Incident, 17 February, 2011

When the history of the imposition or defeat of national standards is written, one of the most remarkable and revealing incidents will have been seen to have happened at a meeting of the National Standards Sector Advisory Group (NSSSAG) 17 February, 2011. The NSSAG is a tawdry, dishonest grouping (in name and process) devised for government propaganda to support national standards.

As far as the political right is concerned, in the present environment, teacher organisations are either biddable or they are enemies. If teacher organisations aren’t the former, then the government will set out to destroy them – a process that has already begun. Last year (2010) this web site spent a huge amount of time issuing dire warnings against teacher organisations joining government advisory groups. My strongly-worded argument was that in the current climate joining such groups allows the government to say the teacher organisations are represented when they are actually being made irrelevant.

After the government has made teacher organisations biddable or destroyed them, the way will then be clear for the government and bureaucracies to take complete control of what children learn and how, teacher conditions of work, teacher pay structures (payment on test results), and job security. There will be one way to teach and that way will be decided by politicians and bureaucrats on the ‘evidence-based’ say-so of quantitative academics of the sort that dominate Auckland University. We are already well on the way along this Americanised path. Could someone tell me why? We have so much failure around us – but our schools, in contrast, are a success. And yet these sponsors of that failure are intent on replacing something that works here, for something that doesn’t over there.

A sense of something seriously out of joint pervades the operation of the NSSAG starting with the nature, selection, status, and vagaries of membership. The NSSAG terms of reference uses the expression membership comprising a ‘broad group of sector representatives’ and even more telling ‘who represent a sector organisation’. Does an institution, in this case the ministry, have the ethical or even legal right to say an individual is representing a grouping, when that individual is not officially nominated as a representative? Does an institution, in this case the ministry, have the ethical even legal right to describe a grouping in a way that it isn’t? Does an institution, in this case the ministry, have the ethical right to appoint people to a grouping with a serious imbalance against the people most affected by the matter the group is concerned with? Does an institution, in this case the ministry, have the ethical right to fund a grouping in which the people most concerned are close to being almost entirely unrepresented.

The complication for the government, in this case, is that the groups most concerned do not want to nominate a representative (and in my view, should not). The only ethical recourse for the government is to appoint a grouping of, say, interested people or experts for the matter under attention. The government, however, has already tried the grouping of experts and it failed – it failed for two reasons: the experts couldn’t come up with anything worthwhile and, even more important; the grouping did not have sufficient propaganda value. Neither would a grouping of interested people selected by the government.

Late last year, NZEI, after being the steadier of the teacher organisations lost it, and for some reason got it in its collective head to join the NSSAG. This will be something for the historians to investigate – a suggested line of investigation is that it is probably difficult to underestimate the naivety of the teacher organisations if stroked in the right way. A flurry of criticisms followed (particularly from this web site) and, in the new year, NZEI departed the NSSAG with a well-reasoned statement.

On the occasion of that departure, the chairperson, Gary Hawke, that wily old right–wing high level apparatchik, asked the members of the advisory group if they agreed with the NZEI idea of a trial period for national standards.

Now who do we have on the committee? We have a chair who is a former economic history professor; we have a number of high powered ministry and review office representatives, both of them from secondary; we have a person representing the Association of Integrated Schools – Pat Lynch, proprietor from the Catholic Education Office, with a secondary background and strong right-wing education views – but there is no representative of the Catholic Schools Principals Association (which has just released a strong statement against national standards on moral grounds); we have  a school trustee representative; we have an intermediate person representing the Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools who is a fervent supporter of national standards; we have a primary principal who is a fervent supporter of national standards who is described as representing a sector, but which one is not specified; and another primary principal also a fervent supporter of national standards and similarly described; we have an area school principal (from secondary) who is on the NZ Area Schools Association executive; the secondary member is on the executive of the Secondary Principals Association; we also have three te reo Maori school representatives. As well, academics are vaguely referred to as being members but not named (this is Orwellian): they would seem to be Avis Glaze, John Hattie, Tom Nicholson, and Tony Trinick who have been transferred from the failed Independent Advisory Group (this is the Orwellian – ‘independent’) – are these academics representing universities?

