Tuesday, July 21, 2009

National's 'populist' Standards



John Key a master at populist and rear vision thinking: imposing National Standards – is this the best we can do in the 21stC?


An image that sticks in my mind before last years election was the then Leader of the opposition Mr Key driving in a car looking over his shoulder and saying, ‘vote for me and I will ensure all students leave literate and numerate’.

It now seems an appropriate metaphor for the proposed reactionary backward looking literacy and numeracy standards his government plans to impose.

As part of John Key’s ‘crusade’ ‘national standards will be set in literacy and numeracy; every primary and intermediate student will be assessed regularly against National Standards; and every…school will report to parents in plain English.’ Proposed requirements suggest report to parents, to the BOT and reports to the Ministry. The first are common practice, the report to the Ministry is problematic.

On the surface national testing sounds appealing. Shouldn’t all schools be measured regularly to see how well they are delivering programmes in literacy and numeracy? And ought not parents to be informed so they can see how well their children are doing and how their children (or school) stacks up against others? On the surface it seems like a good idea.

Before the politicians rush in to sort out teachers and schools it would be advisable to think about the consequences of such simplistic ideas. National testing is an idea from the past and has had a long history full of unintended consequences. Teaching and learning is far too complex to be assessed by such simplistic measures. As Margaret Wheatley has written in her book, ‘Leadership and the New Science’, it not the targets you hit that count, it is the ones you miss because you were to busy focusing on the ones you have been told to aim for.

In the UK students are regularly tested from an early age and the schools results are published in what are called ‘league tables’ creating ‘winner and loser’ schools. These lists do not even take into account the socio economic environment that the schools are sited in; hardly a ‘level playing field!’

None the less achievement scores in literacy and numeracy did rise in the UK but over time scores have levelled out and now are tracking down. UK educationalist Guy Claxton has written in his inspiring book, ‘What’s the Point of School,’ that other surveys have shown that students have lost interest in the areas targeted– no doubt because of all the pressures. Claxton, and others such as Sir Robert Winston, are reporting a disturbing rise of anxiety in English students. Claxton writes that a side product of measurable improved achievement results is also killing the joy of teaching.

In the USA test results place so much pressure on principals to see their schools succeed that they pass this pressure right on to their teachers – and teachers in turn to their students. Scotland, being a little more perceptive, has wisely avoided the ‘league table’ concept. We should at least achieve a similar position in New Zealand if common sense prevails.

In the USA, as part of George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) testing programmes, there has been a distortion of the educative process as stressed teachers narrow their teaching and ‘teach to the tests’. As a result in both the UK and the USA enlightened teaching is being replaced by imposed expectations and as a result, in both countries, there is less emphasis on the creative arts, cultural studies, and environmental and social issues let alone the need to focus on identified future capabilities (our ‘key competencies’) that all students will need to thrive in such uncertain times.

This distortion of education, as we enter the 21stC, is too big a price for any society to pay and is hardly ethical or moral for students whose gifts and talents lie in other areas.

As we enter a new age, some are calling the ‘Second Renaissance’ or ‘The Age of Creativity’, it is vital that schools are not diverted from their real tasks of developing the gifts and talents of all their students – including the ‘foundation skills’ of literacy and numeracy. That school are currently not achieving worthwhile learning for all students (we still have 20% of our students who leave without any school qualification) developing the gifts of all students ought to be the focus for a visionary new government.

As we leave the now failing Industrial Age it is ironic that the new government, which prides itself on individuality, freedom and enterprise, is about to impose initiatives with their genesis in a Victorian Age that will restrict the spontaneity, creativity of both teachers and students.

Contrary to the opinion that our politicians have spread, that our schools are not currently focusing on literacy and numeracy, the opposite is true. An English commentator has written that in the UK ‘literacy and numeracy have all but gobbled up the entire curriculum’. Imposing National Standards will create a similar situation in NZ.

