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Inspired by the evidence

Sixteen years ago, I got a diligence award from school. I had no idea what diligence was, and when I found out, I said there had to be a mistake: half the school day I went without buttons—the result of bullrush at lunch—the other half I swung on my chair. I heard there was no mistake: I’d done well in social studies. That’s true. My social studies teacher wore pens in his socks, did a gripping impression of a whirlwind, and was lavish with his praise. He engaged the class, and I’d wanted to do well.

Many of us probably have similar stories about inspiring teachers. 

And now the Government plans to devote significant resources into improving teaching and learning in New Zealand schools. Prime Minister Key recently announced that a National Government would invest $359m over four years into expert and lead teachers, and executive and change principals. Last Tuesday, Education Minister Parata launched the “InspiredbyU” website, which is a forum for visitors to recognise inspirational Kiwi educators. 

But not everyone approves of this direction. New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin has panned both the policy and the InspiredbyU initiative. She describes them as “attempts to curry favour” with teachers after “years of attacks on the public education system.”  Both are nothing more than election year sweeteners, Martin claims. Teachers beware.

So should we dismiss the Government’s proposed policy and reject the new website on the basis that this year is an election year?  Or on the basis that the Government has previously pursued other policies?

I don’t think so.  I have a thing called the “evidence test”: if a policy tracks reliable evidence that suggests it’ll improve educational outcomes for children, then it’s a good one in theory, regardless of whether Labour, National or New Zealand First announce it.  

On this basis, the policy’s a good one: it follows significant evidence that shows that teachers have the greatest in-school impacts on student outcomes, while school leaders have the second greatest impact—they help shape the classroom conditions that enable quality teaching.  So if we can improve the quality of teaching, then we can hopefully improve student outcomes.     

Martin is right, at least, to raise concern at low teacher morale over the last few years. Still, the reason we should be concerned about low morale is the reason why the policy is a good one: teachers matter.  They matter a great deal, and should be supported.

Obviously the devil will be in the details. Implementation is critical to making sure the Government’s policy actually delivers on its promises. Yet, on the face of it, it makes no difference to me that it’s election year or even that the policy is perhaps an attempt to curry favour.  It seems well thought-out, and it passes the “evidence test”—it could well make a difference in children’s lives.  That’s the most important thing; the rest is background noise.

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