John Armstrong - charter schools, and fairy tales from the ACT conference
By Kelvin Smythe
John Armstrong – charter schools, and fairy tales from the ACT conference
First, to report to you the readers, how the complaint to the State Services Commission against the Treasury and leadership is going. You will remember the two main complaints were that public servants, by working in an election period on a policy for charter schools for a post-election agreement with ACT, participated in an election rort; and that following the election, the Treasury acted unprofessionally, unfairly, and in a politically partisan way.
Dear Mr Smythe,
Thank you for your correspondence received on Tuesday, 24 April complaining about certain actions of the Secretary to the Treasury in relation to the State services code of conduct. We are now considering your complaint and will be consulting with the Treasury about the issues you have raised.
We will respond in full to your complaint following consultation and once a judgement has been formed.
Senior Advisor, Integrity
State Services Commission
DDI: +64 4 495 6601
Fax: +64 4 495 6686
www.ssc.govt.nz | newzealand.govt.nz
New Zealand's State Services Commission: Providing leadership to the State Services so that government works better for New Zealanders
So we will keep our fingers crossed on this one.
Now we come to John Armstrong, his attendance at the recent ACT conference, and his promotion of charter schools.
In many respects, I am an admirer of John Armstrong; any political operative who dismisses his prognostications is a foolish operative indeed. Even in the shallow, slanted, and myopic column on charter schools under consideration, his political instincts don’t entirely betray him. In fact, those instincts are what have driven his column. He is all aflutter about a government unsympathetic to charter schools being installed next election and his precious charter schools being disestablished.
There is something beyond reason in Armstrong’s opposition to public schools: I can’t tell whether it is from a neo-liberal, pro-capitalist point-of-view or from encrusted antediluvian conservatism.
The only clue in this column is that he makes a terrible clanger in the one justification he advances for his support of charter schools and his opposition to public ones. Other than that he keeps his motivations close to his chest. I suspect because he knows his views are indefensible and he is simply enjoying the deep-seated prejudice involved.
I see Armstrong as a conservative with a small ‘c’, and his views on education generally fitting in with Herald editorial line going back to the Minhinnick period (which was terrible). Having said that, my use of the qualifier ‘generally’ gives room for me to say that on public education he goes even further than the old Herald line – there is something obsessive in his antagonism to public schools.
How much did Armstrong contribute to the never-to-be forgotten and democratically disgraceful editorial instruction that ‘teachers should learn to obey’, in other words children’s education should be left to politicians and bureaucrats? Or, to another editorial when the introduction of charter schools was being justified, which said that voters should have been able to divine that charter schools would be introduced?
However, I have school reports to write and I must move on. When I saw Armstrong’s column I said Oh no! I’m too busy – however, I’ve allocated three hours to the posting. (I’m going to the Chief’s game this evening so that cuts out Saturday.)
I had already noticed that Armstrong was at the ACT conference earlier in the week. Immediately I knew that something was up. What was the mighty Armstrong doing at the puny ACT conference? Armstrong does not usually get so low in the political power spectrum. He was there, of course, so he could push charter schools.
In his column, Armstrong comes across like a young hopeful lover finding himself in the company of someone he sees as overwhelmingly desirable, and losing it right from the beginning.
Take the column’s heading: full of whispering sibilants – ‘Softly, softly – ACT’s subtle school tactic’.
The column is cast like a fairy story with the Catherine Isaac, recently bereaved, a saintly queen; and John Banks, a patient, kindly, neighbouring king.
The villains trying to spread evil in the kingdoms ‘a clutch of Massey university education academics’ who are all ‘underlying political polemic’.
Isaac’s approach is described as ‘softly-softly’, with a ‘hug-your-enemy strategy’. One senses from Armstrong’s description a kind of blue-rinse Gandhi from the leafy suburbs.
‘Enemy’ what is playing out in Armstrong’s mind? The ‘enemy’ is preponderantly our daughters, wives, grandmothers, aunties, and cousins who have come into teaching because they love children and have made their individual contribution to building New Zealand’s public school system into probably the best in the world. Aha! Might say Armstrong, what about public schools’ failure with disadvantaged children? Well, John Armstrong, you have made a massive and terrible mistake with that one.
