The sage and the jackass: degradation of education – challenge and furtherance 

Managerialism (education by measurable objectives) and the associated industrialisation of process are leading to an increasingly swift degradation of education. Such a situation is posing a sharp ethical and moral challenge to teachers and principals. This posting provides an example of that degradation being challenged by a sage, and an example of it being furthered by a jackass.

But how to get teachers to recognise fully the nature of the challenge? An important way to do this is convince teachers there is an alternative to the present way the system functions; another way is to encourage principals to rise above the fear and uncertainty characteristic of its oppressiveness. In an article on leadership to be published in Education Today, I wrote of the reasons why principals find themselves on either the managerialist leadership side of the current education controversy or the curriculum-driven side.

I wrote that where principals find themselves in this controversy comes down to attitude of mind. In the case of those who find themselves on the  managerialist side, the attitude of mind, I point out, is not all of a one, for instance, principals who believe official policy is invariably the truth will, in the prevailing education climate, administer their schools along the lines of managerialist leadership theory; so will principals who consider it their responsibility to follow official policy whether they believe in it or not; so will principals who like certainty and mathematical precision in education; and so will principals who go out of their way to refuse to recognise that a philosophical divide even exists.

For principals on the curriculum-driven side of the controversy, the prevailing attitude of mind, I point out, is that official policy invariably needs interpreting and changing to serve the interests of children and a broad-based curriculum. I add that an interrogative attitude of mind is an essential characteristic of a principal who aspires to curriculum-driven leadership.

Lester Flockton: challenging managerialism (that is managerialism by measurable objectives)

Lester wrote a response to my posting ‘2011 Charter Part 2: Our dire immediate future’. Lester’s letter has a kind of Orwellian foreboding about it.

Hello Kelvin

I read and re-read your article about ministry of education instructions on school charters.  You foresee the ministry’s ‘garden path’ (made of cold concretions of law and regulation) leading inexorably to the dark ages of industrialism where the bulbs of enlightenment in education are snuffed out.  Others (for example Jim Neyland) called this ‘scientific management’; others (myself included) call this the rise and rise of the education technocracy – a world-wide subscription to the orthodoxy of data-driven, evidence-based mania fermented by a bunch of inappropriately selected academics patronised by senior bureaucrats.

This path has been hard wired through heavy ‘investment’ (?) in School Management Systems (SMS) intended to conduit numeric data through high speed cyber funnels that run directly from individual schools to the bowels of Pipitea Street (MOE headquarters in Wellington), then back to their ‘frontline’ regional offices that are only permitted to see the poppy fields of learning as monochrome literacy and numeracy standards..  All of this is accompanied by a cult of jargon intended to acculturate and pattern the minds and deeds of teachers and leaders (unpack, evidence, data, scaffold, next steps, targets, outcomes, WALTs without Disney, and so on).

The system (government and its ministry) has hugely privileged access to resources to fund and drive its education doctrine down its morbid path.  The ministry feeds recipes to the government to appease its policies, then force-feeds its recipes to our schools.  All of this is bereft of any truly forward thinking philosophy despite constant references to the NZC in attempts to shield the real agendas for teaching and learning.

The Ministry’s 2011 Charter self-review checklist (Charter contents) at least is consistent with what is regulated on schools.  As you point out, the second section (Good practice guidelines) has no such regulatory authority, and the term ‘good’ refers to the ministry’s idea of what good means – not shared by many, including you.  The tired old SMACAT is synonymous with technocracy.  It has little understanding of the reality and substance of quality teaching, learning, and assessment.  For my part, a SMACAT target would read along the lines:

Every child will enjoy progress in literacy over the year relative to their abilities, home support, and the resources available to the school.  

All measurement is shot through with error, so why elevate it to a level of authority and majesty that it does not deserve.  Moreover, it is a fantasy to suggest that every child in any one ‘subgroup’ will, along with every other child in that subgroup, be capable of making the same progress as every other child!

Best wishes


Helen Chandelle from the Office of the Auditor-General: furtherance of managerialism (that is management by measurable objectives)

Your school will have received a report from Helen Chandelle demanding you do a whole lot reporting on measurable aims and targets of a strategic nature – wow! Strategic. Aims and targets of a strategic nature are obviously a world away from long-term aims with their wooly pullover connotations.

