While our newly appointed Education Minister will already be aware of some of the obstacles she will soon face, I doubt that she is aware of just what lies ahead. She can most certainly expect to encounter opposition from within the education system at large, and from the bureaucracy itself.
After more than thirty-five years in the education system, as a teacher, but mostly as a school principal, I can attest that support for reform will be superficial only. Informal discussions will already have been underway within the bureaucracy, and the sector at large, on how brakes can be applied to many of the proposed changes.
The goal of sector groups, including influential bureaucrats, consultant academics, teacher unions, Principals' Associations, NZSTA, the Education Review Office, the Teachers Council, and myriad other education-oriented organizations, will be to preserve the status quo (to the degree that this is possible), until a left-of-centre government is returned to power.
Early indications are that this process is already underway. These organizations will work in concert with each other, while maintaining the illusion of neutrality and independence.
This is the usual pattern in Education when a National Administration is elected ... stall, distract, obstruct, and obfuscate, while you make it look as though you are doing none of these things.
We can expect a steady release of negative publicity. The media will be keen to give time and space to the prophets of doom.
So what advice would I give the new Minister?
1. Be skeptical of any research data put in front of you. Most educational research is empirically weak, by and large it proves what it sets out to prove, and is heavily ideological.
2. Recognise that it may be necessary for some key players in the Ministry to be replaced if change is to be enacted. If this is necessary, do not delay, and put people in place who can monitor internal communications to ensure the message stays on track.
3. Do not be overwhelmed when multiple education-oriented organizations take a contrary position simultaneously, these are often the same people.
4. Keep it simple. Avoid becoming bogged down in detail. Educators love details, but this can be quicksand. Stick to broad principles and common sense.
5. Focus on measurables.
6. Do not build the plane while it is in flight.
Now I will just elaborate slightly on the final three points. These points address the pitfalls which, again and again, have sunk efforts by National Governments to improve educational outcomes.
Keep it simple.
While education is certainly about both equity and excellence, the former has been the predominant preoccupation over recent years, frequently at the expense of the latter. This needs to be reversed.
Excellence needs to be our first educational priority.
The main reason for this? Economic necessity.
The second reason? Equity (to a degree) can sit downstream from excellence; excellence almost never sits downstream from equity.
Focus on measurables.
While more equitable outcomes may be desirable, there is no evidence to suggest that hiding poor educational achievement, by not measuring it, does any favours to anyone, not least underachieving students.
Set clear educational targets. Be sure the data in pursuit of these targets has integrity. Monitor progress and tell the Education Review Office that this is now their job ... and make them independent of the Ministry of Education.
Give support where school achievement targets are falling short.
Do not build the plane while it is in flight.
The last National Government's efforts to implement National Standards were clumsy. Compromises were made where they should not have been made, and were resisted where they should not have been resisted. This is a potential minefield.
Get this wrong and you will give a free pass to your most ardent opposers.
Do NOT devise new tests. These take years to design, modify and implement ... and missteps along the way provide ammunition to those who are pathologically averse to any concept of comparative testing.
As I have argued before, the existing Progress and Achievement Tests in Reading, Mathematics and Writing (Punctuation and Grammar), are already widely available, are sufficiently robust, have a long and established track record, and would not be seen as an addition to existing workloads.
While not perfect, these tests are not controversial.
In some cases, they are in need of updating and re-norming ... this work could begin in earnest with the existing tests being used in the meantime.
Once embedded in all schools up to year 9, then attention should focus on the problems with NCEA.
Accurate, cohort-based, standardized, data is critical if educational outcomes are to be improved. This would provide a very clear picture of where the system is working, and where it is not working, which ideas and schools require emulation, and which require remediation, and support.
I think that there is a better than even chance that this National Government will repeat the mistakes of preceding National Governments.
They too are likely to place too much trust in a largely dysfunctional, and ideologically mired, ministry, take the advice of academics, as opposed to leaning into common sense, pull back in the face of opposition, and make things much more complicated than they need to be.
A huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of our new Minister to stay the distance ... and this may be our last chance.
While we are not that good at learning from our mistakes, I genuinely hope our new Minister is the exception to the rule.
Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.
Published first on NZCPR