Sunday, July 03, 2011

Guest Post by Allan Alach on the 'bigger picture' behind standards!

Traditional way of solving a problem - but what do you really know about National's Standards?

As the furore over the MOE imposed July 1st charter deadline passes, we need to be mindful that there’s a much bigger picture and not be distracted by the debate over competence in the ‘basics.” Of course all children need to ‘achieve’ in these. No dispute. Engaging in debates at this level obscures the need to lift our heads to see where the game is heading.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Bruce has been very passionate and articulate in attacking national standards. This week’s guest blog from Phil Cullen in Australia expressed very similar concerns about the situation in Australia. Are these similarities just coincidental? What about the similarities between government policies here and in England and the USA? Coincidence also?

Read what Lester Flockton writes in the latest New Zealand Principal magazine:

“Is it a coincidence that the ‘bold’ new frontline strategy being ‘rolled out’ has very strong resemblances to the strategy advocated by the UK-based McKinsey & Co., and particularly its chief strategist Sir Michael Barber - one time adviser to Tony Blair? We know for a FACT that the strategy for system improvement hasn’t succeeded in remedying their tail of underachievement. So why, in all sensibility, would we want to follow such a model here?”

Why indeed? Very good question, Lester.

I do wonder whether the full extent of the probable agenda is understood by the majority of principals, teachers and parents in New Zealand schools, even though there is no shortage of information, nationally and internationally, that points the way. Why are people seemingly blase about this? “She’ll be right, mate”

The government has been and still is being extremely clever with the introduction of the standards. This process has very neatly drawn attention away from their longer term agenda, with all the focus at the moment being on that 1st July charter deadline.

The New Zealand Curriculum (remember this?) has, as one of its themes, the development of inquiry learning. So, in the spirit of the New Zealand Curriculum, let’s look at the whole national standards situation, using our inquiry learning skills.

Reflect on these:

       Why is the government ignoring the very wide range of national and international educational experts who are articulating the need for an educational system that will meet the needs of the 21st century? 
       Why is it that standards based systems have been introduced into the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries (England, Australia, USA, Canada and New Zealand)? Why is the rhetoric to justify this very similar in each country, and especially so in USA states with a Republican Governor? What do American parents think? Parents Across America
       Why do non-educators, especially politicians and business people (Bill Gates), profess to be experts in education and know all the answers?
       How come thecommon core standardsin the USA are similar to our national standards?   Concerns about core standards. Why are we playing the ‘me too’ game in introducing standards, to the incredulity of experts such as Andy Hargreaves?
       Why is everything being based on the scores in the PISA tests, when there are increasing numbers of experts, such as Stephen Heppell in the UK ( and Diane Ravitch in USA ( pointing out the flaws in these? How valid are the rankings when Shanghai is listed as number one? Just Shanghai? What about the rest of China?
       Why is the emphasis being placed on the PISA test, to the exclusion of other data? Who defined the PISA test as the key indicator of educational performance? What does Ravitch say?
           The lesson of PISA is this: Neither of the world's highest-performing nations do what our "reformers" want to do. How long will it take before our political leaders begin to listen to educators? How long will it take before they realize that their strategies have not worked anywhere? How long will it be before they stop inflicting their bad ideas on our schools, our students, our teachers, and American education?”
          Indeed.     Lots more here
       Why is the McKinsey report “How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better?being used to justify school reform? Who engaged them to be the experts?

       Why doesn’t the government acknowledge that according to the PISA data, NZ’s primary school education spending per head is amongst the lowest in the ‘developed world’? On a ‘bang per buck’ model, New Zealand has the best results.
       Why doesn’t the government chose to publicise the 2009 PISA results that has New Zealand statistically near the top of the rankings in every test? Hardly the sign of a failing system? What about this scale, which has New Zealand at the top?

       Why doesn’t the government acknowledge that the countries who have instituted standards based systems are below New Zealand’s ranking on the PISA results?

       Why is the government completely ignoring all the national and international evidence that standards a) don’t work  and b) will be harmful to children? There is well documented research querying the focus on standards and testing, so why press ahead?
       Why is the government disregarding the increasing concern from overseas about the narrowing of the curriculum , the increasing emphasis on the 3Rs (Seymour Papert: “Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs”,) to the detriment of the arts and the creative development of the whole child? Sir Ken Robinson:  A Baffling Detour to the 19th Century

       Why is the government ignoring the evidence that the most successful school system is Finland and that the Finnish approach is the complete opposite to a standards based system? Singapore is moving towards the Finnish model while we are moving the opposite way.
       Why is the government not acknowledging the national and international research about socio-economic effects being the major influence on learning? 

