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Closing the Gap in Education?

Closing the Gap in Education by Addressing the Education Debt in New Zealand

Russell Bishop

University of Waikato


New Zealand is one of many first world countries in which there are striking disparities between the sectors that enjoy a relatively high standard of living and prosperity and those that endure conditions of hardship and significant poverty. Although some progress has been seen in recent times, Maori people, the Indigenous people of New Zealand, continue to have higher levels of unemployment, are more likely to be employed in low-paying work, have much higher levels of incarceration, illness and poverty, and are generally under-represented in the positive social and economic indicators of society. This chapter addresses the question of whether and how the substantial financial and other resources of the more affluent segment of society within New Zealand is able to bring better standards and opportunities to those in the poorer sections, especially the members of the Indigenous population. The chapter draws on the substantial body of evidence that demonstrates how education can make a significant contribution. Through the implementation of education reform that is successful, sustainable and scalable, it is possible to institute measures to repay the significant educational debt that is owed to those students who have been mistreated by our education system. To achieve this goal, education reform that seeks to raise achievement and reduce disparities needs to be part of a broad, system-wide attempt to address systemic minoritisation. This chapter suggests a model of education reform that promotes successful interventions that are sustainable and scalable.

GPILSEO at the system level

I would suggest that there are seven interdependent elements for successful, sustainable and scalable education reform. These elements are gathered together in the reform model labelled GPILSEO, an acronym for Goals, Pedagogy, Institutions, Leadership, Spread, Evidence and Ownership. The model is based on that developed by Coburn (2003) and extended in Bishop and O’Sullivan (2005). The model’s central understanding is that a reform initiative must have these seven elements present from the very outset, at a variety of levels: in classrooms and schools and within the wider system. While it is essential that the GPILSEO model be implemented at all levels in education – the classroom, school and system – the focus here is on the system level to develop, implement, sustain and extend theory-based education reforms.

Specifically, at the system level, there needs to be:

  1. goals: national policy goals to realise the potential of those least well served by the system by raising their overall achievement, thereby reducing historical disparities
  2. pedagogy: a means whereby inservice professional learning opportunities and professional development for teachers is on site, ongoing and dialogic, addresses the dominance of deficit discourse among teachers and where preservice teacher education is aligned with inservice professional development so that each supports the other in implementing culturally responsive pedagogies of relations
  3. institutions: the development of supportive policies and infrastructure that provide incentives for teachers and support for schools that is ongoing, interactive and consistent
  4. leadership: national-level support and professional development for leaders to promote distributed instructional/pedagogical leadership models and policies where accountabilty is supported by the provision of capacity-building activities
  5. spread: collaboration between policy funders, researchers and practitioners that is responsive to community needs and aspirations, in an iterative process of interaction, feedback and adaptation
  6. evidence: national-level support for the production of appropriate evidence that will enable collaborative, formative problem solving and decision making that is ongoing and interactive, and from which grow supportive policies regarding standards, assessments and the mix of accountability and capacity building
  7. ownership: national ownership of the problem and the provision of sufficient funding and resources to see solutions within a defined period of time, and in an ongoing, embedded manner.

1. Goal setting: The education debt

Reducing disparities and raising achievement have long been conflated with addressing the achievement ‘gap’ in many western nations. Further, fundamental to these policy frameworks is the notion that increasing student achievement can be accomplished primarily in the nation’s classrooms.1 Although it is clear that classrooms are the most effective sites in which to commence educational reform (Alton-Lee 2003; Hattie 2003), it is vital to remember that classrooms are situated in, and inextricably linked to, the school and the wider education system. This suggests the need for reform to include the systemic level because, as Coburn (2003) suggests, teachers are better able to implement and sustain change when there are ‘mechanisms in place at multiple levels of the system to support their efforts’ (6). Teachers are further strengthened in their ability to sustain change if they are supported by a broader systemic focus on reform at school, and when this is reflected at the national level. Therefore, rather than focusing on realising potential or closing the achievement gap, long-term, system-level policy attention needs to be focused on what Ladson-Billings (2006) identifies as the accumulation of achievement disparities, which she terms the ‘education debt’.

