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A lesson for the Secretary of Education

Written By: - Date published: 11:27 am, November 2nd, 2012 - 50 comments
Categories: class war, education, poverty - Tags: , , , ,

Audrey Young had a puff piece on Secretary of Education Lesley Longstone today. Wading through the fluff, we find an interesting insight into Longstone’s thinking. Longstone says:

…New Zealand is seventh out of 65 countries in the latest OECD Pisa assessment for 15-year-olds. But broken down, New Zealand Europeans are second, Maori are 34th and Pacific students 44th.

Some people attributed the disparity in achievement to poverty, she said.

“I don’t agree with that analysis. I do agree that poverty makes a difference, but what I don’t agree with is that that explains everything because all those OECD countries have poverty.”

There was already plenty of evidence about what affected education, and poverty was only one factor.

Longstone can’t deny the impact of poverty, but wants to downplay it. It’s “just one factor”, “all those OECD countries have poverty”. Hmmmm. Yes, poverty is just one factor, it is overwhelmingly the most important factor. Yes, all OECD countries have poverty, and yes the effect is the same everywhere. Even the most cursory scan of the educational literature will tell you this [all emphasis mine]:

The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children

Studies emanating from successive waves of the NLSCY have repeatedly shown that socioeconomic factors have a large, pervasive and persistent influence over school achievement (14-16). Phipps and Lethbridge (15) examined income and child outcomes in children four to 15 years of age based on data from the NLSCY. In this study, higher incomes were consistently associated with better outcomes for children. The largest effects were for cognitive and school measures (teacher-administered math and reading scores), followed by behavioural and health measures, and then social and emotional measures, which had the smallest associations. …

It is worth noting that international studies have consistently shown similar associations between socioeconomic measures and academic outcomes. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessed the comprehensive literacy skills of grade 4 students in 35 countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed reading, math and science scores of 15-year-old children in 43 countries (21). At these two different stages of schooling, there was a significant relationship between SES and educational measure in all countries. This relationship has come to be known as a ‘socioeconomic gradient’; flatter gradients represent greater ‘equity of outcome’, and are generally associated with better average outcomes and a higher quality of life. Generally, the PISA and the NLSCY data support the conclusion that income or SES has important effects on educational attainment in elementary school through high school. Despite the results shown by the PISA and the NLSCY, schools are not the ultimate equalizer and the socioeconomic gradient still exists despite educational attainment.

Is the Class Half Empty? A Population-Based Perspective on Socioeconomic Status and Educational Outcomes

A child’s performance in school is strongly related to socioeconomic status. Children in families or areas with higher levels of education, employment and income (the major components of socioeconomic status) generally do better in school than children in families or areas with lower levels. Indeed, socioeconomic status is the single most powerful predictor of educational outcomes (Gorard, Fitz and Taylor 2001; Ma and Klinger 2000). …

This well-established relationship between socio-economic status (SES) and social outcomes is not just a case of impoverished children having poor outcomes when compared to others. Children from lower-middle SES families have poorer outcomes than children from middle-SES families, who in turn have poorer out- comes than children from upper-middle SES families. Each increase in socioeconomic status raises the likelihood of positive outcomes. This association between socioeconomic status and social outcomes is referred to as the socioeconomic gradient (Marmot et al. 1991; Willms 2003).

Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform

The OECD has instituted a three-year cycle for looking at reading, mathematics, and science for 15 year olds, called the PISA studies—The Program for International Student Assessment (Lemke, Calsyn, Lippman, Jocelyn, Kastberg, Liu, Roey, Williams, Kruger, & Bairu, 2001). Unfortunately PISA doesn’t do a very good job of breaking down the data by social class. So I report on ethnicity and race to discuss the effects of poverty on achievement. Given the high inter-correlations between poverty, ethnicity, and school achievement in our country, it is (sadly) not inappropriate to use ethnicity as a proxy for poverty.

