Talk of the Tail: PISA, White Flight and Teacher-bashing

Since becoming part of the OECD PISA research, the New Zealand government, no matter who it has been, has sought to close the gap between those students who are achieving well and the small but significant tail who are not.  Schools the length and breadth of the land, as a result, have been pushed and pulled and shoved and poked as the Ministry of Education has set in place projects that have not always been supported by local research.

We lived in Seattle, WA, for seven years and I became a regular listener of National Public Radio’s “This American Life” which broadcasts every Saturday lunchtime.  Its excellent quality investigative journalism groups reports around sometimes quirky but always significant themes.  Since returning home, I have got into the habit of streaming these broadcasts.  On 31st July 2015, the programme was entitled, “The Problem We  All Live With.”

It centres around Nikole Hannah, a black educator who growing up had been bussed out of her black school district to attend a white school, the impact on her life, and the research she has conducted since.  Talking about her research on “This American Life” she said:

“And I would go to schools. And they would just always be trying these new things that actually sounded like they might work. They would do things like, we’ll put a great magnet program here. Or we are going to really focus on literacy.  We’re going to start an early college high school, in which kids would earn college credit in high school. We’re going to improve teacher quality. We’re going to replace the principal, or do more testing. They’re always talking, really, about the same things. I mean, you could take these conversations, and go from district to district to district, and you will always hear the same things.”

What she noticed was that these interventions never worked. Ira Glass, the interviewer, bluntly summarised: “The bad schools never caught up to the good schools. And the bad schools were mostly black and Latino. The good schools were mostly white.”

Sound familiar?  These same hoops our NZ schools are asked to jump through in order to close the gap.  In the US context, instead of educational gymnastics, Nikole Hannah advocates good old-fashioned desegration.  Interestingly, running concurrently with largely unsuccessful education interventions, desegration has been a naturally occurring phenomenon in Auckland schools but has been viewed in a negative light because it began with what has been coined ‘white flight’ from lower socio-economic neighbourhood schools.

A recent Herald article entitled, “World-Class Auckland: Education – where are we going wrong?” reported on the tail in our city’s schools, saying that in these low decile schools…

“Disproportionate numbers are Maori or Pasifika. Reports show the education our children receive will not push back against poverty to the same extent as in other similar countries. The gap between the highest and lowest scores of our 15-year-olds is the widest in the OECD. And it is the kids at those low decile schools who are likely to have those lowest scores.”


Apparently 40% of parents have been ‘choosing up’ by moving their children out of their community to a better high school in a better suburb.  Although this has been called ‘white flight’, it is not only white parents opting out of these schools.  The Herald reporter calls it a socio-economic rather than a race issue.  Case in point, the Inzone project that boards Maori and Pasifika students in the Grammar Zone.

However, the Herald article highlights some of the problems that result when parents ‘choose up’: extra time, hassle and cost for parents and kids who can little afford it, traffic jams, soaring house prices, an imbalance in school sizes, students left in less desirable schools with fewer choices, and ‘entrenching inequality.’

Just as in the USA, we in NZ have been trying to close the gap with a range of educational experiments, for example, charter schools that focus on priority students, lunches in low decile schools, and the Communities of Schools programme whih aims to minimise competition and promote collaboration amingst educators.  However, the Herald reported that the academics they spoke to believe the gap will not close “without a more serious intervention that seeks to address inequality.”  They quote researcher Liz Gordon who says that “The more segmented we become, the more differences can lead to difficulties.” Cathy Wylie says:  “A narrow mix of children is no good, particularly in low decile schools.”  In those schools there are issues in “attracting and retaining experienced teachers; with attendance and behaviour; teacher burnout; with getting the right support and expertise; and with leadership and governance…If these children were more evenly spread among schools, there would be a lower level of disruption to learning overall.”

The Herald article agrees somewhat with Nikole Hannah.  “Studies have shown a more even mix in schools would contribute to better results.”  However, they add: “In 2000, the OECD found if intakes were more socially even in New Zealand, the differences between schools would contribute just 7 percent to differences in reading scores, around one third of the current impact.”

Never-the-less, Hekia Parata says she is not going to stop parents choosing where their children go to school but instead is focusing on improving teaching and learning.  I hope that does not mean more teacher-bashing!!  With this in mind, the Herald article quotes Ontario where they improved their PISA rankings with, amongst other things, “a deliberate move to get schools and unions back onside, stop “teacher-bashing”, and show trust in profession.”

I wonder if Hekia Parata will be listening in the pending contract round.


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