Using the notion of the national debt as a metaphor, Ladson-Billings (2006) suggests that it is the annual accumulation of achievement gaps – as seen in New Zealand since educational disparities were first identified in the Hunn report in 1960 – that need to be addressed, rather than any one gap. As the accumulation of annual fiscal deficits produces an economic debt, so the accumulation of achievement gaps over time has produced an education debt, a debt the education system owes to Maori children who have been short-changed by the system for generations. The long-term intergenerational legacy of an education system oriented to the interests of the dominant group has created this education debt and moving policy foci to ‘realising potential’ will severely exacerbate this pattern. Ladson-Billings quotes Robert Haverman, an eminent economist, who suggests that the education debt is:

the forgone schooling resources that we could have (should have) been investing in (primarily) low income kids, which deficit leads to a variety of social problems (eg crime, low productivity, low wages, low labor force participation) that require on-going public investment. This required investment sucks away resources that could go to reducing the achievement gap. (5)

However, it is not just a matter of more funding. Ladson-Billings (2006) argues that the ‘historical, economic, socio-political, and moral decisions and policies that characterize our society have created the education debt’ (5). Christine Sleeter (2005) agrees:

Like the US, New Zealand has spent over a century building an educational system, infrastructure, and set of beliefs around the education of students of European descent. The severe underachievement of Maori students reflects this history. Although it is not clear that conventional teaching processes that emphasize transmitting knowledge didactically promote the most optimal learning among students of European descent, it is clear that this system has been abysmal for Maori students. Conventional classroom processes and their supporting beliefs have a very strong weight of tradition and on-going institutional support, which makes them extraordinarily difficult to change. (4)

Sleeter (2005) continues by suggesting a way forward:

Ultimately, the only way to reconfigure the schooling process so that it works for both Maori and Pakeha students is to reconfigure schooling around Maori ways of knowing, using a focus on Maori student achievement as the touchstone for evaluating changes to the processes and systems of education. What will emerge from a sustained focus on reconstructing classroom processes for Maori student achievement will be schooling that works better for both Maori and Pakeha students. (6)


Ranginui Walker (1990) has long maintained that Maori educational failure is a product of an unjust social order that has arisen out of the colonial experience. Through the process of colonisation, Maori history, knowledge and ways of being have been devalued and replaced with those of the coloniser, with educators often ignoring or denying Maori a voice or a place within the education system, education itself serving to reproduce the cultural practices and values of the dominant group (Tuuta et al. 2004). Such a situation means that schools allow for the transmission and reproduction of validated and socially approved knowledge and cultural practices, typically of the dominant social group, while excluding or negating knowledge and cultural practices of minority, indigenous or diverse groups (Bishop and Glynn 1999; Bertanees and Thornley 2004). Current government policy does little to acknowledge that classrooms are situated in and inextricably linked to the broader school and its systems, reflecting the wider society, and how the patterns of discrimination and inequality that exist in the wider society may well be reflected in the arrangements of the education system, schools and classrooms.

2. Systemic support for pedagogic reform: The provision of effective learning opportunities for teachers

At a policy level, providing effective professional learning opportunities for teachers to better understand the basis of their core business is probably the most effective school-based change initiative that any policy maker and funding agency can undertake. Building the capability of those currently working within the education system will increase the capacity of the whole system to bring about effective educational reform (Elmore 2004). However, realising this aspiration is not simple, especially as we have identified the discursive positioning of their teachers as the major influence on the educational outcomes of Maori students (Bishop and Glynn 1999; Bishop et al. 2003; Shields et al. 2005).

