National Standards II: Have we learnt from others-and ourselves?

February 20, 2010

“People will support what they help to create.”  Marvin R. Weisbord 1978 

10,000 young Kiwis lined up earlier this month for their first day at school. They joined many thousands of other primary pupils whose literacy and numeracy levels will be assessed on a four benchmark scale and reported on twice a year to parents in plain English. 

 To help it win the election race in 2008 the National Party made a well promoted promise to let parents know, in plain language,  how their children are performing in reading, writing and maths. It may have sounded a bum note for teachers, who protested that they were already reporting in this way,  but it certainly struck a chord with many parents who, in an age of more insistent consumerism in health and education, don’t want to be fobbed off.

The results of the ongoing assessments will show how pupils match the National Standards by the time they move on to secondary school.  Despite the angst of their primary colleagues many secondary teachers, used to national assessment regimes, may well be quietly on the side of any efforts to lift junior student achievement as they have to work with primary school graduates.

The headmaster in the Beehive is on the job and the clear word to primary teachers is  “Must try harder”. The Senior Mistress has also been waving the big stick, but  any prospects of  recalcitrants receiving a good caning is remote though there may be some masochistic self-flagellation before  National Standards are either brought to life or flogged to death. But the stalking  horse appears to have prematurely bolted and so, belatedly, have been the stable doors.

Getting such a major new education policy as National Standards to work needs the right mix of research, consultation, design, trialling, feedback and modification. The sequence is the secret, but, like good cheese, it all takes time.

  The unique autonomy primary school boards of trustees have in New Zealand, as a legacy of David Lange’s half-completed education administrative shake-up two decades ago,*  has created a metaphorical minefield.  The education system is already fragmented. Now it is newly booby-trapped with the staffroom equivalent of  Taleban  fragmentation bombs.  As she embarks on her belated National Standards  Surge the Minister of Education need to be well prepared for some bitter school by school resistance or she’ll be left clutching the booby prize.

 At the recent TV broadcast announcement heralding the information brochures about to be posted to thousands of parents “to correct misinformation” the Minister of Education stood  beside the Prime Minister while he outlined what is meant by National Standards. The Minister had already talked of the possible sacking of some boards of trustees who don’t fall into line: “I am convinced more and more parents will be supportive once they have all the facts.” 

In the meantime the NZEI and the NZ Principals Federation have been using their interactive digital arsenals* to shore up  support for their strong opposition and the School Trustees Association has circulated a warning note about not opposing the new law to all members of school boards of trustees- except for principals, who are caught squarely in the middle of the stepped up stoush.

With the combatants entrenched in their views for and against, the battle lines are indelibly stencilled.  Proponents of the new National Standards regime are seen by their critics as offensive in the way they want to trespass onto professional  ground; in their turn, supporters regard the naysayers as being  too defensive and too quick to close ranks around incompetent  colleagues alluded to in the critical ERO report  Reading and Writing in Years 1 and 2*.

 Despite these trenchant views, away from the trenches there is some intelligence of use to both sides- if they are open to finding some middle ground in the interests of all concerned, especially the children at the centre of the new system. 

So far, in a clear example of glottal warming,  the heat/light ratio in the public debate  is 100:1.  Now for some light on the matter- and on what really matters.

  In a videoed  interview*  on 14 October 2009 at the third annual Education Leaders Forum at Rotorua Professor John Hattie, Auckland University’s Faculty of Education and Director of asTTle, called for clear policy and professional debate to accompany the new National Standards. He describes three issues associated with national standards in other countries and urges teachers to be “change agents for the system”.

