Our education system needs several miracle solutions

Photo courtesy: Stuff New Zealand

Jason Heal
Auckland, October 17, 2022

In September 1928, something revolutionary happened in a London laboratory.

Alexander Flemming has returned from vacation to find contaminated mold samples that effectively kill bacteria. So he discovered penicillin.

It is one of the most important medical breakthroughs of all time. Responsible for curing a wide range of diseases, penicillin is a perfect example of a “quick fix”, a simple solution to complex problems.

We love silver bullets. They neutralize a problem that can usually take years and involve many different and varied solutions. We are impatient. We prefer action to reflection.

In education today, we seem to be looking for that quick fix.

Jason Heal

Schools fail kids

The truth is that our schools are failing our children. Global results are down. They have been following this trend for 18 years. We lack teachers. With fewer graduates and many people going abroad, we fear the problem will get worse next year.

We also have the “digital divide” that Covid-19 has exacerbated.

Declining attendance rates, meaning less than 60% of our students attend school regularly. How will they learn if we can’t even get them to school?

A proposed solution currently supported by the PPTA is to ban streaming (the process of grouping students with similar abilities) in schools. The research is, they say, that streaming is terrible for students at all levels. Not only that, it “increases inequality and robs too many students of their chance to access a quality education,” Education Minister Chris Hipkins said.

Internationally, the debate is raging. A study shows that students divided into classes can sometimes progress an additional three months of learning in a year. Another suggests it could reinforce a low sense of self-worth. A study finds unanimous agreement between parents, teachers and students regarding the positive effect of streaming.

Complex issues

Let’s put streaming and non-streaming aside for a moment. Rather than looking for a simple solution to solve all our educational problems, let’s agree that our educational problems are much more complex than we like to think. No student comes to school as an isolated individual. They come from a family with different personalities and learning styles.

One answer will not solve our education system. We must ensure that we offer answers that correspond to the reality of the problem. Streaming is one aspect we need to consider. There are other remedies that we could also implement.

Smaller classrooms will help teachers understand the specific needs of their students.

Retaining teachers and supporting teachers facing burnout will ensure that experienced teachers perform at their best in the long term. Teacher recruitment and training means that enthusiastic new teachers are recruited to keep the education system alive.

It’s just at school; we can help outside the classroom by supporting families. Any lasting solution must take a multi-faceted approach to stopping the slide and ensuring our children have the best and brightest possible future.

As anyone with children knows that humans are complex; silver bullets are rare.

Jason Heale is Communications Manager at the Auckland-based Maxim Institute, an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by championing freedom, justice, compassion and hope.