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

“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


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

  1. Bryony Barlow says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blogs and it has given me some great insight into the National Standards. I am a third year Student of Education, and am writing a position paper on the National Standards. It is a hotly debated issue.

    My personal view is one of neutral; I can see that the National Standards have provided some great benchmarks for schools, parents and older children to work towards and it could work really well. My greatest concern is the use of these standards in the early years of learning for children. The other concern for me is the lack of development of the NS’s through the hastiness that the government has gone through to enforce them. The National Standards were something that the National Party promised New Zealand, elections come and go every four years, education is for life I just hope it will work for the sake of the children.

  2. Lyall Lukey says:

    Good stuff! Thanks Would like to see your paper Cheers Lyall

    Sent from my iPhone

    Lyall Lukey SmartNet/ Lukey Resources +64 3 3667 874 +64 21 310 808

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