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Charter school gaps must close

One might be forgiven for giving a small, somewhat cynical snort at the warning issued by the president of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation about the charter school system.

“My advice to any school considering becoming a charter school is that they be very cautious, that they consult with their community, and they consider all the information carefully,” Leanne Otene told RNZ earlier this year as the coalition government was gearing up to reintroduce the concept to the country’s education ecosystem.

“We want to make sure that all new policies introduced are in the best interests of our young people, that they’re well supported by research, and include our practical experience.”

It’s the phrase “well supported by research” that really rankles, given that – as noted in this column earlier this month – the ‘balanced literacy’ or ‘the whole language approach’ to teaching reading and writing that has been embedded in our schools for decades is not backed up by any real evidence that it works. At. All.

Indeed, the plummeting achievement of our kids during this period would appear to be proof positive that it doesn’t, with recent data indicating that just 56 per cent of Year 8 students are at the expected level for reading, and just 35 per cent for writing.

And yet there was nary a peep from educators’ organisations about how the approach was increasingly clearly not “in the best interests of our young people” – while now that the government has mandated a move to ‘structured literacy’ there are complaints about how this “undermines the professionalism of teachers”.

Could that be the sound of self-interest by any chance?

However, that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of potential pitfalls in the charter model, which – per the Ministry of Education [MoE] – is free and government-funded like a standard state school but provides teachers and parents “with more choice”.

That ‘choice’ includes charter schools: having their own specific achievement targets, rather than being tied to one-size-fits-all objectives set out in legislation; not being required to have a board of trustees that’s accountable to students’ parents; enjoying greater flexibility about how they spend their funding; and being free to set their own curriculum, instead of being bound to use the NZ Curriculum.

No doubt readers will recall the first canter the charter school system had in New Zealand from 2014-2018 under the then-National-led government.

But whether you remember them as a success that was shut down by an incoming Labour government, or an experiment that failed pupils and parents is quite likely down to anecdote and/or political preference, as opposed to much in the way of empirical evidence – let alone proof.

That’s because MoE documents indicate that, during the four years they were operating here, the monitoring of charter schools was patchy at best.

Gaps identified included a lack of independent measurement of student achievement, an absence of detailed analysis of whether the schools were attracting ‘priority pupils’ [ie, kids who were underachieving or disengaged from the state school system], under par financial monitoring, and shabby properties.

It’s absolutely incumbent that, in deploying the charter school model in an attempt to close education gaps this time around, the coalition government ensures these monitoring gaps are also closed.

Otherwise, there’ll be every reason to believe teacher unions and the Labour Party when they label the initiative as “ideologically driven”.

You know, like the soon-to-be late and unlamented ‘whole language approach’.

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