Tables 3, 4 and 5 display the performance in 2000 of US 15 year olds in mathematics, literacy, and science, in relation to other nations. What stands out first is a commonly found pattern in international studies of achievement, namely, that US average scores are very close to the international average. But in a country as heterogeneous and as socially and ethnically segregated as ours, mean scores of achievement are not useful for understanding how we are really doing in international comparisons. Such data must be disaggregated. I have done that in each of the three tables presenting PISA data. From those tables we see clearly that our white students (without regard for social class) were among the highest performing students in the world. But our African American and Hispanic students, also undifferentiated by social class, were among the poorest performing students in this international sample.

Oh look – the same pattern as NZ. For a detailed analysis of poverty and PISA scores in 2009, see “Poverty and educational attainment” (ppt file) from the London School of Economics:

‘It is unarguable from the evidence presented to us that poverty is the biggest single indicator of low educational achievement.’ UK House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 2003

The relationship between socioeconomic background and educational attainment holds in all countries participating in PISA (e.g. OECD 2001).

One final reference for good measure, check out this book: Education and Poverty in Affluent Countries.

Longstone either doesn’t know this stuff, in which case she’s incompetent, or she does, in which case she’s pushing an overt right-wing agenda at the expense of education in this country. It’s worth repeating, so I will. Longstone says that poverty “just one factor”, “all those OECD countries have poverty”. Yes, poverty is just one factor, it is overwhelmingly the most important factor. Yes, all OECD countries have poverty, and yes the effect is the same everywhere, it is damaging to educational outcomes.

50 comments on “A lesson for the Secretary of Education ”

  1. PlanetOrphan 1

    Well said Anthony!

  2. One Tāne Huna 2

    Longstone fled the UK after the miserable failure of her agenda there.

    An obvious partisan political appointment, she is toxic to New Zealand education, as she was toxic to that of the UK.

    • Jane 2.1

      You clearly have no idea what you are talking about as Mrs Longstone was one of the most highly regarded Director Generals in the British education system

  3. just saying 3


    edit: this was in reply to “well said Anthony”.

    • ianmac 3.1

      +1 for me too Anthony.
      We all know the who is underachieving. The current Government is making a meal of it.
      But what are they going to do to help?
      Show me the money where their loud mouth is!

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    Well sorted by AR, Longstone is just ‘spinning, spinning, spinning in her magic land’. Send her back to Hogwarts basement immediately. Experienced teachers are a resilient group but how they put up with the current shell of a Ministry is beyond me, a mere parent.

  5. onsos 5

    In a grimly unequal society like New Zealand, with high levels of relative poverty, poverty will become the decisive factor in poor education outcomes.

  6. Fortran 6

    How does she know about teaching children ? – she has never been a teacher.

    • onsos 6.1

      I don’t think that that is critical to knowing about teaching. It certainly isn’t critical to managing into place effective environments for teaching. Nonetheless, I think her ignorance of the matter is crippling–if she can’t acknowledge the most significant issues, then she is doomed to fail in fixing the problems.

      She sounds like an appointment from the school of discredited education ideologies, to me. I recognise the voice–very similar to the last public school principal I worked for, whose ignorance about what worked and what didn’t knew no bounds.

      Tory hacks will not improve education systems.

      • Dr Terry 6.1.1

        How come a Tory hack was imported for this position? There would be a more suitable New Zealander for the job, I am sure!

    • PM 6.2

      Maybe being married to one helps

  7. Dv 7

    From PPTA webstite
    “The secretary wants teachers to do better for all students and that is exactly what we have taken to the table. But all the ministry seems to be interested in is an accounting exercise and taking away long-existing provisions. None of their claims focus on student learning at all,”

  8. Uturn 8

    The disturbing thing about that Herald article is that it has a racist subtext and this is something I don’t think the reader can blame on Lesley Longstone, at least, they can’t prove that is her perspective. The journalist, however, chose which quotes to include, in which order and has manipulated a view attributed to Lesley which may not exist. The quotes stand as isolated from context or further explanation – a feature I would expect a good journalist to write about – sounding remarkably like the sentiment of political speeches given here from a Party eager to forget the past and move on.

