National standards: a posting I urge you to read 

Tolley and Hattie: damaged goods

And over 100 points to help in the campaign against national standards

We can ‘win’ this one because even if we ‘lose’ we can ‘win’. The damage to Tolley’s credibility from the campaign against national standards has made her a lame duck. As I said in the ‘Smoke and mirrors’ postings late last year if National was really taking education seriously they would have appointed a more senior politician and not given Tolley all the education portfolios. I believe if the latest stuff up (no software to cope with national standards) is played skilfully, and we offer some kind of voluntary alternative, we can win a famous victory.

First, Anne Tolley as Anne Tolley.

She has nothing to offer but negativity, resorting, as she has, to the discredited and last-century slogan of the 3Rs; and, into the resulting vacuum, transforming cost cutting into a kind of post-modernist education raison d’être.

Tolley has lost the confidence and trust of teachers: she should go.

Tolley’s statement that ‘If they [teachers] do nothing other than teach children to read and write and do maths and be good socialised New Zealand people they’ve done a really good job’ is outrageous given she is the minister of education whose ministry is working with teachers to implement a new curriculum which is visionary in a nature and broadly-based in effect. She is undermining a curriculum that her ministry has worked on with teachers in collegial fashion to develop. The statement, written by her press officer (who, along with Tolley, constitute the real ministry of education) is an epitaph to the philosophy of education that has inspired generations of teachers and made our system the envy of many abroad. It is outrageous because it suggests that being a ‘good socialised’ New Zealander is simply a matter of fitting in, and being able to read, write and do sums. This is in massive contradiction to the new curriculum which, through such things as the vision statements, principles, learning areas, and competencies, sets out an inspirational view of what constitutes a good New Zealander.

Perhaps I can help the minister: we in the teaching community understand that literacy and to a lesser extent numeracy are crucial to self-regard and learning – we in education get that; it is not an insight you are bringing to us or to New Zealand at large; such an understanding does not constitute a credible educational philosophy, though it does carry considerable baggage. Sometimes you deliver your one idea as an epiphany, when it is actually the most trivial of truisms; at other times you deliver it in a trenchant talkback tone along the lines of: if there is one thing I know it is that – and unfortunately, it is becoming worryingly evident it is.

We truly do get it; we didn’t even need your mate Hattie to tell us that one. We understand about the 20% you are always going on about. If you drag yourself away from what the review office has said, or is said to have said, and mixed with real people like teachers, who only have children’s interests at heart, you would learn that not one child in the 20% is unidentified, and very few of the children are not getting a lot of dedicated help. Teachers would, though, accept more material support if offered, but please do this respectfully, not condescendingly, and not with the apparatus of state bearing down on them in a threatening manner.

We all recognise the importance of getting the 20% to first base; but we don’t want this to mean other children are held back, have their opportunities restricted – we want those children to feel free to dash, slide, make decisions, take risks, recover, and have their turn at seeing their abilities soar.

When challenged about the harm that would be done to other curriculum areas by removing support for their professional development, Tolley responded petulantly: ‘What is it about this sector?’

‘Next year’, she added, ‘art might get its turn. Who knows?’ Indeed, who does? What Tolley doesn’t understand is that it isn’t a matter of turns, it is a matter of continuity, of a worthwhile advisory service being there when art is turned to, in the unlikely event it is; it is a matter of national standards chewing up the timetable and teachers’ attention so that everything but literacy and numeracy is under-nourished.

It is also a matter of children having just one chance at schooling.

Tolley has neither the understanding of education, nor the temperament to be an anyways satisfactory minister of education. Her word is not her bond; it is just her latest tactical position. For instance, I challenge her to release documents to support her claim that she was at any stage sympathetic to Aorangi School staying open. I challenge her to support her claims that Aorangi was performing poorly and was providing an unsatisfactory education for its children. I challenge her to deny her vow on television that schools would not be closed if communities did not want them closed.

Tolley has said that cut backs in education are occurring because there isn’t any money there, but the main reason there isn’t any money there (to the drastic level it isn’t) is because at the cut back cabinet meeting she was not only the first to offer her cut backs, but she also offered the largest percentage. I challenge her to produce documents to correct this understanding. (I accept the point Tolley would make that ‘cut backs’ should be in inverted commas.)

