Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on Hekia Parata’s big backdown

June 8th, 2012

The government backdown on class sizes is looking like one of those non-apologies where people say they’re sorry because of how you’ve reacted, rather than being repentant for what they’ve done. Far from it. On RNZ this morning Education Minister Hekia Parata made it clear she still thought her plans to reward teacher performance were more important than class sizes when it came to education outcomes. According to both her and Prime Minister John Key, the backdown was being driven not by any rethink on the wisdom of the proposed changes, but by the level of public/professional opposition to the plans, which were being met with a level of public and professional anxiety that threatened to derail the government’s wider agenda in education. In other words, the public are wrong about the priority they place on class sizes, but were getting so darn emotional about it the government had to pay heed to their concerns.

The basic conflict, in other words, still remains. While the backdown is a welcome victory – for once, common sense has prevailed against a government trying to rush through part of its ideological agenda – there has been no real change in the perception of the issues by the Minister, or by her advisers. The trade-off for the increase in class sizes was supposed to be measures to improve teacher performance – but the only measures that had been announced to date affected teacher entry qualification issues (which wouldn’t kick in for several years) and measures to introduce performance pay for teachers, which is a highly expensive and ideologically-driven idea that originated in Treasury, not within the education system. At the chalk face, teachers in schools right now would be getting no tangible help to improve their performance – quite the contrary. Some would be losing their jobs, while others would be facing larger class sizes.

To cap it off, the urgency behind the issue was because one in five children were allegedly failing in the New Zealand education system. “You can’t walk away from the fact” Key told RNZ this morning. Well you can, actually. That figure, which dates from an OECD report in the mid 2000s is (a) out of date and (b) highly misleading, in that it refers to the number of children who do not stay in schooling right through to NCEA Level Two, and not all of those children can be counted as “failures.” The figure has also declined subsequently.

Moreover, the false sense of failure and crisis being talked up by Parata and Key is also contradicted by the spectacularly high rating ( number 6 in the entire OECD) that the New Zealand educational system currently enjoys. The more accurate current figure for those who aren’t engaging and succeeding in education, as NZEI president Ian Leckie told RNZ this morning, is probably closer to 5-7%. In other words, the real figure is closer to one in 20, rather than one in five.

Count on it. The performance pay bogey will be back, in one guise or other. Basically, the education system is being squeezed to find cost savings to fund Treasury’s ideas about how to improve teacher performance – which, in Treasury’s view, would be enhanced by promoting competition and individual payment rewards, within what has always been a highly collegial profession. (Moreover, since the best teachers can cope with anything thrown at them, who needed to care about class sizes? Only losers wouldn’t be able to cope, and they didn’t belong in the teaching profession. QED.) As Leckie told RNZ this morning, performance pay systems are (a) very expensive (b) have failed overseas where they have already been tried and (c) will fail here as well. Not that Treasury, as Mike Moore long ago pointed out, has ever lost enthusiasm for a theory that works in theory, and fails only in practice.

What caused Parata to back down? The conference phone call yesterday between Parata, Key, Bill English, Steven Joyce and Gerry Brownlee was where the decision was made. The rationale can only be speculative – but my hunch is that the growing untenability of the government’s position was becoming clear days beforehand. A turning point would have been the 2005 interview that surfaced online in which Prime Minister John Key indicated that he’d chosen to put his own children into private schooling, because he believed the class sizes there would be smaller.

The hypocrisy of that stance – while publicly claiming that class size was a minor matter – was breath-taking. Luckily, Key was then quickly out of the country, but he would have been returning to face a mounting crisis in which his personal integrity (the jewel in the government’s crown) would have been under scrutiny. At crunch, Parata had to have this sorted before Key came back from overseas. Thus, she had only this week to damp down the protests or give up the policy. She failed to stem the tide. The rest is now history.

Still, as least we now know what Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was really on about earlier in the week – with her weird headline-grabbing musings about how she and her colleagues had been thinking about ways to curtail (short of sterilisation) the rights to have children of those previously convicted of crimes against children. It was a diversion, pure and simple. (There is already legislation, and agencies devoted to the care of children at risk and – note – Bennett wasn’t talking about giving them any more resources.) In reality, Bennett was trying to distract the media from focussing on her colleague Parata’s folly, and she succeeded brilliantly in doing so. The media took the bait. Never underestimate the readiness of the middle class commentariat to debate and pronounce on the breeding habits of the underclass.

Finally, the backdown by Parata stands in interesting contrast to the outcome on national standards – which were also widely opposed by education professionals and by many, many school boards up and down the country. Parata is alleged to be widely competent (though as she told RNZ she didn’t consult on this issue) and is being touted by some as a potential future leader of the National Party. Yet when it comes down to getting runs on the board…Anne Tolley, Parata’s widely derided predecessor as Minister got her national standards policy through. Parata failed to do likewise.


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    1. 11 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on Hekia Parata’s big backdown”

    2. By lyndon on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      Worth repeating Danyl’s point
      not only are we a high performer, but we get value for our teachers’ salaries.

    3. By lyndon on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      Also, Eric Crampton, who is most definitely an economist, on performance pay and such
      Just skip the bits about isothungummies if that’s not your field.

