The Listener article is out: Testing Times

There will be hints of conspiracy from time-to-time in this posting, but the charges against the ministry and the NZCER will not dwell on conspiracy but on a series of decisions that has affected the results of two key tests to the extent that in ordinary circumstances they will be significantly higher and in a high stakes’ environment will be massively higher. The children who have either lifted or soared are the average and less able ones. This has to be exposed because of the propaganda implications relating to national standards and  the education implications of faux improvement on children who need real improvement.

If you read my second posting on the issue, both organisations when challenged by teachers in the field immediately acknowledged the results’ inflation and both gave conflicting reasons before settling on the farcical ones expressed in the Listener article. A massive obfuscation campaign is underway.

It will be very difficult to get at the truth because nearly all quantitative academics are contracted to the government and a particularly powerful grouping of them is formed officially into a designated group. This will have to be once again a case of teachers doing  it for themselves. This has to be another case of teacher power. I want to issue a warning to the ministry and NZCER: the three main teachers featured in the Listenerarticle are strong people, extremely well versed in standardised testing for school standards, and valuing what standardised tests can contribute as part of the mix. They will not be fooled around with, nor will they accept scaling as dominant over the classic bell curve, one of them calling scaling ‘witchcraft’. Standardised tests based on scaling I have designated as post-modern, in other words, worse than useless.

It is significant that the first academic who tried to quell the Hikurangi rebellion from was Charles Darr, a senior member NZCER member, and also the NZCER representative on the invidious Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT) which is developing a form of national standards focused on individual student projections to provide a value-added component to appraisals soon to be imposed on principals and teachers. (Those working on PaCT, of course, would say they are just working on a new and better way for national standards – that is why I call such academics and most quantitatives the mad scientists of education.) The reason for the revisions of the two tests will, I suggest, be found in the intention to seek consistency in philosophy and practice with PaCT. The ministry and NZCER will trot people out to say scaling is the big thing in USA, well, if it is both so big and so good why the furtive launch of the revised tests, why not upfront?

This issue is of supreme importance. Without this expose of national standards data, later in the year Hekia Parata would have been crediting national standards and her work as minister for the improved results. Without this expose of national standards data appraisals soon to be imposed on principals and teachers based on individual student trajectories and added value would have had a free run. Without this expose of national standards data it would have made more politically difficult Labour’s policy to abandon national standards, and more difficult for Labour to make education an election policy (John Key and Parata would have been trumpeting their success). And, above all, without this expose of national standards data, the average and less able children, those displaying the most inflation in e-asTTle and STAR, would have continued to have nothing done to really lift their performance.

We are not good at fighting future issues: but we have in this fiasco the opportunity to fight the issue on our terms and to our advantage. I want the fight to be between head offices, not the ministry head office and schools. Schools have had enough; I want the teacher organisations to take the heat on this one. And all it would take would be one leader to make the call for this year’s national standards to be called off. That would get everyone’s attention, and establish the issue in the media eye. But as stated above, this won’t happen, and it will be up to schools to carry the fight.

The Friday Herald, first. This paper is a sister publication for the Listener, and has done a teaser, and a jolly good one too. (The link to the Herald article wouldn’t fit so I will put it in the accompanying letter.)

My presentation of what has happened does not dwell on conspiracy but on steps in certain policy directions: that is, to align the two tests with PaCT and to move to scaling as against stanines with the inevitable effect of considerably changing the bell curve. Why, seems clear to me, but it is open to discussion. The effect, though, isn’t: the effect has been a considerable lift in results for certain groups of children. Another undoubted thing is that both tests have moved to scaling without it really being discussed with teachers generally while the test was in development and, amazingly, not after. Why not? Once again that can be discussed. But the answer seems pretty clears to me.

The move to scaling wasn’t due to political interference or even ministry interference, but as a result of an agreed policy decision. Education policy makers can make education decisions, in apparent innocence, that are politically laden in effect. In an education bureaucracy (I resided in one once) what is expected by higher management is in the air, recognised as such, never mentioned as such, but acted on as such.

What does the Herald have to say?

