Real words for education

Which of these phrases makes more sense to you: “making meaning” or “learn to read and write”?

Both are to do with educating children. One, says National education spokesman Bill English, is a Ministry of Education concoction to guide reformulation of the school curriculum. The other is English’s version. No prizes for assigning authorship.

According to an educational expert, “making meaning” is educationalists’ jargon for “creating knowledge through writing and reading” — you write to create meaning and read to construct meaning. Now you know.

English’s summary of the ministry’s list of essence statements is: “thinking critically”, “making meaning”, “relating to others”, “managing self” and “participating and belonging”. Have fun “making meaning” of it.

English’s list, which he put to the National party conference on Saturday, is: “learn to read and write”, “learn numeracy”, “learn problem solving”, “learn creativity” and “learn respect for others”. [“Learn to count and calculate” would be better than “numeracy” but a politician’s capacity for direct language goes only so far.]

Which list better expresses “quality”? That is relevant because quality is the core issue for education over the next few years.

No less a personage than Michael Cullen said so in the Budget, talking about the tertiary sector — after two decades of “quantity” and truckloads of waste and low quality.

Trevor Mallard is soon to announce the transfer of $100 million of funding from spurious or deceitful “tertiary” courses to courses which give people real knowledge and skills. He has also had the Treasury, the State Services Commission and the Prime Minister’s Department review the funding structure.

Mallard wants more rigour in what constitutes a fulltime course: is one at the Waananga o Aotearoa the same as one at a polytechnic or university? Should a private training establishment (PTE) be treated the same as the University of Auckland when allocating EFTS (“equivalent fulltime student”) funding, the voucher system that pays an institution for each enrolment in a course? Has the Qualifications Authority in effect delegated to the institutions decisions about quality?

Mallard is also trying to push up the quality of foreign students: from second best students seeking only certificates to degree-capable and post-degree students who might stay on.

And he is trying to put some substance into former Tertiary Education Commission boss Andrew West’s urgings that more students be channelled towards polytechnics who now inappropriately clog up universities at high expense to taxpayers. (The universities hog them to keep up their EFTS funding.)

Add to that a renewed emphasis on technical and trade training and some attempt to get school guidance counsellors to talk up those options.

But there is not a lot of enthusiasm in either main party for setting higher academic standards of entry to universities and redirecting universities to concentrate on intellect rather than practice.

Perhaps English could reformulate his list this way: schools — learn to learn; polytechnics — learn to do; universities — learn to think. That might help focus minds on who should go to universities, what courses universities should teach and what they should leave to polytechnics.

Does a nursing course teach you to think or to nurse? Should a polytechnic or waananga teach what are in effect school courses in literacy and numeracy? How did everything get so skewed?

Which brings us to where quality has to start if it is to bite at tertiary level: the schools.

On average New Zealand children measure well in international educational standards. But that hides a long “tail” of low or non-achievers.

This matters in two senses. Those people end up on welfare rolls, as a cost to society, not a contribution. And when unemployment is low, educational failure denies to employers labour they desperately need.

Why do children join this “tail”? They grow up in low-aspiration households, where they are not encouraged to learn as toddlers. Then teachers think, mostly subconsciously, they can’t learn.

The government’s attack is at two levels.

One is Mallard’s expensive extension of pre-school education to all children from 2007. That is on the back of evidence that children who get such attention, especially if professionally trained early childhood teachers, do better at school. That is, they can be rescued.

Of course, that produces no labour for employers until 2022. And English is against the plan because Mallard is insisting his extension applies only to centres that employ professionals and English says that denies choice. It is not obvious English’s alternative would produce the same results.

Mallard’s second attack is also very slow-burning. It has its origins in the pre-2000 National-led governments and, partly for that reason, has English’s endorsement.

This is to work with teachers to change their classroom habits so that they assume all children can learn — and then to assess their teaching against what the children have actually learnt rather than what they have taught.

Pilot schemes are operating in South Auckland and the West Coast. Extending these to cover the places most inhabited by the “tail” will take many years and is labour-intensive. Not least, willing principals have to be found and those who are unwilling have to be bypassed or moved on.

So nothing much can be expected from that for employers until around 2015.

What could English add to that? Commonsense, practicality, flexibility of options for parents and children, challenges to the educationalists’ mysticism — and, perhaps, an urgency lacking until recently.

But how will that fit with John Key’s need to cut government spending? Quality seldom comes cheap. Perhaps English and Key could start by firing bureaucrats who use jargon instead of real words.