Perceptive educationalist Kelvin Smythe has written that New Zealand school are too dominated by testing, ‘schools are already assessed up to the gunwales…the last think they need is more pressure from the Review Office for even more assessment….some of the tests schools are encouraged to use are overblown, providing lots of data and little information.’ Kelvin Squire, previously a president of the NZPPF has written, ‘I’ve travelled all over the world with the Principal’s Federation and I have seen it doesn’t work’. Rather bravely he continues, ‘I’d resist national testing, do civil disobedience, if I had to!’

In Australia the same political agenda is being followed. According to past Director General of Queensland Phil Cullen this measurement obsessed mentality is destroying the true purpose of education. He quotes Alfie Kohn, one of Americas most outspoken critic of testing, who writes, ‘ a plague has been sweeping through schools wiping out the most innovative instruction and beating down some of the best teachers…ironically this has been released in the name of improving schools invoking such terms as tougher standards.. this heavy handed, top down, test driven version of school reform…is turning schools into test prep centres, effectively closing off intellectual inquiry and undermining enthusiasm for learning..this is a political movement that must be opposed.’

Lester Flockton, in the NZPPF Magazine November 09, writes that ‘it is unfair to expect that schools alone should be accountable for the educational malaise….schools are good but they cannot overcome deep deficits’. Kelvin Squire has also written ‘it is all too easy to fix blame on schools and then only to offer populist solutions’.Lester Flockton has written, ‘that national standards get it right when they include a well balanced and interrelated set of abilities and dispositions including those which are not reality, or appropriately measurable by tests .e.g. enjoyment and engagement in reading.’ And he writes they ‘must cause no harm’.

There is no doubt that the concept of National Standards is a major break from current practice and there is also no doubt that, if imposed, they will cause unintended consequences to the detriment of teacher creativity. An unnecessary tension will be created between imposed expectations and creative education that will dramatically affect the schools ability to provide a rich and full curriculum. If test results were to be passed on to the Ministry this would result in teachers teaching to the tests. What we don’t want is for the ‘assessment tail to wag the dog’!

The solving of the so called ‘achievement tail’ will need more than imposed tests by a ‘big brother’ state. We all need to face up to the challenge of this ‘achievement tail’ (along with rising prison and crime rates and environmental issues). Challenges created by past misguided political decisions will only be solved when social inequality, the growing ‘rich poor gap’, is faced up to

Strongly missing from the debate by the present government is any mention of the new New Zealand Curriculum, a curriculum seen by such people as Canadian Educator Dean Fink, as leading the world. It would be a shame if the real advantages of this curriculum were to be sidelined by the standards debate.

The New Zealand Curriculum is an exciting curriculum for the future –and one that pays due respect for literacy and numeracy. If there is a need for assessment then our future citizens will need to be assessed for their full range of talents, their attitudes towards learning, and their ability to self assess, self monitor, and self regulate themselves. Any assessment ought to be broad enough to ensure students become ‘confident life- long learner’ and ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' that our new curriculum asks of schools.

To ensure that the creative spirit of this curriculum is not overpowered by narrow literacy and numeracy testing will require courageous principals able to have the confidence to create the conditions to protect creative teachers from misguided policies. Even today even excellent principals exhibit what some call ‘anticipatory dread’ at the thought of an upcoming ERO visit. National Standards will increase the demeaning pressure of this escalating technocratic audit culture by adding new levels of ambiguity and confusion about how to interpret expectations. Solving such messy challenges, such as aligning different sources of evidence to make a ‘best fit’ with National Standards in sensible ways, ought not to be the focus of school leaders; this would be waste of their valuable time and energy. Who will want to be a principal as they turn into accountants? What’s the bet that, as confusion mounts, that contracts will be given to develop uniform tests able to compare school with school? This will be the beginning of the end of the creative teaching and school innovation that New Zealand educators have been long recognised for worldwide.


