Getting education to make biculturalism work

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General

I was able to add half a day to visit schools in New Zealand, something I always try to do where my schedule permits. At Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi, New Zealand’s first community school offering Māori medium instruction, I was greeted by a group of ferocious warriors slowly approaching us and offering the choice between picking a fight and settling for peace. With that choice made, we were warmly welcomed with a traditional pōwhiri at the school’s marae. In Māori culture greeting others is an important opportunity for people to show respect and to set the tone for whatever comes after. That hour-long ceremony included skilled speakers crafting poetic verbal images, but most impressive was how the school’s entire student population sang with one voice, confident and incredibly dynamic and self-orchestrated, without a conductor. Principal Rawiri Wright, former leader of the tough Māori language schooling organisation and who had challenged Minister Kaye and myself at my public presentation earlier in the morning, asked me later how the range of artistic and social skills so evident among his students were featuring in New Zealand’s national standards and our comparative work at the OECD. One could argue with some of his political rhetoric, but our conversation left me thinking. And he referred me proudly to the latest results on academic performance too, which showed his students outperforming schools at the 8th decile of socio-economic advantage – despite the fact that his own school was catering for low to middle-income families located at the 4th decile. He sees these results vindicating his stance that the kind of academic performance that we value comes as a by-product of the holistic Maori medium instruction that his school offers, while he claims that attempts to add the latter as a ‘nice-to-have’ to the former were failing in New Zealand.

Rawiri readily conceded that the school is not without its fair share of social and managerial issues, but it demonstrates how Māori running their own schools can offer their children – who tend to show dismal performance as minorities in many schools and whose parent generation makes up a disproportionate number of those on welfare or in correction facilities – a viable education that prepares them both to be citizens in the modern world in which they live, and to become active protagonists of their traditional culture. Rawiri sees helping children build an understanding of their cultural heritage as the foundation for the self-confidence and self-esteem that are so badly needed among the Māori student population. It may seem a thing of a long-gone past to ask children to know and remember seven-hundred ancestors, but it also means giving them assurance that they are not alone in facing the challenges of an ever-more rapidly changing world. Pita Sharples, Associate Minister for Education with responsibility for some key Maori education priorities, gave a moving account of how he had established this school against all odds but with the deep commitment of the community. This had been after more than a century in which Māori language and education had been outlawed. He did not seem that old and that brought home to me how recent biculturalism in New Zealand still is.

In very different ways, community engagement and partnership were also the guiding principles of Sylvia Park School. We’ve all experienced how it is when schools invite for a parental evening, on their own terms and timelines, and we know the kind of parents that show up at those events. The Mutukaroa Home School Learning Partnership at Sylvia Park has turned all this on its head, building educationally powerful partnerships that change what happens in classrooms, and that recognise the importance of engaging with families in honest, rigorous and robust ways to accelerate student learning. Arina, a truly inspiring teacher and counsellor, explained how she does whatever it takes to meet each parent at their home or at work, reviews their children’s performance with them individually, and then provides parents with the tools and assistance they need to assume their responsibilities for the development of their children. The Ministry’s evaluation found that the Sylvia Park project has lifted the achievement of new entrants from well below the national average to above it in just two years. It is now looking to bring that initiative to scale, replicating the core elements of Mukukaroa in a way that preserves their integrity, while adapting them to the individual context of schools.

At Newton Central School, I met Hoana Pearson, another amazing school principal. She defines the world through relationships, for her there is no bridge too far, no stakeholder too distant, no dispute that cannot be resolved through consultation, dialogue and collaboration.  And no one escapes her warm hug. As we walk from one richly decorated classroom to the next, she greets every child by name, and picks up pieces of trash to maintain the meticulous order of the premises. Newton Central provides education that reflects a deep commitment to biculturalism and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, with four learning pathways to choose from. The school is creative and truly visionary, celebrating the diversity of its community. Here, social background and culture are not obstacles to learning, but the school capitalizes on the diversity of its learners, taking learning to the learner in ways that allow students to learn in the ways that are most conducive to their progress. All this is built on the kind of instructional and distributed leadership that Hoana provides, with a focus on supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality as its core, where teachers collaborate to design, lead and manage innovative learning environments. Hoana also works with individual teachers to become aware of any weaknesses in their practices, and that often means not just creating awareness of what they do but changing the underlying mindset. She helps them gain an understanding of specific best practices, through experiencing such practices in the authentic setting of other classrooms. And she motivates her teachers to make the necessary changes through high expectations, a shared sense of purpose, and a collective belief in their common ability to make a difference for every child. The school is succeeding even when she is absent, putting the final touches on her Master’s thesis towards the end of her career. What better indication could there be of effective leadership?

