You are not in Somalia now, Mr Shearer
By Kelvin Smythe
You are not in Somalia now, Mr Shearer
I am eschewing the conventional form of introductory paragraphs except to say that this posting is a fairly long journey starting with David Shearer’s most unsatisfactory speech; to the need to rid education of the baleful American influence; to why the voices of teachers need to be heard in the interests of our social democracy; to a consideration of the influences around Shearer; to an unspoken agreement between Shearer and a particular journalist and his newspaper; to how that paid off; and to how the OECD report has validated New Zealand primary teachers and made fools of their critics.
I want to make clear to Shearer and his group of advisers that I lived and argued and struggled through the first betrayal of teachers by a Labour government in the form of Tomorrow’s Schools, often a voice in the wilderness, and I’m not going to tolerate a second betrayal – this web site will be relentless in doing what it can, to the extent of its influence, to that end. And I want to warn Shearer and his group that the teachers of today and their teacher organisations are very different from the teachers and teacher organisations of those days – they are battle hardened, savvy, and angry.
From the early ‘90s in Network Magazine, and now through this web site I have warned about the implications of rightwing structures being imposed on primary education – in particular, of course, has been the imposition of the rightwing structure of Tomorrow’s Schools and its so-called parental control of schools. I warned from the beginning that this was just a ruse, temporary moving station, before New Zealand school education became something very different.
And right from the beginning, as a result of governments acting on the neo-liberal anti-teacher idea of ‘provider capture’, and the accompanying denigration of teachers, the power of teachers to influence policy developments has been eliminated. In such ways, using such spurious arguments, is social democracy undermined. So we have the strange phenomenon of those who are close to children, who really know about schools – being shut out; and those who are distant from children and only know about schools though other means, mainly American-style academic research – being in control.
In Orwellian terms, this has set up the rightwing, especially the neo-liberal section of it, and bureaucrats and politicians, to control the present by controlling interpretations of the past (especially through institutional amnesia), and by controlling the present to control the future.
It is difficult for the public to believe, when confronted by research result numbers, that most American-style research is self-serving, politically laden, replete with tricks, and essentially dishonest, sometimes fraudulently so. (An important point to establish here is that American-style research is also practised by New Zealanders trained in the art of developing research findings to meet the requirements of their political patrons.) Such research has informed decades of American-style education, a style of education that is obviously in difficulty because the wrong analysis has been applied and therefore the wrong solutions. But no worry to the advocates of American-style education, because any failure is ascribed to teachers, so the cycle repeats but, in the wondrous way contemporary education works, rewarding the advocates of failure for their failure. Nevertheless, American education with all its tics, shudders, and horrors is our future.
That this is bad for education and a bad sign for social democracy is given little heed by right wing and, seemingly, not by those who helped to frame David Shearer’s desultory speech of Thursday 15 March, 2012.
His office I strongly sense has made a mephistophelian deal with the rightwing media, I can even suggest a particular journalist – John Armstrong – and a particular publication – the Herald – and that is that, he will be their creature. What the media can give, they can take away, which they will pronto, and his little no account stint will be over. His time, if he ever becomes prime minister, will simply be more of the same but not quite so much.
These are very serious times in education: in postings I have made clear the lying, severe propagandising, and scapegoating that has occurred. Teachers have, sometimes in fear, sometimes in exasperation, resorted, yes – inappropriately – to totalitarian imagery: this resort should not be dismissed, though, but seen an intimation of something threatening to our social democracy, an indication that all is not well.
Education is on the cusp – the next teaching age will be a digital one, an age of apps, with opportunities to be grasped and Orwellian dangers, if the concern is social democracy, to be avoided. Teachers need, in the interests of children, to be deeply involved in the decision making around digital education to maintain the cognitive and affective integrity of the curriculum in relation to children’s emotional and learning needs. Yes – there will be larger classes when schools are fully digitalised, teachers will accept that because it will be more than a slogan, the apps being able to undertake a lot of the basic work. Children will still have individual needs only a teacher can discern and meet, and teachers will have the function beyond whatever is provided by computers (and it will be increasingly amazing), of inspiring, integrating, and push for the transformational.
