Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Testing times?

Mrs Tolley will go down as one of the disasters in education if her uninformed and simplistic views are imposed on teachers. The question is how strong will teachers be in resisting her reactionary ideas? We will find out next year.

‘May you live in interesting times’, the Chinese saying goes; or as Charles Dickens’s wrote about the Victorian Era, it is the ‘best of and the worst of times’.

Just as schools were becoming enthusiastic about implementing the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum the ‘new’ government is imposing its populist national standards in literacy and numeracy on schools; standards which have more than a whiff of the Victorian Era about them.

It all sounds simple enough. From next year all primary schools will have to test children against national standards in literacy and numeracy (reading writing and maths). Schools will have to report the results to parents in clear language, with suggestions on what each child needs to learn.

So what is the problem?

Well, like most simple solutions to complex problems, there is more to education than competency in the ‘three Rs’. And it is not that schools are currently neglecting them. Most primary schools already spend all morning on such skills leaving little time for other important learning areas. Those parents who assist in schools would attest to this but for many the cry of ‘back to basics’ makes equal sense and for populist politicians always a good vote catcher. Primary education suffers more than its fair share of scaremongering. Standards, it seems, are always falling without any real evidence. Many people feel there was a ‘golden era’ when all children learnt to read and write and do their sums but it is a hard era to pinpoint – particularly when you include the words ‘all children’.

It is time to move on from such polarization and name calling.Children deserve better from our nation’s leaders and shapers of opinion but it seems it is hard to shake off the legacy of Victorian thinking. Old habits of thought die hard. What we need are students ‘with the future in their bones’. As the Hebrew saying reminds us, ‘do not confine your children to your own learning for they were born in another time.’

The Government claims parents are overwhelmingly in favour of their standards but the Ministry’s empty rituals of consultative meetings were more explanatory than democratic. A recent NZCER report indicted parental support was lacking.

Are New Zealand students failing?

International tests show that New Zealand students do well in the areas the national standards are focusing on. The Minister’s argument is that standards will further improve student achievement and help teachers solve the problem of the worrying ‘achievement tail’. The trouble is that there is little research or evidence to back up such claims and in the two countries that have gone down this testing line (the UK and the US) their students do worse than ‘kiwi kids’.

Creating a crisis to solve?

What this emphasis on the need for national standards is doing is creating a crisis to solve that does not exist and diverting valuable teacher energy and time from implementing our new exciting curriculum. As Francis Nelson, President of the NZEI writes, ”league tables driven by simplistic data and complied for the ‘titillation’ of the ‘blame the teacher’ adherents will see the highly regarded New Zealand Curriculum turned on its head.” Kelvin Squire, a past president of the NZPPF, has written that ‘Tolley’s folly’, the national standards, have ‘sown a political seed that somehow or other we can’t trust the profession.’

Editorials have been one sided in their view on teachers, accusing them of self interest and being frightened of what the tests might show. Even the president of the School Trustees Association writes, “that those who are scaremongering now need to get over it.” Scaremongering obviously has a better ring to it than saying ‘those with viable educational views that run counter to the Government’s intentions’.

Not all is lost – let the teachers teach.

The editor of the Sunday Herald got well beyond the Government’s press releases in its editorial of October 25 headed, ‘Let the teachers teach not count’. “Everybody knows best about education,” the editor writes, “by having been to school … no one claims that their experience of driving a car confers any specialist authority in automotive mechanics.” He says, the announcement of the education standards was calculated to induce warm and fuzzy feelings in parents by capitalizing on the anxiety parents feel about their children’s education, which can be relied on for a rich source of political capital. “For the widely trumpeted fulfillment of an election pledge,” he says, “it is a bad look.” Teachers, he believes, have a right to question things that are not in the best interest of their students. They are right to bring to parents’ attention that there is so much assessment of learning going on that there isn’t any time for teaching.

These are not the only concerns of educators.

New Zealand teachers have a proud reputation for being innovative and creative teachers; a reputation that has been put at risk since the imposition of the 1986 National Curriculum. The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum replaces this previously overcrowded and unmanageable curriculum. The new curriculum has been welcomed by teachers and widely acclaimed internationally.

It is ironic that just when teachers are becoming enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new curriculum the current emphasis on national standards will divert their efforts and the students will be the real losers in this confusion


Anonymous said...

This woman is, as you say, a complete disaster lacking any educational insight what so ever.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Be interesting to see if teachers stand up for themselves in the new school year.

Woodville School said...

lets hope that we(teachers)can retain our spark, continue to be inavative, and keep the wellfare of the children clearly in the forefront of all decisions made in our classrooms for 2010.