Inherit Racism in NZ Education
Time and time again, we are told about the ‘long tail of underachievement’ and the hideously stereotyped over representation of Māori students within it.
And because there is a ‘problem’, it seems that everyone is solely focussed on the achievement rates of Māori students. Ministry advisors visit principals and ask how their Māori target students are doing.
Upon visiting ERO’s website, we see that they have a new approach for accelerating Māori achievement. Their major focus on any school they visit now is ‘How effectively does this school respond to Māori students whose learning and achievement needs acceleration?’
In addition to this, we’ve heard from the Auditor-General that the supposed answer is more data on Māori students. All of this in an attempt to address the ‘problem’.
It amuses me that ERO state that their reason for targeting Māori student achievement is in an attempt to achieve ‘…equity and excellence of education outcomes for all New Zealand’s children and young people.’
In other words; by targeting and singling out the failing Māori students, we are making schools more equitable for all students.
This itself is incredibly insulting, and does nothing but reinforce the already very presumptive notion that Māori students are failing, as well as implies that Māori students are not intelligent, and aren’t achieving.
What began me thinking about this was this video. It is a reaction towards the racial unrest happening in the US today.
It was very eye opening for me, especially when she says that there is only one race, and that is the human race. Races are just a construct that people have made to over others.
For years, ever since entering the classroom, I have rarely ‘seen’ the colour of my students. Obviously, some are white, like me, and others are brown; being Maori, Samoan, or other ethnicity where the pigment levels are higher than my own. But internally, in the way that I treat students, in the way I talk to them about their learning, their behaviour, their life; the colour of their skin has not even come into my consciousness. Interestingly, as I reflect on this fact – the students themselves don’t distinguish between being Māori, European, or Pasifika. They’re friends with whoever they want to be friends with; they work with whoever they want to.
However, I’ve been made to feel bad about this. Evidently, by not noticing the colour of their skin, I am not addressing THEIR needs as a Māori student; even though I am treating them on an equal and level playing field as the many other students in my class.
Jane Elliot (of the prior video) illustrates why we should not say “we don’t see colour”. She has two people from a group come to the front, one white female, one black male, and asks what is the first difference the group notice. Someone says “male”, and Elliot asks if being a male is important to the man at the front. He responds appropriately. She asks if he would want others to see him as male. “Of course” he says. The next difference is his skin colour. “Is being black important to you” Elliot asks.
“Very important” he states.
“And do you want others to see you as black?”
It’s a part of who that man is. It makes up his identity; it’s part of his story of who he is, and he would want it to be valued by others just as he values it.
We should absolutely see colour and value it as a factor in what makes up an individual’s identity; but that should have no bearing on the way that we treat them.
Each child has their own culture, background, family situation, background, living environment, demographic, and world view (even if that has been constructed mostly by their parents and whanau at their age). Each child has their strengths, each child has their weaknesses. Being good at Mathematics, or succeeding in Reading, or creating amazing work in Writing has little to do with the colour of their skin or their whakapapa (genealogy), just as it has nothing to do with being right or left handed, which gender you are, or if you have blue or brown eyes. Intelligence, or educational achievement is not determined by the level of pigmentation that students are born with.
No doubt; being of Māori descent has a lot more to do with a person than the colour of their skin; just as having Irish, Japanese, or African origins would as well. We’ve been told to “help Māori achieve as Māori“, and there has been endless discussion as to what this means, and what it looks like in the classroom. In a nutshell, teachers need to ensure that each child is valued for their culture. In particular, this statement refers to our Māori students. However, it is my belief that teachers already are doing this – certainly all the ones I have been in contact with over the years. Valuing a student’s culture, and treating them as important is completely independent of their intelligence or educational achievement. No matter the ethnicity, there is no evidence to suggest that a person’s culture or ethnicity has anything to do with their level of intelligence. There’s no evidence, because it simply does not exist.
Of the many classes I’ve taught, there have been many, many students who have succeeded. Many, many of my best students (in academic regards, as well as all-round individuals) have been Māori, and despite the ongoing stereotype that they ‘should’ be struggling, have left other students, some Māori, some non-Māori, in their wake. In addition to this, many, many of my students have fallen short of the farcical ‘National’ ‘Standards’ level for their year group. Many of these students have not been Māori, and many have been girls – even though the presumption is that those that struggle most are Māori boys. Many of the best students in my class have had blue eyes, and some have had brown. Others have been left handed. And all of them have had some other random categorical anomaly that we could use to put them in a box.