Recently in New Zealand the policy focus has shifted to one of ‘realising Maori potential’ (Ministry of Education 2008), predicated on the notion that including an ethnic orientation in policy frameworks will improve Maori student achievement. However, this shift is problematic, as it deflects the focus from educators needing to address the disparities in outcomes that exist between Maori and non-Maori students, and the part they themselves might play in perpetuating these disparities, to a situation where those who have traditionally held the power in defining what constitutes Maori potential, the non-Maori majority, retain this power. Further, as the vast majority of teachers are non-Maori (91 per cent), they are the ones who will continue to define what constitutes Maori potential on a day-to-day basis. This approach remains problematic because currently the majority of teachers are defining Maori potential in deficit terms (Bishop et al. 2003; Shields et al. 2005).

In a study of Maori students’ schooling experiences (Bishop and Berryman 2006), where teachers were positioned within discourses in which they blamed Maori students’ learning difficulties on the students, their homes or the school and/or schooling system (the dominant discourse), Maori students felt alienated, marginalised and failed to engage effectively with learning tasks. Where the teachers drew from a discourse that emphasised the power of caring and learning relationships, the students were able to thrive. These understandings need to be reflected at a national policy level by promoting educational reforms that address deficit theorising and associated pathologising practices among educators, and that support educators to develop understandings of how they may discursively reposition themselves in a sustainable, scalable manner.

In addition, currently professional developers are mainly external to schools, and tend to provide professional development opportunities outside the school or on a limited basis in-school. In a detailed investigation of the provision of professional learning opportunities for teachers, Timperley et al. (2007) argue:

[I]t is generally accepted that listening to inspiring speakers or attending one-off workshops rarely changes teacher practice sufficiently to impact on student outcomes. Yet, at least in the United States, this type of activity is the predominant model of professional development. The popularity of conferences and one-day workshops in New Zealand indicates that it is not too different in this country. (xxv)

A number of researchers have found that the most effective professional development is on-site, ongoing and collaboratively reflective (Hall and Ramsay 1994; Bishop et al. 2001a; Bishop et al. 2001b). The teachers in these studies suggested that effective professional development requires a model of dynamic interactions that result in the establishment of power-sharing relationships between the professional developers and the program participants. This dynamic model suggests a spiralling approach that initially involves collaborative reflection on the experiences, and then the ongoing development of relationships among participants.

Timperley et al. (2007) support this approach to professional development. Their investigation of 97 core studies of teacher professional learning and development programs with substantive student outcomes found that there are seven elements in the professional learning context that have positive impacts on student outcomes:


  • providing sufficient time for extended opportunities to learn, and using the time effectively (ie the quality of the use of time is as important as the amount of time)
  • engaging external expertise, which requires funding
  • focusing on engaging teachers in the learning process, which is more important than being concerned about whether they volunteered or not
  • challenging problematic discourses, which involves iterative cycles of teachers considering alternatives and the impact on student outcomes of a range of discursive positions
  • providing opportunities to interact, in a community of professionals, that focus on analysing the impact of teaching on student learning in an iterative, ongoing manner
  • ensuring content is consistent with wider policy trends
  • in school-based initiatives, having leaders actively leading the professional learning opportunities. (xxvi)


This has been supported by the development of a number of initiatives that are evidence based and focus on enhancing student achievement. These include the National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP), examining what achievement looks like across the curriculum and across the schooling sector since 1995 (NEMP 2009).2 Along with NEMP, national education exemplars have been developed, providing examples of authentic pieces of student achievement at each level across the curriculum for teachers to match their students’ progress and inform the next learning steps. These exemplars have been developed for both English- and Maori-medium schooling. Finally, TTle (Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning) is a large, flexible, electronic bank of test items that teachers can draw on for formative and summative use in English and Maori, again developed and trialled by teachers in conjunction with researchers.