Then there have been the glorious Monty Pythonesque characteristics of the great day of the official announcement, the lead up to it, and the denouement:  Tolley saying the teacher organisations had committed themselves to negotiate the introduction of national standards, the teacher organisations saying they hadn’t (there probably was some ambiguity because of teacher organisations hanging in there to ensure the demise of  league tables and, in the meantime, teacher opinion against national standards surging); Frances Nelson attending a calf club day instead; Ernie Buutveld intoning in stately fashion against attendance; the empty rows of chairs (a picture is worth a thousand word); Key demonstrating his high aspirations for New Zealand by announcing the new 21st century education philosophy of the 3Rs; Key announcing the new 21st century education philosophy of the 3Rs which has stranded art, having just lauded the life of Doreen Blumhardt, that art education pioneer of the Beeby era; Key announcing $1m in prizes to encourage science students and teachers, having just announced the new 21st century education philosophy of the 3Rs which has stranded science; TVNZ placing Key’s announcement of the new 21st century education philosophy of the 3Rs in the section just before sport, and the 15th item overall, even though Key had declared the announcement to be the most important the government would ever make; and, finally, Tolley plaintively saying, she still believed the teacher organisations were committed to negotiate the introduction of national standards.

As we move into the complexities of our time, in a new century, it is outrageous that Tolley has played the 3Rs card; a card that was played throughout the 20th century in all western countries to unfortunate effect; a card that is emotively charged, highly misleading, and unhelpful; a card that implies that the 3Rs are being neglected and that teachers are too obtuse to recognise this or self-serving to care; a card that implies politicians and education bureaucrats know and teachers don’t; a card that is hard to counter because slogans are hard to counter in any context especially one as fraught and complex as education; a card that is difficult to counter because the independent voice of universities has been lost to government contracts; a card that is difficult to counter because for education, the media (oh that we were rugby!) have the attention span of a fly; a card that is a political winner, a perennial standby for pulling a political stunt, but at the expense of our children.

Now for the other half of the terrible duo, John Hattie.

The networkonnet story so far (‘The Hattie series’). On the front page of the Sunday Star-Times (January 4, 2009) in a headlining story, Hattie is presented as an academic who has written a book (Visible Learning) described as education’s ‘holy grail’. Tolley is reported as saying that with Hattie so close to cracking the secret of learning, he is certain to be central to the changes in education she has in mind. Hattie reciprocated by saying he wanted to see performance pay introduced, and suggested that the government should stop throwing money at smaller classes.

Networkonnet did a series of analyses (‘The Hattie series’) on Hattie’s book challenging its soundness and fairness, and looking carefully at Hattie’s philosophical position which was found to be structured to favour education propositions supported by conservative politicians. Ivan Snook also did a series of articles with his summing up being ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’.

Then came the famous outburst (NZ Herald, August 1, 2009). There is no doubt that Hattie was under some pressure. He needed to keep on side with Tolley to protect his department’s lucrative contracts with the government; also not to get too far off side with the teachers and teacher organisations (there was definitely a growing awareness of his academic feet of clay).

In the mapping process for national standards being undertaken by ministry experts, asTTle was found to pose a number of problems, which irked Hattie. This, combined with the balancing act between the government and teachers, led him to snap. He said, amongst many other damning criticisms, that government policy on national standards would ‘set education back for 50 years’.

In detailing all this (‘Calculated epiphany now’), I said the apparent break between Hattie and Tolley was only a tiff and they would soon make up because they both needed each other – he to provide ideological and academic cover; she government contracts.

This reconciliation was to occur, with its public manifestation most odd. In the NZ Herald  (August 19, 2009) a small item, obviously based on a publicity release, described an enthusiastic reception given to a conference contribution (in West Australia of all places) by a professor from Auckland University. The professor was Helen Timperley, a close associate of Hattie with a significant role in Auckland University’s commercial arm headed by Hattie. Near the end of the small item was inserted the real purpose of the publicity release. At the conference, Timperley reports, she had said the government was on ‘the right track’ with its policy on national standards and, by the way, she was about to go to Wellington next week to discuss government contracts for the implementation of national standards and the new school reports.

