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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Inequality in Education

In a previous post I talked about how the new Scholarship fee structure is not a good move with the core of my argument being that it further contributes to socio-economic inequality in education. We're all aware that the divide between rich and poor in New Zealand is fast developing into a serious issue in our society. Some of our parties are more concerned about it than others (the Left does appear to be returning to its roots after decades in the wilderness trying to find itself) but all of them are more or less at a stage where any activity in this area is simply to allow their favoured policies to creep in. The divide within education is stark and it speaks of problems further down the line. While University Entrance (UE) isn't something that everyone needs it is something that everyone should be able to get. Yet, we see a clear split when we look at the data by socio-economic decile. We've created a tiered education system that disadvantages those from poorer background: just look at the decile split in UE.

Source.
As we can see there is a massive divide between the poor and wealthy. It's a larger gap than that which exists in the three levels and that can possibly be explained by UE being a more complicated qualification than the levels. With NCEA Level One passing just means that one has to be able to pass more than eighty credits at any level as well as meet basic literacy and numeracy provisions (these also contribute towards the eighty). Passing the other levels is just as simple. UE, though, has traditionally been 42 credits split across four approved subjects (i.e. not all subjects count). Those 42 credits come from four subjects such that two subjects contribute 14 credits each and the remaining two contribute a further 14. While these are at level three, the literacy (8 credits, four each in reading and writing) and numeracy (14 credits) come from levels two and one respectively. This is far more complicated and the award is somewhat confused with Level Three (they're distinct). The new (and now current) version is just as bad. It requires ten literacy and numeracy credits (same levels), 14 credits in each of three approved subjects and level three. One reads numerous articles and pieces about lower decile schools opting for a more practical version of Level Three. While this fine, I think that many pupils (in any decile) aren't aware of the distinction between "Subject good enough for UE" and "Subject that only contributes to Level Three". This may not explain the greater gap but I think it is a reasonable explanation to offer. But why does the gap exist at all?

There's a lot information out there that seeks to explore that question. I'm not familiar with all of it or, indeed, most of it. In fact, based on what I do know, no-one has a definitive explanation for why schools in New Zealand are what we might call "terribad" at not allowing socio-economic status of a pupil to predict their performance in school. This is despite, or maybe because of, the decile system that is partially there to try and address the resource gap that exists between the home environment and the school one at different rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In this blog, I'm going to ignore any responsibility I have to fact check and will, instead, make purely ideological arguments with some residual influence from evidence I have encountered previously. Does that sound stupid? Well, it's how the current National govt. (in particular with its partner ACT) and probably most politicians approach education. Sometimes they get it right and other times they don't. Ideological approaches may require less effort (my reason for using one) but they're very hit and miss.

Deciles

In theory, by paying more per pupil to low decile schools those schools are able to afford better resources and make sure that pupils have access to such things as the internet. On the other hand, no amount of expenditure from five years onwards is going to make up for the pupil having to be taught to read once they enter school as a new entrant... and while I haven't checked if this assumption is true, I assume that it is more likely that pupils whose family backgrounds involve deprivation are going to be less able to read. Learning to read and write at the age of five is, frankly, a disaster and one I'm not sure one can recover from. Conclusion: extend 20 hours free early childhood education policies. There is also a bigger point to be made here. Expenditure in the school that, say, equips every pupil with a laptop is all very well and good (despite my serious concerns about over digitisation of education) but it's far less good (to wasted) if the families of the pupils typically don't have internet access. This problem is made worse by the state of modern libraries. Take Papakura's new one... when they went down a floor they lost almost every single decent workspace in the library. I can barely remember the old Bookinopolis but the new one (in Pukekohe) managed to retain quite a lot of workspace even if it's not what I'd describe as ideal. Unless we see a radical change in pupils' attitudes to school libraries this is going to be a problem. Conclusion: as a society we need to work on improving social access to decent public workspaces and internet, as well as reduce any digital divides that may exist in homes.

How can deciles work against improving equitable outcomes in New Zealand's education system? Well, it's more deciles and zones in combination. I like both ideas but the problem with deciles is that many parents (who are not normally, I assume, such idiots) don't understand the decile system. As a consequence, we get what might be termed "white flight" if it wasn't something everyone wants to do. Parents see that their child(ren)'s school is a low decile one and assume that this translates to its being bad (in a similar way to private = good). This is not the case, it just means that the school has got a slightly different funding arrangement to one that's further up the road. As a consequence, a lot of parents try to avoid sending their children to such schools and because of zones this almost invariably means they have to move house. It follows that school zones and a misunderstanding of deciles are creating neighbourhoods that are increasingly homogeneous in terms of socio-economic status (a term I'm increasingly disliking).

So, why's this an issue? Well, personally, I firmly believe that having children all mixed in together raises the performance of all of them. I personally think that there will always be some sort of advantage to being wealthy and we do know that the presence of smarter children does tend to drag overall attainment up. But, it's also more in a sense of, almost, moral/spiritual (ethical? I'm not sure what the term/word I'm after is) development in having pupils from diverse backgrounds interacting. In this sense, school choice... which invariably involves removing zones... wouldn't solve this issue because it would merely exacerbate the "flight" aspect. Ultimately, this is a deeply complex and one that can't just be treated to independently. Conclusion: we need to seriously rethink growth and social policies as well as urban development as a whole in NZ and do so with educational inequities in mind.

