Education and Schooling #13: Oh, those National Standards… [Guest]

A warm welcome to Rochelle Gribble, here with an insightful analysis of the recently-introduced, highly controversial ‘National Standards‘ that New Zealand primary schools are now required to report on twice a year.

Rochelle is a once-was, sometimes-is, may-be-again secondary teacher. She has a Masters degree in Education and sometimes even gets to use it! However, these days she mainly ferries children, picks up washing and attends to fracas. She also has the good fortune to be the Editor of the parenting information website In a parallel universe, she’d garden more and read the paper on Sundays.

Caution: Rant ahead. If you’re not in the mood, feel free to move right along ;). Thalia has many other wonderful posts.

I was casually flicking through the Dominion Post newspaper yesterday when I spotted an opinion piece by current Minster for Education, Hekia Parata. It was entitled ‘Challenges remain in education policy’. When I read it, it infuriated me enough to drive me to write a letter to the editor. 24 hours later, I am almost apoplectic about it as it is clear that piece was Parata’s effort to head off criticisms around New Zealand’s falling ranking in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which was released late yesterday. (A side issue here: Why is the major newspaper in our capital city is letting Parata get away with such astounding propaganda?!?)

Anyway, in her ‘opinion’ piece, Parata begins with a truth that we all know – that the long tail of New Zealand students failing in our education systems is one of the most significant issues that we have a country. This is reinforced by the PISA study, which shows that the inequity between our high achievers and under-achievers is getting greater. Put simply, as with every area of New Zealand society at the moment, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

The PISA Study

Look: standardised tests are certainly not everything and they’re never going to tell you how to solve a problem (more on that later!). The Brits are also having conniptions about their PISA rankings and it’s clear that there are many, many methodical issues. However, what this result does tell us that is useful is that New Zealand students are doing worse (particularly at maths and science) than they were three years ago; and that the disparity between those who are doing well and those who are not is getting bigger. And that’s a worry for us as a country.

Parata’s solutions

At the beginning of her column, Parata writes:

People around the country tell me about the one or two teachers who made “the” difference when they were at school… My aspiration is for every child to have one of those teachers. Every year.

[Read more at Stuff.]

What a fabulous goal! How then does she propose to achieve this? She outlines a programme of National Standards, curriculum reviews and taskforces(!!). I’ve spent a fair bit of time in classrooms over the years and let me tell you what I’m sure you already know: mandating standards and undermining teacher autonomy is not going to help anyone.

National Standards tell me… not much at all!

Over the last couple of months, we’ve been going through the process of choosing a school for our eldest daughter (and presumably subsequent children). It’s been agonising and absorbing and I’ve changed my mind 76 times. The decision has so many facets and it’s been challenging to weigh everything up. One of the factors that I definitely won’t be considering is the schools’ relative National Standards data. There’s not room in this post for a thorough summary of why National Standards are not going to improve learning outcomes but just quickly, here’s an example:

Earlier this year, released their ‘School Report’, a section which details the NCEA and National Standards data for most of the schools in the country. You can even compare schools. Surely that’s helpful, right? Maybe. Here’s the comparison graph from my local schools. Red is ‘well below,’ then it goes ‘below,’ ‘at,’ and ‘above.’ A school’s ‘decile‘ is an indicator of how prevalent socio-economic deprivation is in the local area. To simplify for overseas readers, decile 10 schools are in rich areas, and decile 1 schools are in poor areas.

education in New Zealand, teach to the test, national standards, Christian parenting, feminist parenting

Looking at these graphs, you could say that the students at the decile 9 school are doing better in most areas than the students at the decile 4 school. So it must be a better school, right?

But here are some other things that it’s useful to know. The decile 4 school has 200ish children whereas the decile 9 school has 600ish. Even I know that the statistical basis for drawing conclusions from that kind of data is shaky.

And more importantly, this graph doesn’t tell you anything about added value – that is, the things that the students learnt that were above and beyond the cultural capital that they brought from their respective families.

Maybe the children at the decile 9 school came into the school with great skills already and have just coasted along since then. Maybe the children in the decile 4 school have moved massively since they arrived at the school. Maybe neither of those things is true but this data certainly doesn’t tell me that. The same is true for comparisons between individuals and there’s a whole other post in that.

And an even bigger problem with this data is the way that schools that care about these kinds of graphs are beginning to ‘teach to the test’. They’re drilling kids so that they achieve good results in National Standards tests. And there’s nothing educationally sound about that. As someone quoted to me today: “Weighing the pig more often will not make it grow faster.”