So we have at least two members (the two primary principals) of the advisory group who, in the usual sense of the word, are not representing any ‘sector organisation’ which is a stated requirement in the ministry terms of reference – this has the effect of leaving primary contributing schools entirely unrepresented; we have integrated schools being represented by the proprietor – this has the effect of leaving Catholic integrated schools entirely unrepresented; except for the bureaucrats and the school trustee representative, we have only principals on the advisory group – this has the effect of leaving the tens of thousands of teachers entirely unrepresented; in a grouping of thirteen members we have three members of te reo organisations who don’t do national standards, three bureaucrats (actually many more seem to turn up to meetings) who are makers and enforcers of national standards, and a principal representing secondary schools who don’t do national standards, and then, of course, we have the chair – Hawke. So eight out of thirteen members of the advisory group are not directly involved in national standards from a school’s perspective. Oh, and counting Karen Sewell, there are only three women. (Counting the academics, it is four out of seventeen.) My guess is that they are already looking for a fervent national standards’ woman supporter from special education who is of Pasifika-Asian heritage.

I am not saying that most the members of the advisory group don’t come from organisations  with a legitimate interest in national standards, but the grouping as well as being partly unrepresentative of sector groups, is seriously imbalanced against the grouping most concerned with national standards and, as well, leaves tens of thousands of teachers entirely unrepresented. Let me put in another way to those from secondary – how would you like it if primary teachers dominated a government grouping your sector strongly opposed on moral and educational grounds? (And I say this to the PPTA who is playing doggo over the matter – would you have joined an advisory group designed to help in the implementation of bulk funding?)

I reiterate that primary teacher organisations refusing to be represented on the advisory group is no excuse for going ahead with the formation of an advisory group labelled representative of sector organisations. A teacher organisation has the legal right not to join any particular government grouping; and the government has a near unfettered legal right to form any particular grouping, but it does not have the moral right, perhaps even legal right, to label a grouping something it isn’t.

Hawke, the chair, is someone governments turn to when they want right-wing education policies brought in – he will (as I see it) brook no tampering with what he knows, but he comes with a jovial side to his personality which sympathetically draws people into his schemings. I think he rather enjoys the Machiavellian side of manoeuvring through such policies – very appealing to his ego. From my reading of him, he was a so-so professor who achieved whatever he achieved more from longevity of tenure and political insider status than academic brilliance. As an education politician, though, at an international level he has achieved prominence. He is an average public speaker, a very good writer (though with a tendency to the slippery and the prolix), and a decidedly unoriginal thinker. Outside the university, he has moved comfortably within the Wellington ‘Yes Minister’ circles. In his later years, as far as enlightened educators are concerned, a Karla seriously in need of a Smiley to bring him to earth. (But it took Smiley nearly a 1000 pages to do this, so the likelihood of his ego taking a puncture is almost nil.)

Mind you, a study of his portrait evokes the Wizard of Oz more than Karla both in the Kansas representation and the fantasy one. I think the reader might sense a grudging admiration in me for the artful way he has been able to get away with such latter-career success in dispensing, from my point-of-view, such shonky potions and promises.

Hawke as a person who wants to shape education to a right-wing way of thinking in the service of right-wing governments is a far more substantial opponent of primary school principals and teachers than John Hattie. Hattie relied on dodgy research which provided an unstable premise for his arguments. Mind you, even given this, Hattie did a very poor job of building on his premises. Hawke’s argument style in education is to base his premises on the idea that any ideas different from his and the government’s are inherently and cataclysmically wrong: as a result, ‘when did you stop getting it wrong’ is the beginning point for engaging with his ideas – if you don’t accept that there is no engagement.

Hawke, an economic historian, is an old-style Peter Drucker industrial management by measurable objectives advocate. That is his world view – a world view of transferring a system designed for industrial production to the world outside industrial production. Such a view when applied to education has a superficial relevance but, as most teachers will know, it is a view held more strongly proportionate to the less known about education. And about school education, Hawke is, for someone highly influential in education, profoundly ignorant. But the skill with which he repeats other people’s ideas about education is breathtaking – anyone who knows anything about school education knows he is winging it, but oh such winging. A problem is that ignorance about education results in ignorance about the effect of such ignorance on others – in this instance the children of New Zealand.

Hawke is a subtle authoritarian: he supports the idea of partnership in education as long as it is a partnership in which schools obey the government. The justification for schools needing to obey the government is that schools might know about education but governments know about the economy and how education might serve it. Others might support the idea of education serving society of which the economy is central but not exclusive of everything else. But because he believes governments and its advisers know something that schools apparently are incapable of knowing, then partnership should be almost entirely on the government’s terms. In the sense of power and legality Hawke has a case, but he doesn’t seem to realise that schools might know something that governments and their advisers don’t – and to the benefit of both children and the economy. Such an understanding and acceptance by the powerful is the essence of social democracy.