Homework

This actually ties right back into what I was just discussing before about resource gaps and workspaces. I wouldn't mention it because I feel my conclusions in those areas already solve it (more homework is not a solution, four hours a week actually appears to be the ideal) but it was something that popped up in PISA's work so in the name of having some "weight" to this post:

The bottom line: Homework is another opportunity for learning; but it may also reinforce socio-economic disparities in student achievement. Schools and teachers should look for ways to encourage struggling and disadvantaged students to complete their homework. They could, for example, offer to help parents motivate their children to do their homework and provide facilities so that disadvantaged students have a quiet place to complete assigned homework if none is available in their homes.
Source: Does Homework Perptuate Inequities in Education?

Resources

Well, I've talked about a resource gap before but I didn't really explain what I mean. This is mostly because it's quite straightforward. A wealthy household can afford such things as computers, textbooks, regular internet access, smartphones, tutors etc. whereas, for the most part, poorer households have to make more tradeoffs to obtain such things. For the truly deprived, a lot of this stuff (hell, even regular meals) is next to impossible to obtain. For many others, parts of it are out of reach. This is also a pattern that is repeated in schools. Going back to "Separate, But Equal" in the US, what was the reality was that "black" schools quite simply were trying to be mid-20th century schools with 19th century resources. It wasn't equal... that was a huge part of the problem (obviously, the segregation's being motivated by racist thinking was bigger). Do we see something similar happening in our schools? That is, do we see lower decile schools struggling to obtain resources of sufficient quality to improve outcomes for their pupils? I'm going to go ahead and say yes. I don't just mean good textbooks and work environments (wobbly desks aren't ideal, yeah?) because I also need include teachers as a resource.

I know that sounds a little strange and I know that the term "human resources" gets a lot of humour at its expense but teachers are a resource. They are also a resource that reacts to conditions such as a behavioural problems in ways that textbooks typically don't. Sure, a book flying across the room isn't useful to anyone but it's quite different for the teacher who has to contend with such an issue. I'm not saying that lower deciles schools look like this because, certainly at younger year levels, I don't think they do. I am saying that I think many prospective teachers have ideas like this floating around in their heads because behavioural issues are probably more likely to pop up. In general, I get the feeling that teaching in a lower decile school is seen as more problematic. That is to say, when you consider things like behaviour, the greater likelihood of having troublesome home environments (where this isn't manifested by bad behaviour), nutritional issues, disadvantages in terms of internet/books etc and the greater likelihood of having not started school with basic literacy down to pat I think we can see a picture that makes low decile sound like the start of a bad job offer. Now, despite the decile system, I think lower decile schools still get far less than they need to and this means that not only are teachers probably not so keen on teaching at them, but the schools are also out-competed for teachers and can afford less in the way of support. And support is something all teachers need, Conclusion: let's see how National's efforts pan out, but also let's work on those support structures some more.

Parental Involvement

This is very important and it's possibly the last aspect of a picture that's been building throughout this post... the fact that education is not just about what happens at school. Parents need to take an active role in their child's education: interested parents leads to engaged children. It's a bit late to start taking an interest by 12 because the pupil will probably have got the idea (from American media) that they're meant to think their parents are the enemy... interest would be perceived as something more akin to pressure or oppression. But, at a younger age, parents talking with their children about school doesn't have that and it also means reading with children and helping them with work. Again, this is harder when you're a lower socio-economic household. The parents may not have time (on account of numerous dead end jobs), may have problems such as drinking or gambling, may not have much experience of parental involvement themselves to guide them, may not have the confidence to take an interest and are probably quite likely to have picked up a dim view of school whilst they were pupils themselves. It's sadly cyclical (these things usually are). This is also another complex issue that I don't have an idea to solve. Maybe an app... which may just reflect a problem that will face the next generation of school reformers. But, seriously, I don't know. A good place to start, I suppose, is just getting the parents into the school environment regularly... even if it's not in an educational context. If this means fortnightly school-ground picnics or something, so be it.

Conclusion

Inequality in education is a serious problem that doesn't deserve this kind of ideological treatment. If we continue to allow inequality to persist along socio-economic lines like we have now, in the future we'll face a two-speed society. That will have broad consequences for growth, stability and pretty much any aspect of human life that we could care to take. The graph at the start of this post suggests that some of the socio-economic gap is closing but PISA data suggests that NZ's pupils are becoming less resilient. That is, over the last decade (2003-12) we've seen the proportion of 15 year olds who achieve well in an international test and come from low socio-economic backgrounds decrease. PISA, in fact, paints a pretty negative view of education and inequality in New Zealand. Goes well with our overall trend of worsening relative to our previous performance in PISA (in terms of mark, not ranking).

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