Charter Schools: answer to underachievement or mad experiment?

December 2012

 

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Of all the controversial issues New Zealand’s education sector has faced this year, charter schools remain one of the most contentious. Education Review gets both sides of the story.

Partnership Schools will deliver results

In favour: CATHERINE ISAAC, Chair, Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Working Group

The pilot of Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua is an important step forward in providing a new option for delivering public education. While there is some heated opposition to the concept, no one can reasonably argue that the current rate of educational underachievement in New Zealand is acceptable or that some new approaches to the problem aren’t worth considering.

In fact, there is widespread and growing support in New Zealand for the initiative. Many individuals, teachers, parents, and community groups are seeing the possibilities it presents and the opportunity it holds for helping more New Zealand students succeed in education. International and local evidence strongly suggests that high quality, rigorously monitored Partnership Schools can do just that.

New Zealand does have a significant underachievement problem. NCEA Level 2 is considered the gateway to further study and to the workforce. Yet 31 per cent of young New Zealanders, including 52 per cent of Māori and 41 per cent of Pasifika students, leave school without achieving this qualification.

It is also true that the PISA results, which show New Zealand on top of the world, also show our educational results vary more with socio-economic differences than those in any other PISA country.A breakdown by Statistics New Zealand shows that New Zealand European students rank second in the world, while New Zealand Māori students rank at 33rd.

Labour Education Minister Peter Fraser once said: “Every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has right as a citizen to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.”Clearly the spirit of his declaration is not being honoured.

There is good evidence that Partnership Schools can deliver results. The same Stanford University CREDO study that is quoted regularly by Partnership School sceptics also shows that American Charter Schools deliver better results for students from low income households nationwide, and for italall*** children in States with better designed legislation.Swedish evidence shows that achievement is higher in districts with more Free Schools.In the Canadian Province of Alberta, Charter Schools have been shown to raise achievement.

The model the Partnership Schools/Kura Hourua Working Group has advised on and that is now on its way through Parliament is a high quality model. I believe that it is better than comparable models in Canada, Sweden, England, and the United States. It features a robust approvals process, high transparency and accountability, a commitment to rapid intervention and closure in the case of underperformance, and in return for these requirements, a high level of flexibility around how the schools will be run.

It should be noted that this is a small pilot of a concept that is and will always be entirely voluntary for students and teachers alike.There are, however, people in New Zealand deeply devoted to education who want to use this opportunity. Indeed, the Working Group has been impressed by the numbers, passion, and calibre of interested parties. Those in close touch with communities whose children are not currently well served in education are well aware of this interest.

While not a silver bullet, this is a new option for delivering public education that will tackle an urgent need and potentially provide more of our children with a good start in life.

Charter Schools – an irresponsible experiment

Opposed: IAN LECKIE, President, NZEI Te RiuRoa

Why would any government allow private profit-driven or special interest groups to use taxpayer money to run schools with no public scrutiny, no need to employ qualified teachers, and no need to stick to the national curriculum?

We’re already paying a high price because of the free rein that deregulated “cowboys” have been given in other areas.The result has been astronomical bills to deal with leaky houses or bailouts for investors caught out in shonky financial company collapses.

So why would we go down that path with our kids’ education?This time the collateral damage won’t just be property and bank balances, it will be our children.

In all the debate over charter schools, the one big question that the Government is not able to answer is ‘why?’.

It may be a sop to the ACT party, but surely the head of the Government’s charter school working group, Catherine Isaac, can come up with a better reason for going down this dangerous track than her often repeated mantra that “it’s worth a try”?

Quite simply, the Government is driven by cost saving and ideology.And the children that these new businesses and special interest groups will target are the most vulnerable.

The Government argues that charter schools are needed to ensure “five out of five” New Zealanders succeed.But where is the evidence to support this?

On the contrary, international research suggests that charter schools do not improve student achievement, often exclude struggling students, and are a threat to the quality of public schools.

In America, charter schools cherry pick students to ensure that they select those most likely to succeed.Those who don’t maintain grades are quickly weeded out.

Overseas, charter schools are particularly poor at supporting children with high special needs and those children who have English as second language. The drop-out rates of male African American students in charter schools are higher than in public schools.

No doubt in New Zealand, charter schools would also cherry-pick students, relying on clever marketing to ensure demand outstrips supply and using waiting lists as a drafting gate.