    Instead, and presumably more importantly, we get a review of a man irrelevant to the subject of the article, who came here many years ago and then went home. The only purpose of such a specific colonial cultural reference is to state “she’s one of us, really”. For those of you who don’t know, it’s what us whities say to each other to each other to maintain some element of higher social status in environments not our own, so we don’t feel so insecure, because outsiders aren’t tolerated. Outsiders are less-than and that’s a bit tough for social climbers to contemplate for even an afternoon. “Oh yes my Grandfather holiday-ed here during the 50’s…what a beautiful view”. It’s nothing like Whakapapa.

    If Pacific and Maori children are not suffering from poverty related educational hurdles, then the reader is left to wonder… why? Unfortunately the story doesn’t help us out on that and also tells us we shouldn’t look for reasons, “blame” being a euphemism for reasons. Look how inferior they are as scholars compared to… who? European children: The only possible type of child category to compare anything to in NZ. Top of the table, compared top to bottom, since all world views regard the top as the zenith of human endeavour and starting point for diagnostic understanding of dynamic situations. Ahh, no. The story sets the scene for people to think they are dragging our education system down, that it isn’t anything to do with how we educate or raise children and that they could be…what… genetically flawed?

    There are ways to say things and ways to say things offensively. Blindness or ignorance often result in much the same effect, though ignorance in good faith is usually forgiven. If a person is concerned with meeting the educational needs of children, with deference to their families and ethnic or cultural realities, and then uses a word like whanau to prove genuine, existing and unassailable intent, but forgets the thinking processes detailed seconds before reflect no appreciation of an alternate world view, then there is a fundamental flaw in the whole premise. Was it a cynical manipulation or an ignorant mistake?

    It’s possible that a newly arrived and highly educated and socialised English woman knows a bit about phrasing her words so people can understand what she means, especially if she’s involved with education. How else would she have risen so far? It’s also possible she now attempts subterfuge, as pointed out by Anthony Robins, to maintain her obviously political position. The first is difficult to prove, the last easier and somewhat expected.

    But what excuse does a senior NZ journalist have, who knows enough about writing, the meanings of phrases both culturally and literally, who demonstrates an example of cultural phrasing and somehow disregards the tone that trigger phrases specific to our current political dialogue create?

    The journalist knows exactly who they are talking to, in what manner. Despite the immediate threat to educational efforts in NZ, the subtext just illustrates the overall malaise and I’m really sad I read this story.

    • tc 8.1

      Audrey young is a shill for NACT, pure and simple and daughter of a former Nat MP from memory.

      Lesley longstone is an abhorrent individual with zero teaching experience employed to be a hatchet women, Audrey young knows this and duely obliges her masters and idols.

    • Dr Terry 8.2

      Never mind about the Herald report. Seeing her interviewed on TV was quite enough! (Other than being a Tory, why did she remind me of Shearer being interviewed?)

    • insider 8.3

      The racism is in your head, not in the story.

      Note new Asian immigrants have lower incomes than new pacific island ones, yet asian educational results are significantly better.

      • onsos 8.3.1

        It is difficult to separate them, but parental education and household income (& deprivation) are the two biggest predictors of educational success. The story that she produces, then, is that schools and parents are failing kids, rather than deprivation produced through poverty and inter-generational lack of education.

        Blaming schools implies that they are racist. Blaming the parents of an ethnic group invokes racism.

        I would need to see evidence that Asian immigrants have lower incomes than Pasifika–but even if they do, they do not have the same levels of deprivation. Nonetheless, you have a point–in general, controlling for most measures of deprivation, Asian immigrant families do better than Pasifika immigrant families.

        Why do the children of Asian immigrants do better than the children of Pasifika immigrants? It’s a question worth asking. It cuts to the core of what inequality is about.