What I’m trying to say here, is that if Parata truly wants an education system that connects with each child, she needs to understand that setting generalised, prescriptive standards that are ranked against the results from other children and schools can only lead to a less flexible approach to learning that marginalises more children. Standardised testing is not the solution to this problem.

It’s those teachers…

Disclaimer: I’ve been a teacher, on and off, for most of my professional life. It’s easy to raise my heckles when I see another round of teacher-bashing.

Parata’s piece also lays the blame clearly at the feet of teachers. She says their:

practice and development has not consistently kept up with the demands that we place on them…

While it is absolutely correct to say that there are teachers who need more training and support – as in any profession – it is simply offensive to suggest that this is the case across the board. What’s more, where there are teachers who do need support, a mandated, standardised approach is simply not the answer. As with students, teachers need to be treated as individuals, not as a homogenous group.

So what to do, what to do?

There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth that goes on around these issues and I’m the first to say that I don’t have a perfect answer. However, as I was driving home from dropping my almost-five year old at her first school visit today, there was an excellent discussion on Radio New Zealand National about this topic. Kathryn Ryan spoke to Dr Fiona Ell – an Auckland University Education academic who focuses on mathematics education and professional practice for primary teachers. It’s worth listening to her analysis of the PISA report if you have time and interest (if you’re short on time, skip to about 13:15).

Ell’s analysis of the study highlights two key issues:

  • New Zealand has a high level of social inequity and this is significantly affecting the learning outcomes of our children
  • We are above the OECD average in terms of the gap between children of higher and lower socio-economic status

It’s clear to PISA and Ell, if not to Parata, that the state of our society is impacting on the education of our children. There are some fundamental inequities in our society that are having an ongoing impact on our children.

Towards the end of the discussion, Ell gave a challenge that made me cheer out loud. She noted that she would love to see:

…Education reforms, initiatives and so on become less a political football and more an ongoing commitment by the whole country to our children… and let’s all commit to that… Education change is slow, it’s complex, it’s system-wide but we really need to have a commitment to something we know or believe is going to make the changes we want for our children rather than is going to buy us votes in an election.

Yes, yes, yes!

And that’s the problem with Parata’s approach. It’s thinking small not big. It’s making rules not addressing issues. It’s all about the next vote.

And what about you? What made a difference for you in your learning? What was it about ‘the’ teacher that engaged you? I’m willing to bet that there wasn’t a standard test, a mandated subject or a taskforce involved.

This is part of an occasional series on all sorts of things about education and schooling, from unschooling to special education. You can see the series list here.

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12 comments on “Education and Schooling #13: Oh, those National Standards… [Guest]”

  1. not a wild hera Reply

    Oh, Rochelle! Brilliant, thank you. So much to say in response!

    I think the point about what kids bring to school already – and how that is hidden by national standards reporting – is crucial. The catchment of each school is so different – as we know from the decile rating system – it seems bizarre to think we can compare each school and get meaningful results.

    I really recommend Jolisa Gracewood’s horror story/analysis article on her experience as a kiwi mum in American schools locked into teaching to the test. Horrifying.

    And I agree with you that the biggest thing we need to keep focusing on is how to change the inequity rather than describe it more loudly.

    At the Christian Medical Fellowship conference a couple of years ago, a medical administrator – he’d been CEO of a District Health Board – put up a slide of all the major health reforms that governments had made over thirty years – you can imagine, right? In NZ, think District Health Boards to CHEs and RHAs and back again… The list was about twenty items long.

    This was what successive Ministers of Health spent their time and energy on. Management structures.

    In an age where we desperately need to talk about the ethics of rationing health spending, about the effects of obesity on the population, about the retention of skilled staff in the country… what are the leaders doing? NOT LEADING, but MANAGING.

    We need some LEADERSHIP from governments in education and inequity or we are going to go nowhere, though we’ll have nice signposts to that destination, painted twice a year.

    • Rochelle Reply

      Oh thank you, Thalia!!

      The whole comparing schools (or, indeed, children) by means of National Standards thing leaves me totally perplexed. I have met a number of wonderful parents who honestly see it to be a useful tool to help select a school!! This was just a very brief discussion about the issue of NS (and I have many, many more thoughts about it).

      But couldn’t agree more with the rest of your post. Part of the issue, I think, is that we have an adversarial system of government where one side comes up with something new (often to attract voters) and the other side picks it to pieces to stake their point of difference. As you say – no leadership, just shenanigans!

