Teach First New Zealand (TFNZ), an education charity established in 2011, is currently in the process of its biggest expansion since its inception. Beginning with its first intake of around twenty participants in 2013, next year it is slated to appoint more than 80 trainees to low-decile schools. Originally confined to South Auckland and Northland, TFNZ will reportedly make its participants available to schools nationally from next year, as well further expanding the list of subjects that its trainees will teach.
For those unfamiliar with it, the TFNZ scheme works by recruiting high-achieving graduates and professionals, deploying them as trainee teachers in low-decile schools for a period of two years, after which time they are given a teaching qualification. TFNZ markets itself as ‘tackling educational inequality’—by putting passionate people with strong academic results and leadership skills in low-income schools, it claims to boost achievement, lift the status of teaching, as well as build a network of people who can develop solutions to the problem of ‘educational inequality’ more generally.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that, regardless of their achievements in academic or personal life, TFNZ participants enter their classrooms as trainee teachers with no experience and minimal preparation. The program is exclusively targeted to low-decile schools, imposing on low-income students a burden that their middle and upper-income peers are not asked to share. Due to enduring legacies of racism and colonialism in Aotearoa, this burden is carried overwhelmingly by Māori and Pasifika students who, through no fault or choice of their own, find themselves participating in someone else’s training.
TFNZ skirts these facts by insisting that, through a rigorous selection process, it recruits candidates who are well-suited to employment-based training. This is deeply problematic. Above all, academic disciplinary results (i.e. a Master’s in physics) and personal qualities should not be considered substitutes for initial teacher education. They cannot prepare someone for teaching young people in schools, and especially not in high-poverty contexts where, research shows, the challenges of teaching can be greater. TFNZ participants learn on the job, and their students can suffer as a result.
TFNZ also insists that its participants are prepared for teaching when they enter schools due to an initial summer training intensive, and the organisation emphasises that participants receive ongoing support. When I went through the scheme in 2015-2016, we received around six weeks of initial training in the form of university seminars, as well as two to four days of practice with secondary school students who had been bussed in to help. The suggestion that this can prepare someone for competent classroom teaching is risible. Graduates of New Zealand’s one-year postgraduate teaching diploma, for example, which includes thirteen weeks of practice-based training in schools, will attest to how unprepared they feel after this training.
Participants of the scheme do receive ongoing support from school-based mentors and TFNZ staff. While this support is critically important, the amount and quality of support can vary, and it falls on schools to organise it. The Ministry of Education allocates schools 0.2FTTE in funding to support the mentoring of TFNZ participants (around four hours per week). For different reasons, largely the hectic nature of beginning teaching and school life, this ‘four hours’ quickly becomes an ideal rather than a norm. This funding is also part of the reason why the scheme is so much more expensive to the public—it may be as much as six times more expensive to train a TFNZ candidate than a traditional teacher. Perhaps importantly still, it takes time for this support to have an impact on participants’ abilities in the classroom. Few would deny that TFNZ participants are among the most qualified graduate teachers in the country after the full two-year duration of the program—criticism, however, should focus on TFNZ participants’ lack of qualification during the two years, particularly in their first weeks and months, and what this means for students in low-decile schools.
Internationally, there is a stirring of opposition to schemes like TFNZ, despite their global expansion. While TFNZ itself insists that it is a local and independent initiative, the scheme belongs to a global network of organisations (called Teach for All) delivering the same model. TFNZ was founded by a graduate of Teach First in the UK (from which TFNZ derives its name) and was supported in its early development by Teach for America and Teach for Australia. In 2015, TFNZ hosted the Teach for All global conference. In Scotland, universities offering teacher education unanimously rejected the Teach First scheme last year, with all institutions agreeing that they would refuse to deliver it. There is now a rich literature—much of which is available online—condemning Teach for America, largely for its impact on low-income, minority-background students. A 2013 conference in Chicago, organised by the Education for Liberation Network, was directed towards ‘Resistance to Teach for America and its Role in Privatization’. In years since, Teach for America has been forced to downsize in response to a period of falling applications. Next year, the editors of an insightful volume, Teach for America Counternarratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out (2015), will release a sequel devoted to criticism of Teach for All schemes internationally.