        You can locate the various things that Asian immigrants tend to do, but it won’t get you closer to answering the question. That’s how they achieve better outcomes for their children–but it begs the original question because it raises the question ‘why do Asian parents tend to do these things?’–which is why their children are more likely to succeed.

        (Interestingly, having taught in schools with very high Pasifika and Asian populations, there is no discernible difference in the level of commitment to education between Asiain and Pasifika parents.)

        What is different is that Asian parents tend to have less children and more degrees, even when they can’t use them to earn. Your Iranian taxi driver, who is actually a doctor who can’t practise, is highly likely to have kids who thrive in the education system–just like he did. This is the “why” that the education secretary is eliding from her story.

        • insider

          Department of labour has a large report on immigration and incomes over time http://www.dol.govt.nz/publications/research/migrant-types/migrant-types_08.asp. Asian income is significantly lower than all other migrants.

          Why is it racist to blame schools or parents yet you can quite blithely say “What is different is that Asian parents tend to have less children and more degrees”? And How can they be less deprived than PI families on substantially lower incomes? Standardista wisdom is that income and deprivation are directly linked. Sounds like you are blaming PI parents?

          • Colonial Viper

            Since you said it, it sounds like YOU are blaming PI parents.

          • McFlock

            erm – are we comparing Asian immigrants’ incomes with AsianNZ_immigrant educational achievement here?
            I.e. assuming all Asian students are immigrants? Or for that matter all PI students are immigrants?


            • insider

              Its a good question. Unfortunately the stats on education don’t say how long they’ve been here, but the migration data re low incomes flattens out after 15 years so if income were the determinant you’d expect that to show in more even achievement levels, but you don’t. Asians consistently overachieve no matter what their income profile.

              • McFlock

                Again, maybe it’s an Otago thing, but we have a sizable 8gen chinese community, too. Given they’re roughly 7% of the pop (istr PI 11% Maori20%) we might be looking at sample biases, as well as how you cut “migrant” (several schools and unis actively recruit Asian students who stay for 2yrs or more – enough for residency. Heck, if they’re on loans parental income or grants how does that affect the achievement levels and income proportions of the migrant population?)..

                And then how big is the difference? Is it even within a 95% CI?

          • onsos

            To answer your questions:

            The question for me is this: why do PI kids under-perform despite the fact that their parents are deeply committed to education? I gave some demographic reasons. It is very clear that people with strong educational backgrounds tend to support their kids’ education more effectively. It is also clear that household income is a strong predictor of educational success.

            Blaming schools is not racist; rather, and as I said, it implies that schools are racist. (Structurally racist, specifically.) There is a certain truth to this, but it is of very minor note. Blaming parents is crypto-racist: doing so suggests that a whole ethnic group is poor at parenting.

            I think you need to braden your understanding of deprivation. Income and deprivation are strongly linked–the causal framework is explicit. Other factors that exacerbate deprivation are health, number of children, access to non-financial resources, and financial commitments (like debt, or financial commitments to churches).

            Put simply, single young people who are pursuing education can have low incomes and not experience deprivation, while large families with low incomes and low levels of education can have higher incomes and be significantly more deprived. I would have thought this was obvious.

            Thanks for the links to that report. The analysis there reveals quite a different story to the one you are presenting. The age of immigrants, and the role that students play, distort this data considerably. As migrants stay longer, their income tends to increase (but less so for PI immigrants than other groups). Perhaps it would help if you read the articles you link to, to ensure they support the arguments you are making.

            • fatty

              “why do PI kids under-perform despite the fact that their parents are deeply committed to education?”

