School funding – An issue of social justice

Last week, a somewhat surprising announcement suggested the current method whereby New Zealand state schools are funded is in for a major overhaul. This system has revolved around the concept of ‘decile funding’. Effectively, based on certain socio-economic measures (such as employment status of parents, number of people living in a household, and real estate values of the neighbourhood) schools are allocated a ‘decile’ grading or ranking. Decile One schools are located in disadvantaged areas or areas of low socio-economic status, while Decile Ten schools are typically located in areas where real estate values are high, parents are in employment and homes are not overcrowded.

The funding rationale is quite straight-forward and strives for equity, with low decile schools receiving proportionally higher rates of funding than higher decile schools, whose parents are better positioned to top up the school’s government funding. And while this idea is sound in concept, it has developed some significant flaws: for example, in the context of the promotion of a competitive ethos by various neoliberal education policies (such as school zoning and self-managed schools), the decile ranking has become a proxy for achievement. In other words, high decile schools are considered to be ‘better’ schools able to produce greater success in national examinations or attainment of National Standards; while low decile schools are assumed to be struggling schools characterised by dysfunctional behaviour and image.

In a bizarre twist, the decile system has become part of the marketing furniture in the hands of real estate agents. Nothing sells a house like being in a ‘grammar zone’ with nearby high decile schools (for example). The decile system is not related to the quality of teachers or the quality of educational provision at any given school, yet many families living in proximity to a lower decile school will avoid the school, and endeavour to enrol their children in more distant, but higher decile, schools.

This funding system, though apparently equitable, fails for several reasons, including the points above, but also because it fails to recognise nuances. A good case in point was the secondary school at which I worked for many years. As a Catholic, state-integrated school, it was able to draw students from outside the neighbourhood. In the particular historical trajectory of this school, once based in a neighbourhood increasingly populated by migrant Pacific island families, it evolved from being a mainly European boys’ school to one that was a mainly Pacific Island boys’ school. In the 1990s, the area became gradually gentrified, the working poor moved out of the area, and an increasing number of the students bussed in. The school demographic did not change, but the material ‘value’ of the area was greatly enhanced. Thus, while the school continued to draw on the working poor, the local real estate values skewed the decile ranking, so that what ought to have been a Decile One school (because its students were from poor homes) was in fact a Decile Three school, consequently attracting a lower level of funding.

So, this system does require overhaul, and perhaps the government should be applauded for reviewing this funding formula. Some of the changes it considers, however, are not unproblematic. For instance, it is suggested that funding be tied to individual students within a school who come from homes dependent on benefit; or from homes with a history of incarceration; or from homes with a child abuse history; or from homes where the mother has no formal qualification. Inevitably, questions are raised concerning the possible stigmatisation of students, and the question of data gathering.

Are teachers and schools going to be burdened with gathering this information? The government is claiming its Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links data from a long list of government agencies including corrections, health, education and the tax department, will be doing the work. That may be so, but it seems a long stretch of a generous imagination to believe that schools (ie teachers and administrators) won’t be responsible for increased accountability and measurement tasks.

Being a critically reflective teacher: A Freirean perspective

For those who work in Southern Hemisphere universities, Semester 1 is just beginning now, so I will soon meet some keen (hopefully!) students who are a third of the way into their 3-year Bachelor of Education programme. This may be a good time to briefly reflect then, some of what the great critical educator, Paulo Freire had to say about what it is to be a teacher.

Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) drew particular attention to the teacher, and some of the qualities and attributes Freire believed teachers, educators and thinkers of education ought to aspire to.

Freire was committed to the idea of teaching as a political activity and the idea that teaching is an ethical activity. Freire’s claim is important to uphold when teachers are increasingly seen as mere functionaries of the reformist, neoliberal state.

Freire held a controversial position on the development of critical consciousness. There are, however, two ways the idea of critical consciousness applies to teachers and teaching: first, teachers should be initiating their students into the process of developing criticality, and second, teachers have a responsibility to both themselves and their profession to develop as critically reflective practitioners.

Freire regarded teachers to have chosen to make a difference to the world, and believed the work of teaching professionals to be intrinsically valuable, calling on teachers to dignify teaching. These commitments require actions, however, some of which may be discomforting to some teachers.

