I don’t know what it is like to be a teacher in a low decile school. My two placement schools were a six and a nine while next year I’m teaching at a decile eight. But I know fair bit about being a student in a low decile school seeing as I used to be one and I remember how much it sucked.
It sucked having to walk by lines of students outside the gates of school every morning waiting for buses to go somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t my school. It sucked going to extramural competitions at other schools that had nicer buildings, better computers and didn’t need a school breakfast club to feed kids. But the thing that still sucks 15 years after leaving school is the familiar ‘oh’ when I reply to the ‘what school did you go to?’ question.
I know that oh.
It’s how people voice surprise that someone who is white and middle class would attend a multicultural school alongside poor students. It’s the oh which wonders why my parents sent me to a school like that when many students were bused out of the local area like my brother and sister were to find the right kind of education. And by the looks of things not much has changed for the students of my alma mater. They are still getting the ‘oh’ by people think less of us because we wear the uniform of a school perceived as being less prestigious than well, anywhere.
But you know what didn’t suck?
The friends I made during my time at school.
One of the bonuses to going to one of ‘those’ schools is that I get along well with everyone because any class could include refugees from Bosnia, second generation Samoans or students who could trace their whakapapa in New Zealand back generations. I had opportunities to take part in extra curricula activities as well as some awesome and some not so awesome teachers. My experience probably isn’t all that different from most middle class students experiences of education.
How did we turn out?
Some girls I went to school with got pregnant as teenagers. One of the girls in my form class in year 10 served time in jail for fraud. But before you start judging two girls in my class in year 11 went onto get PhDs from overseas universities. One girl even managed to be both a teenage mum and graduate from Cambridge University. Would our futures have been improved if the best and brightest among us got shipped off to a shiny charter school?
I don’t know.
But I do know that if you have a system which not only tolerates but encourages the idea of winner and loser schools the natural corollary is that you must also tolerate loser students. For the kids who are told that they are somehow less worthy a person by virtue of which school they attend that really sucks. Believe me the kids in the so-called failing schools know when they’ve been given up on not just by their local community but society as a whole.
And when a society treats whole communities as dumping grounds for problems associated with poverty it is little wonder that schools and teachers serving them are often viewed as lesser quality. Quite frankly I don’t blame parents for wanting to do something, anything really, to get their kids out of dodge.
But what exactly are they running away from? Is it really a bad schooling or is it about ensuring their children have sufficient cultural capital to gain entrance into the middle class?
A few years back I remember serving on a university committee which was charged with determining admission for the then just to be implemented NCEA. While the committee was deliberating on how to ensure equality of access to the university one of the academics dryly remarked that if our institution was to follow the University of California system that guarantees entry to the top 9% of graduating high school, there would be a dramatic reversal in Auckland’s busing patterns.
Likewise the city of Raleigh, North Carolina stipulated that no school could have no more than 25 percent of who were a year or more below their expected level in reading or maths. The idea being that the kids who needed the most help aren’t all lumped together which would raise achievement levels across the city. And you know what? It worked.
The lesson here is that we need to start seeing failure in education not as a failure of individuals whether they be students, teachers or schools, but a failure to address a broader problem of poverty in New Zealand. Despite the rhetoric from our politicians that our education system failing many learners we know it’s not the case. New Zealand consistently ranks near the top on international studies. The problem is that we have is a tail of 20% of students who are under achieving and I’m willing to wager a steak and cheese pie that this tail is found largely in the schools serving our poorest communities.
But poverty isn’t destiny right?
When kids come to school hungry they won’t learn as effectively as the kids who don’t.
When kids are taking extra time off school because they are contracting preventable diseases they won’t learn as effectively as the kids who don’t.
When kids are in living in overcrowded and at times unpredictable living situations they won’t learn as effectively as kids who don’t.
The ‘Poverty Is Not Destiny’ (or ‘Demography Is Not Destiny’ if you like alliteration) crowd that will soon pop up will imply that these issues are not very relevant since they are out of the teacher’s control. They will say that teachers who speak out against the regime about to be implemented are lazy and seek to shift blame away from their performance. I’d say that they are worse since they deny the importance that poverty has on student performance.
More importantly why is New Zealand trashing the idea that our education system should guarantee a child, whether they are rich or poor, can rock up to any school in this country and get a great education taught by highly qualified teachers? A kid’s life chances shouldn’t come down to whether their parents happen to have capital, cultural or otherwise, to choose the ‘right’ school for their kids.
Because ultimately it isn’t the children in Epsom who are having unqualified teachers placed in the classrooms and charter schools which lead to a higher level in variability of student achievement foisted upon them. The cynic in me thinks that this policy is designed to keep the problems of poverty out of sight, out of mind and undoubtedly out of the schools of the people who keep saying ‘oh’ when I tell them where I was educated.