              Good question…I help some PI students, so what I am gonna say is from experience and I think it may be part of the issue, but I don’t have experience working with Asian students.
              I note that within both cultures they are family-centric, but they are so in contrasting ways. Some of the PI students I have worked with often have family commitments which get in the way of study – it appears to be a priority. I am assuming that Asians do not so this to the same degree. They are also family centric, but education comes before family.
              This is not to argue with what you’ve said above – “there is no discernible difference in the level of commitment to education between Asiain and Pasifika parents”…I have no doubt that is true…the students I’ve dealt with have talked a lot about the pressure to pass from their parents. But, in reality those same PI students do have excessive family commitments that come first.
              So I guess I see it not as PIs undervaluing study, but rather overvaluing family. (that sounds awful…I don’t see ‘overvaluing family’ as a bad thing, most people in this country need to start valuing family more, we are far too individualistic)
              The other issue could be one of study space, and having a home environment where study can be done, The PI students often say that home is too noisy and crowded to study…so a lack of resources does come into it even if economically there is little difference between the earnings PI and Asians.

  9. Gosman 9

    I enjoy this overtly partisan attack on a supposedly independent Public servant.

    This attitude can equally be applied to anyone appointed to a Public service senior management role that the right disagrees with the next time the left is in power. Are you all cool with that?

    • thatguynz 9.1

      I don’t see why not – god knows the right have run those attacks in the past so I would expect they would continue to do so.

    • PlanetOrphan 9.2

      It’s called debate not attack in some circles … so yes I’m cool with it M8!

      • Gosman 9.2.1

        That’s cool because it would ultimately end up in the independence of the Public service being compromised in a similar way to what happens in the US now during a change in administration. It is a valid way of managing the area though so I thought I would check you were okay with the concept.

        • PlanetOrphan

          Governance always needs an “eyes open” approach to it all.

          The “system(s)” need to cater too that.
          Which is a diminishing thing in society currently….
          Treat the masses like mushrooms/children etc ….

        • One Tāne Huna

          Weasel bullshit, Gosman – her appointment is evidence of precisely the corruption you pretend to abhor.

        • onsos

          The independence of the public service is not called into question when blog posts interrogate the statements of public officials. That independence is called into question when the government appoints partisan hacks, as it has done here, and as is done in the US.

          Reporting doesn’t compromise the independence of the public service; governments compromise the independence of the public service. Our current education secretary is a prime case.

        • thatguynz

          Nice try Gos..  You were intimating that if Labour does it from opposition, could National do it should it find itself in opposition.  My point was that they did it historically so why wouldn’t they in the future.

    • r0b 9.3

      If she gets to state her views in a newspaper, I get to reply on a blog. Fair?

      • Gosman 9.3.1

        It’s not the disagreement of the views she expressed I am discussing here. Everybody is entitled to disagree with the public pronoucements of public figures after all. It is the attitude expressed that she is politically partisan and, by implication, that she is unsuited to her role because of this.

        • onsos

          She is politically partisan, which makes her perfectly suited to her role. She was employed to implement a policy. However she implements that policy, however, it will not improve education in New Zealand–quite the opposite! In the meantime, she is speaking in crypto-racist terms and reality denying.

          I notice, though, that you are not defending what she has said–merely attacking the integrity of the people who are criticising it. Is this because, Gosman, you can’t defend it?

    • onsos 9.4

      In a clear and overt way, she has stepped into the political debate around NZ’s education system. In this sense, she has involved herself in the political debate. Her reason for doing this is to attack the teachers’ unions as part of their negotiations, and to prepare the way for a set of Tory reforms, which is what she has been hired to do.

      She may be ‘supposedly independent’, but she has been parachuted in because she is a Tory hack (c/w Paula Rebstock). I will note that the discussion here has thusfar focused on her statements as a professional and her professional background.

      Not only will similar attacks be justified when the next Labour-led government turns into a bunch of ideological numbskulls, they will be inevitable.

    • One Tāne Huna 9.5

      Lesley Longstone is being judged on previous results, Gosman, especially and particularly as she is implementing the same polices that led to failure in her previous role.

      This is the antithesis of public service, and yes, it would be nice if the right disagreed with it instead of encouraging and enabling it.

      • Gosman 9.5.1

        The issue is that she was appointed supposedly by an independent non-partisan body.

        The implication of what you state is that this body is neither independent nor non-partisan. This is quite a serious state of affairs.

        Is anyone on the Opposition benches making noises about this or are leftist posters on left wing blogs the only ones that can perceive this problem?

