Where is New Zealand’s Excellence Gap? – Part 2

 

This is Part 2 of a Post for the Blog Tour associated with New Zealand’s Gifted Awareness Week 2012. If you missed Part 1 you can find it here

Deciles

I have set aside until now any discussion of the nature and application of deciles so as not to confuse the treatment of the substantive issue.

For, if it wasn’t bad enough to take New Zealand to task for apparently using ethnic background as a proxy for socio-economic disadvantage, I feel there is also some cause for concern in its tendency to use a school-level measure of disadvantage as a proxy for individual disadvantage.

The two issues are related, in that they potentially create a ‘double whammy’ situation for disadvantaged European/Pakeha learners who have the misfortune to attend a relatively advantaged school.

 

What are Deciles?

But non-Kiwi readers will first require an explanation of how deciles are derived and how they work.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education explains that:

‘A decile indicates the extent to which a school draws its students from low socio-economic communities. Decile 1 schools are the 10% of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities. Decile 10 schools are the 10% of schools with the lowest proportion of these students.’

It follows that deciles are not always a reliable measure of the individual socio-economic backgrounds of pupils in a school. A significant minority of the pupils at a low decile school may be relatively advantaged and vice versa.

Deciles are calculated following each 5-yearly New Zealand Census, though schools can apply for a review betweentimes. The calculation is based on the smallest census areas (known as ‘meshblocks’) in which a school’s students live.

It is based on five percentages:

  • households with adjusted income in the lowest 20% nationally;
  • employed parents in unskilled and semi-skilled occupations;
  • crowded households (ie less than one bedroom per couple, per single person aged 10 or over, or per pair of children aged under 10);
  • parents with no school or tertiary qualifications and
  • parents who directly received income support from specified sources.

These five factors are weighted to reflect the number of students per meshblock, so those housing more students will have a relatively greater impact on the school decile.

Schools are placed in rank order for each of the five factors, receiving a score for each. The five scores are totalled and the total scores are used to divide schools into the 10 deciles, each containing the same number of schools. No further weighting is applied.

The published Schools Directory contains the decile alongside each entry, so parents are fully aware of a school’s decile and that knowledge may influence their admissions preferences.

The Ministry’s guidance on applying for a change of decile notes:

‘In the past, boards and principals seeking a review have provided information on such things as rurality, fluid rolls, the incidence of single parent families or students with special needs. While such matters certainly impose organisational problems on a school, they are not factors that are used to determine the decile.

The decile does not indicate the “average” socio-economic status of families that contribute to the school roll, but focuses on five specific factors that have been shown to affect academic achievement.’

Deciles are used to determine the funding received by a school. Indeed, several different funding elements are allocated on this basis:

  • Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement (TFEA) (deciles 1-9)
  • Special Education Grant (SEG) (deciles 1-10)
  • Careers Information Grant (CIG) (deciles 1-10)
  • Kura Kaupapa Māori Transport (deciles 1-10)
  • Priority Teacher Supply Allowance (PTSA) (deciles 1-2)
  • National Relocation Grant (NRG) (deciles 1-4)
  • Decile Discretionary Funding for Principals (deciles 1-4)
  • Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) Learning Support Funding (deciles 1-10)
  • RTLBs for years 11-13 (deciles 1-10)
  • School Property Financial Assistance scheme (deciles 1-10)
  • Study Support Centres (deciles 1-3)
  • Social Workers in Schools (deciles 1-5)
  • District Truancy Service (deciles 1-10)

Some sources suggest that deciles impact on some 15% of schools’ operational funding overall, but the first element in the list above seem by far the most significant for the purposes of this post.

Lakeside courtesy of Chris Gin

Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement

Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement (TFEA) is:

‘a resource provided to assist boards of decile 1–9 schools to lower barriers to learning faced by students from low socio-economic communities. It is calculated and funded on a per pupil, decile related basis’

So, whereas a significant proportion of school funding is dependent on school decile, the TFEA element of that funding is derived on a per capita basis. The text is ambiguous but, as far as I can establish, this sum is payable for every student on the school roll, rather than only for students below a specified personal threshold of disadvantage.

