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 www.kiwifamilies.co.nz. 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.
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, www.stuff.co.nz 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.
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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