The development of these national ‘smart’ tools helps teachers implement achievement-focused and evidence-based teaching policy. The tools are implemented with professional development support at a national level by programs such as AtoL (Assess to Learn), a program that supports schools to gather and analyse student data, introducing more effective learning programs based on the analysis of student performance. The professional development programs both update and implement the findings of the Best Evidence Synthesis program in an iterative way. The shifts in policy have assisted development of smart tools and professional development programs that inform, support and implement the policies that seek to make education for Maori and other marginalised students more effective.3

Alignment between preservice and inservice teacher education

In a recent international study, Cochran-Smith and Zeichner (2005) identified the lack of links between preservice teacher education, inservice practice and the perceived hierarchies within the education sector as major impediments to comprehensive educational reform. In New Zealand there is need for policy-driven systemic amendments of this misalignment between preservice teacher education and inservice professional development, so that each can support the other in implementing the benefits of large-scale, theory-based educational reforms. Such alignment would create ongoing systems, supporting teachers as lifelong learners: as Smylie (1995) notes, ‘[w]e will fail… to improve schooling for children until we acknowledge the importance of schools not only as places for teachers to work but also as places for teachers to learn’ (92).

One example of this misalignment was evident in the Te Kotahitanga project (Bishop et al. 2007), which found that of the 422 teachers surveyed, 60 per cent had been to teacher education institutions in the previous five years. They expressed their desire to implement a wide and effective range of classroom interaction types, aspiring to actively engage their students in lessons, utilising students’ prior knowledge, using group learning processes, providing academic feedback, involving students in planning lessons, demonstrating their high expectations, stimulating critical questioning and including the culture of students in their lessons. However, detailed measured observations of their classrooms showed that 86 per cent of their interactions were of a traditional nature, where they engaged in the transmission of predetermined knowledge, monitoring to see if this knowledge had been passed on, and providing behavioural feedback in order to control the class. Only 14 per cent of their classroom interactions allowed opportunities to create the sorts of learning relationships to which they aspired. In short, despite the teachers’ aspirations, the dominant classroom interactions remained active teacher and passive students, the very learning environment that Maori students identified as limiting their opportunities to engage with learning (Bishop and Berryman 2006).

Elmore and Burney (1996) and Bishop (2007) suggest that preservice teacher education programs need to emulate the practices outlined above for the implementation of theory-based educational reforms in schools. Preservice teachers should be organised into professional learning communities. This would enable familiarity with modes of assessment that allow collaborative analysis of the multitude of data that are routinely collected about children to inform and modify teaching practice. These findings signal the need for preservice educators to integrate the theory and practice of teaching and learning in a systematic manner, using evidence of student-teachers’ instructional practice and student achievement for formative purposes. They also signal that schools need to provide similar classroom support to inservice teachers, giving them ongoing objective analysis and feedback on classroom interactions, which they critically reflect on in a collaborative problem-solving setting.

Preservice programs conducted at universities are well placed to support ongoing teacher learning by developing a program and culture of teacher research, because such research ‘is a way of organising professional development in such a way that it remains closely related to what teachers acknowledge as their domain of professional autonomy’ (Tillema and Imants 1995, 142). Introducing such practices at both preservice and inservice levels would allow the reform and associated paradigm shifts to become self-monitoring on a day-to-day basis. The research may also enhance the status of the reform because it would be ‘closely related to meaningful school development in which there is a close connection among development, reflection, professionalization, and school renewal’ (Tillema and Imants 1995, 146).

3. Institutionalisation

Systemic-level support is necessary for those structural and organisational changes that schools need to undertake to support the sustainability of educational reform. Policy makers need to examine how reform projects and schools are funded so that changes in personnel, resourcing for in-school professional developers and the overall structure of the school can be made by the school’s governance and management without jeopardising the reforms. Fullan (2007) points to the example of the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, which sought to substantially improve literacy and numeracy within one election period for all 72 school districts and all 4000 or so elementary schools in the province (246). One of the eight interlocking strategies developed to implement the policy was that the budget for education for the province of Ontario be increased by 22 per cent in the first three years of the initiative: ‘Much of the new money is devoted to capacity building, with all those in challenging circumstances receiving additional earmarked resources. All this as the government is working to reduce an overall budget deficit’ (255).