If so, there will be an inevitable element of deadweight in lower decile schools and a degree of rough justice in higher decile schools, because that is the way a proxy operates.

The current rates for TFEA are set out below, with figures provided inclusive and exclusive of Goods and Services Tax.

As one can see, the rate varies significantly according to school decile. The highest rate for decile 1 schools is approaching 50% more than the highest rate for decile 2 and 3 times as much as the highest rate for decile 3.

For decile 5 and below, the sums available are relatively insignificant and, for the highest decile, they disappear entirely.

The History of Deciles and TFEA

There is useful background about the development of this system in a December 2003 Inquiry into decile funding by the Education and Science Committee of the New Zealand House of Representatives

TFEA was first introduced in 1995 but, until 1997, it was awarded only to low decile schools. It was the first tranche of funding awarded using the decile system – all the other elements above have been added subsequently.

The 18 funding steps in the TFEA system were already present at the time of the inquiry. (The three different rates for schools in each of deciles 1-4 are presumably calculated by dividing each ranked decile into three equal parts, but the text does not state this.)

When the Inquiry was held in 2003, deciles were derived from six indicators rather than five, the sixth being the proportion of students of Maori or Pacific Islands origin within the meshblock.

Some of the Inquiry’s respondents were reportedly critical of this:

‘Some contended that as Maori and Pacific Island families are over-represented in statistics reflecting socio-economic disadvantage, there may be a ‘double counting’ of disadvantaged minority groups, thus skewing the decile rankings of some areas.’

 In other words, because Maori and Pasifika were already over-represented in the other five ethnically-neutral elements of the calculation, there was a risk that areas with a significant Maori/Pasifika population would benefit disproportionately.

Some of the Inquiry’s members felt this:

 ‘creates an incentive for schools to push the boundaries regarding the proportion of Maori and Pacific Island students on their roll’

though why that should be a bad thing is never explained.

Such was the sensitivity of any adjustment that it was referred to a much wider review of targeted programmes. The Minister responsible declared that:

‘The objective of the review is to give ministers and the public assurance that policy is being developed on the basis of need, not on the basis of race’

showing that the Government of the time was thoroughly alert to the risk that I have been discussing in this post.

But the report of the first results makes it clear that the review did not examine the full range of education policy. The Minister says:

‘The Labour-led government firmly believes in giving everyone a fair go. Unlike the National party, we are committed to lifting Maori and Pacific Island job prospects, educational achievement and health.

We will continue to use targeted programmes and policies for specific ethnic groups that prove effective at addressing proven needs, just as we do for other groups of New Zealanders who need specific help, such as the elderly or those in rural communities.

These reviews have confirmed that for most of these programmes, targeting by ethnicity is appropriate, as there is good evidence that this sort of targeting is addressing need effectively. Because of this these programmes will not be changed.

In fact, the review concludes that change is required in only a single area – the calculation of deciles.

Even so, the Minister feels it necessary to announce additional targeted support to sweeten the pill:

There is increasing evidence and research that suggests that lifting educational achievement for Maori and Pasifika students is better done through tailored programmes that address certain factors – such as giving teachers the support and the skills to teach students from different backgrounds who have different needs.

We are investing in these sorts of programmes already. As well, I am announcing today two new initiatives, worth $11.5 million over three years, that will support more effective teaching. The first will develop, pilot and establish a national approach to training educators who teach teachers. The second will apply recent research findings about what works in the classrooms for Maori and Pasifika students to ten pilot studies involving teachers in clusters of schools.’

The first part of this quotation explains why there has been continuing emphasis on targeted support for Maori and Pasifika learners under successive Governments.

But it begs the question whether other disadvantaged students would not benefit from similar tailored programmes, rather than relying principally on the distribution of weighted funding to low decile schools.

