Is "partnership" the only route to school innovation?

So there is to be a “small number” of “partnership schools”. More than the original four, that suggests. And of quite a variety. Is that good, bad or irrelevant?

The motivation for these adaptations of American “charter” schools is ideological. ACT says the market will do better for kids because parents will choose the best schools for their kids.

The justification is innovation, according to last week’s announcement. The implication in that is that the state system cannot innovate or cannot innovate enough. But is that so?

Three weeks back in this column I mentioned the Manaiakalani project in decile-1 east Auckland where an experiment with digital learning in a cluster of nine schools has cut truancy to near-zero, engaged the kids, got them learning at one and a-half times the previous rate and got them up close to the national average judged by the government’s standards.

These are state schools, staffed by the unionised teachers the cabinet loves to hate. With encouragement and licence, the teachers demonstrated the capacity to innovate.

They have not found a magic fix but their innovation, as it is rolled out elsewhere “could be a game changer” according to one “cautious” academic watching it.

So must we have a completely new type of school to lift learning? Will “partnership” schools make a difference that could not be made within the state system? Will they deliver what ministers say the state system is not delivering, that is, lift the learning of the long “tail” of underachievers.

“Partnership” schools will have two advantages.

One is that parents are not stuck with zoning, which forces their kids into the nearest school. They can send their kids to a partnership school instead — if the kids are chosen in the ballot.

The second advantage is that partnership schools can have sponsors, which gives them additional money, and will have more flexibility in their staffing.

Why state schools cannot be allowed the same opportunities is not obvious. It is well established that good principals make good schools and excellent principals make excellent schools. John Key says so, too.

If good principals were backed (and paid well, on contracts) and bad principals were moved on smartly, learning would improve. But that would require more flexibility for principals and boards and tougher assessment by central authorities.

And there is innovation. New methods of teacher self-assessment developed in Auckland can lift learning. The COMET programme in south Auckland is effective for second-chance learning, with a spinoff of better engagement by children. Learning spaces in some schools are no longer sealed boxes. A lesson learned in quake-city Christchurch, sharing resources and facilities horizontally and vertically, is seen by the government and some educators as a model for the rest of the country.

So there is innovation. Why add “partnership” schools?

It comes down to the ideology of choice. The briefing paper says “students” will go in the ballot. Actually, parents will. And parents of kids in the “tail” are less likely to put those kids in the ballot. So the partnership schools should do better on average than the state average, which will justify the ideology but will need careful like-with-like assessment to see how effective they really are.

Then ask who will be “sponsors”. There are now some sponsors of state schools: the Manaiakalani project has a partner. But “faith-based” sponsors are not a common feature of New Zealand.

“Faith-based” is not mainstream religion — Catholic schools are these days part of the state system and the other main religions have “private” schools. “Faith-based” is a United States term and that country is much more religiously conservative and fundamental than New Zealand. In New South Wales there are Islamic charter-type schools. Will Hekia Parata be keen to license such schools or will she discriminate against muslims?

Now look at the wider context.

First, today’s workforce needs to better skilled at all levels, including in the basics. Tomorrow’s will need to be better still. There will still be dumb jobs but they will pay badly. That is the point of “standards”, though the government has dumbed the standards down to the basics of knowledge when it is the basics of thinking that are needed, as the curriculum actually specifies.

Second, a younger generation of parents won’t accept factory schools as older generations did. This is a generation grown used to customised services. It will want diverse options.

Labour is still wedded to factory schooling. That, too, is ideology.

Which brings us to Chief Science Adviser Sir Peter Gluckman who is trying (with not much obvious success so far) to get “science” integrated more into policymaking. “Doing what works” these days requires sophisticated practitioners, not she’ll-be-right.

The challenge for Parata is to drive that thinking through a cabinet fixated on a narrow list of “results” by 2014. Ideology is easier.