This example shows the level of commitment needed at the funding level to support large-scale educational reform. It is insufficient to promulgate policies that are responsive to identified needs, and yet not provide sufficient funding to make the reform a reality. The danger of embarking on a reform and its foundering due to lack of funding is too great. Many teachers are wary of what Fullan (2007) calls ‘initiative-itis’, where more and more programs are promulgated, many without sufficient long-term funding support. Similarly, schools are loath to reprioritise their own funding until they have firm evidence that the professional learning program is going to be productive in terms of enhanced student outcomes. Hence the government needs to provide substantial upfront and long-term monies to get the whole process going in such a way that the reform will be able to be successfully embedded. The government needs to see this initial and long-term funding as an investment rather than a cost – an investment that will be financially beneficial for society in the long run in terms of the reduction in costs for downstream services such as welfare, health, crime prevention and incarceration needed by those students currently not well served by education.

Supporting schools to reform their organisational structures

The recent evaluation of the role of in-school facilitators in implementing professional development found that these knowledgeable individuals are essential to support the implementation and sustainability of educational reform programs (Hindle et al. 2007). Drawing on two case-study projects, Te Kauhua and Te Kotahitanga, Hindle et al. (2007) found that at the school level it is essential that a permanent position of professional development facilitator is confirmed within project schools to sustain gains made. Hindle et al. (2007) suggest that policy makers should identify effective reform initiatives through robust qualitative and quantitative means and continue to support these initiatives on an ongoing basis so they become normal, embedded in the system and culture of the schools (cf Fullan 2005; Hall and Hord 2006; Hargreaves 2006). Just as schools are funded for maths teachers and guidance counsellors, so too there needs to be an allocated fund for professional development facilitators so that teacher capacity building continues.

Hall and Hord (2006) and McLaughlin and Mitra (2001) go further, suggesting that removal of funding from those responsible for educational reform within the schools (eg in-school professional development facilitators) will mean the end of the project and a waste of all money expended. McLaughlin and Mitra (2001) suggest that ‘[m]aking provision for the resources necessary to sustain a reform effort is a “bottom line” reformers need to negotiate at the outset with the implementing site or with funders’ (305).

These findings indicate that development of a cadre of professional developers within schools rather than externally based providers will become a necessary feature of schools’ staffing entitlement in the near future. Just as classroom teachers have been joined by guidance counsellors, social workers, RTLBs (Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour) and teacher aides, professional staff developers will be among the next group of support staff to be added to the staffing entitlements of schools. As Elmore (2004) and Guskey (2005) explain, change in teaching practice is incremental and teachers need ongoing support to work through the steps to implement reform practices in line with reform principles.

The message for national policy makers is that once a reform project is proven successful in addressing its identified goals, it is essential to see it as an integral part of schooling and no longer as an adjunct. In effect, system-level support is needed for the development, at both national and school levels, of what St John (2002) terms the ‘improvement infrastructure’. The project then becomes a program, a normal part of what schools are funded to provide for their communities. The message is clear: unless this essential step takes place, unless the project becomes funded as part of schools’ ongoing core business, then the project and its goals will always remain peripheral to schools’ business, and national goals of addressing educational disparities will always remain goals and never be realised.

4. Leadership: Accountability and capacity building

According to Fullan (2007), governments can support the development of systemic leadership by promoting accountability, providing incentives and fostering capacity building. Getting the right balance between these three approaches to policy development is crucial to supporting large-scale reform. Fullan (2007), along with Elmore (2004) and Guskey (2005), argue that systems promoting accountability and/or providing incentives at the expense of capacity building do not produce successful educational reforms.

In the US, No Child Left Behind, an accountability-heavy policy, was legislated in 2002. It required all states to establish a series of annual standardised reading and mathematics tests for Grades 3 to 8, and reading and mathematics tests in Grades 10, 11 and 12. Tests are administered to at least 95 per cent of all students enrolled in each grade level. The legislation requires that each school demonstrate annually adequate progress according to a set of targets predetermined by the policy. If a school fails to meet these targets, there is a sequence of consequences, culminating in being placed in a ‘restructuring’ category after year five, when they may be closed down or merged with a more successful school.