        • McFlock

          “The issue is that she was appointed supposedly by an independent non-partisan body.”
          That’s not an issue at this stage: the criticism is about the performance and knowledge base of the successful applicant.
          1: she might just be completely incompetent;
          2: the government policy criteria might have forced the self-exclusion of anyone who actually wanted to improve educational attainment of NZ children and young people;
          3: The appointment process might have inadvertently missed that she had a political bias;
          4: Requirements to maintain good relationships with ministers might have led to a selection bias in favour of unprincipled morons;
          Oh, I grant you that every single one of those points suggests some improvement is required in the SSC, but not half as much as is required in education, cera, DoL, msd, etc etc etc…

        • onsos

          You’re ignorant of the process, Gosman. You appear to have no understanding of independent appointment processes in senior government.

          She was appointed to do a job, defined in terms that are set by the government. The definition of the job necessitated the employment of a partisan hack, because it required implementing a policy which is contra-indicated by the evidence.

          The Minister is involved in the process. The position is appointed with ministerial approval. This is a part of the employment process, because it would be foolish to appoint an education secretary who works badly with the minister.

          There’s nothing for the Opposition to say about the appointment of the partisam hack. The policy setting which require the appointment of said hack, however, are another story. The Minister is responsible, as they should be, for the statements and actions of their senior officials.

        • One Tāne Huna

          That is precisely the claim that is being made, Gosman – political interference in the Ministry of Education – it took you a while, but well done for spotting it.

          • ianmac

            The whole issue of Education under National has been one of unprecedented political interference. Such a pity they are not basing proposed changes on good research or any research.
            Bit tough on those kids underneath a welter of political posturing. Canon fodder?

      • uk 9.5.2

        and what failure is that?

        free school numbers in the uk are performing better year on year and because of that their numbers are also on the increase.

        there are so many deluded posters on here claiming to know so much about Mrs Longstone but in reality you are just keyboard warriors

    • Dv 9.6

      No the attack is also
      related to competency.

      She does not appear competent.

  10. Don’t believe ‘the rights’ lies about Free Education, poverty and the blame the parents game is what National is using, they can’t see the flaw is their user-pays education model that punishes poor children with a lower standard of Education:

  11. Luke C 11

    This is a fascianting paper from UK, written by none other than Lesley Longstone. However she was then working under a Labour govt with a better understanding of the issues:

    “Long tail of under-achievement amongst young people from disadvantaged
    backgrounds, despite rising school standards; and rates of 16-18 NEET have
    remained largely the same”
    “Youth Matters set out three pillars of reform for young people’s services:
    – Improved IAG (via Connexions, schools and colleges)
    – Responsive targeted support for the most vulnerable
    – Major expansion of places to go and things to do”

    Seems reasonably progressive
    Which Lesley Longstone should we believe?

  12. Georgecom 12

    So trying and put some further clarity around Longstones comments, acknowledging that Anthony has provided a very clear and very well reasoned foundation already.

    Yes, poverty and deprivation are large drivers of underachievement.
    All countries have underachievement. Educational underachievement is not peculiar to NZ, it is global.
    On a comparitive basis, NZ does very well with its educational outcomes.
    Yes, there can be improvement in educational outcomes.
    Programmes like Kotahitanga and reading Recovery, indigenous education programmes, HAVE proven to be successful.
    Something as simple as schools providing children with breakfast every morning WILL help lift education achievement.

    Policies like National Standards, League Tables and Charter Schools have proven NOT to be panaceas to education underachievement.
    Any person who states such is talking rubbish.

  13. Fortran 13

    She can go back to UK after the 2014 election, when NZ becomes a Labour/Green/Winston coalition Government – but Winston will hold the control power so he needs looking after.
    Under MMP Nats cannot possibly win – even Nats supporters can see the writing on the wall (see David Farrer’s column).
    Within the coalition we can change and even reverse anything.
    Roll on 2014 – getting closer.

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