High decibel education

“I don’t want my kid to go to a low ‘decibel’ school”. She was adamant.

Her child’s need for a high decibel school did not include her having a hearing problem. Not having too many students for whom English was a second language or those who had the behaviour issues that are sometimes associated with poverty seemed important. She didn’t seem concerned about the behaviour issues associated with wealth: i.e. unrestricted access to money and alcohol and parents who sometimes opt out of the hard balancing act of gentle guidance and guerrilla parenting because they feel they’ve ‘paid the fees’ to make sure the kids turn out alright. Couple this with an encouraged view of entitlement rather than service and I’d have thought it was a recipe for disaster.

She was convinced that a high ‘decibel’ school was the key to a good education, genuinely believing it was an indicator of the school’s performance.

I’d come back from overseas and it took me awhile to realise that her daughter did not suffer from any hearing impairment requiring amplified sound in the classrooms but that she was in fact talking about deciles; a relatively random rating of the material backgrounds the kids at the local school came from.

It was odd that she was telling me this because my kid, although just a pre-schooler at the time, also had English as her second language and wasn’t it the low-income immigrant kids who were under the most pressure from home to perform well at school?

What I didn’t tell her about the school in which she had enrolled her child and which I also attended for 6 years was the down side of being in a high ‘decibel’ catchment. Although there were a number of stellar teachers who were visionary and for whom teaching was a true vocation and not just a job – they too were constrained by the expectations of an unofficial ‘league table’ of exam pass rates. At the end of the year all students who were expected to fail were sent home a letter asking them to seriously consider not sitting the exam – thereby giving them an official excuse not to; effectively making this cop out legitimate to their parents. In terms of life lessons it was a big failure of the system but it did ensure that our school ranked right up there and echoed loudly in the chambers of the upwardly mobile at a very high decibel indeed. People wanted to send their kids there regardless of the fact that our school pass rates showed no indication of what a truly gifted teacher can do which is; to get the kids at the very bottom through while still letting the ones at the top shine.

Another thing I didn’t tell her is that I learnt a lot about other kids who were… well… just like me. In a school of 800 girls only 6 of us took Te Reo and in that class there were only 2 brown faces. Amongst the well-heeled I also learnt about the great kiwi cultural pastime; binge drinking. The headlines over the last 2 years have shown that nothing much has changed in those high decile schools in Auckland.

In all the arguments about ‘white flight’ and whether or not league tables would bring about more teacher accountability what has been forgotten is that the New Zealand education system and therefore teachers are doing very well.

“The performance of New Zealand students is significantly above the OECD average in all areas assessed by the Programme for International Student Assessment . But while on average New Zealand students are among the top performers in the world, there is a large dispersion of achievement scores. Performance differences are most pronounced within schools rather than between schools.”

No amount of flitting between schools will allow parents to escape the disparities in achievement that stem from wider societal problems rather than weaknesses in the education system itself.

Until we address those, whatever the ‘decibel’ it seems that school is the answer – definitely not the problem.

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