If we had appropriate authentic tests (tasks) then it would be advisable to teach towards them, but with narrow tests focusing on literacy and numeracy this survival strategy would be suicidal
. Powerful forms of assessment should focus on ‘whole’ learning tasks – performances of writing, reading, ability to research, and demonstrations, exhibitions and presentations. Such a multiple approach to assessment provides a ‘better picture’ of the whole child and provides wide ranging evidence to share with parents and the Review Office. This is what innovative school and creative teachers are already doing. Assessment expert Paul Williams tells us that, ‘successful learning occurs when learners have ownership of their learning; when they understand the goals they are aiming for; when crucially, they are motivated and have the skills to achieve success’. This research is duplicated by John Hattie who has written that learning is dependent on positive learner teacher relationships and that the prescription for student learning is clear, ‘dollops of feedback, specific and changing goals , and a constant attention to asking how am in going?’.

These well researched approaches to assessment and purposeful teaching seems to have bi-passed our politicians who obviously have their own agendas to back their simplistic and populist proposals.

Creativity and diversity in our schools, not mediocre conformity, will be the mark of a successful creative 21stC country.



One thing is clear. National Standards are more about politics than learning. They have more to do with fixing blame than creating solutions. They will do little to serve the interests of the students who ought to expect more of us. The real revolution will not come about by collecting and analyzing more data. We already have tons of data thanks to our computers that we don’t use very well now.


Schools will only improve when they are designed to engage the humans inside them
– schools that focus on nourishing and amplifying the abundant innate creativity of our students. The proposed National Standards, and the inevitable bureaucratic systems that will be created, will only divert the valuable energy to achieve this.

If we want to be a creative country we need to ensure all the talents and gifts of all our students are realised. If we want our future citizens to be able to use their creativity and imagination, to solve problems that are beyond current thinking, then we really have no choice. It is unfortunate that envisioning such a creative education system seems beyond our current leadership who find their answers looking backwards into the past when they ought instead to have the ‘future in their bones’.

Maybe it is time for some civil disobedience? As Albert Einstein wrote, ‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ He also wrote, ’Imagination is more important than knowledge. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, require creative imagination and marks real advance in science.’

Last words from a NZ teacher now living in Victoria.

‘We are right into national testing over here. There is now national testing of all year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students. It used to be only in the other states. We were told we were lagging behind these other states. We also have online testing in numeracy and maths with the results going to the Department. Our reports are also put directly into the Department. This is done three times a year. Accountability is everything, dont worry about the teaching. We are told that it does not matter where the student’s starts our job is to get then up to the national average and they are trying to bring in performance pay as well.’

So much for the ‘nanny state’ of the previous Labour Government - bring on ‘big brother’!

‘With all the best intentions in the world we are stealing the kid’s future’. Alvin Toffler

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog - great reading for all staff members.

Bruce said...

Unfortunately the voices against the imposition of such simplistic and potentially distorting standards have been ignored. The challenge for schools now is not to lose sight of the liberating spirit of the new curriculum while at the same time by not letting implementing the standards distract them. What is the betting that within a few years the Ministry will provide the tests for schools to take.That will be 'game over' for creative education until a new government is elected. This is all about conservative politics.

In the UK they are moving away from their attempt to measure schools ( using a narrow range of curriculum targets ) against one another. Little has been gained and too much is being lost.

John O'Reilly said...

Hi Bruce,

As usual, a very thought provoking post - keep it up! I completely agree with your emphasis on the need for authentic assessment of meaningful learning while recognising the difficultly of achieving this against a background culture (especially here in Ireland) that is so wedded to traditional testing. I'm working on something that we hope to embed in a revised senior cycle science syllabus that will be tested in schools in the coming year, but there are many obstacles, especially in terms of reliability and validity (as perceived by assessment gatekeepers).

In any case, as I was reading I was struck by how much of John Hattie's work actually supports your arguments and indeed that he provides support for the use of creative teaching approaches like cooperative learning that actually improve attainment on standard summative exams while at the same time promoting much broader learning. I then read your reference to Hattie's findings but I thought you had firmly rejected most his work in a previous posting? I'm not trying to argue Hattie's case but as I mentioned in a previous reply I do think that his findings can provide leverage for the changes you (I think I can say "we") envisage.

Enjoying your posts,

John