In fairness to TFNZ, Aotearoa’s crisis-level teacher shortage is felt most acutely in low-decile schools. As schools continue to struggle to find qualified staff, TFNZ will end up providing a necessary service—a trainee teacher is better than no teacher, and all the better if they are recruited selectively. It is harder to oppose the program in a context that is starved of teachers.
However, it is also possible that TFNZ participants are taking positions that might otherwise be going to qualified teachers. In 2015, New Zealand’s Employment Relations Authority found TFNZ to be in breach of the State Sector Act because its participants were taking unadvertised teaching positions in schools. In response, TFNZ agreed (through negotiation with the ERA, PPTA, Ministry of Education, and the University of Auckland) that its future participants would compete with qualified teachers for advertised jobs in schools. Within weeks of committing to this agreement, TFNZ was supporting (perhaps even initiated) an amendment to the Education Legislation Act 2016 allowing it to have access to specially-created unadvertised teaching positions. The organisation made the only supportive submission to the Select Committee on the bill. TFNZ has always resisted the idea that its participants should have to compete with qualified teachers to get jobs. This alone should raise questions.
Other factors in TFNZ’s expansion should concern the education sector. TFNZ’s goal is to effect broader changes to our education system—this is openly admitted; the organisation now markets itself as a ‘leadership program’, and its alumni are actively encouraged into school leadership and policy positions. As the organisation grows, so too will its influence in policy. In the US, Teach for America has had a profoundly destructive effect on public education. Its graduates have successfully pushed charter schools, performance pay for teachers, defunding of public education, deregulation of teacher education, and other harmful policies. TFNZ has already effected changes to our education system in the form of the legislation above, and this may continue.
While it’s still unclear what changes TFNZ will bring, we should be concerned by the organisation’s problematic conception of educational inequality, which it shares with Teach for America, Teach First UK and the rest of Teach for All. Again, local and international research shows clearly that unequal outcomes in education are overwhelmingly the result of socioeconomic inequality, not bad teaching or broken schools. Twelve Thousand Hours: Education and Poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand (2014), by far the most comprehensive examination of the relationship in New Zealand edited by Vicki Osborne and Sue Carpenter, shows convincingly that schools and teachers are ‘relatively powerless’ to mitigate unequal outcomes in education, and that policies to mitigate poverty and forms of social inequality are needed to effect meaningful change to education outcomes.
TFNZ stops short of explicitly blaming teachers and schools for educational inequality, but consider the organisation’s description of educational inequality on its website: ‘In Aotearoa New Zealand, thousands of Kiwi kids are falling through the cracks of our education system each year […] While our education system is working well for many, thousands of students leave school every year without the most basic qualification.’ TFNZ’s position is clear: educational inequality is a problem of the education system, not of the economy and the society.
The suggestion that teachers can have a significant impact on unequal outcomes and other forms of educational inequality is not only misguided but harmful to progressive alternatives. It stands to undermine real solutions. Already it is has significant weight in its corner. Hekia Parata was particularly explicit in her view that ‘socioeconomic background is overstated’ in educational outcomes, that concern with it represents a ‘politics of distraction’ (borrowing a term from John Hattie) and that ‘quality teaching’ made ‘the biggest difference to a kid’s education’ (‘Parata: Socioeconomic factors often overstated’, NZ Herald, 6 Nov 2015). This captures the organisational ethos of TFNZ perfectly, and we might expect these sorts of sentiments to gain greater traction as TFNZ expands.
It should also be noted that this view takes the heat off powerful institutions and policy architects responsible for social inequality, dumping it onto teachers and schools. Critics of Teach for America make the point that the organisation’s largest sponsor is the Walton Family Foundation (the charitable arm of WalMart), and that WalMart has had a significant role in perpetuating systemic inequality through the paying of poverty wages (detailed in Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and numerous other works). We might look to TFNZ’s own corporate sponsorship with an equally critical eye.
The incumbent Government is retaining TFNZ and funding its expansion, possibly out of necessity given present conditions. There are small ripples of discontent, however. Tracey Martin, Associate Minister of Education, expressed strong criticism of TFNZ in her opposition to the Education Legislation Bill. It is unclear which regions and schools TFNZ will expand to include, but teachers, parents, and students at all decile 1 to 5 secondary schools should be encouraged to initiate conversations with their school leaderships about the TFNZ scheme.