And there will have to be decisions about ways to meet children’s full range of needs: When is too much for children sitting at their digitalised work station? How will the provision for, say, music, the arts, and physical education be undertaken?
There are the terrible dangers, though, of increased opportunities for a kind of corporate authoritarianism to be established in respect to education, a dominance of education by experts who control without genuine democratic reference, an imposition of even more conformity on schools, an increasing narrowing of the curriculum, an organisation of schools and classroom learning on an industrial basis, an emphasis on that which is measurable, a movement to centralised surveillance and direct digital feeds between classroom and government offices, a propagandising through the use of programmes prepared by politically-slanted international corporations, and a loss of cultural identity as a result of unchecked globalisation.
For those who genuinely support social democracy, this is no time for teachers and parents to be cut from education decision making. But here we have the group around Shearer apparently oblivious to all this, using coded words to align themselves with the coded words of those groups set on denigrating teachers and public schools.
But to the Shearer group, this is so much hot air.
So my intention is to bore in.
Let’s have a look at what I surmised has happened. I want to emphasise that I am in receipt of no specific information about who the advisers in Shearer’s group are, there is, apparently, Josie Pagani, who stood for Rangitikei; her husband, John Pagani, who writes what is described as a left-leaning blog on Stuff and who will, I think, be in and about; and the group has the feel of Trevor Mallard being in the mix; I suppose Nanaia is in there too, but who knows what her thinking is, she hasn’t yet unburdened herself of her ideas on education, I hope her appointment is not a case of being there; and, now I think about it further, Grant Robertson would, surely, be in the group.
Now let’s get down to tintacks.
On Wednesday, 15 March, 2012 we had the most dismal speech from Labour leader it is possible to imagine.
Its amateurishness, clumsy obviousness, and inconsistencies were breathtaking.
Shearer laid claim to Finland as an example, but it was obviously based on passing knowledge, because the ‘programme’ Shearer laid out, was directly opposite to the Finnish example. In an offhand way he made a criticism of national standards, then a sneaky supporting reference to performance pay which is part of the national standards philosophy, and then a reference to putting schools on notice which is also part of that philosophy – because putting schools in a negative light is central to the neo-liberal policy in education.
He cast public schools as part of the problem, whatever problem that is, not part of the solution.
So the public school teachers of New Zealand with their outstanding OECD results – 13% better than any other country when compared with poverty ratings; and the only decidedly multi-ethnic country in the top-rating countries – are part of the problem are they David?
So the public school teachers of New Zealand who told the country that national standards were unnecessary, that they were harmful to children’s learning, and that they would narrow and distort the curriculum – have been proved right, but you don’t find them worthy of praise.
You have joined in maligning the public school teachers of New Zealand – mainly our mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, grandmothers, and nieces – they will be picked on when they stumble you imply, and their schools put on notice. Yes, let fear and loathing reign.
Yes – you have joined the neo-liberals in using ‘teacher quality’ as a smokescreen for doing nothing for the poor.
You have joined the madness of the group that says education is the standout key to economic development – let an independent group investigate the validity of that claim – it will be seen to be pure balderdash. Let them show that doing anything different in education from what occurs now, is going to achieve an economic transformation. And we are apparently to have to wait 15 years for these better-taught children to work there way into the workforce for economic valhalla to be achieved, also, unfortunately, a good number of years to learn that the policy was balderdash.
The sheer inadequacy of Shearer’s address in moral terms was breathtaking – there was absolutely no moral and visionary basis to the speech. Remember, this was Shearer’s first address – there can never be another first time: he will forever be tied to the nature and tone of that address – and that nature was sneaky and the tone stale and pedestrian.
The important point, though, is that this lack of moral and visionary basis was intentional. It was intentional cracker barrel thinking spotted with little messages, almost at a subliminal level, like an advertisement. It was a group of people who have done too much West Wing and not enough contemplation of Labour’s moral basis.
