National Standards I: Up our standards? Up yours!

 “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


2 Responses to National Standards I: Up our standards? Up yours!

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