  2. Nicky Reply

    Hi Rochelle, I really appreciated your article and can especially identify with your agonising over school choices. My son is 5 and in his first year at the local (high decile) school. It feels like a academic bootcamp with such a focus on reading,writing & maths immediately – from school visit no. 1! There is very little time for creativity and imagination – the teacher has to spend so much time testing.

    I feel quite sad about the learning experience he is having but at least he is coping with it….some of the kids that aren’t ready for that intensive academic experience are really struggling so I feel for them and their parents. I/we really want to stay local so we can be part of our community and not have to drive but is constantly in our minds if we should choose somewhere that teaches more holistically.

    • Rochelle Gribble Reply

      Hi Nicky,

      Thanks for your comments… yes – it is as I feared!! One of the wonderful things about the New Zealand education system has been our fabulous, open curriculum. Sadly, NS have pushed some of that freedom out of the classroom. To be fair, no one is saying that literacy and numeracy is not crucial but at what cost?

  3. Anna G Reply

    What are the qualifications or prerequisites required to become Minister of Education? I would like to see Parata’s professional development plan to see how she is striving to keep up with the demands placed on her. It takes a special person to lead a group effectively when they have not undertaken a job themselves. The best example of this I can think of in NZ is All Blacks coaches who haven’t played as All Blacks but devote hours of study to researching the game, developing players, formulating winning game plans, leading a team of true professionals, experts in their field.

    I don’t find it credible to say research without citing specifics. I’m a scientist, who did the research, what did they do, how big was the study, what are the researchers credentials? I find it very difficult to take seriously what Parata says. When I have a few more minutes up my sleeve I will Listen to the interview with Dr Fiona.

    • Rochelle Gribble Reply

      Heheh excellent example, Alex! I find her hard to take seriously as well, except that the damage she is doing to the education system is very serious!! I have nothing at all against accountability and transparency and I will be the first to admit that there are some awful teachers out there. However, it’s clear to me that Parata does not have a plan that will solve any of the issues in our system.

      Look forward to hearing what you think about the interview.

  4. Frank Reply

    I just love that “the demands we place on them” No indication as to whether those demands are reasonable of course….

  5. Dawn Trenberth Reply

    wonderful ideas. What has happened to the idea that students learn because they are intersted in the subject and want to learn more? Thats what we need to get back to and all this testing and data comparisons is the antithesis of the idea of the value of knowledge and learning for its own sake. It all seems to be mixed up with the fight for fewer and fewer jobs when the reality is that for most jobs all you need is to be able to read and have some numerical knowledge and enough intelligence to learn the rest.

    • Rochelle Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Dawn 🙂 I *sort of agree* with what you are saying! Of course it would be amazing if all children (and indeed adults!) valued learning for the sake of learning. However, this is simply not the case and never really has been. In times-historical, only the lucky elite were able to engage in extended formal education. Today, it’s expected that children will, largely, stay in formal education until at least 18 and will engage in further study after this. This has changed the dynamic in lots of ways… especially for 15-18 year olds who would once have left school and gone into a trade etc.

      There are a couple of other things I’d like to tease out here a bit… firstly, the economic realities are that our children are going to need jobs. The truth is that NZ is already over supplied graduates from certain ‘fashionable’ disciplines. This is not to say that we should discourage our children from studying these things but that it does need careful consideration. If we are to raise children who are to go on to become independent, they will need to be able to support themselves and potentially a family. Earning an income is part of this. I have a liberal arts degree full of all sorts of ‘useless’ papers; I also have a teaching diploma and several graduate / postgraduate qualifications that ensure that I am employable and remain so. In today’s competitive workforce, simply having a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job…

      Regarding testing, you will have some idea of my view about National Standards from my post above. However, at its best, testing and evaluation is used to assess what students know and are able to do and what they need to work towards. There are already a number of good tests that help school do this and it’s my opinion that National Standards do not add anything to this. Many schools effectively use testing data to inform their teaching and can tell you, in a great deal of detail, how children have progressed over time. In this way, schools that are making use of data are able to demonstrate how they are ‘adding value’ to their students’ learning. To my mind, there is certainly nothing at all wrong with holding schools accountable for ensuring that they are delivering effective learning. I just don’t believe that NS is the tool for this or that it actually tells us very much that is of use – for either individuals or schools as a whole.

      Keen to hear more about your ideas on this! Thanks!

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