On 23 November Hattie joined other leading New Zealand experts on assessment-professors, Terry Crooks, Lester Flockton and Martin Thrupp in an Open Letter to the Minister of Education:  “…Assessment plays a key role in teachers’ work – it gives them vital information about the results of their work with the whole class and with individual children, helps them to give appropriate help and guidance to all children, and forms the basis for effective reporting to parents and school leaders.
The Government has developed National Standards with similar goals in mind, and we can see considerable merit in the idea of clearly identifying stages in the development of children’s knowledge and skills, assessing each child’s progress and level of achievement, and reporting that progress and achievement in accurate and understandable ways to parents. There is also merit in paying close attention to the development of children’s skills in reading, writing and mathematics, as is normally the case in schools already.
Much of the work in developing the intended National Standards reflects positively on those who have been involved in that process. However, the very brief time frame allowed for the development of the standards and associated guidelines and requirements has resulted in fundamental flaws.”*

In the view of the signatories, all senior academics with international reputations and extensive New Zealand and international experience in relation to education policy and assessment issues, these flaws include the wrong assumption that children are failing if they do not meet the standard for their age. This will lead, in their view, to the repeated labelling of many young children as failures and will be self-fulfilling because it will damage children’s self-esteem and turn them off learning and achieving in literacy and numeracy and other curricula areas.

 ”Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or the same way”. — George Evans

 Because children learn and develop at different rates a better form of assessment and reporting would focus on the progress that children are making in terms of their own earlier achievements.  Timely assessments, handled constructively, can provide useful feedback and help teachers diagnose learning difficulties and special needs earlier and initiate corrective action.

The signatories recognise the intended National Standards are not national tests, but their understanding of why national testing has such adverse effects convinces them that the intended National Standards system will suffer most of the same problems.  They are concerned about the damage that will occur if the performance of children against the Standards is reported publicly, as has happened internationally:  “This will distort and impoverish the culture of teaching and learning and assessment within schools. It will undermine the new curriculum and lead to a narrower, less interesting form of primary education for New Zealand children. It will also result in inappropriate judgements about the quality of schools and teachers.

 Apart from the vexed question of “League Tables”,  descriptions and examples of the Standards are not sufficiently developed, at this stage, to allow them to be applied consistently from teacher to teacher or school to school.  There is likely to be far too much unnecessary testing of children as teachers attempt to justify their judgements against uncertain standards. In this respect the outcomes of the intended National Standards could be even worse than national testing, leading to a surfeit of record keeping and paperwork all calculated to sap the energies of busy teachers and dilute the learning experience.

The signatories advise that further development work is necessary before all schools are asked to implement National Standards. Such work should involve: shifting the focus to measuring and reporting children’s progress against standards; developing ways to moderate the judgements of teachers to achieve high consistency in the interpretation and application of standards; developing agreed protocols with teacher organisations for the use of data so as to prevent the adverse effects of reporting such data on teaching and learning, and trying out standards in a sample of perhaps 150 to 200 schools to remove anomolies.

 In their view this additional work would allow the development of the most effective implementation strategy to ensure standards are successfully introduced, without the negative consequences.

 In terms of implementing  change there are serious concerns. Ensuring the active engagement of the people who are on the front line of a change process is the key to its success. Human dynamics need to be foremost in the change process.  Externally imposed change management initiatives often do not stick. The key is to create ownership of the change process and encourage people to willingly implement the solutions. This approach takes time and involves connecting, engaging and participating as well as adopting, adapting, and improving.

In the view of the Open Letter signatories the intended National Standards system has little chance of engaging the hearts and minds of New Zealand primary teachers –those who have to do the testing for the National Standards. They believe that many are opposing National Standards not because they are reluctant to be accountable but because of genuine concerns about the effects of the national standards system on children and their learning.

 However there is still the potential to work with teachers and other educators to develop a system of National Standards that could work. They noted that it is precisely because the new curriculum was developed through extensive consultation with all parties that it has become a development that schools are excited about.

 In the view of the signatories the flaws in the new system are so serious that full implementation of the intended National Standards system over the next three years is unlikely to be successful. It will not achieve intended goals and is likely to lead to dangerous side effects.

In terms of discussing how best to engage people constructively, one way that is sure to fail is having the answer cut and dried at the outset  instead of  first engaging them with the important questions and alternatives .  Collaborative enquiry and healthy dialogue is better than administering the admonitory big stick. As  Principals Federation President Ernie Buutveld pointed out to the Minister of Education on TV One’s Q&A programme on 7 February, a finger wagging approach, with a sullen teacher force resisting imposed change is not going to work .

