Poverty in teacher education?

Vicki Carpenter

High educational outcomes are unevenly spread amongst New Zealand’s school population. Most measures show correlations: the higher or lower the decile of a New Zealand school, the higher or lower are any student’s likely levels of academic achievement. This is evident at all levels of the system where achievement is measured: PISA results, national standards, NCEA, UE, and entry to and success at tertiary level. Under both the social democratic welfare state (1930s to late 1980s) and neoliberalism (late 1980s to today) outcome inequalities have been evident in our publicly funded primary and secondary schools; schools which are meant to take each child, rich or poor, to her/his potential. Those students not reaching their potential are often Māori or Pasifika, and they come from low socioeconomic-status communities.

This paper critically examines teacher education in relation to children in poverty. The argument is that, while poverty is a wider societal problem – many education problems are outside teachers’ control – there would be benefit from strategically selecting and carefully training teachers who intend to teach in New Zealand’s underprivileged communities.

Schools and teachers in wealthier and poorer communities face contrasting challenges and professional contexts. Travelling between schools in Auckland, for example, can seem as if one is visiting different countries. Schools are visibly different; some are newly designed and painted, others leak and are mouldy; some have gymnasiums, swimming pools and smaller classes, while others have basic and crowded classrooms with few funds available to support new or existing infrastructure. Wealthier schools might have fifty applications for one teaching job while poorer receive five or fewer, and often all from recent immigrant and inexperienced teachers.

Dissimilar too, are school populations: lower-decile schools are likely to be more diverse, with high percentages of Māori and Pasifika, more children arrive at school hungry, and significant roll transience is common. Funding-wise, higher-decile schools can, and do, ask for upwards of a $200 ‘donation’ per family; schools in poor communities know well the futility of asking struggling families for any financial contribution. Targeted Funds for Educational Achievement (TFEA), an equity-based, school-funding policy, mitigates inequalities to some extent. Recent media reports indicate that equity based funding policy revisions are in the pipeline, with funding (vouchers?) possibly following individuals in the future.

Regardless of wider society’s inequities, and how funding is decided and distributed to schools and students, teachers are integral to any solution. How are our teachers being selected and trained to address the particular educational needs of children in poverty, and the disparities signalled above? While schools/teachers are not working on level playing fields, the demands made upon them are, legitimately, the same: every child deserves and has rights to the best education, the finest teachers.

Every teacher must be a great teacher, with abundant ‘professional capital’. Teaching needs to be a sought-after and valued career, with teachers’ professional capital honoured. Teacher salaries and tertiary fees currently impact negatively on recruitment as can community, media and politicians’ messages regarding teachers and their work.

Teachers of children in poverty need, as a baseline, all that other teachers have; the argument here is that they require more. ‘More’ includes dispositions which contribute to great teaching of all economically poor children. Lisa Delpit, a black American educator, argues that successful teachers of such children need: to ensure students’ access to conventions/strategies essential to success (i.e., those of the middle classes); ability to engender critical thinking skills; anti-racist attitudes; willingness to build on children’s strengths; knowledge of children’s worlds and respect for diverse home cultures; ability to connect with children’s lives/families/whānau, and a preparedness to use a range of diverse, culturally appropriate strategies for children’s assessed needs. Teaching more, not less, content is essential, as are very high expectations. It is likely that those best able to work in these ways are those who themselves share the children’s diversity; an ability to understand, respect and value others’ situations is a reasonable and strong starting point.

Teacher education, its selection processes and curriculum content are all indicators of societal values for the profession. Like Finland and Scotland, it would be ideal if New Zealand teacher-education entry criteria were highly competitive and selective. Since the 1990s New Zealand’s primary and secondary teacher education programmes (now mostly postgraduate) have shortened in length, generally to one year. Compressed programmes naturally limit possibilities for curriculum breadth and depth.  Concurrently, fees have increased; concerns surrounding student debt can negatively affect the diversity of intakes. Teacher student cohorts, ideally, should reflect the diverse communities in which teachers will eventually serve. This means high percentages of Māori and Pasifika, and people with established roots in poorer communities. How have all of these changes affected student teacher learning and graduating teacher readiness for schools? Dispositions matter as much as entry grades; the former are integral to successful teaching and they require close analysis.

Teacher-education programmes produce, generally very successfully, good teachers for white, middle- and upper-class schools. In most teacher education little curriculum relates to the particular needs of students in under-privileged urban or rural communities. Many programmes do not require practicums in low-decile urban or rural schools, yet numerous graduates must take initial positions in such settings. Wonderful challenges aside, poor school resourcing and children’s difficult home and community circumstances make such professional work very demanding. When any teacher struggles, children’s education is put at risk.

Given optimal staffing and resourcing, teacher education has the potential to both raise the mana of low-decile schools, and their teacher-recruitment levels and quality. I argue elsewhere (see my Linkedin profile) for, and describe, custom-designed courses which could partially address the particular needs of teachers in low socioeconomic communities. While aspects of such programmes would be ‘core’ to all students, most practicums would be in low-decile schools; the experts associated with such schools would share their professional capital as an integral part of the curriculum. Immersion in a range of cross-cultural experiences would be central to all learning. Some immersion Māori teacher education already includes, very successfully, elements of such programmes.

Teach First NZ, a private–public partnership aimed at preparing ‘top graduates’ for teaching in low-decile secondary schools, is currently the only specifically targeted programme. Student teachers are salaried, and professional learning is mainly school-based. The Ministry of Education has commissioned annual evaluations . The first student intake was in 2013; evaluation indicates that half of those graduates had moved to mid- and high-decile schools by 2015. Serious reservations exist about such programmes, both overseas and within New Zealand (see Carpenter and Thrupp, chapter 16).

In an ideal world, economic inequalities would be negligible, especially in state schools. Disparities exist in New Zealand, and look set to continue. New Zealand cannot afford to waste any child’s rich potential. Teacher education could be pivotal in raising the profile and privilege of teaching in all New Zealand’s low-decile urban and rural schools.  Strategic selection and customised teacher education programmes have the potential to make a positive difference.


Vicki Carpenter is co-editor of the book Twelve thousand hours: Education and poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand (Dunmore Publishing). 

Categories: Education
Vicki Carpenter
About the author

Vicki Carpenter

Dr Vicki Carpenter is an experienced primary school teacher, with 20+ years as a lecturer in initial and postgraduate teacher education. Her research interests centre on schooling in low SES (urban) communities, and teacher education and sexual orientation. Vicki has a strong interest in Freirean pedagogy, and matters of social justice. She recently co-edited Twelve thousand hours. Education and poverty in Aotearoa, New Zealand (2014, Dunmore). Vicki has published extensively, and has completed a wide range of Doctoral and Masters supervisions. She is a second term elected Council member of NZCER, and Chairperson of its Audit and Risk Committee.