There are a number of problems with such approaches to national testing. Fullan (2007) reports that so much time is taken at the school and classroom level complying with assessments for students to measure their proficiency that there is ‘little time left for doing the actual work of improvement’ (241). More problematic is the situation where an external accountability scheme does not allow for building the capacity of staff to undertake the ‘work of improvement’. As Elmore (2004) argues, no external accountability scheme can succeed in the absence of internal school-level accountability, defined as ‘the capacity (knowledge, skills, resources) of the entity for individual and collective responsibility to engage in daily improvement practices’ (241). An overemphasis on accountability systems seriously underestimates the importance of school-based capacity building. Indeed, capacity building needs to precede accountability, or at least be part of a dialogue, with a realistic time frame so that both can be present.

Elmore (2004) and Fullan (2007) are both highly critical of policies promoting accountability-focused systems, with Fullan (2007) reporting that in the US ‘the gap between high and low performance has widened since 2000, precisely the opposite of what [No Child Left Behind] so forcefully intended’ (242). What is essential in New Zealand is that we learn from these experiences and do not introduce policies of national testing for students without support from appropriate capacity-building programs. Fullan (2007) also warns of the tendency of past governments to implement centralised high-stakes accountability systems without providing for appropriate supportive capacity building linked to results. Capacity building as a means of guiding and directing people’s work must be ‘carried out in a highly interactive professional learning setting. All else is clutter. Policies need to be aligned to minimize distractions and mobilize resources for continuous improvement’ (263).

5. Spread

From their detailed examination of a number of large-scale reform projects in North America, Glennan et al. (2004) distil some general lessons about producing widespread, deep and lasting educational reform: ‘No matter the target of reforms or the design construct, the scale-up process is necessarily iterative and complex and requires the support of multiple actors. This is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future’ (647). From an examination of the core tasks for scaling up the respective reforms in their study, they also note that ‘[i]f the scale-up is to succeed, the actors involved – including developers, district officials, school leaders, and teachers – must jointly address a set of known, interconnected tasks, especially aligning policies and infrastructure in coherent ways to sustain practice’ (648). In other words, collaboration between policy funders, researchers and practitioners in an iterative process of interaction, feedback and adaptation is part of the wider picture that supports the sustainability of theory-based educational reforms (Datnow and Stringfield 2000).

Communities of practice

Wenger (1998) describes a ‘community of practice’ as a community of practitioners that shares practice and understanding in order to be effective in certain specified domains. Surrounding community practices are boundaries across which ‘brokers’ may transfer understanding and procedures. In this light, the education system may itself be conceptualised as comprising a ‘constellation’ of communities bound together by the overall institutional enterprise, achieving transfer between various groups to foster a collective response to Maori and national aspirations for effective educational reform for Maori students at all levels of the system. In other words, at a system level, unless all are involved in a reciprocal, iterative manner, ownership of the reform is unlikely.

Just as schools as institutions can do much to create a context in which communities of practice can thrive, so too can system-wide communities of practice gather round a common agenda, share understanding and practices that go towards the effective application of the reform in question and go beyond the specific project to co-construct new policies and practices in other areas. The actions of such communities lead to achievement of Coburn’s (2003) normative coherence, ie spreading the reform norms, beliefs and principles within schools and beyond.

6. Evidence to enable collaborative formative problem solving and decision making

Different forms of assessment of learning and behaviour in schools produce evidence that can reinforce or undermine the motivation of students to strive for future achievement. Student achievement may be constrained by the forms of assessment used, as assessment practices can affect students’ belief in their own potential (Murphy 2002). Assessments should therefore acknowledge the importance of students developing positive learning identities. There is strong argument for assessment, the prime purpose of which is formative, designed to offer constructive support towards achieving competence. There is also a need to acknowledge that learning takes place in multiple localities (Street 1993; Gee 2000); meaning processes that seek to assess the learning and behaviour of students need to take into account students’ real-life experiences. This emphasis implies a broader conceptualisation of what needs to be assessed beyond simply the characteristics of the individual learner and what has been achieved over a particular period of time. If evidence is to effectively inform educational reform, assessments need to be responsive to the different knowledges, experiences and cultural understandings within diverse communities in which students live and are educated.