Before we get going I think we must ask: who is Helen Chandelle, and from where did she gain her expertise in education?

Yes – well you might ask but you’ll be none the wiser for asking. Can anyone place her as ever being a teacher at a school near you?

Congratulations on your brilliant career Helen. From the little there is on the internet about you – you like cooking and are into exercise and a healthy life style and you cherish your friends.

Charming! I’m sure you are a lovely person. Pity about the ugly message.

Helen’s report demands we do something called variance reporting. Variance reporting, it seems, is about reporting to the auditor-general on how well a school has achieved its strategic aims, and its annual aims and targets for student progress and achievement – in other words progress since the previous report.

Now we know that is variance reporting it puts a whole new shine on things.

‘Good reporting,’ she declares with all the confidence of one who knows, ‘is an important part of your accountability to the public’.

To THE PUBLIC – silly old us – here we’ve been spending all this time being ‘accountable’ to our school community, and it was THE PUBLIC we should have been attending to.

However, no doubt she’s right, there is likely to be, unrecognised till Helen pointed it out, a near insatiable demand by THE PUBLIC for school variance reports.

We need the interference of another bureaucratic department in education like another hole in the head.

In the accompanying letter to the report you give your phone number (04 9171513) and invite anyone with questions about your report to ring up – I have some questions and a few things to say beside.

My first question is this: Why are you asking schools to do what you are asking them to do?

Is it because you are a person who:

Is deeply ideological in the sense of wanting to turn principals into paper shufflers and schools into education factories.

Is just following regulations.

Knows very little about the complexities of schools?

How are you on flexible thinking, for instance, how do you think the story of the princess and the pea might relate to education? And just a clue – for me, teachers are princes and princesses.

Schools are places intended to provide learning and emotional learning support for children: please enumerate the ways you think renaming them ‘crown entities’ is helpful in this?

Are you aware that calling schools crown entities is a slide towards the privatisation of schools? First, characterise them as commercial institutions, then what happens in them as product development, and these crown entities will be set on the path to privatisation. Nothing further from your mind Helen – that’s probably because you know bugger all about education, in this case, what is happening overseas. (Helen – put up Diane Ravitch and look, listen, and learn.)

Any education policy has an underlying metaphor: do you feel the metaphor of ‘audit’ is an appropriate one for children’s learning?

You say ‘Good reporting is an important part of your accountability to the public.’ Could you explain why you are using the bookkeeping metaphor of accounting rather than responsibility?

Why ‘variance reporting’? The adjectival form points to it being another accounting term, another inappropriate metaphor.

You use the expression ‘performance’ which has the feel of something contrived – something done for a particular purpose under artificial conditions.

You use the expression ‘target audiences’: do you think this commercial metaphor is an appropriate one for children’s learning?

By the way, would you care to explain the difference between an aim and a target?

You regularly use the expression – strategic aims and targets. Are these different from long-term aims?

Do you detect any arrogance in the following statement?

‘The variance report should provide the school community with confidence that your school is committed to achieving better outcomes for all your students.’

Who did you consult in the writing of the document? Did you consider consulting someone or some groups who really know about schools, or did you rely on the ministry and the review office?

How honest is the following paragraph?

‘Aims and targets need to be specific, measurable, realistic, and challenging. They usually, but not always, need to include a numerical measure.’

First you say aims and targets ‘need to be specific, measurable’ but in the next sentence you say ‘They usually, but not always, need to include a numerical measure.’

How clear is that?

Actually, to the modern bureaucratic way of proceeding, very clear – very clear if you know bureaucratese. Translated it means: ‘I know I can’t come out and say everything must be measurable, so what I’ll do is come out and say it needs to be, then follow it up with a weak qualification.

The giveaway is that in the rest of the report the requirement for aims and targets to be specific and measurable is presented as an unqualified given.

Congratulations Helen, I think you will go far as a bureaucrat, don’t worry in the slightest about trampling on the dreams and opportunities of teachers and children.

Now let’s look more closely at the first part of the first sentence in the paragraph: ‘Aims and targets need to be specific and measurable …’

You say that your report is based on the Education Act (1989) – OK, so if I look in that Act I will find reference to the requirement for aims and targets to be specific and measurable? If I don’t find such a reference, and I contemplate the destruction wrought by the ‘specific and measurable’ imposition; if I think of teachers desperate to break free to inspirational teaching; principals held to their offices meeting the insatiable ‘specific and measurable’ ministry and review office demands; and the increasingly routine, boring, staccato lessons imposed on children – I’m going to be hopping mad.