But to return to our fairy story (even if the genre has become rather mixed). Banks is portrayed as a Nelson Mandela character ‘avoiding giving oxygen to the likes of the Massey group’ – the ‘likes of the Massey group’? What kind of polemic is this? Ivan Snook – the ‘likes of’? This is truly distasteful. Banks, it seems, the messenger of peace and restrained behaviour, has worked out that ‘Sometimes the best way to disarm your critics is agree with them – and then carry on what you were doing regardless.’ Banks, unfortunately for his representation in parliament may have extended this message of tactical compliance one situation too far – honestly, you have to laugh.
Armstrong concludes his column in the over-heated style firmly set: ‘Beneath the niceties, this is an intense and not-so-friendly battle for hearts and minds.’
He’s head over heels, and lost it.
Armstrong says at the beginning of the column that charter schools ‘could herald the most significant change in compulsory education since the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms of the late 1980s …’
Oh come on John!
Now let’s get down tin-tacks: The premise and justification for charter schools to the public needs to be considered, also the real reasons why they are being promoted. If you read the huge literature on charter schools, you will find there is little confusion as to their purposes, nature, or degree of success. They are widespread in America, and will remain so, because there is no way back: it is a country with its social cohesion in shreds, incapable of mustering sufficient consensus to implement intelligent policy, social or economic.
Charter schools are a symptom of a break-down in social cohesion and a contributor to it.
Charter schools are being sold in New Zealand as a way of solving what is described as the failure of New Zealand public schools to succeed with disadvantaged children; but the real motivation is to privatise education; destroy the teacher unions so costs can be reduced and a rightwing ideology fixed on schools (and society) without opposition; and the school curriculum controlled and profited from by education global corporates (this should be seen in association with the digitalisation of education).
As well, choice in education always works to the detriment of disadvantaged children and the benefit of more privileged ones. And, at the heart of the motivation of charter school advocates is the determination to put the lie to the claim that socio-economic status has a significant effect on children’s education prospects. Charter school advocates are really saying we can make education fair so the economic system isn’t required to be – music to the ears of the powerful, and, of course, a considerable hoax.
Armstrong, in a potent moment for the column and this analysis, then proceeds in creepy style to praise Banks for his restraint, for turning the other cheek, saying Banks could have made a ‘withering response’ but chose not to. Then Armstrong, now feeling very much part of the action, takes it upon himself to provide the ‘withering response’ referred to.
‘Something along the lines’, Armstrong suggests, ‘that the “long tail of underachievement” in traditional state schools is testimony to those schools failing to do the job they were set up to do – provide an education that gives students from deprived areas a way to escape their backgrounds.’
What a clanger, and what an embarrassment: a journalist filling in for a politician – and getting it wrong, and Banks being the politician being filled in for. Oh dear!
Public schools are not failing with disadvantaged children; it is all a terrible lie – a lie embedded in the narrative of the opponents of public schools.
I turned to Professor John O’Neill of Massey University on this one. (Yes – one of Armstrong’s ‘likes of”.
He writes: ‘The PISA report shows fourteen percent of New Zealand students achieve below Level 2 (the OECD benchmark for life success. The OECD average is 19 percent. Sixty-six percent of New Zealand students achieve at Level 3 or above. The OECD average is around 57 percent. New Zealand has 37 percent of ‘resilient’ students, those who overcome disadvantaged backgrounds. The OECD average is 31 percent.’
In other words, New Zealand is doing very well with children at all levels, including children from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’. And brilliantly, if the degree of poverty and inequality is taken into account.
And, New Zealand public schools achieve these very good results with larger classes than most OECD countries; less money per child than most OECD countries; and in the context of one of the least homogenous societies in the OECD.
