A reader writes in:
I am studying at the New Zealand Graduate School of Education in Chirstchurch. As part of out studies we have to research a contemporary social issue in schools. I researched charter schools. The first paper I looked at was a 110 page 2012 paper from Massey University. This paper started by saying that it is very difficult to get a clear picture on charter schools and their performance because almost all papers are written from an ideological perspective. Well the Massey paper itself was no exception: it was clearly opposed to charter schools. But even it couldn’t find data to damn charter schools – they will not be the cause of an education apocalypse as some hysterics might claim. But nor would an intellectually honest person be able to look at the data and conclude that they were going to be a panacea. The data is hazy and conclusions tend to fall within a few percentages here and a few percentages there. There is also the problem of comparing apples with apples as what a charter school is varies from country to country and district to disctrict.
So what is a charter school in New Zealand? Firstly, in New Zealand Charter schools have no more freedom around the curriculum than special character schools (see s 158G of the act). They cannot just invent their own curriculum anymore than other state schools. (In fact schools do come up with their own curriculum, it just needs to align with the national curriculum). So in that regard, what do they really offer? Second (and this is one thing that really concerns me about charter schools) is that there are no clear criteria for becoming one – it is entirely at the discretion of the current minister (see s 158B). Of course Destiny Church was declined – they’re trying to get this scheme off the ground after all. But in the future who will be approved? It’s not good enough to say that this government wouldn’t approve x or y – what about future governments? Furthermore all this talk about targeting groups of especial need is only talk. Sure the first schools probably will, but there is absolutely nothing in the act requiring this. Thirdly they are bulk-funded, with the consequent discretion around pay and conditions for their employees. A key part of this being that they do not necessarily need to have registered teachers in every class. Now the idea that any educated person can stand up in front of a class and teach is frankly offensive and ridiculuous. Two placements in (both at high-decile schools I might add) and I can tell you that teaching is HARD. Behaviour management is a genuine skill, as is the on-the-go assessment that effective teaching requires, not to mention lesson plans. The attitude that teaching is something you can just do is one that can only be held by those that never have. Fourth charter schools do not have to have an elected board. Now the idea that markets solve all our problems is one that I am pretty scornful of, but here the mechanism seems pretty sound. Charter schools will be very sensitive to their “market”, they will want to keep parents happy. I don’t see this as a major issue.
What are the issues?
Well we need to be vary wary of apparent results. My last supervising teacher told me that the parents who tend to come in to talk about their children are generally the ones that don’t need to. In other words they’re already engaged with their child’s education and consequently the child is generally progressing well. The parents of the students who need support are the ones that need to be asked to come in. Which of these parent types are going to be the ones to engage with their options, do the research and make the considered chioice to attend charter schools? The children who REALLY need to be targeted will not seek the schools out, the children who REALLY need help need us to come to them. There is no official mechanism for selection of students by charter schools in New Zealand (thankfully). (Ironically, special character schools CAN exclude students if their parents do not share their values). But there doesn’t really need to be, the students self-select. So yeah, set a charter school up in an area of high need, and yeah you might get some data to support the project, but have you really gotten to the students who have the real need? Lies, damn lies, and statistics. (I should say that having got a BSc I know that statistics are our best and only way of getting to the truth for many things, but they need to be viewed critically when it comes time to interpret.)
How do we address the tail. Well let’s look at the OECD rankings. Sweden, USA, and Britain all have charter schools and all consistently rank lower than New Zealand. Should we really be emulating them. Out of western nations New Zealand ranks highly consistently. We don’t need to be copying this model. Who ranks the highest does a few simple things. They provide meals, health services and counselling in schools for free. The key thing about this is that both the Left and especially the Right talk about not so much equality, as equal opportunity. Now a five year old who arrives at school hungry, and in poor health does NOT have an equal opportunity to succeed. School is the perfect opportunity to set up equality of opportunity. Now you can talk about the responsibility of the parents all you like, you can say they should do this and should do that till the cow come home. This does absolutely nothing to address the problems faced by a five year old kid. The other thing they do is set an extremely high bar for becoming a teacher in the first place. You have to have a masters degree and something like 10% of applicants are accepted into teacher training. These are just a couple of things. Obviously Finland is richer than us, but they are actually spending an ever-shrinking percentage of their GDP on education.
Either side of this debate can cherry-pick data about results. Let’s raise the level of the debate. I come to Kiwiblog as someone of the opposite political persuasion to the one that dominates at Kiwiblog. I come to Kiwiblog because I want to make sure my views will hold up to the best arguments the right has to offer, You’re just not doing that on this issue I’m afraid.
I don’t think charter schools are a silver bullet. However I do believe that there are a number of states where charter schools have had a very significant improvement in student outcomes – especially New Orleans and Washington DC. I think the charter school model in NZ does provide more flexibility than character schools, which if implemented well will make a difference.