We need to question whether some government-supported assessment policies and practices such as standardised tests serve to keep students in a marginalised position. The assumptions associated with identification of individual difficulties in learning through, for example, norm-referenced testing, intrinsically contradict notions of inclusion. Statistical, norm-referenced tests often lead to deterministic views of ability and restrict expectations of achievement for some student groups. This identification of a few problem students results in reproduction of underprivileged groups in society. Furthermore, poor scores on normative tests are often associated with blaming student attributes rather than opening up discussion about amending pedagogy to support learning and behaviour. Access to available resources and the need to determine eligibility for additional services (special educational provision) are typically argued as justification for norm-referenced assessments. Such assessments compare individual students’ achievement against those of their peers (Cline 1992). Standardised tests such as these reflect a view of intelligence as an innate capacity, assumed to be randomly distributed throughout populations. Norm-referenced tests of ability and attainment can therefore ‘determine selectively the way in which issues are discussed and solutions proposed’ (Broadfoot 1996, x). The underlying assumption of such approaches is inconsistent with the view of students as having the potential to achieve highly, given the right learning opportunities. The influence of psychometric approaches to measuring human achievement therefore lends support to deterministic views of ability and achievement.

A similar problem is that of measuring Maori students against progress made by non-Maori students, especially those in the same class. Durie (1995) warns that such comparisons are perpetuating non-Maori being seen as the norm – the standard against which all others are measured – ignoring the advantage non-Maori students have had. He suggests Maori students’ progress should be measured against their peer group.

In Bourdieu and Passeron’s (1973) terms, schools use these practices to reproduce patterns of control and subordination within society that are linked to economic context. The rhetoric of education to promote equality is not supported by the reality: that the system of education functions to maintain the children of underprivileged groups in powerless positions in society. From this perspective, ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are social categories, in which the labels serve the vested interests of dominant, powerful groups in society. They are not simply givens; rather, some students’ lack of achievement in the education system may be understood as a function of the societal, economic and political status quo that requires some children to fail.

Learning is ‘a fundamentally social phenomenon, reflecting our own deeply social nature as human beings capable of knowing’ (Wenger 1998, 3). However, the competitive climate encouraged currently by some governments, intent on target setting and narrowly conceived achievement, contradicts policies that seek to create an inclusive classroom environment where all students have the potential to achieve. Ironically, such conflicting aspirations are visible in the same policy documents. Assessment can be a powerful contributor to the promotion of effective learning if used in the right way. However, there is little evidence that increasing the amount of testing will enhance learning. Rather, the focus needs to be on helping teachers to use assessment and promote teaching and learning in ways that will raise the achievement of students. To be successful, learners need to be able to take ownership of their learning, understanding the goals they are aiming for and developing the motivation and skills to achieve success. Ongoing formative assessment can provide teachers with formal and informal opportunities to notice what is happening during learning activities, recognising where the learning of individuals and groups of students is going and how they can help take learning further.

7. Ownership

There are two major implications for government policy from the above analysis. The first is that to address the current educational crisis afflicting Maori and also New Zealand’s potential to realise aspirations of becoming a ‘knowledge’ society, there needs to be national ownership of the problem. This requires that policy makers intentionally and explicitly maintain the primary focus of educational policy on Maori student achievement in ways that make sense to Maori. Policies that promote the whole range covered by the GPILSEO model – goals, pedagogies, institutions, leadership, spread and evidence – need to demonstrate national-level ownership. Evaluation and support of the potential benefit of any proposed action should be undertaken with reference to its impact on Maori students.