One big question is to what extent are National Standards about lifting student achievement or about getting more teacher and school accountability?  The approach is certainly different from, say, Finland which in terms of education is a high trust environment with much less intrusion of education bureaucracy.

 Whatever the answer there are genuine concerns about the timing of implementation and the training required-and the extra resources needed to do something about the results when they are collated.

 Lester Flockton says the rushed 40-day consultation process is a great concern, but even more worrying is the absence of proper engagement with the education sector and its work. The Government has pushed the plain language message and it has been popular with parents. What the national standards actually mean has been harder to agree on.

 The new New Zealand Curriculum has taken many years of consultation, trialling and development. Most teachers seem to have bought into it.  In stark contrast the consultation process for National Standards has been accelerated to a speed which is causing potential supporters to fall off the Standards bandwagon.

 This is a time for leadership on all sides in order to lift standards and student achievement and to focus on what works  and what is credible not on ideological position taking by the major parties.  The 2009 Best Evidence Synthesis by Viviane Robinson et alSchool Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what Works and Why”*  and John  Hattie’s own synthesis  Visible Learning both provide  timely opportunities to learn from others.

The danger is that, handled badly, National Standards may turn out to be an inoculation against the real thing.

 In an article posted on the Cognition Institute website Hattie calls for a clearer professional voice for teachers to enhance the national debates about the quality of teaching and learning – and for them to be at the table when the policies are discussed and formed.

 “While teacher unions appropriately are concerned with enhancing the working conditions of teachers (and also do speak on issues of quality teaching and learning), we also need teacher voices to enhance the national debates about the quality of teaching and learning – and be at the table when the policies are discussed and formed. Success can be measured in terms of the emergence, existence, and esteem of our teachers’ professional voices – as critics and developers of how the policies are to be implemented and evaluated. This does not mean consultation in the form of attendance at a speech; it means involvement in ensuring that the policies are optimally implemented and evaluated through a well established professional organization and structure.”  John Hattie*

 Hattie says that while National Standards offers  wonderful opportunities for refreshing and reinvigorating an already top of the world system, it could also be  the most disastrous policy formulated if it narrows the focus to testing and league tables and diverts attention to ”between-school” rather than “within-school” differences.

 He argues that our focus must be on using national standards to enhance the quality of our teaching and learning across the curriculum (the Far Horizon)* and that prevention is better than reaction – we need clear, definitive and well developed plans for implementation and independent evaluation, agreed warning signs for when the wrong path is taken, and agreement as to when to change or abolish the National Standards if they lead to perverse outcomes. We also need to celebrate if they are successful at enhancing teaching and learning for all students across the curriculum.

  Unfortunately, party politics works on much shorter horizons than those to which Hattie is pointing us. 2010 is delivery year in the 3 year election cycle.  If the design and implementation is sloppy the Minister of Education may well be left holding the undernourished baby. 

 Have the assesment lessons from overseas and closer to home in the secondary system been learnt and applied?  If so it is odd that there are to be no trials of National Standards.  There will certainly be plenty of tribulations.

 [Part I:   ]

 #Lyall Lukey  20 Feb  2010


ERO Report  Dec 2009 Reading and Writing in Years 1 and 2  MS Word  PDF 

Hattie Video  ELF 09      Feedback on feedback      The 2009 Best Evidence Synthesis School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what Works and Why    Viviane Robinson et al

National Standards I: Up our standards? Up yours!

February 14, 2010

 “It is of concern that only about a quarter of school leaders set expectations that strongly promoted high levels of reading and writing achievement for children in their first two years.  Furthermore, in nearly two-thirds of schools, leaders used limited or poor processes to monitor the progress and achievement of these young children. ..”  ERO Report Dec 2009*

 If there was an ERO Parade next week how many teachers would turn up in support?