Now what was the sequence of events that has led to Labour making an unspoken agreement with John Armstrong, political writer for Herald. I rather admire Armstrong’s political analyses but, of course, in an education, I am taken aback by his obsessive dislike of primary school teachers who he categorises as teacher unions. What is it with aging men and their yucky focus on public primary schools? In Armstrong’s case his usual shrewd analyses fall apart when it comes to teachers. The reason why, I think, is that those shrewd analyses derive from his cynical view of political behaviour which is a perfect derivation for that category of behaviour; but his analytical compass goes awry when it comes to understanding teachers – he is challenged and made uncomfortable by teachers’ genuine public service motivation, so much so, that his attitude is one of deep irritation, and it shows.
I believe this story can usefully be begun on Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, when my attention was drawn to John Pagani’s self-styled Left-leaning Stuff column. He had said that Labour would need to drop its opposition to national standards and detach itself from close association with the teacher unions.
There follows the correspondence that ensued. I have made no fundamental changes to the text. I come across as waspish and exasperated – compounded by my irritation at being diverted from my real writing.
[My e-mail in response to John Pagani’s blog.]
We can measure children’s learning in the narrow 3Rs’ area to the nth degree. We don’t need any more tools or professional development for that.
Social democracy and children need a creative, intellectually challenging education not an industrial model being forced on schools through the rampant capitalistic model.
Social democracy is under pressure – in your columns you are doing your best to hold the ground for social democracy, yet when the ideology creating that pressure is expressed in schools, you recommend giving way. Very grand of you.
Education as the narrow 3Rs is a way for capitalism to indoctrinate children, control teachers, and to develop an obedient society. In a posting last week I said: The rise of quantitative academics is a symptom of capitalism in excess.
If parents had a say, as against the public, and the media took education seriously – you would find that there is a very strong demand for enlightened education.
You might like to glance at my web site: www.networkonnet.co.nz
John – when I write against an opponent or an opposing policy, I draw blood – sharpen up. You write like the tame liberal on Fox News.
Poor old Labour – hopelessly at sea – all policy points, and no coherent philosophy.
----- Original Message -----
From: John Pagani
To: Kelvin Smythe
Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 11:49 AM
Subject: Re: John - please pay attention
‘The tame liberal on Fox News’. Ouch.
You are going to have to explain to me in slow, carefully-enunciated syllables, what is not social democratic about knowing how well my kid is doing compared to other kids the same age. And then explain why most social democratic leaders around the world support national standards (see PM Gillard), but it becomes not social democracy here.
I think you’ll find most social democratic leaders list educational achievement as the number one social democratic value. I’m not quite sure I see the academic educational establishment as the keepers of the social democratic flame, but maybe they are and the overwhelming weight of social democratic thinking and leadership around the world is wrong.
While you are drawing all this blood, you might want to pause and review the basis for this statement: ‘not an industrial model being forced on schools by through the rampant capitalistic model.’
Not exactly sure who is advocating that model, but if you are suggesting that is a rough synonym for a system of national standards, it’s not me whose thinking is blunted.
A narrow view of 3Rs is not a proxy for education.
You’ve been sucked in John.
If you think the 3Rs is a sign of a strong democracy, well good on you.
You may be forgetting that we are in the top four in the world on that measure: yet we have significant poverty, and we spend significantly less on education than comparable countries. God dammit where is the problem?
I’ve been going into schools for 44 years in an official capacity and still am, and I can tell you that the curriculum has been narrowed and made shallow, with the disengagement of boys rife. Children are cutting and pasting not thinking, science has virtually disappeared.
Look read, say my last four or five postings.
The crisis in education is a contrived one to distract from the collapse of rampant capitalism and to shore it up.
Schools have mountains of information comparing children to other children.
Remember Marx? If the capitalistic model is rampant, why wouldn’t that be expressed in education as in any other part of society.
I can give you some very sad USA readings of big money taking over schools.
NZ is brilliant at the 3Rs – why can’t we concentrate on the children struggling mainly because of poverty, and give the 90% a brilliant, imaginative education.
[However, to correct myself, I believe we should also give struggling children plenty of opportunities for imaginative education.]
An industrial model has all children going through the same hoops, and only measurable things are valued. Wonderful basis for social democracy and the future.
[I made the references to Marx and industrial model to see whether John Pagani comes at these matters from a philosophical point-of-view or he near faints at the references.]