    4. By Dave Kennedy on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      The latest OECD report on education achievement still ranks New Zealand near the top of all OECD countries and when it is revealed that we have one of the most under-resourced systems in the developed world then it must be good teaching that carries us through.

      This government is not really interested in raising student achievement as can be clearly seen when looking at their budget priorities. Cuts in education funding will be used to subsidize motorways and tax cuts to the rich.

    5. By ronwaiheke on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      now we can force a backdown on sale of assets that my families taxes built and paid for over many generations

    6. By Eric Crampton on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      Skip the bit with the isothungummies?! That’s the best bit!

      Dejargonifier for those clicking through: an isoquant traces all points that produce the same level of output for varying levels of inputs. So we can imagine producing the same amount of educational quality with either one insanely fantastic teacher and a large class or a bunch of ok teachers each with small classes. Smaller classes is always good; better teachers is always good. But there has to be combinations of the two great things that yield the same levels of educational output. Higher isoquants – where you have better teachers and smaller classes – yield better outcomes, but are more expensive.

      An isocost curve is one that traces the points that cost the government the same thing. Suppose you could get one spectacular teacher in a large class for $300k or five ok teachers in five small classes for $300k. Those two combinations are on the same “isocost” curve because they cost the same amount.

      It’s possible to move onto a higher isoquant by shifting the mix between “better teachers” and “smaller classes”. I don’t know where we are on that mix currently, although there’s decent evidence that our outcomes are reasonably good for what we’re currently spending. But it’s not crazy to think it’s possible to improve outcomes; it’s more of an empirical question about whether it would pan out. But do hit the lit survey I link in the above post from Australian Labor MP and top economist Andrew Leigh.

    7. By Andrew R on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      Parata was clear that she only changed this policy because of the concerns of parents. She never acjknowledged the concerns of teachers. So the aversion to fact based decision making that underlies ALL national party decision making continues.

    8. By peterlepaysan on Jun 8, 2012 | Reply

      The one in five failure is a red herring.

      Any honest statistical measure will demonstrate a “bell curve” depending on what is being measured.

      It depends on what is being measured and how.

      For every one in five “failure” there will be a one in five “success”. The rest of us do not exist. Well that is what Parata/ Key and Treasury {and Treasury wonk English} would have us believe.

      Actually a one in five “failure” is “normal”

      For anyone to claim a 100% success in “education” is to demonstrate lying.

      The National Party Spin doctors need to get real.

      This debacle and the earlier row over so called “National (how appropriate) Standards”
      reveals the underlying privatisation agenda of this government.

      John Key and his tax relieved mates do not want any publicly funded education services.

      The Parata line about improving education standards by increasing class sizes and and so improving teacher standards (which btw are pretty good on international standards) was never going to run.

      This government is hell bent on an austerity regime that is irrelevant to reality.

      They are ideological idiots.

    9. By Joe Blow on Jun 9, 2012 | Reply

      I just don’t understand how this government is being run. Sometimes these proposals (in this case actual policy) seem to be rolled out to shock and then the government appears to ‘compromise’ and get a concession from voters that they may have got more resistance to if they hadn’t shocked everyone first.

      Other times they appear to do a complete U-turn like with mining schedule 4 land or what appears to have happened in this case.

      Then on other occasions they hold steadfast to a very unpopular policy like asset sales. I guess they actually had that as an election policy, but they seem determined not to back down on that one no matter how much flack they get.

      It could be the board room style of management that Key exhibits with his Ministers or it could just be a reflection of a government that doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going…

      How much more of this have we got to bare? I think we’ve born out their first six months. Still two and a half years to go…… One can only hope that investigation of Banks comes up trumps.

    10. By Jason on Jun 11, 2012 | Reply

      Nice write Gordon: indeed, as with NZ’s long-term unemployment problem, the Government is presenting a relative NZ success stories as a crisis in need of solution.

      Eric Crampton: Ta for the explanation!

      AndrewR: For this furor, the only explanation can be that they really didn’t understand the consequences of their policy on teacher numbers; although I have difficulty understanding how it came to be a surprise. At the very least, her Dep. Sec. (and sister), Apryll Parata, as an ex-principal would(should?) have been able to see this coming.

      peterlepaysan: 1 in 5 is more than a red-herring, it’s just wrong. This is in the running for a ‘Stat of the Week’ over on Statschat. The recognized failure rate is actually closer to that given by Ian Leckie later in the interview, i.e., 5%-7%.

    11. By peterlepaysan on Jun 11, 2012 | Reply

      Jason, I am sure you are correct.

      I was merely trying to point out that 1 in 5 is “normal”.

      It does seem to occur to those that fill the spaces between advertisements that “normal” is not advertising magnetism.

    12. By Daniel on Jun 18, 2012 | Reply

      This is going to sound like a conspiracy theory, and you might choose to believe it is. But it seems obvious to me that when it’s the same people control business as those who control the government, and they make cuts to research, education, anything benefiting the lower classes and give more money to the rich, it’s quite clear the reasons: Dumb people are easier to rule over.

      Take away education except for those rich enough to afford private education and you have easily cut of the halls of power (be it in business or government) from those without money.

      It seems so obvious, but so calculated it will never be widely realised until it’s too late.

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