 The beleaguered and belaboured Minister of Education and Standards bearer Anne Tolley pulled a timely Education Review Office report out of a hat from under the noses of some startled education bureaucrats just before Christmas to support her stance on National Standards.

 The National-led Government’s National Standards policy was a large part of its 2008 election manifesto and the implementation imbroglio is perhaps the Government’s  first real political test after an extended honeymoon spanning the worst recession since the depression.

The Minister argues that national standards are needed because we have major problem in this country. While overall we do very well in the  OECD education stakes there is a long tail of under achievement: research  shows that almost one in five students leaves school without the basic skills they need to succeed in reading, writing and maths. With parents and teachers working together she expects the new standards to make a difference.

 She  believes that parents have the right to know exactly how their children are doing at school, in plain language. “This means that incomprehensible report cards which say a child is a delight to have in class, but tell you nothing about how he or she is achieving or progressing in the basic skills they need, should be a thing of the past.”

The ERO evaluation focused on how effectively reading and writing was taught in the first two years of schooling, and on how well teachers used assessment information to plan and evaluate their teaching and how school leaders and boards of trustees set and monitored achievement expectations to ensure children were progressing and how this information was shared with parents. 

 The early years of primary school are obviously a critical time for children to consolidate the foundations of their education.  This is when they learn basic reading and writing skills. How well their teachers can read them in terms of what they bring to the schooling experience is hugely important.   Choosing the right learning resources for each individual and the early diagnosis of special learning needs are crucial professional challenges.

 Many schools are already using the key assessment tools which, together with the professional judgement of teachers, underpin the standards policy.  However, there is a long tail of below par schools and teachers.

 “ERO found that about 70 percent of teachers made good use of a range of effective reading and writing teaching practices in Years 1 and 2 classes.  Effective teachers were more likely to inquire into ways of improving their teaching, and work collaboratively with other staff to share good practice…. In contrast, the remaining 30 percent of teachers had little or no sense of how critical it was for children to develop confidence and independence in early reading and writing.  These teachers had minimal understanding of effective reading and writing teaching, set inappropriately low expectations and did not seek opportunities to extend their own confidence in using a wider range of teaching practices….”

  “Although many classroom teachers used assessment information well, school leaders were less clear about how they should use data to set and monitor appropriate reading and writing achievement expectations for children in Years 1 and 2… It is of concern that only about a quarter of school leaders set expectations that strongly promoted high levels of reading and writing achievement for children in their first two years.  Furthermore, in nearly two-thirds of schools, leaders used limited or poor processes to monitor the progress and achievement of these young children. ..” *

 The standards will run from after year one to the end of year eight and provide a linear and continuous dynamic picture.  Just how accurate and useful this picture will be is debatable.

 One Kiwi Tall Poppy feature is that the new National Standards will employ only four performance assessments on a so-called Plunket-style graph: above standard, at standard, below standard, and well below standard. There is not a fifth band well above standard. If there are to be National Standards that’s a pity, because both ends of the Bell curve need extra special attention.

 On TV One’s  Q&A programme  on 7 February the Minister of Education voiced her concern over the ERO finding that three quarters of primary principals don’t set expectations of high achievement levels in reading and writing for Year 1 and 2 children.

 She might have referred to Lloyd Jones’ novel, Mister Pip which is a paean to the power of great books and the influence of great expectations in the classroom.

 Education is too important to leave solely to educationists. Other people have a stake too, not least students and their parents and those who employ school and tertiary education leavers. They have a first-hand insight of the knowledge and competencies of those entering the workplace for the first time. Whatever the comparisons with earlier generations,  today’s  more sophisticated economy, with a greater reliance on technology, requires  a higher level of  basic literacy and numeracy as well as computer literacy and interpersonal skills.

 Opponents of the standards regime in New Zealand have been slow in acknowledging the differences between what is proposed here and experience elsewhere. We’re not talking about a new single test “to be taught to” as is the case in the USA with every state has a different testing regime or the UK. The Tolley mantra is one standard-different assessment tools, plus the professional judgement of teachers –“Objective Teacher Judgment”. 