Gillard, Obama, Blair - for goodness sake, what is it follow the failed leader?
----- Original Message -----
From: John Pagani
To: Kelvin Smythe
Cc: Allan Alach
Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:57 PM
Subject: Re: John - please pay attention
I’m afraid I have higher priorities for policy, government and kids than contemplating ‘the collapse of rampant capitalism’.
[So here we have a left-leaning blogger not concerned at the effects of the fall-out from the last recession. Qualifies as the best comic moment.]
Compare and contrast these statements:
‘God dammit where is the problem.’
[The problem is in the distortions being forced on teachers, eventually something is going to give – all the signs are there.]
‘I can tell you that the curriculum has been narrowed and made shallow, and disengagement of boys is rife.’
‘The crisis in education is a contrived one.’
Fundamentally, you set up a flawed dichotomy. I want to know whether my kids can read, write and add up a column of figures as well as other kids. I can’t see how my knowledge of that stops them from having an imaginative education, and in fact the attempt to press the point makes your entire argument look weak. It makes an ‘imaginative education’ sound marginal and weak. And you won’t find many parents who want their kids’ education designed to equip them for post-revolutionary society.
[The fundamental problem is that John Pagani refuses, or is unable to recognise, that schools have lots of information showing how children are doing, and how their performances relate to other children. As well, if schools and teachers are to be judged on a narrow view of literacy and numeracy, teachers will concentrate on those and neglect the other parts of the curriculum. He just needs to read the masses of reports to this effect from around the world.]
Anyway, you’re wrong about the narrowing of the curriculum. It’s never been stronger or broader, and that’s why we’re doing ok on some measures. No one should be complacent.
[The latest OECD report confirms all my concerns – see below.]
The weakness with your argument Kelvin is you are trying to superimpose one argument on a different one.
On 18/10/2011, at 5:35 PM, Kelvin Smythe wrote:
The collapse of capitalism in excess is what all societies are having to confront now.
All Marx said was that the group that has most power in society, has most power in all parts of it. Obvious and mundane really. I’m sorry for scaring you.
I’m not against capitalism, far from it, just the need for it to be better controlled.
I don’t want a post-revolutionary policy: I want a healthy social democracy which, presently, is being undermined by capitalism in excess.
Note capitalism in excess and Europe; the small group controlling the media; the obstruction to climate policies; the promotion of asset sales; the last recession and the one coming; the increasing gap between rich and poor; and the troubles in the USA; and the high sense of entitlement the wealthy have.
[Apparently John Pagani doesn’t view these as concerns or, perhaps, anything to do with rampant capitalism.]
What is it you are contemplating more than that, and the connection between this and that.
Re. schools: your school can tell you exactly where your children are re literacy and maths – we have available over 40 normed tests. I want you to have that information, schools want you to have that information, and you can have that information.
You are setting up a problem that isn’t there.
If society tells schools they will be judged on the measurable parts of literacy and numeracy, and that alone – teachers will concentrate on that largely to the exclusion of other things.
Creative thinking, getting children to enjoy books, getting them to enjoy writing, imaginative thinking, problem solving, divergent thinking aren’t measurable. The social sciences, the arts, aren’t measurable – so they are increasingly neglected. No-one disputes that, not even advocates of education as the 3Rs. This borne out all over the world.
I’m not talking post-revolutionary – I’m talking about a healthy social democracy. When parents are asked, they want a balanced education for their children; they want children to be thinkers, to enjoy learning, to be intellectually challenged, to be creative and imaginative, not just the 3Rs.
Your school can tell you exactly where your children are in the 3Rs – so I don’t really know why you are saying that information isn’t available.
Yes – science, as one instance, a terrific opportunity for imaginative thinking, has nearly disappeared.
I know it sounds stuffy, but I have been a main supplier of intellectually challenging social studies materials, and written a 20-set international science series, and I go into about 300 classrooms a year, on contract – I really do know what is going on.
I’m 73 and doing it for my grandchildren and yours, though clearly you don’t think so.
Our wonderful primary education system is in difficulty, a crisis is being created to the benefit of the wealthy and the ideological right.
However, poor boy, you remain unconvinced I’m sure, and Allan has been hammering you to, so goodbye and out.