The idea of New Zealand’s long learning tail is continually referred to by ideologues like Armstrong, being ludicrously misrepresented: the tail is described as the longest in the OECD, the implication being that New Zealand is relatively unsuccessful in teaching children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As O’Neill shows (above), New Zealand does very well with our more able children which contributes substantially to what has come to be called the long tail but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t do very well with children from disadvantaged backgrounds as well.
The so-called long tail needs to be checked out.
Let’s take PISA Reading 2009 and compare New Zealand with USA: New Zealand’s top 5% reached to 678, USA’s 656, that’s 22 points better for New Zealand; and New Zealand’s bottom 5% spread to 344, USA’s 339, that’s 5 points better for New Zealand. The gap for New Zealand, however, is 334, and for USA 317. New Zealand while having better scores at both ends, has the bigger gap.
So much for the argument that New Zealand public schools are not succeeding with disadvantaged children. This huge, huge lie has been developed, perpetuated and used to destroy public education. It is having, and will have, a huge, huge effect on social cohesiveness. And never has it been put more starkly than by John Armstrong.
Armstrong has interviewed his prejudices via his typewriter, apparently restricting his sources of education information to the columns of the Herald, which hasn’t had a decent education reporter in decades, and for considerable periods managed to not even have a dedicated one.
I challenge Armstrong to find any critic of public schools, or promoter of alternatives to public schools, who hasn’t based his or her argument on this lie.
Yes – Armstrong has made a huge clanger.
How did this huge lie begin and develop? It has been around for years, only recently developing its decidedly toxic nature and role in undermining public education. I suspect it began in as part of the tall poppy syndrome: Commentators in acknowledging the success of New Zealand public schools then felt impelled to bring them down to earth, by adding a reference to a long tail.
While an anti-public school narrative has for long been part of the conservative story, it has only really recently reached, with the advent of the Key government, a vicious stage of invective. Key knew he had nothing to offer in economic development, there would be no trophies there, but an easy propaganda victory seemed at hand in putting teachers and unions in their place and scapegoating public schools. But when teachers, whom Key derides, fought back, he was dirty and decided to throw everything at them. Pre-election, ACT was set up to bring in charter schools surreptitiously in an election rort, and if ACT was not represented in the new parliament, National intended to bring them in anyway. The only signal about charter schools during the election campaign was a delphic one by Key who, out of context, in the final Goff debate, contributed the view that public schools ‘had let New Zealand down’.
One of New Zealand’s few institutional stars – public school education – is characterised as betraying New Zealand. There is much more going on here, isn’t there, than a judgement on education?
It is a waste of time writing something for the Herald that puts strongly the kinds of arguments being presented here – the Herald will have nothing to do with them. No Herald editorial writer will ever get even close to writing from an accurate analysis of the performance of New Zealand public schools. The Herald is a paper on a mission, and that mission is to destabilise confidence in public education, no matter what.
The critics of public education in the relentless and unfair manner, to which public schools have become accustomed, ignore the achievement at both ends of the table and damn public schools for the gap. Yes – they focus on the gap. But the gap, with the sterling score by the children at the foot of the table (given the social and economic conditions that prevail), and the wonderful score at the top, should be a source of pride and acclamation, not an occasion for acrimony and undermining.
Armstrong, editorialists, government politicians, and other opponents of public schools, for their own anti-public school purposes, continually refer to the long tail, the longest in the OECD they say, public schools are doing all right with children in higher decile schools but failing with ones from lower deciles, they can’t handle the education of Maori and Pasifika children, and show no likelihood of being able to do so, you have failed New Zealand, but we the Armstrongs, the editorialists, the government politicians, we know, we care, we have listened to the Hatties, and the global corporations, we know what to do – and we will make you do what we know. We will bring in national standards, we will narrow the curriculum for all children, don’t worry about getting children to think and to be imaginative, this is the 21st century, we will bring in league tables, we will increase class sizes, we will empower bureaucrats to scare you to do what needs to be done, we will bring in performance pay because you will only lift your game through cash incentives, we will bring in charter schools to try to shame you, we will de-unionise teaching because the unions are opposed to the beneficial changes we are bringing in – oh yes, to keep you on your toes we will be careless with the truth and continually blacken your reputations.