  Learning from the experience of other jurisdictions is built into the local approach. Time will tell as to whether the lessons have been learned well enough. There are also cautionary tales about the implementation of assessment systems closer to the home, given the years of protracted and confusing implementation of the qualifications regime in secondary schools in New Zealand over the last two decades.

 Anne Tolley has been relieved of the tertiary education portfolio to focus on the implementation.  This is not quite Margaret Thatcher versus the coalminers’ union but the teacher unions are very powerful and well funded. Like Thatcher, who before she became Prime Minister had a stint as Minister of Education, the lady’s apparently not for turning, in the face of some incendiary opposition.

 The heat might be on but relations with the education unions are icy: at an NZEI meeting last year the Minister was confronted by the backs of NZEI support staff protesting about ancillary staff rates. Not a full whakapohane but not the usual in-house protocol for invitees.  At a TEU conference last year her speech to members was greeted with stony silence.  

The Minister is, of course, working in a tricky environment.  The school autonomy ushered in more than twenty years ago by Tomorrow’s Schools has led to a disconnect and an atomisation which makes it difficult to develop national education policy.  The voices of  parents and students as well as, to use  that  Transylvanian term, of other stakeholders,  are more audible and insistent than a generation ago. As in health there is a  heightened sense of  consumer rights and a demand to be active partners in the education process. 

In recent years many schools have made good progress in adopting and using a range  of formative assessment tools, some home grown in New Zealand.  The comprehensibility of parent reporting has improved in terms of the language used, but there is still plenty of scope for improvement. A significant minority of teachers and schools are not up to speed.  National standards are obviously  meant to be just that. 

Monitoring a child’s progress against the standards will help teachers and parents identify which children need extra help.  The bi-annual reports will also give Board of Trustees the data they need at the governance level to track the school’s progress.

 The government has made an additional $36 million available to support the students, as well as to ensure Board of Trustees know where extra resources should be spent.    A lot more than this will be needed to do the job of doing something constructive with the information.

On the Q&A programme last Sunday the Minister announced that a further $26 million has been made available of this year to help principals embed the standards. The Minister wants the New Zealand Principals Federation to come on board. Also on the programme, Federation President Ernie Buutveld said that his members “were on the same page” in terms of student achievement but there were concerns about the speed of implementation of National Standards and lots of unanswered questions. He argued that to get real improvement in student achievement the key thing was to work on teacher quality.  

 Principals have to deal with Boards of Trustees, whose National Association are strongly in favour of national standards and staff members supporting NZEI’s Trial National Standards not our Kids  campaign. The political backdrop to all this, and there may be some trade-offs, is the negotiation this year of a new collective employment agreement for teachers.

Internecine strife on a school by schools basis between staff, primed by the NZEI’s campaign and Boards of Trustees, with principals caught in the middle will really be a test of their principles not to mention their negotiating skills. The Minister has said that as a last resort she will fire BOTs that support their staff in not implementing the National Standards.

Apart from the usual political rhetoric and position taking on all sides, there are a number of genuine concerns about the National  Standards policy and the speed in which it is being implemented, without any trialling.

John Key has thrown his poll popularity as preferred Prime Minister into the fray with the recent letter to parents. The Prime Minister presents himself  an anti-idealogue who likes a pragmatic approach, focusing on what works.  Getting such a major policy to work needs the right mix of research, consultation, design, trialling, feedback and modification. 

 A pragmatic approach which is too quick on the draw might miss the target altogether.

 [Next post:  National Standards II ]

 #Lyall Lukey  14 Feb  2010


ERO Report  Dec 2009 Reading and Writing in Years 1 and 2  MS Word  PDF

Willie Apiata – Afghan Delight and a Minto Moment

February 3, 2010

 “The real heroes of Afghanistan are the three Kiwis who popped the dome two years ago…”  John Minto 

Corporal Willie Apiata won his VC-the first by a New Zealand soldier since World War II- for rescuing a wounded colleague under fire. But according to John Minto, he “was no hero compared to Sam, Adrian and Peter.”  Maybe Minto had been popping something else. VC vs PC is no contest. Declaring that Apiata is no hero compared to the real heroes, the peace activists, was a maladroit Minto moment.