Meanwhile, the Inquiry into decile funding also recommended that the Ministry of Education should undertake research into the effectiveness of TFEA in improving the learning outcomes of disadvantaged students and disseminate best practice guidance to schools (and schools should also account for how they spend this resources):

 ‘Due to the absence of research in this area, we have been unable to determine how effective the Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement scheme is at improving the outcomes of students who face barriers to learning due to their socio-economic status. We believe that such research is important to ensure that decile-based funding is achieving its stated goals.’

I have not been able to track down any research commissioned in response to this recommendation.

In a submission to the Inquiry the New Zealand Council for Educational Research argues that:

Closing the overall gap in student achievement levels in relation to schools serving different socioeconomic communities is a somewhat different purpose from that of improving the learning outcomes for individual low-achieving students, in whichever decile school they attend. There is overlap between these two, which is evident in some of the views expressed by those in high decile schools concerned about meeting the needs of their lower-performing students….

Trying to assess individual student learning needs and provide funding accordingly on an individual basis would prove to be enormously expensive. The testing required would withdraw money from the public funding available which many in the sector already regard as inadequate for the higher expectations we now have that every student will achieve a level of educational performance which will be satisfying, and provide a useful basis for meaningful employment and social participation.

If such a system were used only for those students thought to face additional learning barriers, and based on school applications, then it would face the same problems of lack of fairness and inconsistency that were apparent in the system replaced by the decile rankings, and would not reach all those who might need it.

Individual vouchers would prove costly and very difficult to administer, and put school principals under great pressure, as the experience of principals with parental expectations related to the average per student funding of the ORRS scheme used in special education shows (Wylie 2000). Nor have individual vouchers for students proved to make a difference for student learning… What does make a difference is to build on what we know to ensure teachers are well equipped with the knowledge, curriculum and assessment resources, and time to work with individual students, and to work together to share knowledge of individual students, and to improve their practice.’

This suggestion that individual low-achieving students should be targeted rather misses the point. Isn’t the first question to address why individual disadvantaged students should not be targeted in this manner?

The assumption that the only solution lies in vouchers is also misplaced, as the English Government’s decision to adopt a Pupil Premium demonstrates. As far as I can see, there is fundamentally no reason why TFEA could not be awarded to schools on the basis of individual student need. All that would be required is a robust definition of need which could be applied to all learners.

 

Te Anau courtesy of Stuck in Customs

Distribution of pupils by ethnic background according to School Decile

There is no doubt that pupils from different ethnic background are very differently distributed within high and low decile schools.

The July 2011 data gives the following rounded percentages (the totals also include learners from other backgrounds):

European/Pakeha Maori Pasifika Total
Deciles 1-3 8 44 60 22
Deciles 8-10 50 16 12 39

It is quite clear that funding and policies targeted at low decile schools will disproportionately benefit learners from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to track down any data showing the distribution of economically disadvantaged learners between schools in different deciles. We cannot see the extent to which learners’ personal background reflects the decile of the institution that they attend.

There is bound to be significant overlap between these two given the way New Zealand school admissions operate and how deciles are calculated, but the match will only be approximate – there will be a minority of individually disadvantaged learners attending schools above decile 3 and, similarly, advantaged leaners attending schools below decile 8.

So we have a second proxy in play that will tend to put disadvantaged learners from European/Pakeha backgrounds who have the misfortune to attend mid and high decile schools further towards the back of the queue.

If TFEA funding was tied explicitly to meeting the needs of the disadvantaged pupils who attract it – which is not strictly the case with the Pupil Premium in England – a significant proportion of the deadweight in the current allocation could be eradicated.

It would also help ensure that gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds were equal beneficiaries, since there is otherwise a risk that the funding is tied almost exclusively to eradicating New Zealand’s ‘long tail of underachievement’ at the lower end of the attainment spectrum.

The Range at Night courtesy of Stuck in Customs

 

What do we know about New Zealand’s Disadvantaged Gifted Learners?

As far as I can discover online, relatively little is known about the size and composition of New Zealand’s population of disadvantaged gifted learners.

