School zones, league tables and the habits of middle class advantage


This blog was first published in June, 2012.  More discussion on this topic may be found in my book: Southern Transformation: Searching for educational success in South Auckland


We’ve just been through a media revelation about the behaviours of some school principals as they approach the zoning question. Prof Chris Lubienski, who completed a study of the zones of Auckland schools, says some principals admitted to him that they were manipulating their zones. Why?  He suggests that perhaps it is to get a high decile rating – which many parents wrongly believe is a proxy for the quality of a school.



Social psychologists should be having a field day about the response of principals to a range of education issues this week. They were seen to be objecting to league tables as a consequence of National Standards, and even used the [mis]interpretation of decile ratings to call for their abandonment.



On Radio New Zealand yesterday afternoon, Jim Mora was interviewing an American chap called Charles Duhigg, whose book The Power of Habit was published last month.  Mr Duhigg, an investigative reporter with the New York Times, explores in his book the science behind why we do what we do in life and business.



There are all sorts of habits, apparently. For a start, teachers and leaders alike all know that the impossibly complex can be made simple by practice and repetition. Like learning a foreign language, or kicking a rugby ball between the posts, practice is habit targeted to mastery and perfection. Then there are ‘bad habits’ that are actually addictions – like drinking too much or smoking, or good ones, like saying thank you, which are just social courtesies. And then there are cultural habits, like shaking people’s hands when you meet them, or taking a shower in the morning or the evening, or always washing your hands after going to the toilet. These are often cultural, or learned, habits that obey norms that we rarely question or think about. Habits embedded in language and social practices become transferred within communities. Has anyone else noticed the hi-fives and different social handshakes associated with South Auckland?  Or saying good morning or kia ora as your email or phone salutation?



So, for example, once upon a time wearing a seatbelt was not compulsory. In the 1970s, New Zealand made wearing seatbelts compulsory; and today for almost all of us clicking it in is an automatic part of our driving habit.  Why? There is no dark, manipulative, communist state that has stolen our personal freedom to decide what to wear in the car. It isn’t even because we’ve learned new routines – although they help.  It has become the norm for everyone to belt up, and we comply because it’s good sense.



But according to Timothy D Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, there is another type of habitual behaviour that involves more thinking power, and that is how people “respond to a situation according to what it means for them and how it fits into the narratives they tell themselves. These behaviours are habitual in the sense that people have chronic ways of interpreting the world.”  Professor Wilson describes the technique psychologists use called “story editing” to shift people from a negative to a positive frame of mind, with effects on how they lead their lives. 



So why do school principals justify the manipulation of school zones and ballot-fixing?  What is their interpretation of the world that leads them to shut out some students from the supposedly public education they provide?



The situation is this: school zones are now largely fixed. Once upon a time they were not. We can’t blame principals of today for the behaviours of their predecessors. The peculiar zoning of some schools is an historical artefact of the 1990s, when the removal of zoning regulations resulted in a competitive and even venal scramble to define a zone as ‘best’ as one might. This was exactly according to the ideology of the politicians of the day. Competition would make schools better, and give parents more choice. Yeah right.



Now school zones are largely set, with tinkering around the edges to the advantage of schools wanting to shrink or enlarge to shape their “ideal roll” or to accommodate new schools. This is often a difficult exercise. Heaven help anyone who tries to cut out families currently in-zone of favoured schools to make the zone “fairer” for others. Grammar zones are real estate bonanza. Really, zones are a done deal.



The gerrymandering applies mostly to the ballot now.  But it is a continuation of the 1990s mindset that social advantage should be preserved.



The education system is partly privatised. It only makes principals responsible for the kids in their school, not for the health and well-being of the network. There is no shared responsibility. Principals are being measured on school results, always easier to show with middle class kids.  The internal narratives of principals might go like this:  My professional credibility is on the line if my school does not succeed with students who may require more educational effort.  Or, my board would not want their children to sit alongside others from that part of town.  Or, I do not want “my” children to sit alongside difficult others.  Some-one else can deal with them.



Martin Thrupp describes the “inconvenient truth” about the middle class mindsets of teaching professionals, which is often about preserving the status quo. His work has been pretty much hidden within academia and the education sector. What he says is essentially its easy for principals and teachers to express concern about access for the disadvantaged, to acknowledge the widening divide between rich and poor.  He talks about the “elephant in the staffroom” – the preservation of middle class advantage through the actions of principals and teachers themselves, as well as the communities they purport to represent, through selective practices.  The most interesting thing about the media discovery of the gerrymandering of school zoning is that it has taken so long for the public to discover this inconvenient truth – an outstanding example of Martin Thrupp’s point.



What can be done about it? Perhaps the social psychologists have a technique to help. We need to “re-edit the story” about professional leadership in schools in New Zealand and the habits of principals at enrolment time.  Let’s start with the proposition: the disadvantages for Maori and Pasifika students are a shared responsibility.  If we truly believed that, then gerrymandering of school ballots would not take place.



And if we believed that, then we could have an entirely different conversation about decile ratings, the place of National Standards, and league tables or shared data.