[I’ve had enough of it and want to get back to my writing, but, no, he has another go.]
----- Original Message -----
From: John Pagani
To: Kelvin Smythe
Cc: Allan Alach
Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 5:41 PM
Subject: One more thing
Just this sentence:
‘Your school can tell you exactly where your children are re literacy and maths – we have available over 40 normed tests. I want you to have that information, schools want you to have that information, and you can have that information.’
‘If this is true, then what is wrong with national standards? I don’t mean National's national standards, I mean the concept. This is an example of the talking past I was writing about: you can come out and say - national standards are fine for literacy and maths. They don’t work for other important skills; and then we are on the same page.’
[What a tin ear for education. Can you believe it? All the things teachers been saying about the invalidity of high stakes’ testing; the huge increase in centralised government powers to enforce national standards; the coercion by the bureaucracies; the detrimental effects on the curriculum and children’s learning – this and a myriad other effects have completely escaped John Pagani – the inference is that teachers are self-serving, unreliable thinkers who wouldn’t know, and Tolley and the government are paragons with special knowledge and insight.]
I think you’ll find, though, that’s not what the principals say in that video, where they argue you can’t say a child should be at ‘*this* level when they are 8’. Their view is nonsense.
[Oh my god: norms give that kind of relative information, but you can’t have all children at a norm and above. As for the individuality of children’s learning, the pace at which they develop, home environments, it all means nothing to John Pagani.]
On 18/10/2011, at 5:35 PM, Kelvin Smythe wrote:
We have reached the nub - good on us.
[My new ploy for drawing things to a close.]
Schools do school standards brilliantly – using the myriad of normed tests to give national comparisons. It’s all there for us – and not high stakes, so the results can be trusted to be authentic.
National standards were a diversion by Key to appear to be doing something for children while doing very little, at even less cost.
Remember, it was touted as a main way to reduce unemployment.
National standards distort the curriculum (there is really no question about that); give less accurate information (for reasons I won’t go into here); and give control of education to education to bureaucrats, politicians, and academics of a certain sort.
If you trust this last group more than teachers you will like national standards, but irrespective, it is teachers who do the teaching. The right hates the idea of a group of people largely motivated by genuine public service – it is anathema to what they want to believe about human behaviour.
Sorry about this John – but in the balance, I deeply love, admire, and trust teachers.
In the end, control by education bureaucrats and the like drains initiative from teachers, undermines trust, and gives control to a group, many of whom have never been in a classroom, or are not free to be independent in their thinking.
Schools are being set to fail, so this centralised group assumes more control, leading to the demise of the public education system, leading to more schools being specially set up for the privileged.
In case you over-read this, I do support external evaluators (after all I was a senior inspector of schools).
National standards are bound to fail because they are not addressing a real problem, they are a symptom of a problem wider than education.
[I say mysteriously: I’m referring to governments wanting to take parental and teacher involvement out of education decision making and transfer it to themselves, carefully chosen experts, bureaucrats, and corporates in response to economic events as these groups see them.]
Then we come to an opinion piece by Josie Pagani published in the Herald on 12 January, 2012.
Now my intuition tells me the following sequence occurred.
The opinion piece was written under the guidance, and with the approval of, the Shearer advisory team, then the contents were, in general, discussed with John Armstrong.
An unspoken agreement was reached.
Josie Pagani’s item is pleasant and skilfully written. It poses the question as to how Labour can best represent working people, who she opined, and correctly as it happens, had turned away from Labour. The message is confused, but amongst it she referred to how unpopular the extension of the ‘Working for Families’ tax credit was. The term aspirational is referred to quite bit, and she sees the need for contract labour, and employment flexibility. She concludes in breezy style saying that Labour’s policies for creating jobs evoked a pleasingly positive response from her constituents.
I can see where she’s coming from, but there’s something very stale and limited in all this. In some respects, one asks: how does it differ from National’s kind of election offerings?
But this is not the time to go into what could have been. For instance, I believe the Labour should be a party of individuals not a mix of individuals and unions; on the other hand, I believe in strengthening unions and associations in the interests of the dignity of labour, greater democracy, and a genuine and evenhanded restructuring of the economy.
