Statistics are used as a powerful (and ostensibly ‘unbiased’) way of explaining our world. However, we learn time and time again that we should always keep the quote attributed to Mark Twain about “lies, damned lies, and statistics” in the back of our minds, as the misuse of statistics to bolster weak arguments is common.
A case in point, a recently published New Zealand Herald article described how, “only 34 percent of teachers in communities of learning (COL), which were set up by the former National Government to increase collaboration between schools, believe the communities are strengthening their own teaching”. Armed with this ‘statistic’ the article’s author concludes that communities of learning are a “flop”.
The report states that, of the teachers surveyed who were part of a community of learning, 40 percent indicated that participation gave of them opportunities to collaborate with other teachers, 34 percent indicated it supported their capacity for inquiry, and 34 percent thought it strengthened their own teaching practice well or very well.
However, the figures were not broken down into responses from those in a newly established community of learning and those who had been in a community of learning for up to four years.
PPTA believes respondents’ attitudes to communities of learning are likely to be different depending on whether their CoL is newly formed or well-embedded. This matters because consigning communities of learning to the dustbin without considering the impact on those schools and teachers who have worked to get it off the ground and making a real difference for young people seems not only hasty but also incredibly wasteful.
Communities of learning are not perfect. PPTA has gathered plenty of evidence about problems with the current model. The previous education minister’s haste to see COLs scaled up has clearly had an impact, including poor implementation and overly managerial structures; the opposite of what was intended as a highly collaborative model.
Identifying and addressing weaknesses in the structure and implementation and fixing them is not achieved by misleading statistics. There is not enough evidence yet to decide that that the whole thing is a grand waste of money.
The reality is: communities of learning are working well and as intended in some places. If we use the Teaching and School Practices Survey Tool to measure the impact of our work, and work to improve the model by bolstering collaboration and creating classroom-based career frameworks to strengthen practice, we have a duty of care to our members to do just that.
Further, for a primary principal, even with the best of intentions, to state that, “Across NZEI and PPTA we’d rather you put that money into special education than into paying a few teachers to go around telling other teachers how to do their job”, is an unfortunate overstep. Our members have not said that they would prefer the CoL money be spent on something else, and although we wish it were otherwise, we do not make the decisions about where the education budget is spent. Statements like that assume one can either have increased special education spending or a career framework and professional learning for teachers.
PPTA says that there must be both!
Jack Boyle is president of the secondary teachers’ union, the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA).
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