The narrow high stakes measurement of National Standards would likely be used as a measurement of performance.So we could end up seeing charter schools looking successful as their test scores climb, while neighbouring schools, starved of some of their most able students, see their results drop.

Another unfathomable and unanswered question is why the proposed charter schools will not be accountable publicly.

Unlike the public education system, they will not be subject to the Official Information Act and will not be required to have a community-appointed Board of Trustees to oversee their business.Clearly, the public will be relying on PR spin, or even worse, National Standards results, to assess their performance.

Charter schools will be free to employ unqualified people to act as teachers, make up their own curriculum, and be open all hours.Despite being funded with taxpayer money, they may be run for profit by private companies with no expertise in education.

Charter school ideologues say this will unshackle them from the constraints of the public education sector.

Once again, there’s no evidence that this would lead to better educational outcomes.

International evidence shows that unqualified adults working as teachers have no positive impacts on children’s learning and in some cases have negative impacts.On the other hand, highly qualified teachers can have very marked impacts on the outcomes for diverse students, particularly younger ones.

By setting up the charter school framework, the Government is abdicating its responsibility to make sure every local school is a great school, and to ensure our curriculum and teaching works to meet the individual needs of every learner.Charter schools increase inequity, and don’t solve educational underachievement.

Instead of charter schools, we need more investment in our high quality public school system so that every child has their learning needs met.

The Government’s answer to charter school critics is that if they do not perform, they will simply be closed down.At what human cost to the children who will be guinea pigs for what is a mad experiment?

Christian trust puts hand up for partnership school

Manukau Christian Charitable Trust believes partnership schools could be the answer in helping disadvantaged kids achieve better outcomes. KERRY MITCHELL reports.

High on a South Auckland hilltop overlooking the city, streams of children come and go from the Hilltop Community Centre, with its distinctive red facade and a cross at the front door.

First up are the children who attend Sunshine Christian Preschool.After 3pm, they are replaced by children from the local primary schools who come for the after-school programme.

The majority of these children are Māori and Pasifika. They come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and according to Tony Bracefield, are highly likely to be among the one in five New Zealand students to leave school without any qualifications unless something is done to give them a hand up.

The chairman of the Manukau Christian Charitable Trust believes that hand up could lie in the introduction of charter or ‘partnership’ schools.

The trust is one of the first New Zealand organisations to express an interest in running charter schools.

It currently runs two preschools in South Auckland, with a third on its way, and an OSCAR after-school programme.

“Our speciality is working with disadvantaged children and seeking to raise their academic standards so they can achieve in education. The preschools were set up because the best way to address educational deficiencies is at the beginning. Our preschools all have a focus on literacy and numeracy, and we think our children are well-placed to begin their education journey,” says Bracefield.

The trust wants to set up three satellite schools – one in Flat Bush, one in Mangere, and one in Clendon – and plans to source its students through its preschools and the churches it works with in those communities.

“Because we have built a relationship with these families, they trust us and we will working with them to raise the academic standards of their children,” says Bracefield.

The trust’s schools will target Years 1-8 and have a strong focus on literacy, numeracy, and writing. They will teach the Letterland phonics programme and deliver the italNew Zealand Curriculum*** within an overarching Christian philosophy.

Criticsof charter schools have raised concerns about public funding of faith-based education, but Bracefield sees no reason why parents shouldn’t have the option.

“They pay tax and should be able to choose where they put their tax dollars. I think the strength of a Christian philosophy is that it has strong values and a strong morality and that is what some parents want. “

Bracefield says local schools are doing their best but don’t have the resources to cope with large numbers of disadvantaged children.

“The size of the task is beyond them.We will have extra teacher aides. We may have children staying until 4pm so we can help them with their homework.”

Bracefield is quick to point out that using more teacher aides in the classroom won’t be at the expense of qualified teachers.

“The answer is a balance. You need a qualified teacher in every classroom and then you need teacher aides. We value qualified staff because they have the training we need to monitor the academic standards of the children, and they need to prepare the curriculum delivery for the teacher aides to work with, but they don’t need to teach every child in the class.”

Bracefield says the trust will also be in a better position than a state school to help children who turn up without lunch or adequate clothing or who have difficulties getting to school.

“We will only have 30-40 children on each site, so we will have greater flexibility to meet those needs and be able to provide a higher level of care.”