An education to which they are best suited?

New Zealand Teachers Council graduating teacher standard 3.c

“Graduating teachers have an understanding of education within the bicultural, multicultural, social, political, economic and historical contexts of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

On my last day of Teaching Experience I listened in on my students as they discussed which high school they were planning to attend. At the end of the class, one of the students asked me where I had gone to school. When I mentioned the school’s name, some of the students were shocked that I had gone to this high school and lived to tell the tale. Well perhaps not that extreme, but the school is located in a very working class area and has a reputation for being a bit, umm, rough.

I did admit that yes some of my friends from school are currently on the benefit and one of the girls I was friends with is now serving time in prison for fraud.  Conversely I know a lot of school friends  in my year went on to university to earn degrees two went on to get PhDs and two went to study at Cambridge.  All in all, not bad for a  low-decile multicultural Auckland school. What I wanted my students to take away from my experience is that as they enter high school they need to realize that the have the power to influence their destiny. The girl who is now in jail sat in the same classes and had the same friends as the girl who got her PhD in maths in year 9. Somewhere along the way one of them stopped coming to class, got into booze, then drugs and then dropped out in year 12. It isn’t hard to guess which student that was.

What I didn’t tell the students was how awful it is to be a student in one of those schools that the local community has given up on. Seeing dozens of students waiting outside for a bus to take them away from your school isn’t an inspiring start to the school day. Likewise trips in the school van on its last legs to schools that had nicer buildings, better computers made you realize at a very young age that not schools were created equal. But the worst thing is that I still hear ‘oh’ when I reply to the ‘what school did you go to?’ question from people 15 years after I left the place.

Some bonuses to going to one of ‘those’ schools is that I get along well with everyone, something that happens when your classmates are refugees from Bosnia, second generation Samoans or students who could trace their whakapapa back generations.  I still had opportunities and some awesome and some not so awesome teachers.

However because I went to private primary school, it would be wise to keep my privilege in check. We had food on the table and my parents not only had the knowledge to challenge the schooling system over perceived problems with my schooling but believed that they had the right to do so. The reason I ended up in private school in the first place was because after a year of schooling I still couldn’t read or write my own name and when challenged on this the reply my parents got was that the school in question wasn’t for doctors and lawyers but for factory workers.  I’m not sure what would have happened to my life if my parents hadn’t removed me after my first year but it scares me that there were people in the  education system who had already put limitations on what my 5 year old self could achieve.

Is the answer greater school choice and vouchers? After all, the only reason my family could afford private school was because the costs of doing so were a few hundred dollars a term as opposed to the five figure tuition fees that are demanded now.

These sort of policies are predominately sold on the idea that kids from poorer neighbourhoods could access the same schools that kids in wealthy areas attended. What is an implicit and unstated assumption in making these policies work is that there would also be students like me, students from comparatively wealthy backgrounds who, for whatever reason, have parents who were happy to send their kids to low decile schools. Because otherwise you have a system that tolerates ‘loser schools’ which in turn means that there must also losing students which really sucks and believe me, the kids know when they’ve been given up on.

But what are the alternatives?

Back when I was university the first time around I was on a committee that was deciding on entrance requirements for its programmes due to the introduction of NCEA. One of the academics suggested that the University on the Hill should follow the University of California system that gurantees entry to the top 9% of graduating high school students dryly remarking that such a policy would undoubtedly lead to a dramatic reversal in our city’s bussing patterns. Likewise  the city of Raleigh, North Carolina stipulated that no school could have more than 40 percent of its kids on free school meals, or 25 percent of who were a grade or more below their expected level in reading or maths. The idea being that the kids who needed the most help weren’t all lumped together.

But what about expectations?

I was recently having lunch with another student teacher who had spent some time in mentoring programme in a decile 1 school who was incredilous that the facilities at that school were almost on par with the private school she attended. I didn’t say anything at the time but I could help but think why shouldn’t the kids in poorer areas have access to the the same facilities and great teachers that kids who live in wealthier areas have? Why should the kids have to travel, in some cases long distances, bypassing many a school on their way to access to education? Shouldn’t that education be freely available in their local neighbourhood? But perhaps most importantly shouldn’t our society have expect that all kids should have the chance to succeed within the education system (and more importantly in life) instead of consigning them to the scrap heap, much like I almost was when I was 5.

So yes expectations matter.

But also money. Because when you are eating weetbix for dinner because pay day isn’t until tomorrow it really is about the money.  And when your local school isn’t doing so well  the answer isn’t to start bussing kids out the area making it shouldn’t just be someone else’s problem, it needs to be everyone’s problem.

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