 If the politicians were as concerned as they profess to be about the educational development of NZ children, then surely it would be logical to take note of the evidence and expert opinions?

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that any talk about the children’s learning is political rhetoric and that there has to be more to this.

And there is, and it’s not hard to find. The first agenda is naked politics in all its dubious glory. The aim of any political party is to be elected in the first place, and to stay in power for as long as possible.

One not particularly savoury aspect of this is the appeal to the baser instincts of the voters. In the case of education, it is being done through targeting parents’ fears that their children may not make the grade, hence the inaccurate “1 in 5” are failing. Extending this political fear-mongering further, if 1 in 5 children are failing, then that means that significant numbers of schools can be accused of not doing the job. I can hear the political rhetoric already.
 Is your child in a ‘good’ school? How do you know? We will set up league tables to identify ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools. We will use ‘data’ to identify and reward ‘good’ and to get rid of ‘bad’ teachers.” And so on…

Couldn’t possibly happen?  Just have a look at the USA. What do we find? Attacks on the teacher unions. Teachers losing ‘tenure’ if their test results are not good enough. Value added teacher appraisal. The worst example of all:  The Los Angeles Times published the test history of all teachers over the past five year period, to identify the best/worst teachers.

 Look closer to home - fancy working in Australian schools under their NAPLAN testing regime?  Australian Education Minister Peter Garrett (one time lead singer of rock band Midnight Oil, who sang protest songs about uranium mining and Aboriginal land rights  - figure this change of ideology) is promoting teacher performance pay against NAPLAN test results.

Why do politicians keep promoting performance pay for teachers, even though in practice this is unworkable and also flies in the face of research evidence?  Maybe they should all read Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”? Or what about this research “Giving Teachers Bonuses for Student Achievement Undermines Student Learning, Study Finds

Is there a bigger agenda yet? I believe there is.  Once again, looking at the English and USA examples, we find that ‘failing’ schools are closed, and replaced by Academy and Free  schools in England, and charter schools in the USA - all supposedly to better reflect community wishes.

What happens? Vouchers in some states. Selective enrolment (‘good’ children only please), site based employment (no ‘nasty’ unions) and the opportunities for businesses to use schools as profit making enterprises,   even though research shows that their achievement levels are no better. Strange, that.

If you want to know more (and you really should), follow Diane Ravitch ( who is articulating the anti-testing/anti-standards campaign in the USA. Joe Bower in Canada ( and Warwick Mansell in England ( also have much to contribute. There are many, many others.

And so the trail has led back to New Zealand, starting with national standards that will result in league tables (the Minister has now admitted this) and the identification of “good” schools and ‘poor” schools, who are ‘under-serving’ students.  “Under-serving”? Where did that emotive jargon originate? Why do we buy into all the political jargon? Really - what does ‘raising achievement’ actually mean? Let’s debunk the jargon.

Socio-economic indicators suggest a high correlation between decile rating and achievement against standards. Where does this lead?

Students in higher decile schools are likely to have much more educational ‘space’ to explore a richer curriculum. As the converse is more likely for students in lower decile schools who may struggle to achieve the ‘standard’, this risks increasing the gaps between the “haves’ and ‘have nots’  even further. Read Alfie Kohn: “How school reform damages poor children.” and also this:

We know what it takes to help disadvantaged students do well, and we know what it takes to almost guarantee their failure. We know the reforms our students need—the really hard ones that are politically tough and not always popular. Let’s hope that when all the pretend reforms go away, at least a handful of good schools survive. After the sea change, when the tide goes out, perhaps a few beacons of hope will remain on the beach” (Carol Corbett Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York.  She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.)

So the question needs to be posed? What is the government’s longer term agenda for New Zealand schooling, especially in light of the clear links to, and following in the footsteps of, developments overseas?

Vouchers? Corporatisation of New Zealand schooling? This would be consistent with other government policies and rhetoric, and so there’s no reason to suppose that education would be an exception.  Maybe we could start with private ownership of the buildings? Oh, that’s already happening...

As the saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it’s a duck.”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent material Allan - thank you ( and Bruce)