Wednesday, January 11, 2006

We need a change of view point.

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I have just read a publicity blurb from Howard Fancy the New Zealand Secretary for Education about our education system and it seems all is well. No mention made of the 20% of students who leave with little to show for their time at school. And for such students it must seem like serving time!

I guess it all depends on you perspective as to whether the system is one of a spectrum of creative diversity or a 'one colour fits all'. Fancy ‘cherry picks’ from his elite position some exciting developments to indicate all is well but closer to the ground it is apparent that this is not the case.

From my perspective there is a lot that those on high could do to create the conditions to encourage the creativity and diversity that we need. The NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) does, as Fancy suggests, provide opportunity to tailor learning to individual students needs but few school have so far done this. It would mean breaking down the fragmented teaching to allow teachers to design personalized courses for students with their parents. And this is made more impossible by the desire to ensure all schools are standardized resulting in problems of moderation beween school and years.

You can’t have creativity and conformity at the same time but that is not to say there ought not to be some common expectations. Minimal requirements and maximum flexibility – this seems the recipe for the more successful country of Finland. The International Baccalaureate might have been a better option for us but it is not too late to develop personalized programmes using the NCEA – but only if certain changes are made.

The key is to develop ‘rich, real and relevant ‘projects that inspire learning – these were what Fancy was talking about in his article. Such projects might make use of several learning areas and call upon the assistance of a range of subject teachers. This is not easy to do in building ( and some teacher's minds) designed more in line with Henry Ford’s mass production factories. Students (and their teachers) are too often distracted achieving set criteria in achievement tasks than on focusing on real holistic integrated tasks – the examples quoted by Fancy.

The standards based education is both being heralded as a success or a problem depending on ones point of view in the USA.

According to Ronald Wolk, chairman of the board that produces Education Week, the USA has placed its bet on an all-or-nothing strategy of standards based reforms. And this pressure for conformity has been raised by the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act which requires schools to focus on improving the literacy and numeracy gap. In the UK there are targets to achieve (and for schools to be compared) and we are moving in a similar direction in NZ.

Wolk believes betting everything on standards based reform was neither wise nor necessary. If the strategy doesn’t succeed it will be a waste of resources and teacher energy leaving the system riddled with failure.

Wolk wants policy makers to hedge their bets and open a second front by promoting a policy to create new schools to accommodate growth and replace low performing middle and high schools. New schools should be innovative and different from traditional schools and open to all students.

This he says is not a radical policy and I presume Fancy would say that is already the NZ policy? Wolk believes the US needs a range of alternative schools, as in the 60 s and 70s, the current ‘magnet schools’ (increasing every year in range of states) and schools sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ( over a1000 school so far) and others.

Schools have to be encouraged and supported to be different. Such schools need to be relatively autonomous and able to make use of the freedom offered. They are likely to be student centred and committed to personalized learning using approaches that creative teachers and educationalists have discovered the past thirty years about how students learn.

Critics, says Wolk, might be alarmed at such a gamble on diversity but as the current system is failing so many students the current standardized strategy is already gambling…. and losing.

Wolk himself was an early advocate of standard based reform but now believes that they have failed in a number of ways. More money ought to have been spent on providing opportunities to learn for those in difficult areas. Standards ought to have focused on relatively few ideas and concepts and allow considerable latitude for local school to develop appropriate curricula, and students ought to be assessed using multiple measures based on their work, performance, and habits of mind and behavior. And schools needed to be redesigned to allow students to be responsible for their own learning using teachers as advisers – shifting the emphasis from content coverage to thinking and solving problems and capitalizing on new technology.

Perhaps Fancy would say this is where we are heading in New Zealand – if we are then it is just too slow. For a quarter of a century we (the US) have been trying to ‘reverse the tide of mediocrity’ by making schools better without really changing them or the traditional organizational arrangements. The same applies in NZ.

Wolk believes we owe it to future generations of kids, and to the larger society, to seriously consider a second strategy of designing new schools for a new century.

This is an ideal task for the Third Labour Government and Howard Fancy! The best thing they could do is to simplify things, define a few important requirements, and then to get out of creative schools way.

But one thing is certain standardization is out in an age of ideas, imagination and creativity.


Anonymous said...

Trying to encourage creativity by teachers on one hand and wishing to check up on all students comparable progress creates a dilemma.

Anonymous said...

This is a case of the old world trying to be creative and the new with no time for the old?

Fancy seems to have little idea of the pressure his technocrats have placed on schools.

Bruce said...

The further one is away from reality the easier it is to provide easy answers - or to ignore the consequences of imposed failed policies.

Good things are happening - but often in spite of the system. Most secondary schools have changed litte in their basic organisations and structures.

Anonymous said...

Why do we aways follow failed UK and US reforms? Haven't we the wit and imagination to think our own way into the future - there is no one best way! Just value diversity and keep what works. Enlightened trial and error!