John Key has just made his State of the Nation address, and has evidently decided that his hopes of re-election rest on conning the public into thinking that his government is the egalitarian administration that we all need. Right. His flagship announcements on education show us clearly why that is not the case.
John Key’s announcement, while being hyped by the mainstream media as innovative and drawing on cutting-edge thinking in education, is in fact the epitome of unimaginative, ideological, neoliberal policy making. It’s the same set of ideas that have led to the erosion of our tertiary sector and, naturally, does absolutely nothing to tackle the structural disadvantage that leaves so many kids behind before they even set foot in their first classroom. Let’s take a look at the main components:
- Executive principals. What. It astonishes me that Key can keep a straight face and announce this new position while in the same breath bleat endlessly on about how our public education system needs to be doing more to drive that Kiwi egalitarian ideal. These are principals that are “proven performers” who will get a whopping $40,000 pay rise to spend a couple of days a week doing what looks a lot like consulting for the poorer schools in their area. The idea of appointing super-executives with super high salaries compared to the rest of their educational colleagues is something that has been tried already in our universities. Unsurprisingly, it’s been a bit of a dud there, with our university rankings going nowhere but south despite massive packages to recruit “only the best”. Clearly the government hasn’t yet grasped that education is both a localised and complex business: there’s a reason that kids who have continuity with their schools and teachers do better at school. This is not to mention the perverse incentives this creates: climbing the management ladder at an already-good school will of course increase one’s chances of getting a plum $40k executive position, further weakening local school leadership. Oops.
- Expert teachers. We already have these: all of our current teachers are experts. All teachers could probably do with that $20,000 a year pay rise actually, John. If that’s too much for you, some professional development and adequate resourcing for existing and new specialist subject teachers would go a long way, too.
- Lead teachers. Performance pay in drag. No surprises here, but again performance pay in education is dumb, creates poor incentives and undermines the collegiality essential to the profession. D-, please try harder.
- Charge principals. Apart from the usual objections about performance pay, this is possibly the least stupid of the proposals, but of course won’t work in any meaningful way. If you seriously think that chucking a new principal at a bunch of disadvantaged, disillusioned, poor and hungry children will make them learn, you are delusional. Measuring performance of a principal in terms of achievement can be a pretty damn difficult business, so all I can see this eventuating as is as an arbitrary system of paying principals very highly to spend the twilight of their careers in underachieving schools. Meanwhile, kids will continue to come to school cold, unshod, and hungry. Try again.
In summary, John Key may as well have chucked his $359 million a year down the proverbial toilet. What we don’t need in New Zealand education is another layer of internal bureaucracy and perverse incentives to ensure that our best and brightest don’t actually end up teaching. Believe me John, if educators were in it for the cash and the conditions, we’d already be well up shit creek without a paddle. Our education system is falling behind not because of our teachers, but in spite of them. National has failed to realise that tackling underachievement is not the sole domain of teachers, and the classroom is not the sole generator of opportunity. Real egalitarianism isn’t born from corporatising public education in this way: it’s giving people real equality and real opportunity right from birth.