Good morning/afternoon/evening/witching hour to you,
I have been silent for too long. You tend to do that a bit as a teacher. Best not rock the boat, but I can’t keep my mouth shut any longer.
This week in New Zealand there was a big hello and heralded fanfare welcoming to national standards. If you are reading this in Britain or the United States and saying, “what the hell are you idiots doing? We got rid of standards because they didn’t work and failed our children.” Well, yes, this is true. However, the lessons learnt from the experiences of other nations don’t wash with the current government – a wonderful mix of centrist to extreme right wingers who believe, among other things, that mining national parks is a really excellent idea….
Let’s back track a little bit.
The brand new National government (I say brand new but they are nearly a year old now) announced their education policy before winning the election last year. Their key plank was the introduction of national standards in education. This policy was devised, in part, because of New Zealand’s perceived failings of our children when ranked against similar kids from similar countries around the world. They also did a lot of work consulting with parents – they said so themselves.
On the face of it this sounds quite good. Improving outcomes for our children. Not being a parent yet (see previous IVF columns) it is hard for me to imagine what I want from a report on my hypothetical child’s educational progress.
As a teacher though, I’m writing reports at the moment. This is the third time I’ll be reporting to parents this year – the others being in term 2 and term 3. You can’t say that my school is not letting parents know about the progress of their child. In saying this though, there is no comparison of the child against other children in the class, school, or nationally. As a parent this could be important information to have.
Parents and educators have to remember this: no matter what the child measures against any set standard or standardised deviation, you have to compare any achievement made against previous achievement. What I mean by this is… if the child has improved and moved forward with their marks since the last time you’ve reported then the alternative hasn’t happened (i.e. they have stagnated or fallen backwards). Kids move at different speeds – sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but they move nonetheless. You have to compare them against themselves, otherwise you’re comparing apples with oranges, grapes, persimmons and, potentially, steroid-enriched guava.
By setting a national standard or a national ‘average’ for children at a certain level, the National government has instantly, with the stroke of a pen or the pressing of the save button, created a document that is instantly labelling half the children in New Zealand schools as failures – children who are below the national ‘norm’.
What happens to that large minority of children who don’t fit any norm? There are kids with special needs who will just never, ever meet this standard. They learn very differently to the rest of us and suddenly the Minister of Education has said that these kids are not achieving. How can you compare a kid with special needs to anyone other than themselves. Every special needs kid is totally different to every other one. Come to think of it… every kid is completely different to every other kid. How is it all going to work?
Boys. Let me talk about boys. Having been a boy at school once I can tell you that the ‘ants in the pants’ syndrome is not made up. It is very real. Boys need to be constantly moving around the classroom. If it’s not to get to their work, then it’s to get to their friends, who are working and may help them. By saying, sit down and read this then write something about it, many boys can’t handle the jandal. It’s not because they are ‘dumb’ or below average, it’s just that they learn differently. They would rather prefer making something, or finding out how something works by ‘unmaking’ it, and then discussing their findings orally. Writing didn’t come naturally to me until I was well into my twenties.
I’ve just watched Anne Tolley the Education Minister being interviewed by one of the worst television journalists New Zealand has ever produced (if you want to know more just type Paul Henry into google – beware though, is truly, truly awful). She is talking about formative assessment, where teachers are, “….constantly assessing how well, what the results of their teaching are throughout the year. Rather than having one test at the end of the year…” and then Paul Henry adds something about a possible “nasty surprise” at the end of the year for the parent. I’m on my third report of the year you dick. Talk to me.
As a teacher I find these to be totally ill-informed comments about how I work my classroom. I am constantly assessing my children to inform my teaching. That, my friends, is how it is. Most schools are taking part in this formative assessment at the moment. Our school is currently in the process of reporting for the THIRD time this year to parents. There are no nasty surprises. Also, it should be pointed out here that if a teacher or school did find anything concerning in a child’s educational outcomes the first people they go to are, wait for it, the parents. Yes, the parents. We don’t sit in our classrooms saying to ourselves, “oooh, I hope the parents don’t find out. Maybe if I just hide this test in the cupboard then nobody will know.” I use my assessment throughout the year to group my students based on need, to highlight any areas of need so they can be addressed quickly, to target learning opportunities in those areas. The implication that teachers or schools are somehow keeping information from parents is preposterous (that’s a good word).
If you would like to know what experience the honourable Anne Tolley has had in the education sector before becoming boss of the entire thing… She has been a computer analyst, a computer programmer and a bed and breakfast operator – all roles vastly suited to developing and maintaining education policy and the direction of schools and teaching in any country. If you don’t believe me then just look on her parliamentary webpage. I honestly can’t find any experience in the area of education apart from her years at Colenso High in Napier. Really… how can you possibly do a job that you have absolutely no background in whatsoever? You wouldn’t expect me to be able to run a massive company without having some experience in business, would you?
And back to what we were talking about… Once you set a national standard that’s it. You can’t unset it – unless you totally remove it. As soon as standards are set you begin to make the comparisons. Your kid against the national average. Your kid against my kid. My kid against your school average. My school against your school. This school against the national average… whoops leaky portfolio syndrome… and suddenly you’ve got the media comparing schools against each other based on where their average sits against the rest of the country. Below and you’re a failure. Above and you’re not.
Of course, the policy hasn’t been implemented yet. We can’t compare ourselves against England, where the competition between schools ended up in an environment where schools taught specifically to pass tests. It might be that our experience will be totally different and national standards will boost educational outcomes for our students. If, however, they don’t, which I suspect will be the case, and the media end up getting hold of the national data, which I also suspect will be the case, then this policy will be, undoubtedly, the worst thing to happen to education in this country in many a decade.
But we’ll wait and see.