There are more amazing twists and turns. I invite you not to let Hattie get away with his legerdemain. To contribute positively to New Zealandeducation he needs to be seen in his proper dimensions. I see a hugely energetic, entrepreneurial, charismatic, self-promoting, self-regarding academic who, in his research, tries to compensate for his lack of originality and objectivity with size and reach. In academic terms, I see a pretty leaden thinker.

Well, what are those further amazing twists and turns?

Following the official announcement on national standards last week, Hattie positioned himself as Mister Reasonable, the Mister Go-to academic, saying he had reservations about the policy but that research in a year or two would sort out the truth of the matter. But he knows the truth of the matter; he knows there is no credible evidence in national standards’ favour, but he wants his cake and to eat it too. He wants the contracts, he wants to keep on side with Tolley, but he doesn’t want to dig himself into a hole with teachers, or if national standards go belly up. Remember, this is the academic who provided the research about school reports; research that provided considerable impetus to national standards becoming National Party policy; this is also the academic who, in a hissy-fit, apparently about asTTle, said national standards would mean education ‘going back 50 years’; this is the academic whose close academic and commercial associate on the eve of her departure for Wellington to seek contracts, said national standards would were on ‘the right track’.

Even here, did you notice, he seems to be angling for research contracts on national standards, which he has a commercial interest in implementing. You have to admire his ability to go after the main chance. This does lead to an important consideration: Hattie must not become Tolley’s house researcher. Any research on national standards should be done by someone without a direct commercial interest in national standards implementation, and who has the confidence of teachers and teachers’ groups, as well as academia. Where this leaves the forlorn figure of Timperley is a matter of conjecture. She is the leading researcher used by the ministry for the academically self-serving but internationally prestigious synthesis series, but she has declared that national standards are on the right track. She did not put forward any evidence synthesised or otherwise to support this. If you live by the word, you die by it.

That was a twist, now for a turn: today October 25, 2009, in the Herald on Sunday, appeared one of the most remarkable, informed, and inspired editorials on education ever written. The writer has written himself into editorial glory. The editorial is headed ‘Let teachers teach, not count’. I won’t go into the details but it has everything you or I could have ever have wished for. It’s a whopper! [If any reader at any time wants a copy of the editorial just get in touch with me; it would be most useful for your discussions with your board of trustees and community.]

But here’s the rub for Hattie: quite innocently of a knowledge of Hattie’s manoeuvring to backtrack on his outburst, and quite understandably seeing the outburst was made in Herald on Sunday’s sister paper, the editor goes to town on Hattie, first with a long paragraph spelling out his renown, including the embarrassing ‘holy grail’ tag; then with details of Hattie’s August 1 devastating comments on national standards. Remember, these comments came from files, not from Hattie’s lips. The situation is sheer magic. The paragraph ends saying Hattie ‘has condemned the planned changes as ‘going back 50 years’ and expressed concern that they will force teachers to teach children according to their school year, rather than their ability level.’

Hattie has become the accidental hero. I sense that the editor was emboldened to be as bold as he was in condemnation of national standards because of Hattie’s condemnation. It’s just too delicious. My stirring cup runneth over. From my point-of-view there is another Monty Python touch: Hattie said national standards would ‘set back education by 50 years’. Let’s see, 1959: Elwyn was in his heyday, the Beeby philosophy still had pockets of genuine strength, an inspired and independent advisory service, considerable teacher freedom, benign bureaucracies, little research, and no Hattie. Yes please: bring it on.

Tolley and Hattie, the two most powerful people in education are damaged goods; their influence while still strong has diminished – education is the better for it.

And for the future: we should negotiate with the government on the basis of no national standards, no new reports; the main issue is not league tables or delaying their introduction, it is no national standards, no new reports. If there are some things the government would like to introduce from elements of national standards and the new reports, let the government put them forward for schools and school communities to consider voluntarily on the basis of trust and the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools.

As I wrote in the letter for the last posting: they call for submissions for dogs don’t they? why not for kids?.