Not all teachers (especially beginning ones) will realise that policy directly influences their professional lives. Being aware of, and challenging, the role of policy reveals teaching to be a political activity. Policies too often are a knee-jerk response to perceived failures of the education system to deliver a return on taxpayer investment. Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) revealed his concern with the impact of the “scourge of neoliberalism” (p. 22) on teachers’ thought and practice. This fatalistic ideology places enormous emphasis on the accumulation of grades through continuous assessment, and encourages teachers to see the world as a given, discouraging theorising of its underlying causes and tensions, giving preference instead to data manipulation as an explanatory tool. The promise of a hopeful education that develops a love of society and consequently, egalitarian tendencies, is no more than a vain hope under these policy agendas.

Freire argued that educators ought to recognise that their role is more influential than merely teaching content—their role includes the moral formation of learners, which cannot be separated from teaching content. Teaching is people-centred, and the relationships that develop in an educative context are complex. Therefore, teaching, Freire would argue, is an ethical activity, and at its heart is consistency between the actions and words of teachers. Thus, Freire accentuated teachers’ actions over their words (actions speak louder than words).

The ethical teacher listens, rather than speaks. This focus on listening over speaking does not silence the teacher’s voice, but allows the student voice that is struggling to make meaning and sense of knowledge. To create the climate in which this student voice can be heard requires a spirit of humility on the part of the teacher, although this does not imply the submission of the teacher. By being an active listener, however, the teacher models appropriate behaviour for students to follow in their relations with teachers.

Teaching is not a technical matter, but a task richly ethical, yet radically uncertain. This state of uncertainty was captured by one of Freire’s well-known notions, that humans are never complete, thus teachers are in a state of ever–becoming.

In his acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1996),  Freire rejected ‘banking education’ in favour of ‘problem-posing education’, a rejection he reiterated in Pedagogy of Freedom. Transmission style teaching was thus rejected in favour of dialogical education that would develop a critical disposition. The life experience and prior knowledge of students are a text in the development of critical understanding. Problem-posing teachers will seek ways to bridge existing knowledge with students’ knowledge, to ensure their students cross over to critical curiosity and consciousness.

Students require teachers who assume responsibility for promoting and developing critical thinking. If students are to think critically, they must think about something. Specifically this will be the knowledge of the curriculum and the knowledge of the students. It is important then that teachers must see themselves, and be seen, as authorities in their field of expertise, but not seek to be elitists or authoritarians.

Critical teachers commit themselves to transformative change. Therefore, Freire clearly intended that teachers be open to change and new ideas, through critical reflection. This reflective activity will support teachers to be consistent and coherent. Critical reflection on practice is thus central to Freire’s theory. When teachers think critically about their present practice, their future practice will benefit, and they develop their theoretical understanding of their own purpose as educators. Through a process of reflection, self-reflective teachers theorise their practice, then try out their emerging theories as they gear their classrooms so that students can bridge the gap to critical curiosity.

As self-critical learners, and problem-posing educators, teachers research their students as if they were themselves ‘texts’. Teachers seek to understand their students much as a reader seeks to understand a text. Critical reflection on practice is morally informed and committed to transformative action. A focus on the relationship between theory and practice by teachers as part of their daily routine helps to challenge the technical and instrumental rationality pervading education in the 21st century.

Freire’s simple humility and respect for the dignity of others, and his driving passion for the attainment of a just world in the face of a global orientation that emphasises greed, self-aggrandisement and individual attainment over social cohesion, serve as an object lesson to all educators, and a model for all teachers to emulate.

Technology – Like the air we breathe

I notice that an Australian educator was quoted by the Times Educational Supplement as suggesting “technology is invisible now. Just like electricity, it’s there, it’s an enabler, it makes the connections work.” Indeed. I spent some time observing the implementation of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in a secondary school last year, and one of my observations was that, in some classes, the teachers may well have been saying: “Right, take out your textbooks, and turn to p. 32”. What they were saying (some of them, at any rate) was, “Right, we’re going to take out our devices now, and open up Google Classroom”. Those words, used that way, sound very odd indeed – a little like saying, “Right class, we’re going to breathe now”.

By contrast, in three other school settings, where I was observing teaching practice and gethering qualitative evidence to support my research into flexible learning environments, the use of (digital) technology was integrated more seamlesslessly. Ironically, none of those schools have a BYOD policy, though one was making moves in that direction, while the other two merely supported the notion that each student was entitled to bring an appropriate digital device to complement their learning. (Reflecting on the difference between these schools and the BYOD school, I note that those with flexible learning environments also happen to work in a self-consciously ‘futures’ frame).

Two critical thoughts spring to mind when thinking about my BYOD participants: one relates to the digital natives/digital immigrants bifurcation; the other to the vision of increased cognitive load underpinning some taxonomies.