New Zealand’s guidance does not rely on a fixed percentage definition of gifted learners, pointing out that different approaches to identification can result in very different outcomes – the variance is from 1-15% of the school population, assuming that the guidance is rigorously observed in every single school.

If we estimate, for the sake of illustration, a mid-point of around 8% then, on the assumption that giftedness is evenly distributed in the school population – and on the basis of 2011 school rolls – New Zealand’s national gifted and talented population would include some 61,000 gifted and talented learners all told.

  • Overall, over 33,000 European/Pakeha learners will be gifted and talented, approaching 14,000 learners from a Maori background and around 6,000 from a Pasifika background
  •  About 13,400 of those will be attending disadvantaged decile 1-3 schools. Over 6,000 of them will be from a Maori background, approaching 3,600 from a Pasifika background and around 2,600 of them European/Pakeha.

While there is apparently no hard data, we do know – from the sources I have already quoted – that pupils from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds and from disadvantaged backgrounds (whether or not represented by the proxy of low decile schools) are heavily under-represented.

That seems fairly typical of gifted and talented populations worldwide.

Another conclusion we might reasonably draw is that, with approximately this number of disadvantaged gifted and talented learners concentrated in a relatively small land mass, it ought to be feasible to design a single personalised intervention programme to support them all, funding permitting of course…

How Might We Learn More?

Although there are significant political and professional hurdles to overcome, most of the elements are seemingly in place to secure useful national data about New Zealand’s gifted disadvantaged learners.

New Zealand’s National Administration Guidelines require school boards to:

‘on the basis of good quality assessment information, identify students and groups of students:

i.        who are not achieving;
ii.        who are at risk of not achieving;
iii.        who have special needs (including gifted and talented students)’

Such groups must include Maori students by virtue of a separate requirement:

‘in consultation with the school’s Māori community, develop and make known to the school’s community policies, plans and targets for improving the achievement of Māori students’

There are no other specific requirements relating to the ethnic or socio-economic composition of these groups.

However, where a school has students enrolled in Years 1-8, the board is required, from 2011, to use New Zealand’s National Standards to:

‘Report in the board’s annual report on:

              i.     the numbers and proportions of students at, above, below or well below the standards, including by Māori, Pasifika and by gender (where this does not breach an individual’s privacy); and

ii.     how students are progressing against the standards as well as how they are achieving.’

The New Zealand Government seems to have decided in favour of the public dissemination of such data, despite professional fears about the creation of school league tables and their capacity to mislead the public

The Ministry of Education is reportedly compiling a report based on the first round of data, to be published in September. The Prime Minister has argued that there is parental demand for such data, which will in any case be made available by the media, who can access it under the Official Information Act.

The twin requirements on school boards to identify gifted and talented learners and report achievement against the standards provides a mechanism which could potentially be used to collect data about the incidence of gifted and talented learners, broken down by ethnicity and gender, and their performance (recognising the limitations of the four-level scale deployed within the standards for this purpose).

Such data would certainly be analysed by school decile – so using the familiar proxy for personal disadvantage – which would permit the derivation of approximate data about the numbers and distribution of gifted disadvantaged learners, though with the shortcomings we have identified above.

If the Government were also prepared to specify that the data collection should include disadvantaged learners identified on the basis of a personal measure of disadvantage, that would of course be far preferable.

Meanwhile, the lack of national data collection on this basis would not prevent the collection of sample data by the gifted education community from schools willing to supply it.

Whakapapa River courtesy of ed37


How Might New Zealand’s Gifted Disadvantaged Learners Be Supported?

What follows is a personal perspective from a distance of several thousand miles – only New Zealand’s gifted educators will know whether these ideas make sense in their particular national context, but here goes anyway!

In researching this post, I have come across several interesting initiatives that were new to me, including the University of Auckland’s Starpath Project and  the First Foundation which seem commendably focused on disadvantage regardless of the ethnic background of the disadvantaged young people they are supporting (though in both cases, school decile seems to be an integral part of the identification process).