The move by NZEI to have a forum about national standards is brilliant. I’d love to see Alexander and Apple there. Meanwhile, the list that follows is to help you in what you can do about national standards in any way you can. Please send in any further suggestions for me to add to the list.

[This has been a rushed job, so where you find grammar and spelling mistakes, and other infelicities, and where you feel I’ve gone too far, or not far enough – please let me know.]

Over a 100 points to help in the campaign against national standards

  • The key issue is that they are compulsory national standards.
  • If they were voluntary, like the literacy progressions, or able to be used flexibly like the achievement objectives, they would be acceptable.
  • I went into an investigation of national standards as a strong opponent of them; I came out a fierce one.
  • Except for a few academics and some in their related support services, with their eyes on government contracts, I found virtually no support for them in the education community
  • I came across no evidence in countries comparable to New Zealandto support national standards.
  • Three press items, for instance, sum up the English experience: The Times headline – ‘Dropping primary school literacy and numeracy strategies long overdue’; the BBC  agreed, adding – ædropping the strategy would save 100 million pounds in consultancy fees’; The Guardian said – ‘literacy and numeracy standards had dropped decisively in the eight years after the strategies came into effect’.
  • The effect of national standards on the new curriculum will be serious.
  • The real curriculum will be national standards, the complex mapping of evaluation data from a range of sources, intensive use of standardised tests, collecting data for school reports, a narrow perception of literacy and numeracy.
  • So the high hopes for the new curriculum, the visionary principles, and the increased curriculum freedom for schools will be largely unrealised.
  • Because the evaluation data will be ‘high stakes’ (as Marie Clay called that kind of competitive data formation), it will be fudged down at the beginning of each year and up during it.
  • The process poses a kind of moral entrapment for principals.
  • In contradiction to the government’s promise to reduce principals’ workload, national standards will greatly increase it.
  • National standards are flawed in practice and in theory.
  • National standards are flawed in theory because they are incapable of definition.
  • National standards are incapable of definition because any worthwhile education activity, to be defined, requires words that require further definition, and so on.
  • The most that can be said for a national standard that it is a working definition of a cluster of related education activities developed on the basis of the value judgements of a group of people, to be used by another group of people, in relation to children, on the basis of exercising further value judgements.
  • In other words, all parts of the national standards’ process, and there are many of them, are value laden.
  • The great danger of measurement tools is their specious claim to objectivity.
  • To deflect attention from the theoretical impossibility of defining a national standard, and from the subjectivity of both formal and informal evaluation procedures, the authorities, to some extent commendably, have allowed for a variety of procedures both formal and informal to be used in evaluating child performance.
  • Having a lot of parts to evaluating child performance, though in some part commendable, is futile, and has led to considerable complexity in defining standards, and will lead to even greater confusion in applying them.
  • Because all the parts are value laden, they can be described as moving parts, and the process as such will suffer from too many moving parts (the national standards, various formal measurement tools, achievement objectives from the curriculum, learning area statements, literacy learning progressions, NCEA, and information from day to day teaching activities).
  • Not only will the lineout out be on the run so will the person throwing in the ball
  • There is no solution to this value laden and many moving parts’ dilemma for national standards; to reduce the number of moving parts in an attempt to reduce the complexity of the process, will only serve to narrow it to the use of measurement tools.
  • Confusion abounds and will abound. National (in its manifesto) says: ‘Clear national standards will describe all things children should be able to do by a particular age or year at school’. Which is it?
  • Children will, actually and damagingly, be taught according to their school year, rather than their ability level.
  • The ministry (on its web site) says: ‘It should be remembered, however, that students start at different points and progress at different rates, so when interpreting achievement, rate of progress needs to be considered as well’. This is laudable but not what national standards are really about.
  • In commenting on parents’ responses in the consultation process, the ministry reports that ‘Parents also want information on their child’s social and emotional development’. Once again, not what national standards are really about.
  • The new curriculum sets out four criteria for the new curriculum – to help the children to be: literate and numerate; critical and creative thinkers; active seekers, users, and creators of knowledge; informed decision makers.
  • National standards will work against all these criteria, even the criterion of literacy and numeracy, because the attention will be to a narrow view of literacy and numeracy.