And if public school teachers say, wow! That seems pretty rough, what about private schools? Nothing doing there say Armstrong, editorialists, government politicians, and other opponents of public schools say – the parents of public school children will need private schools to send their children to when they become disillusioned, for whatever reason, with their local school.
O’Neill’s analysis also provides some much needed clarity to the ideological issue inherent in the refrain as Catherine Isaac puts it (in justifying charter schools) that New Zealand rates ‘very low for equity’ and that ‘20 percent of students left without level one NCEA’. (Sunday Star-Times, 22 April, 2012)
I repeat what O’Neill had to say, ‘The PISA report shows fourteen percent of New Zealand students achieve below Level 2 (the OECD benchmark for life success. The OECD average is 19%. Sixty-six percent of New Zealand students achieve at Level 3 or above. The OECD average is around 57%. New Zealand has 37% of ‘resilient’ those who overcome disadvantaged backgrounds. The OECD average is 31%.’
New Zealand public schools are doing very well and they can do even better, but erroneous, ideologically self-serving analyses like those of Armstrong and Isaac are resulting in terribly wrong responses and policy decisions: schools, for instance, need to become more interesting to children, more intellectually and imaginatively challenging and less standardised and crimped: too many children are getting to secondary unpractised in thinking, and brassed off with having to be there.
When are public schools going to be freed from the hold of the ignorant, the ideologically-driven and the bureaucratic to do better what they do best, that is to inspire and lift all children no matter their backgrounds?
Warwick Elley in his comment on OECD reports says ‘that New Zealand is consistently ranked in the top three or four countries in literacy. And in general, the only countries that consistently surpass New Zealand are the ethnically homogenous ones of Finland, Korea, and Japan.’
Armstrong’s column prompts further comment.
Armstrong is deluded if thinks performance pay based on the measurement of narrow perceptions of numeracy and literacy, and on value-added notions related to national standards (which don’t yet exist), then somehow linked to imprecise deciles, and to class compositions that vary widely within a school, and which establishes a cash nexus as the motivation for teachers working with children, rather than love for them and professional responsibility – is the key to improving education in New Zealand and preparing children for the 21st century. Especially, when New Zealand public schools are one of PISA’s stars in literacy and numeracy, and when they are also a PISA star in the teaching of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It’s not from the owning of the schools that profit is sought by the corporates but from consultancies, teaching materials, and assessment systems. That is why Murdoch, for instance, has bought in, in such a big way, to education resources. And please don’t try to say charter schools are not about globalised education: powerful companies throughout America are tooling up for participation. Charter schools are a way for national identities to be overridden, education to be globalised, and massive profits to be extracted across national boundaries. It is these companies that will be providing the range of assessment systems in which big profits are so enticingly available. It is strange isn’t it, the national identity that will find its way into globalised schools will be mainly American, and to a lesser extent, English, and Australian. All countries New Zealand public schools comfortably outscore in PISA.
Armstrong has the Massey academics ‘somewhat reluctantly’ acknowledging that KIPP schools are doing quite well, but putting ‘this down to a high attrition rate among low-performing students and substantial extra funding of pupils’. Charter schools shedding low performing students is a universal characteristic of charter schools. There is no polemic as Armstrong charges, just reality biting. The point with KIPP is that, with all its extra money and subtle gentrifying of school demographics their results are being compared with other American schools, not New Zealand ones, with their history of considerable success.
He then goes to his favourite resort, the opinion poll, which if it is political he is excellent at reading, but this is an issue-based one. He hopes that Isaacs can ‘tempt a chunk of the 36% per cent who professed not to know what charter schools were …’
Excuse me for chortling – I would say that in relation to charter schools, whether for or against, or don’t know – nearly all wouldn’t know. Everyone is simply responding from their ideological perspective or from nothing at all, mostly nothing at all. The Herald, of course, has a habit of running such polls in education. There was the infamous early poll on national standards in which people were asked whether they were in favour of them or not. Oh dear! There is no stopping such polls, the freedom to do so is deeply democratic, but the consensus of the deeply uninformed can be deeply harmful to democracy.