Elsewhere, I have joined others in challenging the notion of the existence of a ‘natives/immigrant’ bifurcation, for at least these reasons: it yields too easily to an ‘us vs them’ sceneario (ie the geeky teens who know all about that digital stuff vs the old dinosaurs who think faxes are modern and that there is an ‘interweb’). Second, the perpetuation of this myth allows some teachers (and parents) to really act like dinosaurs, and never challenge themselves to learn something new. Third, it presupposes all those born, say since 2000, are just ‘naturals’ with digital technology, and will ‘automatically’ know what to do with technology. Finally, and here is the space teachers should explore more, is the notion that all the members of the ‘Net Generation’ are using their digital technology in cognitively challenging ways. This is plainly not so. Like their elders, many (most?) young people have core functional uses for their devices.

Ruben Puentedura developed the SAMR model, a taxonomy that suggests teachers ought to aim to move from activities that are mere substitutes of pen and paper activities, to higher-order tasks demanding redefinition, in which previously inconceivable tasks are introduced. My own classroom obseravtions in the schools I mention above, suggest that this movement is not quite as simple as may be suggested by the SAMR model. If anything, the movement makes enormous demands on teachers’ time and energy, and that is before you get to thinking about their sense of personal confidence and skill in digital device use. In addition, schools find themselves under various forms of the neoliberal accountability regime, which includes National Standards and NCEA in New Zealand, for example.

There is an important sense in which the the two issues I am critical of, come together in the situation I described at the outset. Teachers who buy into the ‘natives/immigrants’ bifurcation may be reluctant to develop the skill set and confidence required to be effective in their seamless integration of digital technology into their pedagogy (doing and thinking), while simultaneously know just enough to get by, thus merely play the substitution game. Hence the odd comments about taking out devices now. Yet, if they recognised they have the ability to learn, they will find that they still do have something new to impart to their classes (who still do not ‘know everything’ about digital technology) thus allowing their students (and themselves) to engage with digital technologies in exciting, critical, and seamless ways.

 

 

University in 2016?

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This is the title of a recent newspaper article that is more of a promo or advertorial on behalf of the university system in New Zealand. The article was well-timed to coincide with the publication of the results of the 2015 National Certificate in Educational Achievement – better known in these parts as NCEA. The article has something of a Polyanna feel to it, telling the eager young hopefuls that a university education is ‘a smart choice’, providing ‘better job prospects’, arguing that the unemployment rates of graduates are lower, and earnings higher. Readers (likely prospects) are reminded, that “if being employed is important to you, keep an eye on the employment prospects for graduates in fields that interest you.” The impact of the news of the likely cost of a degree is mitigated by the reminder that this is an “investment that will pay off over the rest of your life.” So, what is the cost? Apparently, $14 000 (NZD), which the average person takes 7 years to pay off.

Some critical thoughts come immediately to mind on reading this. One is self-critical. Just last week, I was appealing to university educators to remember to rekindle the ideal of a critical education, in anticipation of a new academic year (in the Southern Hemisphere, January is the start of a new academic year). I can’t help feeling a touch cynical, though. For one, two of my three adult children have student loans of around $60 000 each (and they have not been using their student loans to take ski trips). This size loan will take far longer than seven years to repay. Their cases are far from simply personal, and represent a major social issue for young New Zealanders – an issue with some direct links to neoliberal state policy. To gain a sense of what I mean, have a look at Student Debt and Activism in New Zealand, an entry on the Savage Minds blog site.

My second critical thought is prompted by the advice offered to potential undergraduates in the New Zealand Herald article to “follow your passions – study what interests you and what you love doing.” The New Zealand Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Steven Joyce, may beg to differ, however. In his economic view of the world, prospective students should be thinking strategically about their likely job and earning prospects in the future, much aided by the helpful Occupation Outlook app, which enables users to gain an accurate sense of job and earning prospects. There is a further twist to this tale, however, as coming to all New Zealand tertiary providers in 2017, is the intended policy requirement

to publish information about the employment status and earnings of their graduates broken down by specific degrees and diplomas…[thus] students will also be able to see what and where to study to improve their employment prospects.

One final point of critique: the work of Brown, Lauder and Ashton on ‘the global auction’ has helped to refute the linear idea that ‘learning equals earning’. Their research suggests that in the global knowledge economy, high skills are often made available at bargain basement cost, while for the elite, earnings are propelled ever-upward. Clearly, some sobering thoughts for academics and students alike, about to embark on the 2016 academic year.