The second implication is that policies regarding funding need to be specific. To address the economic marginalisation of Maori associated with the education debt, current government policies such as that outlined in Ka Hikitia (Ministry of Education 2008) to ‘realise Maori potential’, need to be amended to set specific government funding targets for outcomes for Maori. The government has been able to set specific dates and has allocated specific resources, albeit limited, to see an end to the process of addressing historical grievances under the Treaty of Waitangi. In a similar vein, the government needs to set specific dates and allocate specific resources in association with its education policy documents to see an end to educational disparities within a set period of time.

Current approaches to professional development by the New Zealand Ministry of Education generally run to a short-term funding timetable, where initial funding is provided for a limited period of time, reduced, then withdrawn. The expectation is that the schools will reprioritise funding to support the long-term implementation and maintenance of the reform from their own resources. The reality is that this rarely happens. Sarason (1990) identifies this as one of the main causes of ‘the predictable failure of school reform’: the failure to provide schools with sufficient ongoing funding to support effective reforms in the face of competing claims for limited funding.

A number of common outcomes result from this type of policy. The first is that schools shift from reform to reform – not one of which is ever embedded in the school – as the funding becomes available from the central government agency. The second is that insufficient money is invested in schools to develop the necessary infrastructure that will allow the reforms to flourish. The third is the lack of opportunities to provide responsive support for schools in a climate that promotes curriculum content reforms such as those that focus on literacy and numeracy. Current government policies seeking to reduce educational disparities through raising the educational achievement of those students who are not currently well served by the education system are necessary, but also insufficient to create appropriate conditions for addressing the long-term education debt, evident in the statistics of educational disparities in this country. What is needed is a long-term policy that is not subject to the electoral cycle, one that in Fullan’s (2001) terms provides an expansive rather than a contracting resource base for individual schools, and seeks to reallocate to Maori people their fair share of the benefits that our society has to offer.

Such a vision needs to be taken on by the nation as a whole, in an approach that goes beyond party politics and the three-year electoral cycle, to acknowledge that New Zealand society and economy cannot survive with an increasing demographic of non-participating young people. In many ways, Maori people’s future is New Zealand’s future. The questions that stand out for our political leaders are: Who has the courage to take on this challenge? Who has the courage to address the education debt that is owed to Maori and the nation as a whole? As a nation, we had the courage to address women’s suffrage, the need for a welfare state and nuclear ship visits – among other world firsts. Now we need to summon the courage to address the long-term education debt that will otherwise cripple us as a people and a country unless we attend to it with haste and determination.


Thanks to my colleagues Mere Berryman, Dominic O’Sullivan and others in the Te Kotahitanga project for their support over the years.


1   The New Zealand Ministry of Education for example is clear in its 2004 document that the first means of addressing educational disparities is quality teaching: ‘The research is unambiguous – effective teaching is the single biggest influence over a student’s learning and success. Good teaching is powerful and can offset many factors that can exert a negative influence in a student’s life’ (Ministry of Education 2004, 5). The second is to support families and communities to play a greater part in the education of their children: ‘Supportive families and communities are also powerful influences on learning outcomes. The better the formal learning environment respects and affirms the learner’s home environment and community, and incorporates this into the learning process, the higher the level of likely achievement’ (5). The third means of improving learning outcomes is to support quality providers that are first and foremost focused on student achievement: ‘We need to help create a culture of professional debate and provide professional support that helps make a real difference for students’ (5).

2   The researchers and developers of this project use teacher experiences at all levels, including the development of test items, marking and evaluation. Teachers also undertake the testing, providing them with valuable professional learning opportunities to take back to their classrooms and schools.

3   However, currently there are no structured ways of introducing the best evidence synthesis documents themselves into schools, other than simply posting them out and providing lectures on their content. Part of the irony of this approach is that it is these documents that have synthesised what we know about the approaches that best support teacher learning. There is a need to use this knowledge to effectively introduce these publications to schools in ways that best reflect the learning.


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Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen