Since I completed my Term 3 visits with the school leaders I am privileged to work with, I’ve been thinking.  Firstly, some context: 11 of the 12 schools are deciles one to four, primary, intermediate, and secondary schools. They are located across Auckland, as well as in Gisborne, Whanganui and Hastings.  Their combined student numbers are 38% Māori, 36% Pasifika, and 13% Pākehā. Remember those numbers!

My role is in supporting these principals and leadership teams who are trying to think outside our colonial school system and practice to develop authentic culturally sustaining practice for Māori and Pasifika learners. Nine of the twelve schools have had Education Review Office reviews in 2018 or 2019.

There is some stunning work going on in these schools. They are challenging racism and the legacy of colonisation and rejecting the ongoing assimilation endemic in our thinking around what counts as knowledge and achievement. They are challenging ideas about siloed curriculum, and developing local curriculum based on mana whenua understanding of place and history. They are developing assessment based on cultural identity and relationships, which shows how this learning aligns with and shifts all other learning. They understand that critical pedagogy and developing critical consciousness are not the same as critical thinking, and that culturally ‘responsive’ practice is nowhere near enough to make meaningful change. They are embedding cultural criteria in their own Performance Agreements and Teacher Job descriptions so none of these goals are left to chance. These goals are the focus of their strategic planning and are strongly supported by their boards. It is high pedagogy, high quality, difficult work, often in some of the most challenging circumstances.

In fact, these schools are doing exactly what our official strategies and policies ask them to do. Māori children are enjoying education success and achievement as Māori —required by our national Maori education strategy Ka Hikitia. Teachers are meeting the requirements of Our Code Our Standards, and the Standards for the Teaching Profession:

  •  demonstrating a commitment to tangata whenuatanga and Te Tiriti of Waitangi;

  • affirming Māori learners as tangata whenua and supporting their educational aspirations;

  • respecting the diversity of the heritage, language, identify and culture of families and whānau; and

  • critically examining their own assumptions and beliefs, including cultural beliefs

 …to name just a few of the requirements for all teachers. All schools could learn from this ground-breaking work. Yet, using ERO’s findings as one descriptor of their success, the highest overall judgement any of these 12 schools has received is “well placed” (using the 2019 judgement descriptors) and only one was judged as meriting a 4-5 year return visit in 2018. The following questions from this group of predominantly experienced principals were the catalyst for this post:

  1.  How can schools who do nothing for their Maori learners receive a “Strong” judgement?

  2.  Why do we bother with all of the work we do to deliver a culturally sustaining curriculum when all that matters to ERO and the MOE are literacy, numeracy and NCEA outcomes?

 One commented, “If that’s all they want us to do I’d rather they just said so. Throw out all the rhetoric about culture, language, and identity, and tell us we only want young people who can read and write. At least then we’d know, and we could just get on with it.”

These are pivotal questions and comments. I feel for the school leaders who push the boundaries to make a real difference. The resistance they encounter makes my blood boil, as it is all so familiar!  All have committed, enthusiastic, teachers willing to take on the learning they need to change their practice. Many also have some difficult, hard-to-shift staff unwilling to change archaic practice that should have been eliminated decades ago—like streaming classes and deficit thinking. Too often these teachers have backing from Union representatives who should know better, but who actually block change for Māori by supporting teachers who refuse to shift. PPTA and NZEI take note!

Add to those stress levels the expectations and demands from ERO and MOE that, in spite of all their rhetoric to the contrary, really DO only want to know about your literacy, numeracy, and NCEA percentages. Some of these principals have met with ERO to challenge their review findings—to no avail. The outstanding work they are doing doesn’t feature in ERO’s playbook, in the limited report-writing template or the ‘accepted’ report language they hide behind, or obviously, in the understanding and experience of most of the reviewers who continue to review from a White space.

 So, I thought I’d investigate just what do you have to do to get a “strong’ ERO judgement? I read a letter from The Minister of Education to one of these “high-performing” schools sent to specifically congratulate them on their ERO outcome. If this is standard for all “strong” schools’ reports, then clearly the exemplary work of the schools I’m talking about doesn’t warrant the Minister’s attention!

In a 14 February 2019 Briefing to the Minister of Education, ERO explained their change, effective from March 2019, from their “current reliance on historical review return times” to a new method of determining its annual review schedules, called “insight based scheduling.” ERO would now review “more current information” including student achievement and progress, suspensions, stand downs, access to support and interventions, leadership and staff turnover. I would imagine that most schools would have believed these factors or “insights” already influenced ERO’s return times. ERO comments that “return times have become a proxy for quality” for parents and communities. No surprise there, given the ERO website statement: “We are often asked about the criteria ERO use to judge a school as great. Typically these are characterised in terms of ERO’s judgements as being on a 4-5 year return cycle.” In the 2019 change ERO will now issue a “clear judgement” on a continuum:

So, if a 4-5 year return has been superseded in 2019 by the judgement “Strong” what does ERO think constitutes a “strong” school?  They would say the criteria are made clear in the School Evaluation Indicators which ERO sends to schools prior to a review, but what are these indicators really describing? Again, more rhetoric. What do criteria like, “Outcomes for students are consistently equitable and excellent” or “School processes, practices and activities effectively support culturally responsive education provision” actually mean to reviewers?

I searched through 64 recent ERO reports. Eleven of these schools (17%) received a “strong” judgement, so what are their characteristics? Firstly, the strong schools’ combined student numbers are 59% Pākehā, 13% Māori, and 9% Pasifika (remember those earlier numbers?). Seven of the 11 schools (64%) are deciles seven to ten, with all except one school decile five and above. They are small and large, Area, primary, and secondary schools. All had clearly impressed ERO reviewers with their literacy and numeracy results and their “acceleration” of these outcomes for “those Māori and other students who need this” (ERO’s terminology). In fact, the most frequent comments about Maori learners in these reports were references to their literacy and numeracy data. Some of the schools, in spite of their “strong” result were not doing all that well for their Maori learners actually with one admitting to disparity of outcomes for boys’ writing achievement, and another (with 12% Maori students) with the comment that school has not yet analysed information to know if learning has been accelerated for junior Māori students needing this. One of the eleven schools had consulted extensively with iwi, and a couple had generously sprinkled Maori words through their descriptions of their values. There is an undeniable hegemonic “good enough” element in these findings regarding provision for Māori. There is no such ERO flexibility for literacy and numeracy criteria.

A further search of the websites of these eleven “strong” schools found no mention of Maori identity or culturally sustaining practice—and very few references to anything at all relevant to Maori. I had to specifically search for most of these, they were certainly not visible.

These results are no surprise unfortunately and are confirmed by the data I received under the Official Information Act this week.  I requested the breakdown, by year (2015-2018), and by decile, of the number of schools/kura placed on each of the different review cycles—by return times 2015 to 2018, and by the new ‘insights’ judgements to date in 2019.

What has our shift to insight based judgements changed? The biggest change is more decile one schools in the “Needs development” category and no schools above decile seven who have this result.  To be honest, I don’t think it matters what labels we use, the patterns are little different. Why do we continue to ignore the realities of poverty, intergenerational trauma, racism, assimilation and colonisation, and just keep on pushing the myth of meritocracy, that all our Maori or Pasifika learners need to do is read and write better, count more effectively, try harder,  be more resilient or “gritty.” Yes, that is actually an ERO April 2019 ‘insight’ in spite of research that proves otherwise. Keep up ERO!

Why has the ERO report question shifted from the specific, “How effectively does the school promote educational success for Māori, as Māori” in 2015/2016 reports to, in recent years, “How well is the school accelerating learning for those Māori and other students who need this?” and to generic statements about equity and excellence? Ka Hikitia’s wording has also changed in the 2018-2022 iteration, where it is now “Māori students achieving at least on a par with the total population.”

To me, this change in questions and wording is a seriously backward step, and far from accidental or subtle.  Professor Papaarangi Reid reminds us that we should not see equity as the ‘end game’, the end game is sovereignty. “As Māori” is sovereignty, self-determination, tino rangatiratanga. “Equity” and “acceleration” and “on a par” as judged by Western academic measures are not!  It’s an insidious neoliberal shift that places Māori in the “and others” box instead of in their unique and rightful position as Tiriti partners and as tangata whenua.

If the government, the Ministry of Education, or ERO were serious about “as Māori” then schools who relegate this knowledge to literacy and numeracy percentages that are “accelerated when a student makes more than one year’s progress over a year” (ERO’s definition of ‘acceleration’) could not possibly receive a ‘Strong’ judgement.

My doctoral research shows, without a shadow of a doubt, that when you focus first on Māori identity, critical consciousness, and Māori knowledge, then all other learning is enhanced and impacted. It also makes clear the importance of this knowledge as high stakes learning, in its own right, that does not have to be tethered to literacy and numeracy outcomes to be valid. Paris and Alim (2017) describe this “fallacy of measuring ourselves and the young people in our communities solely against the White middle-class norms of knowing and being, that continue to dominate notions of educational achievement.”

Of course, we want children who can read and write, but how is our relentless focus on literacy and numeracy or NCEA ‘acceleration’, driven by the very agencies who should, by now, know better, working for our Māori learners? It’s time to critique our privileged White gaze, and what Paris and Alim perfectly describe as our “White-gaze-centered question”:

“It is important to note that in de-centering whiteness, we are not putting aside issues of (so-called) access and equity; we are reframing them. For too long, scholarship on “access” and “equity” has centered implicitly or explicitly around the White-gaze-centered question: How can “we” get “these” working-class kids of color to speak/write/be more like middle-class White ones (rather than critiquing the White gaze itself that sees, hears, and frames students of color in everywhichway as marginal and deficient)?

And there you have it! That question, in spite of all the lip service we pay to the contrary, continues to drive our goals and our expectations, and any schools developing counter-narratives and practice to change that gaze have little hope that their excellence will be recognised. As long as our descriptions and definitions of success and achievement are centred on our White-gaze questions we are operating in a racist system where predominantly White and wealthy schools have far more chance of receiving positive review outcomes because their values mirror the dominant culture.

I am sure there is wonderful work happening in those schools judged as ‘strong’ by ERO. I am challenging ERO to place equal value on different – but just as advanced and rigorous – ideas about success. I have hope that the DisruptEDNZ schools’ network bringing together educators’ stories of disruption and innovation, might have more collective impact. I welcome that disruption, but some of the schools I am working with have already been pushing the same boundaries for many years. How many more generations of Maori learners will we damage before we realise this work is urgent?

So, Chris Hipkins, Ministry of Education, Education Review Office, NZQA, Teaching Council, and most PLD providers who have jumped through the MOE accreditation hoops – let’s just agree that your primary focus is assimilation and then stop talking about Te Hurihanganui, Give Nothing to Racism, or addressing “ethnicity-related discrimination”, and your children’s well-being strategy, until you get your own houses in order, do your own PLD on your privilege and supremacy, and stop modelling, in fact requiring of schools and teachers,  the very racism you purport to want to change!

Those of us working hard to genuinely change our colonial system see right through you.


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