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On inequality and education

If inequality is the “real cause” for poor education, does that mean poor education doesn’t drive inequality?

It is the opposition’s job, I guess, to oppose. Sometimes, though, the efforts baffle me. Such an instance occurred after Prime Minister John Key made a major education policy announcement on Thursday. The policy, which would create new positions in which top teachers and principals share best practice with other teachers and schools, was met with uncharacteristic approval from the education sector, including teachers’ unions. But it’s completely misguided, say the Greens:

This poorly thought out policy assumes that a possible improvement in teaching practice will address the driver of declining standards, inequality. […] The policy is not a blueprint to address the real needs of kids in lower decile schools to help them learn.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the corollaries of the Greens’ position. If they believe that the only way to address poor educational performance is to address social inequality, it must follow that any education policy aimed at the education system, as opposed to the economy or welfare system, is a pointless exercise.

Which is a perfectly acceptable stance to take. But it’s hard to keep consistent. For starters, it requires them not to propose any education policy aimed at lifting achievement, for the precise reason that they don’t believe they work: the “real” cause is inequality, not the education system.

But moreover, it requires them to believe that you can’t address inequality through education. Their claim is that only by addressing inequality directly can you hope to improve educational outcomes. So they must not believe even in the potential for education to give poor children the chance to become richer adults. They must not believe that giving schools in poorer areas more funding (i.e., the decile system) will do anything to help those students. Their rhetoric is based on kids being “sick and hungry”, and “living in poverty”—not what teachers and schools must do to help break the cycle.

It might feel like I’m taking their views to the extreme—except that I’m not. Their comments are unambiguous: National’s education policy is bad because it fails to address inequality. “The best teachers and principals in the world can’t feed or heal the hungry and sick kids that show up to school each day.” My general bias is to try to read statements in the best light possible. I’m finding better interpretations hard to find. If they thought there exists a better education policy that is not welfare or economic policy, why didn’t they hint at that?

To be fair, poverty is indeed an excellent predictor for educational underachievement. And the Greens are justified in campaigning to reduce it, just because it’s generally bad. What is confusing is that they would criticise a policy aimed at doing exactly that, for trying to do so by improving education.

There is plenty that could go wrong with this policy. As with any novelty, there are bound to be teething issues; any good opposition will make the most of them. It could yet prove impractical to ferry teachers between schools on a daily basis. Labour at least reiterated its belief in “encouraging quality teaching” and “collaboration with teachers”. The Greens seemed determined to say nothing even neutral, and ended up advocating a principle that will soon prove to be a straitjacket. Perhaps they are excited about becoming the lead opposition party, but they should be more careful to leave themselves room to make policies of their own.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. it is no surprise that the assorted education unions have not rejected the policy – because it is in keeping with ‘more taxpayer resources’ (for their members preferably) are needed to improve ed. outcomes (whatever they think they are). This policy is a continuation of billions going to the paid staff of the education industry, and not directly to those children who would benefit most from it, or arguably deserve it more, those children from beneficiary and lower income households.

    26 January 2014

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