ten years, there has been no real improvement in education outcomes. During that time, while the rise in teacher numbers of 12.7 percent has outpaced the 2.5 percent increase in student numbers, student achievement as measured on international surveys has remained static. New Zealand now has the largest variation in student achievementwithin schools in the OECD. That means that student failure is not confined to a small number of schools, but is widespread throughout the system. An estimated 30 percent of all students leave school without achieving NCEA Level 2, which is widely regarded as the minimal qualification needed to succeed in a modern economy.
Unfortunately these systemic problems are often ignored. Just last week the President of the Principles’ Federation Paul Drummond claimed, “Parents know that our education system is right up there with the best in the world and they want their children to continue benefiting from the excellent teaching going on in our schools which consistently delivers high achievement results for the vast majority of Kiwi kids”.
Clearly Mr Drummond can’t have read the latest Education Review Office report on the teaching of science in year 5 to 8 schools. ERO found there were major problems with the quality of science teaching and learning with only three percent of schools having science programmes that could be considered to be highly effective. A quarter of schools were identified as generally effective, less than two thirds of the schools were consideredpartially effective and a tenth were found to be not effective.
The report concludes, “Science programmes in the less effective schools lacked coherence and continuity. The science component was often not made explicit to students. Teachers provided flawed investigative approaches or stand-alone lessons that were not clearly linked to the science curriculum. Student involvement in experimental work was variable. Teachers had little useful data on student achievement in science and boards had little information about the quality of teaching and learning in science. Self review of science programmes was a low priority in over 80 percent of schools. A lack of knowledge and understanding of the science curriculum requirements, and of what constitutes effective science teaching, was evident in many schools. Many teachers do not appear to be confident or well prepared for teaching science. They have generally had limited ongoing professional learning development opportunities in science. This has contributed to the low priority many teachers place on it.”1
In an increasingly technological age, the country needs more students with proficiency in science. A lack of quality science teaching in the early years, will unfortunately limit the opportunity for many children to successfully pursue a future based on science.
The reality is that worthwhile improvements in the quality of education are unlikely to occur unless major reform is undertaken – including to the school curriculum itself. The New Zealand curriculum uses an experimental “outcomes-based” approach which replaced academic rigour, defined standards and a proper testing regime with concepts ofparticipation and progress to ensure that children do not ‘fail’. In the USA, this approach has proved to be such a failure that many states have returned to a standards-based syllabus that embraces more formal methods of teaching, and provides curriculum road maps that are clear, concise, teacher friendly and detailed. The majority of countries that outperform New Zealand in international tests continue to use more traditional standards-based syllabus models.2
The government’s budget plan was to marginally increase class sizes to reduce costs and save $43 million each year for 4 years. The savings were to be redirected into improving the quality of teaching. Under the proposed plan, class sizes for new entrants were to remain the same at 1 teacher to 15 students; for years 2 to 10, the ratio was to be set at 1 teacher to 27.5 students; and for years 11 to 13, it was 1 teacher to 17.5 students. As a result of these new ratios, 213 of the country’s 2,436 schools were expected to see no change at all; 962 were to gain less than 1 teacher; 251 were to gain more than 1 teacher; 765 were to lose less than 1 teacher; and 245 were to lose 1 or more teachers – capped at a maximum loss of 2 teachers over the next three years. There was an exemption to the policy changes – as a political concession to their Maori Party coalition partner, National singled out Maori immersion schools for special treatment: their class sizes were to remain unchanged.
With class sizes being such a key issue for the teacher unions, National should have been better prepared for the battle that was bound to ensue. Between them, the teachers’ unions have 70,000 members and some $30 million in funding. They have a history of aggressive strike action and are masters at propaganda, unashamedly roping in parents and children to support their cause for better pay and conditions. This whole unfortunate debacle has clearly illustrated the difficulty faced by governments who try to take on powerful unions.
Interestingly, a similar battle but on a far larger scale has been underway in the State of Wisconsin in the USA over the last two years. Governor Scott Walker was elected on the promise of eliminating their US$3 billion structural deficit without raising taxes. He proposed to achieve this by curtailing the excessive benefits paid to public service union members. In Wisconsin state workers were receiving health benefits 2.3 times more valuable than those received by private sector workers, and pension benefits 5.7 times more valuable. This resulted in a total compensation package 29 percent higher than comparable private sector workers. The proposed reforms aimed to reduce the premium to around 22 percent. There were other major benefits too including union-negotiated contracts that required layoffs to occur on the basis of seniority, giving long-term government employees “iron-clad” job security.3
The battle fought by the union was ferocious. They ran a candidate for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who they believed would strike down the new law – if she won. She lost. They called for the “recall” of state senators, trying to replace three of them in order to regain union control of the State Senate. That didn’t work either. Then they launched a “recall” referendum for the Governor himself, but last week he defeated the union candidate to win by a wider margin than before the reforms.
A report in the Washington Post pointed to the root cause of the problems in Wisconsin – “an institution founded to protect its members grew in size, wealth, power and arrogance, thanks to decades of symbiotic deals with bought politicians, to the point where it grossly overreached. A half-century later these unions were exercising essential control of everything from wages to work rules in the running of government — something that, in a system of republican governance, is properly the sovereign province of the citizenry”.4
Following their victory over the government in stopping the class size changes last week, the unions are now saying that they do not want politicians to “meddle” with the education system. They, of course, are claiming they speak for parents – that it is not helpful to children to be subjecting them to major education reforms every time there is a change of Government. But the public elects politicians to make decisions and rational choices in the best interests of the country. If that means treading on the toes of vested interest groups, then that is precisely what the public expects politicians to do. The back down to the teacher unions was not in the best interest of the country, and it was certainly no good for National who are now seen to be weak. Teaching standards in New Zealand are in urgent need of improvement and the sooner the government gets on with that crucial task the better.
Not only that, but the news of the €100 billion bailout of Spain’s banking system should serve as a stark reminder of the precarious state of the global economy and the necessity for our government to improve the quality of public spending and balance the books. Although New Zealand’s isolation means that we are somewhat cushioned from the turmoil in the Eurozone, we are certainly not immune from its impact.
This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, Professor Roger Bowden, formerly of the School of Economics and Finance at Victoria University, has been closely following developments in Europe and shares his views of the implications for New Zealand in his article, Is there a euromess in our own shop?:
“I think the real lessons of the euromess lie with structural changes precipitated by global economic realities. So what are the structural implications for Godzone, if any? The long term is problematic. It is troublesome that so many of our best and brightest are leaving for economic –and I suspect social – reasons, for that does close off a few differentiated product options for the economy’s future. It amounts to a drain on our stock of productive human capital. The resulting age distribution will also raise the cost of medical and other services, which in turn will be a drain on the taxpayer. And there may be adverse implications for the real estate market, already hit by tax changes. But human capital aside, right now we have a distinctive trade profile, based on commodities and tourism, amounting to a comparative advantage, in trade theory terms. However, the first thing that gives me pause is the issue of ownership of the factors of production. That’s the real payoff to our comparative advantage, and it’s what we may be about to screw up”.
Whichever way we look at it, New Zealand is in a fragile economic situation. As a country we continue to spend more than we earn. That makes the government’s back down on the saving of $172 million over 4 years that much more significant, since such savings are necessary if the we are to return to a surplus by 2015. Worse, National’s failure to follow through on its policy will give strength to other vested interest groups who will kick up a fuss when it is their sacred cow that is being threatened. This does not bode well for the future.