By Michael Laws
As I like to chide my academic and teaching friends, I am from a family of educators.
My father was a principal of both public and private secondary schools, my sisters were primary and secondary teachers, one aunt was a deputy principal, another a head of department and both uncles, university professors.
Teachers' college selectors from three decades took one look at that pedigree and instantly rejected me as an applicant. That was the era when all heterosexual males from boys' schools were automatically ejected. Indeed, the decline of men in education, and the irregular progress of teen boys, can be traced to the PC liberals who then dominated teachers' colleges. Now, by contrast, they will take anyone.
Admittedly I served six years on Parliament's education and science select committee – immediately after David Lange had installed Tomorrow's Schools – but it never truly compensated. To have had 30 impressionable young minds for an entire year ... and to programme them for world domination – dammit, an opportunity missed.
Sadly, teaching today is an unfashionable and female profession. The only guaranteed male in any primary school is the caretaker. Although it's interesting that the second most popular role is principal. After that, it's all been gender genocide. And the lower decile the school, it seems the more marked that absence.
Meaning that a generation of kids have had single mothers as their only parent, a succession of Miz and Missus as their teachers, and not a modicum of understanding that boys learn differently. Maybe it all was a feminist plot after all.
How ironic then that it has been two successive female ministers of education who have wielded the largest sticks since the banning of corporal punishment.
First, Anne Tolley and now Hekia Parata, have decided that education is too important to be left to teachers.
Tolley introduced the popular National Standards model and now Parata is introducing the first steps towards teacher accountability. Her pre-Budget announcement signalled that the emphasis will be on improving teacher quality, not teacher numbers. And in doing so, she assaults that generational holy-of-holies that having fewer pupils in the class delivers better outcomes.
In which respect Parata has solid back-up. Lost amid the usual teacher union and PTA tribulations this past week was the considered opinion of Victoria University education faculty dean Professor Dugald Scott, who said there was strong academic evidence that the quality of teaching was more important than class sizes.
Parata emphasised that research in an interview on my radio show on Thursday stressing that teacher quality and school leadership – aka a decent principal – are the strongest markers for pupil success. Whether there's a 1:22 ratio or a 1:27.5 ratio is largely irrelevant.
That does seem counter-intuitive and there's also academic evidence that smaller class sizes assist too. But not as much as having parents who are educated, middle-class and aspirational. Of all determinants, the latter is the most important.
But Parata doesn't have that wand. And nor does she have any real money. She just has to spend it better. Which is why her immediate emphasis must be upon refining National Standards as a test for not only the pupil, but the teacher. In this way there can be an objective guide as to the teacher's individual ability and a gauge as to whether they are adding or subtracting value from the national curriculum.
Of course, there will be variations dependent upon other factors, most especially socio-economic. But if a teacher is producing results superior to that expected of the cohort and class, then such excellence deserves recognition. Likewise, if a teacher is producing yearly charges well below an accepted standard, then the culling is that much easier.
And if some teachers are disadvantaged then tough. One bad teacher having one bad year can wreck and ruin a child. Not just for that year but for their entire school career. Given the long, non-achieving tail in New Zealand schools, this is not a time for niceties. The need for reform is present and it is urgent.
In fact such national non-achievement suggests a considerable number of teachers are similarly under-performing. Certainly their salary structure incentivises mediocrity. The idea that a teacher gets paid an extra $1500 a year simply because they are a year older, is just nuts.
But how to measure the good ones and reward them? And to incorporate the secrets of their success in other teachers?
The answer to that question scares the bejesus out of teacher unions and teacher liberals because it introduces an accountability that currently does not exist. And it compels Hekia Parata to make haste.
Sunday Star Times, 20th May 2012