Educating the budget-holders to invest

Last year’s budget stumbled on education. Class sizes were to rise to pay for more professional training of teachers. Middle class parents killed that. Bill English beat a humiliating retreat.

The policy came from the Treasury which had latched on to a germ of an idea. The public was not led through the argument so Hekia Parata’s hospital pass was to sell the unsellable.

There was a precursor earlier in 2012. The Treasury thought a Treaty of Waitangi clause in the “mixed-ownership model” legislation might scarify investors. English had to retreat on that, too, and insert the clause (with a cosmetic qualification). That stumble set the Mighty River float back nine months. Investors weren’t deterred a whit.

What un-thought-through idea is in store for us on Thursday? If the government wants to live up to its substandard political management, it could amuse us by matching last year’s paper-boy tax which forced another English backdown — though, sadly, the Inland Revenue Department’s bright idea to tax car parks, laptops and cellphones got knocked out before budget day.

The irony in last year’s education backdown is that the Treasury and English were on to something with their focus on upping teachers’ professional levels.

English was the architect of 2009’s “standards”, getting more kids reading, writing and calculating. That is century-old thinking, worthy in itself but not enough for the deeply different 2010s. The 2012 budget’s idea of getting teachers teaching better got closer to the 2010s.

The factory teaching system which the “standards” fixation epitomises developed in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries to deliver work-trainable young people for trades and industry. Only a lucky or privileged elite went on to higher education and/or the professions. Education factory rejects, the still illiterate and innumerate, did labouring.

The factory delivered. In turn trades and industry and even labouring delivered good wages. But not now. The job market has radically changed. Education is again in transition. For good wages — and for a better economy — kids need more, and more various, capabilities.

The Treasury’s germ of an idea was that to educate well for the 2010s teachers matter more. Schools can’t just be factories. Teachers have to be able to, and want to, think harder about what they do and innovative in how they do it.

Auckland University’s Stuart McNaughton has worked with teachers in low-decile schools to focus teachers on what kids learn, not just what they teach. It’s harder but also more rewarding for both.

The Manaiakalani low-decile-school project has demonstrated that all kids like to learn if given innovative ways to learn. Achievement has climbed. Truancy has plummeted.

These are not templates that if plonked on other schools automatically work wonders. The wonder-workers are the teachers. They must change, not just systems.

That leads to a line of thinking that applies in Scandinavia and is winning some converts in the United States where public schools (and many “charter” schools) are well behind other “advanced” countries’ schools.

The idea is to treat teachers as professionals comparable with doctors, lawyers and accountants: set high degree-level standards for entry into training, set a high bar to getting a job, require and provide oversight and updating, get teachers sharing the best ideas, reward teachers with enviable salaries and reward the best with the best salaries now reserved for heads of departments or principals — and winnow out failures.

Singapore, for example, has built an academy system for career development that, New Zealand Initiative research fellow Rose Patterson says, “sees the best teachers stay in the classroom, but as leaders”.

That’s where last year’s budget initiative could have led ministers if they had thought it through. (They could do worse now than listen to new No 20 Nikki Kaye.) That needs a long-term investment approach, which English’s Mighty River cash could fund.

If kids were learning well — learning what they need for the complex, demanding and rapidly evolving 2010s society and economy — whether they were in a class of 30 or 29 would not be as critical as parents feared last year.

Professionalising the teaching craft is arguably the biggest investment Thursday’s budget could make (along with science and technology, likely again to be skimped) — just as the factory education system was the big investment a century ago.

It would also look ahead through a decade or two, far past the money markets’ deficit-next-year-or-not fixation. Results would take years to show.

The Treasury is taking the long view in its 40-year fiscal projections, due in July. But even those projections are unlikely to treat education in the depth the economy — and future budgets — may in time require.

The Treasury last year had the germ of an idea — but only a germ (which went viral on Parata). But, then, the Treasury is staffed with the elite.