Half a century ago Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s writings highlighted her experiences as a teacher of Māori students. Through a personal journey of observation and reflection she wrote of how she moved from using the prescribed English ‘Janet and John readers’ to writing more than a hundred books in te reo Māori to support reading in her junior classroom.
Fifty years later, Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s observations about unlocking the potential of every Māori child in her class are just as current. "Māori enjoying education success as Māori" requires the education system and each individual in it to undertake the same kind of inquiry as Sylvia Ashton-Warner.
It requires us to seek out answers, attend to the evidence before us and modify our practices accordingly. This has only been achieved in small pockets of success to date, with different approaches to understanding where the answers may lie.
In 1997, the Chapple Report concluded that the differences in achievement for Māori students compared with non-Māori students was because of their socio-economic status rather than ethnicity and there was therefore nothing significant about ‘being Māori’ that affected education success.
These findings substantially affected the way we thought about Māori education achievement and contributed to the prevalent ‘blaming’ attitude and an abdication of responsibility by some in education: ‘It’s their background, what can we do?’.
"Māori enjoying education success as Māori" requires the education system and each individual in it to undertake the same kind of inquiry as Sylvia Ashton-Warner
However, in 2007, Harker undertook a further analysis of the data used by Chapple et al. (1997) and concluded that ethnicity is a significant factor in achievement over and above socio-economic status.
In summary, controlling for both socio-economic status and prior attainment reduces, but does not eliminate, significant differences between the four ethnic groups studied in the Progress at School and Smithfield projects. (Harker, 2007)
Harker suggests that the explanation lies between the interface of schools and student ethnicity. Likewise, Hattie (2003), using reading test results prepared as norms for the asTTle formative assessment programme, identified that achievement differences between Māori and non-Māori remained constant regardless of whether the students attended a high or low decile school.
Hattie concluded from this data that it is not socio-economic differences that have the greatest effect on Māori student achievement. Instead, he suggests that ‘the evidence is pointing more to the relationships between teachers and Māori students as the major issue – it is a matter of cultural relationships not socio-economic resources’, because these differences occur at all levels of socio-economic status.
An analysis across the best evidence syntheses also reveals that education system performance has been persistently inequitable for Māori learners – low inclusion of Māori themes and topics in English-medium education, fewer teacher-student interactions, less positive feedback, more negative comments targeted to Māori learners, under-assessment of capability, widespread targeting of Māori learners with ineffective or even counterproductive teaching strategies (such as the ‘learning styles’ approach), failure to uphold mana Māori in education, inadvertent teacher racism, peer racism, mispronounced names and so on.
In 1990, after working with teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand, internationally renowned Harvard professor, Courtney Cazden, highlighted how deeply entrenched such disadvantageous, differential treatment is within the practice and beliefs of many of New Zealand teachers.
In most cases, this is not conscious prejudice, but part of a pattern of well-intended but disadvantageous treatment of Māori students.
An example of this is the belief that all Māori are kinaesthetic (hands-on) learners – a belief that led well-meaning teachers to provide more ‘hands on’ learning opportunities for Māori students and thereby inadvertently limit the opportunity of these students to develop the higher level cognitive skills and metacognition that are so essential for educational success.
Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Succes: The Māori Education Strategy 2013- 2017 seeks both to challenge current thinking and to channel investments and energies into what the evidence shows works for, and with, Māori students in early childhood education, schools and tertiary education.
Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Succes: The Māori Education Strategy 2013- 2017 promotes a Māori potential approach – that is, an approach that invests in success. It promotes building on what we know works and investing in a way that will spread that success more widely, rather than investing in initiatives that are primarily focused on targeting problems and addressing failure.
This approach does not mean that problems are ignored. Rather it means that we find and take every opportunity we can to use and build on current successes.
In the past, such opportunities have not necessarily been realised. However, through Ka Hikitia – Accelerating Succes: The Māori Education Strategy 2013- 2017, the Ministry is now giving priority to what the evidence shows works for, and with, Māori learners.