Wednesday, August 08, 2012

National Standards, the status quo, or new possibilities for education

Hekia Parata -   led by ideology determined to take us down the wrong path.
So many sound bites about education to pay attention to these days.
The first  one that comes to mind is the mantra ‘one in five children failing’ that our current prime minister ,  our education minister and John Banks like to talk about endlessly as the reason for National Standards, League Tables and why we need Charter Schools.  The message is, ‘our schools are failing!’
Education it seems is where politics rule and reality comes second place.
How do we get this 1 to 5 negative ratio and how do we reconcile New Zealand high ranking in International Tests?

 In a recent OECD survey New Zealand students were still at the top echelons in reading, science and maths. In the latest survey New Zealand students were ranked fourth out of 34 OECD countries in literacy, fourth in scientific literacy and seventh in mathematical literacy. As in all past OECD surveys New Zealand students achieve near the top surpassed only by countries with ethnically homogeneous populations such as Finland and Korea. ' So why', writes Warwick Elley an emeritus professor of education, ‘isn’t this front page news?’ He continues, ‘we should be congratulating our rank and file teachers for drawing the best out of our students..’

And where exactly are these 25% of failing children? One clue is provided by Warwick Elley who reports that mainstream Pakeha students had a higher mean score than any other country. The impression is they exist in every school but in truth they are concentrated in low defile schools.  It seems we have more high achievers than other countries, but still too many at the lower end of the scale.  Elley writes that underachieving students ‘can be identified by gender, by decile level, and by ethnic group’ and he continues ‘compulsory assessment and league tables do not change them.’ ‘The problem’, he says, ‘is not so much in schools, but in social problems as poverty and dysfunctional families.’

National Standards across all schools seems like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.  A more targeted approach would ensure greater equity?
Daniel Pink (authorof ‘Drive’) confirms that all high scoring American students can be predicted by their parents’ wealth. Conversely students that fail, as measured by standardised tests, can be equally predicted by the socio- economic circumstances of their parents. Some call this a lack of ‘social capital’.  Recently it was reported that New Zealand has the fifth widest rich/poor gap of Western countries and that this can be linked to the results of the Market Forces polices of the past decades. This, of course, is happily ignored by the current government.
In New Zealand 25% of adults now live below the poverty line so the link to poor school achievement (the 1 in 5 failing) is no great leap. There is data to say an estimated 170000 - 270000 children in New Zealand live in poverty and that New Zealand is ranked 20th out of 35 in OECD countries for children living in relative poverty. Such children often have poor health and many suffer from diseases that only exist in third world counties.
This of course shouldn’t be taken as an excuse for school failure but a reminder that poor achievement can be linked to problems outside of the school gate. Add to this that many parents are without jobs or have to work all hours God gave them just to support their families and that Maori and Polynesian children are over represented in such difficult environments. That such children enter formal schooling lacking what schools expect is understandable (and this is not saying school expectations are right).
It is clear that children do not have equal opportunities to achieve high educational attainment. It is impossible to ignore the influences of difficult home circumstances in the creation of the 1 in 5 failure rate. ‘The dirty secret’, one newspaper columnist recently wrote is all about, ‘middle class advantage and working class failure. Exceptional kids will, of course, always break the pattern. But the pattern remains’. To suggest success just by having excellent teachers and league tables is just ideological nonsense.
So what to do? 
The current government’s solution is more choice (hence the need for published standardsand from them league tables) and competition but it seems only the wealthy can afford the choice. And the latest solutions privatised charter schools which, in contrast to the narrow standards approach being imposed on public schools, offer greater freedom and flexibility - exactly what pubic school would like to implement. Privatisation, rather than equitable education, is the real agenda.

Do we have a world class or failing education system?

