Is our education system broken?

There has been plenty of editorial comment and lots of opinion pieces about education in recent newspapers.

The latest furore has been about New Zealand students falling behind in international maths tables. Everyone has someone or something to blame, including the abandonment of rote learning around 2000.

The problem which needs to be addressed is how to recruitable school-leavers into teaching. This is not a new problem. Teaching has never appealed to able school leavers (able in every sense of the word) or university graduates, because it has little status in the New Zealand community. Many are persuaded by parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles - even their teachers - that there are many professional choices which will give them a more satisfying and lucrative career.

In the mid-1970s I was a young teacher seconded as recruitment officer in Auckland. I visited secondary schools from Pukekohe to Kaitaia and talked to year 12 and 13 students (6th and 7th form in those days) about university and their future careers.

I told them, as a successful young teacher, about the joys of teaching.

I was never stoned out of any school, but neither did I kid myself that I had persuaded many of the top students to go teaching. At King’s College, the Careers Master told me

I was “bloody brave” to be inviting their senior boys to consider teaching.

During that time I was completing my Master’s Degree in Education, with a thesis on “Teacher Selection”. I sat on the selection committee for two years and watched the intake to teaching with great interest. There were a number of outstanding young candidates, some of whom I know went on to distinguished teaching careers. But many of those selected were of mediocre ability. Many did not have the equivalent of NCEA Level 2.

As part of my thesis, I conducted a small study outside the Auckland University Library.

I asked a random selection of students which degree course they were doing (none were going teaching), and then I presented them with a sheet listing about a dozen professions in alphabetical order. I asked them to rank those professions in order of their preference as a career - if salary, conditions, and status in the community were all equal.

My idea was to see whether if teaching did have a higher rating in terms of status, more young people might choose it. In other words, was the fact that teaching was so poorly regarded in their community stopping them from choosing a teaching career?

I was absolutely blown away by the result. Teaching not only jumped up the list but it came out as the number one choice.

As I went back into teaching after my stint as a recruitment officer, I was invited to lecture to ‘in service’ teacher courses on the ‘new maths’. It was commonplace for young women teachers to say “I’m hopeless at maths”. Despite my efforts, maths remained the Cinderella subject in many teachers’ box of skills in the 1970s. Maybe not much has changed.

It is worth looking at Finland’s education system, and how and why it has evolved so well in the last 40 years.

In 1963 the Finnish Parliament made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery, after it had been buffeted by two world wars, and Soviet oppression.

By 2000 Finnish youth were the best young readers in the world. Three years later they led in maths and by 2006 they were first out of 57 countries in science.

In 1979, reformers in Finland required every teacher to earn a five-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of the eight state universities - at state expense. From then on teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. So, in 2010, some 6600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots.

Finnish teachers also spend fewer hours at school than American teachers and spend less time in classes. Homework is minimal and compulsory schooling does not start until aged seven.

So, if our best young school students could see that teachers were valued and knew that those earning huge salaries in other professions are not superior citizens, more may choose to go into teaching.

Forget the petty arguments about whose fault it is that we are slipping on the international league tables.

Insist teacher trainees are all masters graduates, give them the best possible conditions, fewer contact hours, ongoing professional development, ensure that we value their contributions and pay them well - very well. We won’t regret it. (JOHN ELLIOTT)