Kiwi prime-minister John Key presented ambitious plans on education in his State of the Nation speech. Part of the package will be an increased freedom for schools to hire so-called change-principals, to turn around poorly performing schools. School principals are one of the key factors that determine educational quality, decision-makers at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession stated last year in Amsterdam.
With this year’s Teaching Summit in New Zealand, it’s is inspiring for all participants that the host implements recommendations of last year’s summit. Both Kiwi teachers and decision-makers were dissatisfied with the results in the OECD’s PISA 2012 survey on the performance of 15-year olds.
Between 2003 and 2012 the average mathematics score of Kiwi students declined from 523 to 500 points. It is one of the few countries whose performance has declined over time, together with Australia (20 points), Finland (26 points) and Sweden (31 points). Countries like Germany, Poland and Vietnam overtook New Zealand on this highly regarded ranking.
The most worrying aspect of this decline is the growing number of poorly performing students, students of which the mathematic level is a severe barrier to learning and working. In 2012, 23 percent of the students scored in the lowest region; in 2003 it was 15 percent. The portion of good and excellent students decreased accordingly.
“Further evidence of the decline in average performance can be found by looking at New Zealand students’ scores on a selection of mathematics questions that remained constant over successive cycles of PISA. Students in PISA 2012 scored on average 3 percent lower on each question compared to students in PISA 2009,” the ministry of education concluded. It was decided to take immediate and effective action to tackle this trend.
Enormous impact of principals
The opportunity for schools to attract great principals is very important to schools. It can boost the quality of education, especially on the schools that perform below average, says Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General to Radio New Zealand.
“Evidence shows us that the role of principals can be fundamental. Principals can change the entire school environment and how teachers cooperate and communicate. They have an enormous impact on policy and staff.”
“The main question is, how do you get principals to the place where they can be most effective? New Zealand has a lot of great principals, but they are often not in the schools where they are needed most. You want the best teachers in the toughest classes and the best principals in the most difficult school environments. That is exactly what they do in the best performing countries.
Autonomy requires capacity
The OECD education specialist also pleads for more diverse career tracks for teachers. One of the finest examples are so-called ‘leadership tracks’ in which teachers can turn their career around to become principals. At an early phase of a teacher’s career, his or her talent to become a principle needs to be spotted in order to develop a challenging career track that will benefit the individual, the school and above all the pupils.
“Teachers in New Zealand have a lot of responsibility and autonomy, more than in many other countries. This high level of autonomy leads to a gap between schools in well-off areas and schools in less privileged environments. It is hard for schools in poorer neighborhoods to build the same infrastructure. Autonomy really requires a high level of capacity to make it work.”
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