So the Education (National Standards) Amendment Act has been rushed into law under urgency without so much as a flicker of debate.
Should we be worried?
In the midst of implementing a visionary future focused curriculum educators are confronted with a law change requiring schools to report on children’s achievement against national standards.
The drive to be open about children’s achievement is in itself laudable. Parents should have high quality information about their children’s achievement and in many schools do.
But it is the inference that student underachievement will be influenced by legislating schools into high stakes testing in reading, writing and mathematics that is troublesome.
The only reasonable assumption of such a policy is that schools are under performing and that testing will make visible poor performance that can therefore act as a public incentive to ‘do better’.
The reality is that New Zealand Schooling has been doing well for a long time.
The 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that of the 572 countries participating, the mean reading literacy performance of only three countries was significantly higher than New Zealand, two countries were similar, and the other 50 countries were significantly lower.
Of the 57 countries participating in PISA 2006, the mean mathematical literacy performance of only five countries was significantly higher than New Zealand, seven countries were similar, and the other 44 countries were significantly lower.
By any objective standard New Zealand schools are doing an outstanding job at growing literate and numerate students.
Despite this we should not pretend that everything is rosy.
Our government and all New Zealanders should rightly be concerned about the long tail of underachievement that does mark New Zealand as different from other OECD countries. Maori and Pacific Island students are disproportionately represented in this tail.
The recent results of ‘Trends In International Mathematics And Science Study’ (TIMSS) are a cause for concern and should rightly signal the beginning of focused discussion across the educational sector to identify an appropriate response.
But welding a sledgehammer at schools to resolve concern about achievement does not reflect the sort of reasoned and intelligent approach required of a thinking government.
Rather it smacks of a play on our fears.
Substantive debate on the source of underachievement is overdue. It is not surprising though that simplistic analysis abounds and that teachers as easy targets find themselves in the crosshairs.
Consider Dr Pita Sharples comments. “Put the standards up there, teach to the standards, and if they don't reach the standards then fix up the teachers,” he said.
At the Australian Council For Education Research Conference in 2007, Dr Andy Hargreaves identified three significant barriers to effective educational reform: a conservative media, the nostalgia that parents have for their own schooling experiences and politicians that frame policy to capture these markets.
National’s Education (National Standards) Amendment Act represents smart political management but poor educational leadership.
The introduction of National Standards may well have dire consequences for children’s learning.
The corollary of the introduction of National Standards in Britain in the late 90’s was an overt emphasis on Reading, Writing and Mathematics to the detriment of everything else particularly creative endeavor.
The Bush Adminstration’s controversial “No Child Left Behind (NCLB)” initiative has at its core, high stakes testing in the guise of standards based educational reform. Recent studies into the outcome of the NCLB initiative by the Centre on Education Policy have shown that while the achievement gap is closing this cannot be attributed to the initiative.
Primary school leaders already understand and support the importance of core learning.
Changes to the National Administration Guidelines in 2000 placed an emphasis on achievement in literacy and numeracy in the first four years of schooling and there is no lack of awareness or skill in the sector in dealing with this challenge.
With the reality of National Standards on our doorstep, the government needs to step into the challenge of positively leading New Zealand through the difficult landscape of curriculum change.
Talking with school leaders to better understand what is being done to address underachievement before major policy shifts are rushed into law would be a great place to start.
The sector deserves a government who wishes to partner with schools intelligently rather than clobbering schools with blunt instruments.
The challenge exists for the education sector too.
Substantive debate by school leaders about National Standards has been glaringly absent. Strong professional advocacy is necessary.
Change will grow when educators confront misinformation about student achievement and seek to hold policymakers to account for their propensity to pander to the ‘Back to Basics’ cry.
Professor Alfie Kohn puts it nicely, “Accountability, (in the guise of tougher standards) usually turns out to be a code for tighter control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms - and it has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing”.
It is deeply troubling that in a strong democracy like ours there has been no debate about National Standards despite it being near the top of any international list of controversial educational reforms.
Island Bay School