Hoana makes this happen, and New Zealand’s liberal and entrepreneurial school system gives her the space to make it happen. It would be hard to imagine her in one of Southern Europe’s bureaucratic school systems. Newton Central is an example for how school autonomy works at its best, and it explains why many of New Zealand’s schools perform top of the class in PISA. These schools set ambitious goals, are clear about what students should be able to do and then provide their teachers with the tools to establish what content and instruction they need to provide to their individual students. They have moved on from delivered wisdom, to user-generated wisdom, from a culture of standardization, conformity and compliance towards being innovative and ingenious.

The challenge for New Zealand is to get everybody to that level, to spread good practice and to make excellence universal. The evening before I had dinner with New Zealand’s cross-sector forum where some school principals’ spoke of the difficulties they face with attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, of prioritising and delegating their work, of managing their resources strategically and of collaborating with other schools. In New Zealand’s socio-economically privileged schools, the school’s trustees provide magnificent stakeholder support. They elect talented principals and add the expertise of lawyers, accountants and administrators which autonomous schools need to function effectively. In many disadvantaged neighbourhoods, however, schools have a hard time finding any trustees, and where they do, these are unlikely to provide the governance, oversight and resources that are needed – and even more unlikely to challenge an underperforming principal.

The idea of New Zealand’s school systems is not to respond to this with administrative prescription, but for improvement to come from the best knowledge and understanding from within the school system. That means that professional autonomy needs to go hand in hand with a collaborative culture, with autonomous schools working in partnership to improve teaching and learning throughout the system. New Zealand needs its best teachers and its best schools to provide the expertise and resources for all teachers to update their knowledge, skills and approaches in light of new teaching techniques, new circumstances, and new research; it needs its best teachers to help other teachers to get on top of changes made to curricula or teaching practice and it needs its best school principals to enable other schools to develop and apply effective strategies. But knowledge is very sticky, particularly in a highly competitive school system. Knowledge about strong educational practices tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management. That means New Zealand will have to think much harder about how it will actually shift knowledge around pockets of innovation and better align resources with the challenges.

The government is trying. Having successfully introduced a coherent system of educational standards – first of their kind in New Zealand – it is now providing schools and teachers with the tools they need to implement these standards in their classrooms and to monitor how individual students progress. But it is still a long way to go until strategic thinking and planning takes place at every level of the system, until every school discusses what the national vision along with desired standards means for them, and until every decision is made at the level of those most able to implement them in practice. Not least, the unions contest the implementation of standards and any notion of public transparency vigorously, fearing this will introduce a culture of external accountability and industrial work organisation of the kind that has driven out creative and professional practice in other countries. Given the nature of the tools and their heavy reliance on professional judgement within schools, these concerns seem somewhat farfetched, but they were an undercurrent in many of my conversations. There seem too few principals like Hoana, who cherish autonomy but see their schools as part of a national education system, who embrace national standards as a tool for peer-learning and for the continuous improvement of their daily practice.

For as long as I have been working with New Zealand there has been talk about equity. But the results from PISA show that the school system is still far from delivering equity, in terms of moderating the impact which social background has on learning outcomes. Disparities are, if anything, on the rise. The challenge for New Zealand lies in moving towards a culture of improvement, framed around not where schools and students are today but how they are advancing. This is about attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and getting the best principals into the toughest schools, it is about developing diverse and differentiated careers for teachers and principals that recognise and reward improved pedagogical practice and the kind of professional autonomy in a collaborative culture that makes school systems cohesive. It is about making sure that every child benefits from excellent teaching.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Education Policy Outlook:New Zealand
Education at a Glance 2013: Country Note

Leave a Reply