 Historically, especially in World War I, conscientious objectors like Archibald Baxter, father of  James K,  exhibited a lot of courage and were treated incredibly harshly*.  By comparison the trio who deflated the Waihopai surveillance base, run by the Soviet-sounding Government Communication Security Bureau (the GCSB), had a milk run and don’t deserve inflated kudos.

 Meanwhile, as the whole world now knows, Special Air Services trooper Corporal Apiana was back on the streets of Kabul recently joining a counterattack against a Taleban terror strike and looking for all the world like a movie poster pin up. The hirsute still-is warrior looked somewhat different from his medal investiture photos* and women of an uncertain age  obviously thought he was very SASsie .

 Like Prince Harry, whose military tour of duty in Afghanistan was cancelled once the word got out, Apiana would be a high profile kidnap target by the Taleban or Al Queda or any one of a number of dissident cells setting its sights on a high profile target as a negotiating chip. A Willie away movement would be very harrowing.

 The media have got the stick for printing a French freelance photographer’s  military mugshot of the Kiwi hero and told that they should consider what they are doing in these days of instant world wide communication. But of course the corporal was naughty for removing his helmet in the first place. Even sunglasses would have preserved his anonymity though not protected his skull.

 Skulldugery was the accusation that some leveled at the New Zealand Government. The New Zealand military originally went into Afghanistan with an emphasis on civil reconstruction in rural areas. The SAS’s metropolitan adventures are a whole new dimension.

The outing of Apiata led to the announcement by the PM late last week about being more open regarding  SAS movements. This makes political if not military sense. The New York Times, through its Afghan news hounds, seemed to know more than Kiwis about the SAS being involved in urban guerilla warfare in downtown Kabul, replacing the withdrawing Norwegians. As John Lennon might have sung, Norwegians would.

In the meantime, as far as Willie was concerned, this bird had indeed flown for a well deserved furlough.

 The reasons why the antipodean ant has been so assiduously helping the global elephant are largely to do with diplomacy and potential free trade agreements.  If, as Chou En-Lai had it, all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means, in this case for this country war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means.  New Zealand’s involvement has helped to paper over the cracks of past differences, especially New Zealand’s unwillingness to be part of the military nuclear family, despite Ernest Rutherford’s pioneering scientific efforts.

 In political circles in America New Zealand stands to gain more kudos from  being open about its Afghanistan engagement than conforming to strict military secrecy.  Not all the PR is good, of course. One tricky bit is the SAS’s involvement in the arrests of alleged terrorists and passing over the prisoners to the tender ministrations of the Afghan authorities. This is a new rendition of the old number “Guantanamo Bay” and the guano may stick if Amnesty International has its way.

Since 2001 the American propensity to lump the Taliban and Al Qaeda together is the equivalent of the old red scare and smear approach by the Americans after World War II. Reds under the bed have been replaced by mullahs under the loofahs. (There have been some strange alleged bedfellows: at once stage, before he was deposed, Saddam Hussein was lumped in with Moslem radicals despite his rather secular background).  

 The Allies in Afghanistan (though most non-Americans nations, apart from New Zealand, have disengaged) are looking down the barrel of a deteriorating military and civil situation in a country which in the last two centuries has dispatched the armies of the imperial British and the communist Soviets.

 Meanwhile American soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere, together with their allies, including New Zealand, have been setting their sights on higher things.

 Sadly there will be a lot more inscriptions to come, in many languages, and they won’t just be on gun sights.

 #Lyall Lukey 3 Feb 2010


 Corporal Apiata VC-2 photos:

Reporter describes SAS encounter

I’m okay, Apiata tells worried family

 archibald Baxter «  Tom Lehrer “So Long, Mom (A Song for WW III)”