I suspect Armstrong is not fully cognisant of the madness and chaos that has descended on American education.
In America, the relative decline of this powerful country, has been explained as starting in the ‘70s when schools started to fail in providing children with sufficient skills – try not to laugh, and remember similar kinds of things are said here – this decline, apparently had nothing to do with such things as the financial drain of wars, or the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies, or financial deregulation, or the decline of public institutions, or education becoming very much a private good, or the breakdown of social cohesiveness – no it had to do poor skill teaching in schools.
So what was the American response in the ‘70s to this panic of the so-called lack of skills – wait for it: managerialism, standardised tests, league table, performance pay, increased bureaucracy, the narrowing of the curriculum, increased privatising of schools, scapegoating of public schools, de-unionisation of teaching, the idea of the superman or woman teacher, and charter schools. Policies which have created considerable confusion and a good deal of failure in America, but which are now being embraced by Armstrong as the way to proceed.
In my view, the major problem America faces is the breakdown in social cohesion and, in a small way, the undermining of public schools will contribute to this. This contribution to a breakdown in social cohesiveness will occur in a number of ways. The globalisation of education, overriding national identity, has already been discussed. Charter schools will mean there is no common curriculum, a common curriculum that attends and contributes to shared national interests. The curriculum areas likely be given greatly reduced attention would be social studies – important to understanding and living in a democracy; science – important to preventing fundamentalist science taking hold; and the arts – important as an expression of who we are.
Yes - choice will be extended in a sense, which I know Armstrong has on a pedestal, and which I value too, but, in education, choice is a slippery matter. Choice always works to the advantage of the better off, no matter which economic level is referred to. Choice is not an absolute good, not a flag to be waved without reasoning. In the provision of public policy – choice should not be sponsored which results in the choice of others being reduced. As well, if the demand for choice is driven by dissatisfaction based on lies developed and perpetuated by the powerful, such as the Herald and Armstrong – then our democracy is weakened.
But another matter, related to globalisation really concerns me. As a writer for commercial publications and on my own account – what I write and say is teacher-developed knowledge. Yes – it has been influenced by academia, has drawn on it, but it has also drawn on teacher knowledge developed by people like Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton-Warner, and by teachers who make discoveries in their classrooms then share them. This teacher knowledge and its dissemination is the key to the success of New Zealand schools and are characteristic of an education system that is working. Teacher knowledge has given classroom teachers protection from academics who can be overweening, especially if they have gained the patronage of politicians or the bureaucracy; and it has given us some protection from the importation of ideas from other countries, ideas that have no place in our culture, or way of doing things.
Let us imagine an education system based on charter schools. There they are in relative isolation from other schools, also largely from other charter schools – all of them contractually tied to globalised companies with their own sets of digitalised learning resources. Teacher knowledge would disappear – and the schools would be at the mercy of academics tied to particular globalised companies; there would be no teacher knowledge developed, and our identity would be subsumed in the identities of those companies. A huge amount of money would be remitted overseas for resources we could better have developed for ourselves.
A large number of charter schools do not a system make, and without a system, New Zealand’s education would be in disarray as can be observed in America. And a system needs teacher unions; they are part of the package of a healthy education system in Western democracies. I would like to suggest that the health of unions is and will be a measure of the health of education systems. Armstrong should not assume I am at one with the teacher unions – that is far from the truth, but the role of unions in New Zealand education has been powerfully positive, crucial to the kind of balance that an education system in a democracy requires.
Globalised companies want to usurp the power of governments and override the restrictions of national boundaries to their own advantage. It is a form of re-colonisation.
Do I think that charter schools are going to get established in New Zealand and thrive – the answer is no.
But John I do want to say I think your arguments in favour of charter schools and against public schools are pathetic. You should get a grip on yourself, and concentrate on issues that matter, not ones you are pursuing for some atavistic wallowing.
Sorry – if this is a bit abrupt, but I have a rugby game to go to.