  • Literacy and numeracy are shallow, unstable things if children don’t have a context of being able to know about things, know how to think about things, feel about things, respond to things, and express themselves in a variety of forms.
  • This narrow view of literacy and numeracy will have a considerable effect on the timetable and curriculum.
  • Other parts of the curriculum will be crowded out: science, social studies, the arts, physical activity.
  • To say, as the government is, that national standards are about preparing children for NCEA is preposterous: NCEA is also about, indeed, very much about, children being critical and creative thinkers; active seekers, users, and creators of knowledge; informed decision makers.
  • Secondary schools want to receive children who, as well as being successful at literacy and numeracy, are highly motivated to learn and are flexible thinkers.
  • There is a need to defend the higher realms of learning – learning beyond the obviously utilitarian – because their values, while they may not be immediately ascertainable as useful, are vital for the long-term welfare of our children and our society.
  • The government, through national standards, should not reach into the functioning of classrooms to pick winners.
  • It is one of the ironies of life in New Zealand that people who otherwise criticise increased government control are so ready to accept government actions and arguments in education.
  • Children who excel at certain parts of the curriculum should have those parts as valued as any other part.
  • All learning interacts with and supports all learning.
  • For a child the effects of learning are indivisible.
  • If national standards are so important, then all New Zealandchildren should benefit from them, so they should be extended to te reo based schools.
  • There is no doubt that teachers will feel formal and informal pressure to teach to the tests (which will become the increasingly dominant source of evaluation data).
  • National standards are being justified on the trumpeted and purported concern for the tail of children – about 20% – who are struggling with literacy and numeracy.
  • Professor Martin Thrupp from Waikato University wrote recently that ‘the politics of blame are useful to governments because they can seem to be doing something about the problem of underachievement without having to tackle more fundamental and difficult issues to do with poverty and inequality’.
  • The Guardian, Friday October 16, 2009 reports on a monumental review of national standards by Cambridge University – the review: Says that Sats [standardised tests] and league tables should be scrapped and ‘replaced with teacher assessments in a wider range of subjects than just the 3Rs, to encourage primaries to focus on the broader curriculum.’
  • “Accuses the Labour government of reaching ever deeper into the “recesses of professional action and thought”. ‘
  • Says that we ‘argue for a rolling back of powers of the state and reversal of the centralisation of how teachers teach – In respect to day-to-day teaching, government should step back.’
  • ‘Notes the questionable evidence on which some key educational policies have been based; the disenfranchising of local voice; the rise of unelected and unaccountable groups taking key decisions behind closed doors; the ’empty rituals’ of consultations; the authoritarian mindset, and the use of myth and derision to underwrite exaggerated accounts of progress and discredit alternative views.’
  • The Cambridge review also found the schools that did best under the standards’ regime were the ones which kept their curriculum focus wide.
  • An iconic New Zealand principal from an iconic area writes: ‘I have to say I am heartily sick of people who do not do the job telling me how I might do it better. We are being made to feel that if we all just worked a little harder (or better!) we would get the problem of  ‘underachievement’ sorted. If it was that simple we would have solved it years ago!’
  • In the 20% tail referred to, we have many children for whom English is a second language, severely dyslexic children, children with serious physical and psychological problems, children who have attended many schools, and children from impoverished and highly dysfunctional families.
  • To alter the nature of the education system; to undermine the vision of the new curriculum; to reduce the challenge for all children – for the purpose of implementing policies that have demonstrably failed overseas is an educational tragedy in the making.
  • To be doing this in the interests of what parents want is a travesty because it won’t be in the best interests of their children.
  • The way national standards have been presented to the public, and the compulsory reporting system, has been a travesty.
  • If the benefits of national standards are so clear and self-evident, then the adamant opposition from teachers and their organisations implies teachers are either obtuse or unprofessional.
  • If changes to dog licensing laws are preceded by submissions and an enquiry, why not education changes affecting our children.
  • The implication in the government’s presentation of national standards is that schools are failing in literacy and numeracy for the 20% tail, failing to such an extent that they are the problem and, as such, cannot be trusted.
  • This means the government has taken it on to itself to impose national standards.
  • This means the government has taken it on itself to impose these national standards even though the idea has been shown to have failed overseas, but about which no enquiry has been undertaken in this country.