Such things, though, miss the point of the Josie Pagani’s item: it was intended to appeal to the media and to signal a middle of the road policy, it was not about seriousness and sincerity in policy making.
But what the Herald gives in the form of muted support the, Herald can taketh away with a blast of its rightwing voice. If Shearer becomes prime minister, New Zealand will go through its Tony Blair phase who, in his case, had a temporary accommodation with Rupert Murdoch.
Well – how did Shearer do in the Weekend Herald? Armstrong kept his side of the bargain, heading his column, ‘Shearer takes reins of a different beast.’
‘Perhaps, most significant of all’, Armstrong says, was [Shearer’s] incursion into … the seemingly unfettered power of the teacher unions to run a ruler over the party’s education policy.’
There is much more along these lines, in particular: ‘Shearer intends shifting Labour’s mind-set away from not upsetting the practitioners of policy … to satisfying the consumers of policy, parents in this case.’
(When Ann Tolley surveyed parents to see whether they were satisfied, the results were so pro-teacher that Tolley tried to hide the results.)
New Zealand will solve its economic and social problems, it seems, by having teachers do exactly what they’re told by governments, bureaucrats, and selected academics. Does Armstrong still believe in Santa? Where is Armstrong’s cynicism about governments and bureaucrats just when you need it?
What Warwick Elley’s has to say in a Herald article, Friday, 2 March 21, 2012, commenting on the OECD report, is of high significance to the matters in hand: Shearer’s coded rightwing references to school education; John Pagani’s stunning lack of awareness of how schools work; John Armstrong’s emotive, irrational criticisms of primary school teachers; Josie Pagani’s Tony Blair-type lack of challenge to the status quo; and the correctness, professionalism, and moral courage of teachers in opposing national standards.
Warwick Elley said New Zealand educators were praised in the OECD report for generally high standards even though ‘we spend far less per student than nearly all of them.’
New Zealand was ‘praised for avoiding “high stakes” testing in primary schools’ because so far, ‘like Finland, the OECD’s star performer, we have kept compulsory assessments and league tables out of primary classrooms.’
‘But this is about to change’, says, Warwick Elley. ‘Our national standards policy was identified as our one weak spot needing change … a potential threat to our high standing.’
The OECD, as reported by Warwick Elley, says that countries like America or England, which have used high stakes testing and league tables for decades have found that ‘the big tails of underachievement have not disappeared, and their top students are fading’.
The OECD is also reported as saying that the focus on literacy and numeracy will ‘marginalise other curriculum areas’. (Are you still with us John Pagani?)
How did the Herald mark this important report and commentary by Warwick Elley? A major article? An editorial?
No, by restricting it to a limited edition of the newspaper.
When Sarah Palin was announced as candidate for vice-president, a Republican woman commentator said, ‘Oh no!’ candidates with back stories never work for Republicans.’
In a similar vein, however Labour might wish for the freedom, sneaky never works for Labour.
And when that sneakiness is aimed at teachers, with children bearing the collateral damage, it becomes, for a party, that still retains a certain idealism about education, something that will never work for Labour.
I was taken aback by your speech – I will not let it go.
I expected to hear about an underlying philosophy of the need for a cohesive society, bolstered by healthy public institutions, supported by clever economic development, and based on fostering a healthy social democracy – we needed a speech that advanced on all fronts, not one that speciously and dangerously brought it all down to education, and school education at that.
I was so sure you were going to use the strengthening of social democracy as the philosophical basis for your speeches: with references to the need for a broad, rich, creative education; to opportunities for life-long education; to a more balanced and varied media; to ways of raising capital for new economic ideas; to the fostering of an enlightened sense of identity; and to creating more social cohesiveness and trust.
You’re not in Somalia now, Mr Shearer – where you and your team benefited from working under the inspiration of the ideals and vision of the United Nations.
You are in New Zealand now, and as leader of the Labour Party, it is your task to establish the ideals and vision for the next little while – it won’t be done for you, and you will have to do a lot better than the mean-spirited message of your opening address which made victims of New Zealand primary teachers and the children who are their responsibility.