Equity in education remains elusive

24 August 2012

Equity is the most persistent and enduring problem of our time and in New Zealand it’s particularly so in relation to Māori education, Professor Elizabeth McKinley said this week during her inaugural lecture.

More than 150 people attended the lecture Equity and excellence in Māori educational research at the Faculty of Education on Wednesday night.

Professor McKinley who works at Te Puna Wānanga is also Director of the Starpath Project. She is also a member of the new Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Student Achievement.

Professor McKinley said although the pursuit of educational equity had long been the goal of educational reform efforts in New Zealand schools it has continued to be elusive. “‘Achievement gaps’ continue to be reported as obstinate facts of educational life, not just in NZ but internationally,” she says.

International reports had repeatedly noted that NZ’s compulsory education system has high overall quality but low equity and Māori in particular were impacted by low equity in education, says Professor McKinley: “The educational research community has argued that the lack of equity in education shows itself not only in differences in achievement rates and the level of school qualifications, but also in school coursework; university entry, retention and pass rates; and in life-long earning power between students from wealthy and poor families, and between various ethnic groups.”

Professor McKinley says NZ has a long history of educating differently within the same school system according to class, ethnic or racial background.

“Equity was not about providing the same education to all students regardless of race, social class and/or gender as it was generally accepted there will be diversity of individual student achievement. But she believes it is advantageous to define educational equity in terms of providing knowledge, skills and worldviews which enable social mobility.

Professor McKinley says NZ’s current conceptions of equity, “with its foregrounding of achievement and other measureable outcomes” was too limiting to make the changes needed to the educational achievement patterns of Māori and to address the gaps between Māori and other groups.

Instead, she says, NZ should focus on learning as one of the key variables in equity with student achievement and quantitative measures as one facet. “This is not to discount student achievement and other quantitative indicators of change, but to move beyond the debate about achievement gap closure to embrace broader, more inclusive notions of learning and all that it brings.”

During the lecture Professor McKinley also spoke about the set of strategies developed by Starpath for schools and staff to use. These include the use of disaggregated data within the school, monitoring individual student progress and achievement, setting individual and school wide targets, and instituting intensive academic counselling for students.

Professor McKinley says the promotion of more equitable outcomes for students requires systemic change and collective commitment based on what the school data is saying, while remaining tightly focused on the progress of each individual student. “School data also has the potential to stimulate and underpin whānau/community dialogue about learning. However, in order to get to this position schools need to work hard with their Māori students and their whānau,” says Professor McKinley.