A map of such existing provision would help to identify the gaps that need to be filled, and inform any intention to draw existing provision into a single framework servicing the entire gifted disadvantaged population.

Other possibilities include:

  • Ensuring that national and school policy statements explicitly recognise the complex relationship between ethnic background, disadvantage and several other key variables such as gender, special educational need, even month of birth.
  •  Making clear the downside of a proxy-driven approach – specifically that some key parts of the disadvantaged gifted population are overlooked while other, relatively less disadvantaged learners will benefit in their place.
  •  Introducing strategies to encourage schools to identify gifted and talented learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, guidance could promote the idea that schools’ gifted and talented populations should broadly reflect their intake. Schools’ decisions could be audited, perhaps on a sample basis. Effective school level strategies could be developed and disseminated nationally;
  •  Developing greater understanding of how disadvantage impacts on gifted learners, including those from non-Maori and non-Pasifika backgrounds. Is there a distinct poor European/Pakeha population whose needs are not being met? Do Asian learners from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to overcome these more readily, as is the case with some Asian populations in England? If so, what can be learned from that?
  •  Developing personalised solutions that address the very different causes of disadvantage faced by gifted learners, ensuring that support for Maori/Pasifika dimensions is proportionate and part of a sophisticated toolkit of strategies available to schools. These could be targeted on the basis of a needs analysis process, as embodied in the recently published questionnaire)
  •  Developing guidelines for the providers of generic non-targeted out of school programmes to ensure that they too provide support for a population that  is broadly representative by gender, ethnic background and other such variables, rather than disproportionately serving one group or another.
  •  Monitoring and evaluating the impact of this strategy and progress towards specified outcomes, tied explicitly to reducing the excellence gap.

For what it’s worth, current interest in charter schools seems largely irrelevant to this discussion because the terms of reference are explicit that such schools will not be selective, so they will not be able to prioritise disadvantaged gifted learners in their admission arrangements.

Whereas in England free schools for students aged 16-19 are not caught by the Government’s moratorium on new selective schools, there doesn’t seem to be a similar escape clause in New Zealand. So charter school pilots might serve at best as models and laboratories for disadvantaged learners of all abilities.

Assuming, of course, that they will really serve disadvantaged learners, rather than acting as a magnet for the middle classes.

The Prospects Are Good

There is evidence to suggest that new Zealand’s disadvantaged gifted learners are already relatively well-placed.

Another PISA publication called ‘Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School’ uses PISA 2006 science results to inform an analysis of resilient students from disadvantaged backgrounds who score highly on the PISA assessment.

The report uses two definitions of resilience:

  • A within-country definition which looks at those students who fall within the bottom third of their country’s distribution by socio-economic background but who nevertheless score within the top third of PISA entrants in that country;
  •  An across-country definition which looks at students who, as above, fall within the bottom third of their national distribution by socio-economic background but who performed in the top third of all PISA entrants after controlling for socio-economic background.

New Zealand is one of a handful of countries in which the proportion of such students is close to 50%. These resilient students ‘are more motivated, more engaged and more self-confident than their disadvantaged low-achieving peers’.

This finding is supported in domestic studies by Nadine Ballam:

‘Socioeconomic adversity was found to be more intrinsically valuable than damaging in terms of talent development and self-identity. This challenges stereotypic perceptions that may be commonly held about individuals who come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. It also broadens the picture of what has traditionally been suggested to be characteristic of people living in low socioeconomic situations. Participants reported that drive and determination, a strong work ethic, and an appreciation for things that may be less significant to more financially advantaged young people were the most intrinsically beneficial elements of their financial constraints. While many participants also experienced some negative impacts related to their socioeconomic circumstances, it appeared that their determination to change their situations tended to counteract any long lasting influence that these effects may have had…

Further findings from this study revealed that physical assistance provided in the form of tangible resources and opportunities actually contributed to the participants’ overall sense of wellbeing. However, it could well be that more focus is also required on the intrinsic aspects, and on supporting and empowering these young people to develop a strong and secure sense of their own identity, whatever this may mean for the individual within the context of their challenging situations.’

