Alison Gilmore, executive director replies

—– Original Message —–
From: “Alison Gilmore” alison.gilmore@canterbury.ac.nz
To: ksmythe@wave.co.nz
Cc:  terry.crooks@otago.ac.nz; jeffrey.smith@otago.ac.nz; lisa.smith@otago.ac.nz>; charles.darr@nzcer.org.nz
Sent: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 2:16 PM
Subject: NZAA and National Standards

Mr Smythe

I read your article with some dismay. There are many factual inaccuracies
contained within it as well as an unfortunate tone, seeking to represent the New Zealand Assessment Academy as a clique of myopic psychometricians with a lust for high stakes testing. (Note, it is not the New Zealand Academy for Assessment as you have written.)

I find the use of the term ‘quantitatives’ derogatory, as you seek to
represent them as creatures that have crawled out from under a rock, or have landed from Mars determined to sweep major measurement damage to the educational system with malicious intent. The description of the New Zealand Assessment Academy as a ‘cute little group of like-minded quantitatives’ is similarly deliberately demeaning and incorrect. If you sought to understand the nature of the Academy and its aims before commenting on them, you would know that students, teachers and principals, and good teaching and learning are at the heart of our intentions.

Do not be mistaken by assuming that the group of ‘experts’ who make up the membership of the Academy are quantitatives in the sense of being
decontextualised psychometricians without an interest or passion for
excellence in education. Do not be mistaken by assuming that the members of the group are like-minded. Do not be mistaken by assuming that the Academy has particular views without taking the time and care to learn about them. Do not be mistaken by assuming that we are having ‘cosy little meetings with the Minister’ without the interests of teachers and students.  These assumptions are plainly wrong. If you wish to comment on the activities of the Academy, might you be better advised to either learn, before speaking out?

Alison Gilmore
Executive Director
New Zealand Assessment Academy

Associate Professor
University of Otago
Box 56
Dunedin
New Zealand

Dear Alison Gilmore

Thank-you for your reply. I always appreciate such challenges to my writing and thinking because, despite my tone and apparently flippant attitude, I do want to get it right. Your letter, however, except for a mistake in a name, establishes no inaccuracies – just different viewpoints. Nor does your letter contest the main ideas in the posting.

Thank-you for the correction to the Academy name; that was careless of me.

No – I do not in any way think of your group members as coming from Mars or, even, in one case, from Krypton.

The colourful expression ‘clique of myopic psychometricians with a lust for for high stakes testing’ overstates my attitude. ‘Clique’ I have to accept
as being a reasonable interpretation of what I wrote; but ‘myopic’ – no,
more naively self-serving; ‘a lust for high stakes testing’ – no, not a lust just a carelessness in allowing high stakes testing to be, what you probably see as an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of what you do. The ‘lust for high stakes testing’ comes from governments pursuing power extension and populist policies, using quantitatives and their research as a rationale and cover.

The term ‘quantitatives’ is derogatory and was meant to be. Around the
western world, quantitative academics are invariably the ones advising
governments on policies like scientific management, national standards,
performance pay, and curriculum development. These governments do not give much of a hearing to different perceptions of the curriculum, or to the sociological perspective.

I have written at length on the motivations of academics (especially in the
postings on the ‘Battle for Primary School Reading’) and find little
difference in their motivations from powerful people in other occupations.
Any difference in this respect, being an inability for academics to see themselves in anything but the best light.

I do not believe ‘you are determined to sweep major measurement damage to the educational system with malicious intent’; as there is no evidence you are doing it with ‘malicious intent’. It is more happening, as I indicated above, from being naively self-serving and unrelentingly self-righteous.

All groups in education believe that ‘students, teachers and principals, and
good teaching and learning are at the heart of [their] intentions’ but that
is of little comfort if any of those groups are being harmed. All this, of course, is a matter of judgement, but I believe, and many in education believe, that the dominance of quantitative academics in education is a serious source of education harm.

It’s not your good intentions as academics or goodness as people that are in question, or that your points-of-view are all the same. In this respect, you seemed to have missed a major idea in the posting: very good people, with very good intentions, can be members of groups and institutions that can do some very bad things. Indeed, people being very good and having good intentions can serve to allow groups and institutions to get away with murder.

John Hattie has called the New Zealand Assessment Academy ‘his group’ and will be ‘made up of researchers specialising in assessment measurement’. (Sounds like quantitative research to me.) Hattie said he did not support the introduction of league tables but with the ‘introduction of national standards’ they were ‘inevitable, so it was important to work out a fair solution’ (New Zealand Herald, February 6, 2010).

Let us go back a little. John Key said Hattie gave him ‘the idea for national standards’ (which, of course, is only a half truth). So Hattie is for national standards which, by his admission, inevitably results in league tables, which he is against. How much sense does that make? Hattie now puts himself forward as the person who can ameliorate both national standards and league tables and save the government’s bacon. This is an example of the self-serving naivety of quantitative academics. As well, as I made clear in my letter to Terry Crooks, ameliorating national standards and, their adjunct, league tables, is oxymoronic.

Your group’s formation is an admission by all its members that national standards are now set in the system. However, out in the field, there is still huge resistance, with the possibility of a long-running standoff. I find the formation of your group not an expression of pragmatism, as you probably see it, but betrayal. This is the kind of ethically dubious behaviour that group dynamics can lead to.

The ill-effects of quantitative academics in western world education systems comes not so much from something inherent in quantitative research, but from its suffocating dominance: a dominance that has arisen from governments and bureaucrats wanting an ideology of certainty and measurement accountability to extend their power.

An acknowledged unfairness in my letter does, to some extent, come from a narrative that starts with USA legislation in the ’80s that set up control of education by measurement accountability, and ends up in 2010 in New Zealand with a committee of measurement assessment experts charged with ameliorating the introduction of national standards and league tables. Differences in background, philosophy, and aspiration of members of this committee were rather bundled together, but I thought you would have made the connection with how the dynamics of groups and institutions can lead to certain outcomes that people, as individuals, wouldn’t necessarily support.

That proviso aside, I stand by my assumptions and the contents of my posting.

Yours sincerely

Kelvin Smythe

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