According to PISA data the answer is yes we do, but when one considers all the children the system currently fails (the 1 in 5) the answer is not so clear-cut! The number of citizens who are incarcerated in our prison system – second in Western countries after USA seems to indicate many students leave schooling with little chance of success.  Most communities have high profile problems with alienated youth whichalso seems to indicate the need for new solutions.
Traditional education, it seems, suits the equally traditional academic students; for students who arrive at school with the necessary ‘social capital; students ‘who come from reasonably well off home environments. The really rich send their children to private schools.
So this brings us back to the one in five failing, who are they, where are they, and what might be realistic solutions? It seems the truth is known but ignored by politicians.
National Standards, as promulgated by conservative politicians, have a populist appeal to the general public but are they really an answer or simply part of a wide political ideology? Do they have any real advantage or will they have the same limiting effects that have occurred in countries that have implemented them? Ironically the countries that have implemented them (and the next step, league tables) score well below New Zealand on the PISA International tests. In such countries it has been shown that teachers narrow the curriculum and teach to the tests and as a result vital creative areas are given less time and students, whose talents in the untested areas, suffer.
‘National Standards consisting of measuring narrowly defined curriculum outputs’, according to Peter O’Connor associate professor of Education Faculty, Auckland University, ‘ and will be used to generate blunt and meaningless league tables. They will in turn create fear and suspicion about neighbourhood schools’. This he suggests is designed to increase the public appetite for private forms of education, including charter schools and will also professionalise teachers. Charter schools will be able to employ unregistered teachers.
So it is not difficult to appreciate that schooling is involved in an intense political ideological war; one in which the real causalities are the students themselves. As Peter O’Connor rightly says all this criticism is about developing an environment of  blaming failing students, failing teachers, failing schools and failing communities while the ‘white knights of business are presented as the rescuers’. As a result teachers and principals are cast as defenders of a failing system.
 Labelling and shaming is not the answer, nor the false choices of the neo liberal politicians with their privatisation agenda.
All the criticism of current schooling ignores the success of New Zealand schools as shown in the OECD and PISA surveys! All it has done is create a sense of crisis requiring the radical solutions proposed by the Government.
Just understandingthe ideological battle does not mean defending the status quo. We can do better. There are better solutions than the reactionary national standards or the doubtful charter schools. Charter schools, where they have been tried in the US, few have demonstrated to be better than traditional schools.
The reality is that for an increasingly unpredictable twenty first century students will require a particular set of dispositions and skills. One obvious immediate solution is to reinstate the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum as the central emphasis for educational reform.  It is obvious that schools cannot implement both the intent of the NZC, with its emphasis on ‘key competencies’, and the risk adverse limitation of national standards and league tables.
So the battle over our schools is not simply between privatisation (National Standards and league tables, or charter schools) and the current provision.
Schooling needs to be reinvented – re imagined to equip all students to thrive in the future. Too much of our current system has its genesis in the fragmented linear thinking of the industrial age.
Too much schooling is currently focused on sorting and grouping individual students achieve what teachers (and now politicians) have decided they ought to learn.
This antiquated ‘factory’ transmission model of teaching needs to be replaced with a more personalised model – learning tailored or customised, to suit the needs of each individual learner.
 Learning needs to be real, rigorous and relevant to the learner if all students are to develop the in-depth understandings and dispositions that they will require. Learners need to be encouraged to dig deeply into what they study and have access to all the traditional disciplines of learning as well as accessing the power of the World Wide Web.
This transformative model of education is in opposition to the ability mind-set that schools (both primary and secondary) currently implement by developing their programmes around ability grouping, setting students across classes, andstreaming.
The future will require individuals that can work collaboratively to develop solutions to integrated projects. Teachers, to ensure this, need to ensure skills are taught ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’. ‘Learnacy’, as educationalist Guy Claxton writes, ‘is as important as literacy and numeracy’. This is reinforced by Sir Ken Robinson who says ‘creativity is as important asliteracy and numeracy.  ‘Students need’, as Piaget said decades ago, 'to know what to do when they do not know what to do.’
Teaching how to learn, how to research, how to express ideas needs to be the central role of teaching along with challenging students ideas they may have gained. As Jerome Bruner wrote decades ago, ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’. Students, as suggested in the NZC, need to become ‘seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge’. Schools need to be seen as communities of scientists and artists equipped to make sense of the challenges that they will face.
The choices for a future education are not as simplistic as the market forces solutions our current government would suggest, or simply defending the status quo.
The time for simple solutions is over.  The quest for an equitable and empowering education for all students needs to become a critical issue for us all –we can’t thrive as a nation if large segments of the population are being denied a real opportunity to succeed. Everyone has the right to learn .
This is not the path we are on.


Allan Alach said...

Well written, Bruce. Your article is obvious to anyone with an open mind. Sadly this doesn't include ideologically driven politicians who have another agenda, imported lock, stock and barrel from overseas. As has been written many times, all this has nothing to do with education. It is tragic to watch events unfold as predicted last year, and equally tragic to know what we can expect yet. The webpage revealed today is only the start - the 2012 version. Expect the 2013 version to be far more targeted at enabling school comparisons. Expect far tighter restrictions on how 'data' is reported to the MOE. Expect the use of a sledge hammer on schools and principals who are being 'naughty' - especially principals who need to watch their backs. The ideology does not require principals to have an educational vision, but instead to be administrators who can enforce teacher practices to 'raise achievement.'

We know from overseas what to expect, illustrated by the near identical rhetoric coming from politicians to justify 'deform,' and by the universal ignoring of evidence to the contrary.

Bruce said...

Thanks Allan

The agenda as first expressed by such people as Kelvin Smythe has now come to pass.

Only a change of government offers any hope - although so far nothing much to get excited about.

Anonymous said...

For all that I am supportive of your point of view Bruce I fear that now we are to have league tables school principals will fall over themselves to ensure their schools are seen as 'winning' schools.

Those who hold different views will have to go underground and hope the educational gestapo dont find them out.

Bruce said...

I think you are right anon. This is the beginning of the end. Principals will have to comply. Reaally can't see many principals standing against league tables - best to work 'underground' for future change as you say. And there never were many really creative principals anyway - never have been.