What is happening in education today represents a slide to authoritarianism: the rushed, unscrutinised legislation; the scapegoating of teachers: the big lies, for instance, in the Explanatory note; the use of agencies of state to produce propaganda and fear; the rewriting of history, a recent instance is that 31 January we are now told, was never the expected time for charters – from where did you get that ridiculous idea?; the use of puppet advisory groupings; and the government control of universities.

With the background set, I want to return to what I referred to above as likely to be one of the most remarkable and revealing incidents in the history of the national standards battle – an incident that occurred on 17 February, 2011 at the third meeting of the NSSAG.

On 17 February, 2011, Ian Leckie attended the third meeting of the NSSAG and read a prepared statement. Hawke in his slippery writing up of the meeting (more of this in a later posting) says dismissively: ‘He used the time to read a prepared statement reiterating well-known NZEI positions and announcing his withdrawal from NSSAG.’

Leckie then withdrew.

Now comes the remarkable and revealing incident referred to.

Here we have an issue of great historic importance, one in which principals and teachers have continually and overwhelmingly demonstrated their opposition in meetings, conferences, protests, articles, and submissions. And, as part of that opposition they have advocated a trial period as a way to find a partnership approach to meet the purposes of national standards but in a different manner. And here we have a grouping of people in education who are described in the terms of reference as people who ‘represent a sector organisation’.

And here we have the chair of that grouping of people asking the members of that grouping representing sector organisations if they supported such a trial period.

And here we have officials from ERO; officials from the ministry; a proprietor; a number of academics; an area school principal; a secondary school principal; two primary principals; a principal from an intermediate school; a school trustee representative; and office-holders or ‘voices’, as they are described by our chair, from three te reo organisations.

And the motion was put by the chair.

And not one voice spoke in support of a trial.

Jesus wept!

Let this be noted by education historians: not against members of the advisory grouping, but at the degradation of education such an advisory grouping represents.

This outcome was the accumulated effect of a dishonest labelling of the group; of a dishonest selection of group members as a result; of a farcical imbalance of fervent supporters of national standards to independent ones; of a farcical imbalance of those without direct experience of national standards in schools to those with; a farcical imbalance of secondary people to primary; a farcical imbalance of academics and bureaucrats to those from schools; a farcical imbalance of high status people to lower status ones; a farcical imbalance of principals to teachers; a farcical imbalance of men to women. This not to say, however, that these imbalances should be artificially remedied, it is to say, rather, that members selected should either truly represent sector organisations or, if that is not possible, the label of the advisory group be changed. And why are the bureaucrats even members of the group? The bureaucrats are the makers and enforcers of the policy, why should they be dominant parties in advising themselves?

But this dishonesty and imbalance are probably not the most disgraceful part of the process because the outcome was also the accumulated effect of bizarre chairing of the advisory group starting from the minutes not being minutes but ‘reflections’ of the chair; of the minutes not being minutes but a ‘consensus document … entirely the responsibility of the chair’ (I know – unbelievable!); of the array of academics paraded to dazzle the members with science; of the presentation of research in either an ill-informed or disingenuous way – research into literacy and numeracy was presented as having something to do with national standards when it only had to do with literacy and numeracy.

This outcome was also the accumulated effect of the bizarre chairing of the advisory group because of  presentation of research in either a dishonest or disingenuous way – the research was not challenged on the dodgy way children were chosen for the testing; on the smallness of the groups (in one of the research projects around three to four children); on the way literacy and numeracy were narrowed to make them measurable; on the way the testing so quickly followed the teaching that the result was more memory than learning; on the way the results were dependent on the enthusiasm in the teaching that comes from self-interest in the result (an aspect of the Hawthorne effect); on the way the testing and interpreting of the results was undertaken by those with self-interest in the results (I’m not excepting the NZCER research from this); and the unsatisfactory way learning gains were investigated for sustainability.

I reiterate, though, that the literacy and numeracy presentations were about literacy and numeracy not national standards. I’m well aware, however, of the nasty hidden message being communicated by our honourable chair as a result of those presentations: what is being communicated is that these are the gains possible in literacy and numeracy but the only way to get teachers to achieve these ‘gains’ is through national standards. In such ways is the professionalism of teachers besmirched and education degraded.

The outcome was also the accumulated effect of a chair with knowledge of how to manipulate a group with his guileful knowledge of group dynamics. This advisory grouping is making fools of people who are members of the advisory grouping. If they are for national standards good on them, they deserve an honest forum for their ideas, not this travesty; as do those who oppose national standards.

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