It wasn’t that long ago when children attending school were discouraged heavily from using their left hand to work. Starting back in the middle ages, left handers were believed to be of the devil, and “…discriminatory practices and attitudes against left-handers persisted well into the 20th Century. At mid-century, eminent American psychoanalyst Abram Blau was still suggesting that left-handedness was merely due to perversity and the result of emotional negativism, on a par with a child’s obstinate refusal to eat everything on its plate.”
Yet now, it would seem completely ludicrous to begin collecting data on left handed students and pouring over their academic results in an attempt to prove or disprove their academic ability. Likewise, if blue eyed students were disproportionately making up the ‘long tail of underachievement’, then you would say that it would be a complete waste of time to begin targeting these students, over-testing them, collecting and analysing data to see what kind of teaching is going to best suit students with blue eyes. These two examples both seem ludicrous because a) they are, and b) we KNOW (or assume) that neither left-handedness or iris melanin levels have anything to do with a person’s academic potential or ability.
So what is the solution? Well, if you can answer that, then you could probably make yourself quite a bit of money.
All I know is that there are a myriad of things that allow students to achieve well academically.
- Sometimes it may be their ability to focus and remain on a task.
- Sometimes it may be their ability to retain information, whether from visual (pictorial, or words), aural, or kinesthetic.
- Sometimes it may be the support they get at home to assist with their learning, or the development and engagement they get from adults in the household.
- Sometimes it may be their ability to overcome distractions, health issues, or learning difficulties.
- Sometimes it may be the amount of food they have to eat each day.
- Sometimes it may be their ability to deal with stress, depression, or other mental struggles.
- Sometimes it may be their ability to lead others, or work with others in collaborative ways.
- Sometimes it may be their ability to use their own experiences to inform and make their learning personal to them.
- Sometimes it may be the importance or priority that education has in their family.
Very few of these have anything to do with ethnicity. Regardless if you are left handed, blue eyed, Māori, Samoan, Irish, Japanese, African, or European, your ability to have academic success is largely based on things other than your culture or ethnicity.
But most importantly, let’s abandon this construct of race. Regardless of who you are in New Zealand, we cannot change the past. Yes, there have been some atrocities carried out by the European’s upon arrival and colonisation – but none of them are alive today. Likewise, those that these acts were carried out against are no longer with us. Instead, it’s about time we begin moving on as one nation – together. We are New Zealanders. We live in Aotearoa. We’re in this boat together.
We cannot keep separating ourselves, and we cannot keep ‘targeting’ Māori students because they’re susceptible to failing. That merely provides and enables the box to keep them in – the very box we are trying to get them out of! It puts Māori in an inferior place – even if only subconsciously – and keeps them there by continuing to revisit, deliberate, collect data, analyse and otherwise pull apart every aspect of any test students sit. Instead, we need to see each student as individuals. If they need help academically, we provide them with the skills they need to hopefully succeed, regardless of their race. We value students of any nationality, ethnicity, culture, or eye colour. We consider this as an important part of each child’s character, and we use it to their advantage wherever possible. We ‘target’ the students who need help, and we celebrate the success of students, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, and eye colour.
This essentially gets rid of the box.
This essentially creates “…equity and excellence of education outcomes for all New Zealand’s children and young people.”
Ki te kotahi te kakaho ka whati, Ki te kapuia e kore e whati
Alone we can be broken. Standing together, we are invincible.
Please note; as I write this, I want to maintain a very independent view. However, being of NZ/European descent, I have a certain point of view which may be different to others. I do not wish to speak for Māori when I say ‘get rid of the box’ – though I would very much assume that Māori wouldn’t want that box anyway!
In all seriousness though, I cannot and will not speak for all people, and the views I share are my own. I am not an advocate for racism and sincerely hope that none of my statements have caused offense in regards to race. I am also not an advocate for ‘anti-racism’ or ‘reverse racism’, such as being annoyed or disgruntled at the priority placed on Māori students and not students of other ethnicities. Such a view is not helpful and shows a distinct lack of understanding of key issues relating to race and ethnicity prejudice.
The statement of ‘Māori achieving as Māori’ has very much been difficult for me to get my head around over the years. This is mostly because I don’t see the relevance of defining a person’s culture with anything related to achievement.
Please comment below, or get in touch with me if you would like to discuss any of the points raised, or to put me right in any of my statements.