For many disadvantaged young people, that identity will include belonging the Maori or Pasifika communities, but for others it will not.

Last Words

This post has explored a perceived tendency for New Zealand to use ethnic proxies for personal educational disadvantage rather than relying on a more targeted measure.

It has:

  • Examined how this is evidenced in key documents and considered whether the available data supports or contradicts the tendency.
  • Suggested that the pre-eminent use of deciles to target funding and support compounds the problem.
  • Pointed out the implications for gifted disadvantaged learners and for the country’s efforts to tackle the excellence gap between the attainment of its advantaged and disadvantaged gifted learners.
  • Cautiously proposed some starting points for further information-gathering about the size and distribution of New Zealand’s gifted disadvantaged learners and for designing a coherent response to their needs.

The result is a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces still missing.

When I do finally visit New Zealand I hope to find out whether the adoption of Maori and Pasifika background as a proxy for disadvantage is a reality.

If so, is it a ‘truth that dare not speak its name’ or an openly acknowledged accommodation that reflects the historical guilt of one community and the historical suffering of two more?

 

GP

June 2012

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3 thoughts on “Where is New Zealand’s Excellence Gap? – Part 2

  1. Hello Tim,

    It has been very interesting to have you enable us to look at our New Zealand ways of doing things through non-Kiwi eyes, and with no reference to the founding document of this nation, the Treaty of Waitangi, which is so very significant in terms of the ways in which we believe public policy should be expressed. Thank you for this opportunity.

    As I shape my thoughts in response to what you have written, I am of course concerned for every gifted child who does not receive an appropriately differentiated education. As a gifted education specialist, hopefully that is a given. However, I am more concerned at the possible negative effects of identifying every child in adverse socio-economic circumstances in every school. A state school is a very public environment. If certain provisions become the prerogative of individual students with identified economic needs that are greater than those of other students at the same school, then surely such provisions risk becoming badges of poverty that shame these children in front of their peers?

    I do think the broad brush approach of the deciles may be far kinder to children in that way. Within a school, decisions can be made on the basis of educational assessments and educational needs. Between schools, likely economic needs of students can be taken into account, preserving the privacy of individual students with regard to their families’ means.

    How are individual economic needs applied to educational policy elsewhere? I’d be interested to know.

    Many thanks for posting in the Blog Tour.

    Kind regards,
    Mary.

  2. Hi Mary

    I agree with you that support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds demands sensitive treatment. On the other hand, as I point out in the post, the use of any school-level proxy will result in a deadweight cost (because some will be supported do not need the support) and a degree of rough justice (because some who need support will not get it). Both those issues need to be addressed in policy design and delivery.

    I deliberately stopped short of addressing the Treaty of Waitangi because a. it would have meant a much broader post and b. I am not a historian. There is an allusion in the final paragraph of the post but that was as far as I felt I could go. It wasn’t really my intention to try to explain why the situation I could see some evidence of had arisen – I wanted to focus instead on the contemporary implications.

    GP

  3. I like Mary St George’s comments and would add that the Treaty is not a document banished to the history books if the problems of today are to be addressed effectively. I think now I have read this blog I am more understanding as to why you describe 1 in 3 Māori/pasifika living in poverty as a minority and why it read (I am not suggesting you implied this) as it being hardly important. Disadvantage because of a country’s history can only be truly understood by living it as someone who has faced the oppression. Nelson Mandela said the only people who can set themselves free from the oppressor are the oppressed themselves. NZ is nowhere near that. I would therefore suggest that the answer is through (quality) Māori medium but this is not straight forward because of all the internalised racism that is present amongst Māori (and most NZ non Māori won’t admit to Maori as being oppressed). there is no easy answer but Maori need to be in control of Maori answers. there are 2 very different histories in NZ and hence why the Māori answer `to the problem is/ has to be justifiability different.

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