At Newton Central School in Auckland, New Zealand, I met Hoana Pearson, anamazing school principal. She defines the world through relationships, for her there is no bridge too far, no stakeholder too distant, no dispute that cannot be resolved through consultation, dialogue and collaboration. And no one escapes her warm hug. As we walk from one richly decorated classrooms to the next, she greets every child by name. Newton Central provides education that reflects a deep commitment to biculturalism and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, with four learning pathways to choose from. Here, social background and culture are not obstacles to learning, but the school capitalizes on the diversity of its learners, taking learning to the learner in ways that allow students to learn in the ways that are most conducive to their progress. All this is built on the kind of instructional and distributed leadership that Hoana provides, with a focus on supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality as its core, where teachers collaborate to design, lead and manage innovative learning environments. Hoana also works with individual teachers to become aware of any weaknesses in their practices, and that often means not just creating awareness of what they do but changing the underlying mindset. She helps them gain an understanding of specific best practices, through experiencing such practices in the authentic setting of other classrooms. And she motivates her teachers to make the necessary changes through high expectations, a shared sense of purpose, and a collective belief in their common ability to make a difference for every child.
Hoana makes this happen, and New Zealand's liberal and entrepreneurial school system gives her the space to make it happen. It would be hard to imagine her in one of Southern Europe's bureaucratic school systems. Newton Central is an example for how school autonomy works at its best, and it explains why many of New Zealand's schools perform top of the class in PISA. These schools set ambitious goals, are clear about what students should be able to do and then provide their teachers with the tools to establish what content and instruction they need to provide to their individual students. They have moved on from delivered wisdom, to user-generated wisdom, from a culture of standardization, conformity and compliance towards being innovative and ingenious.
The challenge for New Zealand is to get everybody to that level, to spread good practice and to make excellence universal. The evening before I had dinner with New Zealand's cross-sector forum where some school principals spoke of the difficulties they face with attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers, of prioritising and delegating their work, of managing their resources strategically and of collaborating with other schools. In New Zealand's socio-economically privileged schools, the school's trustees provide magnificent stakeholder support. They elect talented principals and add the expertise of lawyers, accountants and administrators which autonomous schools need to function effectively. In many disadvantaged neighbourhoods, however, schools have a hard time finding any trustees, and where they do, these are unlikely to provide the governance, oversight and resources that are needed - and even more unlikely to challenge an underperforming principal.
The idea of New Zealand's school systems is not to respond to this with administrative prescription, but for improvement to come from the best knowledge and understanding from within the school system. That means that professional autonomy needs to go hand in hand with a collaborative culture, with autonomous schools working in partnership to improve teaching and learning throughout the system. New Zealand needs its best teachers and its best schools to provide the expertise and resources for all teachers to update their knowledge, skills and approaches in light of new teaching techniques, new circumstances, and new research; it needs its best teachers to help other teachers to get on top of changes made to curricula or teaching practice and it needs its best school principals to enable other schools to develop and apply effective strategies. But knowledge is very sticky, particularly in a highly competitive school system. Knowledge about strong educational practices tends to stick where it is and rarely spreads without effective strategies and powerful incentives for knowledge mobilisation and knowledge management. That means New Zealand will have to think much harder about how it will actually shift knowledge around pockets of innovation and better align resources with the challenges.
The government is trying. Having successfully introduced a coherent system of educational standards - first of their kind in New Zealand - it is now providing schools and teachers with the tools they need to implement these standards in their classrooms and to monitor how individual students progress. But it is still a long way to go until strategic thinking and planning takes place at every level of the system, until every school discusses what the national vision along with desired standards means for them, and until every decision is made at the level of those most able to implement them in practice. Not least, the unions contest the implementation of standards and any notion of public transparency vigorously, fearing this will introduce a culture of external accountability and industrial work organisation of the kind that has driven out creative and professional practice in other countries. Given the nature of the tools and their heavy reliance on professional judgement within schools, these concerns seem somewhat farfetched, but they were an undercurrent in many of my conversations. There seem too few principals like Hoana, who cherish autonomy but see their schools as part of a national education system, who embrace national standards as a tool for peer-learning and for the continuous improvement of their daily practice.
For as long as I have been working with New Zealand there has been talk about equity. But the results from PISA show that the school system is still far from delivering equity, in terms of moderating the impact which social background has on learning outcomes. Disparities are, if anything, on the rise. The challenge for New Zealand lies in moving towards a culture of improvement, framed around not where schools and students are today but how they are advancing. This is about attracting the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and getting the best principals into the toughest schools, it is about developing diverse and differentiated careers for teachers and principals that recognise and reward improved pedagogical practice and the kind of professional autonomy in a collaborative culture that makes school systems cohesive. It is about making sure that every child benefits from excellent teaching.