There is little doubt that New Zealand’s education system currently is not fit for purpose. In a recent UNICEF report New Zealand was ranked 33rd out of 38 countries for educational equity. The aspiration of this review to build an excellent and equitable education system is commendable.
While an excellent and equitable education system is a noble aspiration, it also is notably vague. The literature suggests that successful reform efforts are underpinned by a clear vision of the purposes and roles of education. It is necessary to generate carefully considered and robust answers to the questions: For what are we educating? And what constitutes a high quality education?. Without a clearly developed vision of where we are headed, and corresponding system outputs and measures of impact, we run the risk of just tinkering around the edges and missing the opportunity to (re)design and rethink the education system, with a focus on the aspects that are proven to be the most important for creating a high quality, equitable system.
A number of problems and challenges have been identified in the review report. On first reading, these appear reasonable. However, on closer inspection, there is a lack of deep interrogation of these problems. There is a tendency in education policy (and indeed practice) to move quickly from problem definition to solutions with little time committed to digging deeper into the problems in order to uncover their root causes. The result is that in places the review reads like pre-determined solutions are being backwards mapped onto a problem. Such a solutions-driven approach runs the risk of identifying and implementing changes that do not actually address the specific, high-leverage problems that exist within New Zealand’s education system.
Absent in the review report is a deep engagement with evidence – either to support the identification and definition of the challenges and issues, or to support the proposed changes or solutions. While it is commendable that the review panel has engaged with stakeholders from across the country, this is not enough. The case for change must be based on a robust analysis of all the available data and evidence on the current education system, and a thorough scoping of evidence on the operation of educational systems more generally. While I do not advocate for the forms of educational tourism that often dominate educational reform efforts, there is merit in examining and learning from what has worked (and what has not worked) in educational systems around the world.
The proposed reforms constitute a considerable restructuring of the current education system. Absent a well-defined understanding of the purposes of education and a deep understanding of the current challenges affecting the education system, there is a risk that the proposal is simply a restructuring of current provision, and redistribution of powers and responsibilities.
A significant proposed change is the creation of a middle level through education hubs. I previously have written about how the absence of a middle level has required schools to develop universal capabilities, to solve individually systemic issues, and has restricted the diffusion and scaling of new knowledge, innovative practices and successful programmes across the school system. There seems merit in considering how schools might be better supported through the creation of a middle level. However, this opportunity must be balanced by a recognition of the risks posed by increased centralisation, standardisation and bureaucratisation, and the corresponding loss of autonomy for schools and potential disempowerment of families. It is critical that any changes balance the need for additional, specialist support for schools with the retention of pluralism in and of schooling (albeit with a strong commitment from all schools towards common goals and outcomes).
The scope of this review is considerable. However, if the mission of the proposed reforms is to reduce (or eliminate) educational inequity, it is missing a fundamental component – the instructional core, the interactions and inter-relationships among the teacher(s), the students and the content in the classroom context. That is, the what and how of teaching that occurs in New Zealand classrooms. There is an entire section on teaching in the review, however, does not include any depth of content or understanding on what actually constitutes effective teaching. There is an implicit assumption underpinning the recommendations that changing the structure of New Zealand’s education system will directly impact educational outcomes. However, there is a considerable research-base to suggest that this type of system-level reform rarely leads to the changes in student-level outcomes this report (one assumes) aspires to.
The United States academic, Professor Richard Elmore, has written extensively on the importance of the instructional core. Elmore argues that policy alone will never be enough to affect the types and degree of change we hope to see in education. It is necessary to empower the frontline workers, our educators; those charged with leading the education, support and well-being of New Zealand’s young people, to understand, believe in and implement effective teaching practice. As Elmore has suggested, ‘you can have the internal capacity [within a school]. You can have strong, well-informed leadership, teachers working in teams, external support and professional development, coherent curriculum, a school improvement plan – everything the literature tells us we should have – and yet not be getting the expected growth …. But when you look at it from the classroom level, it’s no mystery at all’. The strength of the curriculum and critically the strength of its implementation, the pedagogies employed to deliver this curriculum, and the nature of relationships between teachers and students that underpin the whole teaching and learning process, are what predict the performance of an education system.
While the creation of a Curriculum, Learning, Assessment and Pedagogy Unit at the Ministry of Education may be the working group’s nod towards the importance of the instructional core, it does not recognise the critical importance of what happens at the classroom level to the overall success of an education system.
Reducing the inequities in, and raising the overall quality of, New Zealand’s education system is essential to the country’s future. It therefore is imperative that any education reform is designed in a way that provides the greatest probability and possibility of achieving this. This requires deep analysis of the root causes and drivers influencing and underpinning our education system, and the leveraging of the best evidence (broadly conceived) to design targeted and effective solutions. At the heart of any educational reform must be the recognition that even the best designed system will not achieve desired outcomes if there is not a concentrated focus on the instructional core – the interconnections and relationships among the students, the teacher(s) and the content within the educational setting.