I’m hopping mad.

You have imposed this barbarism on children without educational or regulatory justification.

How could you?  If you get something in education wrong, you get something wrong for children. Education is no place for either careless ineptitude or ideological games. We get enough of that from education bureaucrats – we don’t need it from outside dilettante ones.

There is no reference in the Act – not one reference to ‘specific’ or ‘measurable’.

Congratulations Helen for your part in shaping education to the bureaucratic world view, in your mind, of course, a world view to the benefit children – and it is just serendipity that this world view reduces education to the level and form that makes it a walk in the park for bureaucrats to control.

It is one thing to have people specifically appointed to diminish and narrow education without people like you from the outside, forcing themselves in to have a slice of the action.

It’s a kind of gang bashing bureaucratic style.

Helen – as a bureaucrat we know what you want for children in schools, you want learning set up in manageable, measurable little bits – but as a New Zealander, as an enlightened human being (which I sense you are), as a mother if you are one, or whatever – is this what you want for children? Do you really think an education system run on a measurement basis is the best for New Zealand children?

Helen – when I visit students on practicum in schools, I always ask them what kind of teacher they want to be – their responses are invariably inspiring – I encourage them in their aspirations, am outwardly cheerful, inside I feel an overwhelming sadness.

OK – you want school learning to be set out to be specific and measurable.

Helen – there are some things that cannot be made measurable and retain their validity. The following are a few of the things which your approach to education rubbishes: moral values; ethical decision-making; curiosity; imagination; creativity; a feeling for, a curiosity about, and understanding of people; a feeling for, a curiosity about, and understanding of the physical world; a commitment to equity; critical thinking; ability to develop knowledge; love of learning; independence in learning; imaginative, sincere, and effective expression in the arts (drama, dance, sound, visual, writing); responding to mathematical ideas (as against facts); Maori philosophical ideas.

So Helen – welcome to your world as you would like it to be. The good news for you is that your educationally diminished world already holds sway.

Under your management by measurable objectives philosophy, all those non-specific things – those immeasurable things – are disappearing or being distorted beyond recognition.

Your management by measurable objectives means a narrow version of literacy and numeracy has become the curriculum by proxy.

What a frenzy the rest of your report is:

You sum up good practice as having measurable three- to five year strategic aims; as having measurable annual aims and targets; as measuring progress towards annual and strategic aims – a vicious, cruel, authoritarian mantra.

And there you go again with good practice and variance reports – learning that can’t be measured sacrificed to the modern obsession for numbers and certainty. Almost by definition, learning that can’t be measured is the most important learning – the learning that gives coherence to other learning.

Yes – just what we need to prepare children for the future: the trivialisation of education.

The ignorance and arrogance of your report is staggering.

Why is it Helen, that I, who have been going into schools in an official capacity for over 40 years, and have seen school practice so beautiful I felt in the presence of the sublime, can’t see any of your good practice in my good practice? Are you sure your good practice is just not the practice that education accountants can understand, feel comfortable with, and control?

I’m going to leave it there Helen (well nearly). If you have been at all discomforted by any of my comments, you can find reassurance in the reality that your industrial view of the world, with its Orwellian overtones, is dominant and will continue to be so for some time. Party time for you.

In case you think I dreamt up this line of argument just for you and your fantastic report, I conclude with another quote from the article on leadership to be published in Education Today:

‘The imposition of a tight framework of measurable objectives over the school and what happens in classrooms is not about a deep and interrogative relationship with the curriculum – it is a formulaic overlay. Any jackass by functioning at the level of management by measurable objectives can sound knowledgeable about education, pandering as it does to the current obsession with certainty and precision. Management by measurable objectives eases the way for external and hierarchical control over schools, laying the basis for an industrial model of education. In schools, management by measurable objectives makes education understandable to those who don’t understand the curriculum and a nightmare for those who do.’

Would you please get out of our light? It’s already murky enough (and by the way I’ll get Doug Hislop to send you a complimentary copy of the magazine.)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s