  • There is no doubt that the curriculum will become less rich to the detriment of all children.
  • The parents of children who are succeeding at school do not want a lesser education for their children but the media and the politicians are framing and presenting the standards’ debate in such a way that open and worthwhile discussion about this has not occurred.
  • The parents whose children are struggling do not want foisted on their children, policies that have failed elsewhere.
  • The children who are struggling will not be helped by their learning being undertaken in a less rich environment.
  • Because of the intensive use of standardised tests and the changed nature of programmes, children who find themselves struggling, in say, reading, will very quickly find themselves labelled as failures in their own eyes and those of their classmates and the wider community. This will be particularly harmful for certain groups in the school population.
  • National standards will result in downward pressure for more formal teaching from secondary to primary to early childhood.
  • A more formal and narrower curriculum will result in more behaviour problems in schools, particularly from boys, and within that Maori boys.
  • The principles of Tomorrow’s Schools, a system based on trust and considerable local control should be supported, not undermined as it is with the standards’ policy.
  • If there is some value in education standards (literacy progressions are close to them) and some better ways to report to parents, then that value and those better ways should have been presented to schools for decision by teachers and board of trustees.
  • There is a widespread recognition amongst teachers that the national standards’ policy is a stunt to draw attention away from the government’s reduced investment in education.
  • Leaving aside the demonstrated failure of national standards overseas, the compulsion and top down nature of national standards would, on their own, ensure their failure.
  • Teachers already make available to parents the results of standardised tests and other judgements about children’s performances.
  • Parents of all children would not want to see people of initiative and creativity discouraged from entering teaching, and teachers of initiative and creativity discouraged from remaining.
  • Parents might be concerned to know that national standard results will be attached to the child’s name (as well as a special education number), be available to board of trustee members, and kept on permanent file in Wellington, meaning the details could be accessed at any time in the child’s lifetime.
  • The research into the nature of school reports by a professor of education from Auckland University is suspect.
  • Was the interchange between parents and teachers at school interviews and in the regular life of the school given due weight?
  • Because the University of Auckland will be a major beneficiary of government contracts to implement the new reporting system, was there a conflict of interest?
  • Any parent, as part of that research, if asked, would always like to know more, and expressed in plain language – they are questions with implicitly obvious replies.
  • Simply expressing children’s literacy or numeracy performance as ‘above’, ‘at’, or ‘below’ a national standard is highly misleading; to be required to express in a sentence or two what the school intends to do, or the parents can do, will inevitably become formulaic.
  • The idea of standardised tests every six months imposes an inflexible framework on a fluctuating and complex process.
  • The idea of the language that will result being plain, bizarre; the summary of children’s progress, jargon accretion; the suggestions for next steps simplistically generalised; the value for parents miniscule; and their advantages over present school reports nil, at best. This is especially so when the demands on teacher time are taken into account.
  • Guy Claxton’s statements about the England experience (pp. 39-40. Claxton, G. (2008). What’s the point of school? (pp. 39-40); Oxford, UK: Oneworld.): Staff morale plummeted when a school was identified as having ‘serious weaknesses’ and needing special measures.
  • Creative ways were found to improve schools’ apparent levels of performance.
  • The more important the achievement of measurable targets, the more people found ways of massaging figures.
  • Subjects that were not subject to high-stakes assessment were squeezed out.
  • Many teachers found it difficult to avoid teaching to the test.
  • Children said the fun was going out of learning and the anxiety levels of parents rose.
  • I will leave the final word to the iconic principal (referred to above). First a comment from this principal on universities: ‘The conflict of interest that occurs now that universities have become so dependent on funding contracts certainly seems to compromise their ability to be conscience and critic. Sadly, this means that we are now largely on our own in defending what is in the best interests of children and learning, with such defense often being interpreted as patch protection.’
  • The principal goes on to say that ‘education really has become a profession where we are constantly being ‘done to’ and we seem to frequently be at the mercy of educationally indefensible policies that shift and move according to the whims and rhetoric of political expediency and people who don’t understand. The potential damage of such policies is distressing.’
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