Ministry reviewing key school tests after concerns that higher than expected results could boost National Standards – was the headline.

Listener investigation has found widespread confusion because students appeared to be achieving at far higher levels than expected.

Graeme Cosslett acknowledged that NZCER could have improved its communication with schools over the new reading test. (A big cosmic laugh on that one.)

Education Minister Hekia Parata was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The allegations of flawed tests could place greater pressure on the minister and her department.


Now for the Listener article.

I’m working into the night on this one. I’ll assume you will have read it or will read it, allowing me to go straight to the arguments of Chris Harwood for the ministry and Graeme Cosslett for NZCER.

They both say there has been no deliberate match-fixing, but this is just a straw argument, so are their denials of government influence. Beyond question the match has been strongly influenced by outside influences, but that isn’t necessarily match-fixing. Of course there has been government influence, especially on e-asTTLe, it’s a government test after all; the nature of that influence and how it was communicated would be interesting to find out about, but as far as I’m concerned, just a diversion.

Harwood then admits ‘we did get some concerns’ about the e-asTTle results ‘and gives two possible explanations’ – get ready to guffaw.

There are, she says, ‘more students now using the tool, which naturally means the spread is wider.’ Sorry Chris, and the second?

In an innocent tone she says ‘another explanation is that what the test is actually testing has fundamentally changed.’

My goodness, I think she’s got it. She could be on to something here. The general effect when you fundamentally change anything is usually something pretty different. And I have a feeling that that might be the case for a standardised test as well. Yes – the more I think about it, the more I think she is on to something there. And knowing that the test had been fundamentally changed, you would have trumpeted that far and wide I’m sure. Proud no doubt about of this groundbreaking way to approach writing. Writing is a fairly well established activity around the world now, so to have come up with something fundamentally different to test in writing, is really something. None of this sincerity, persuasiveness, logicality, fluency, structure, appropriateness to audience, technical correctness – that is old hat.

So what is this testing actually testing now?

Chris explains: ‘The old e-asTTle test looked at the piece of writing each student did during a test, and gave results purely on face value. The new one uses that piece of writing as a starting point, and extrapolates to what the student could probably do with support from his or her teacher and without the pressure of the test.’

She goes on to explain this again using the term ‘calibration’.

Oh dear!

This account by Chris is excellent classroom practice, but terrible for a standardised test. I don’t agree with e-asTTle, never liked it, finding it a flakey test for the reasons Chris and her associates have changed it from a standardised test to something that incorporates OTJ into its proceedings. What Chris has done has finished e-asTTle and the plans for it to service the writing part of PaCT.

End of story on e-asTTle. It must be dumped. Chris you can stop the review, such a test would never stand any kind of testing pressure. Pack up the test and wander off into the desert.

Now for Graeme and STAR.

Graeme believes that ‘Crawford and many other principals are still feeding their raw results through stanines – the classic bell curve graph.’ Oh you naughty boy Bruce and many other principals. Just because you have been using stanines for years is no excuse. And neither is it an excuse that NZCER in the excitement of it all failed in one tiny matter, to actually tell you that stanines are an archaic practice, a no-no. And that old, out-of-date classic bell curve, oh dear. Welcome, Bruce and many other principals to the new, much curvier bell curve.

You see, Bruce, the new STAR method is into tracking. Silly you for not seeing that. It’s a form of astrology Bruce. Tracking, Bruce, STARS, got it? We gave you the clues Bruce, not into cryptic up there obviously.

But hold on what is this? Stanines are back in again, well to some extent. Graeme says ‘stanines can be helpful in other ways, but under the new test, they can give inflated results at the end of the year.’ Same raw material isn’t it Graeme? Now scaling gives inflated results all the time. Is that progress?

‘A stanine is a much cruder measure of progress and it’s a less reliable measure.’ Absolute rubbish. Stanines provide a very good measure of progress because they relate to the classic bell curve, providing credibility. This is a bell curve breaking exercise isn’t it Graeme. Wonder if breaking it will have any effect on national standards data Graeme. Every child an island in your standardised tests is it Graeme?

This is really just post-modernism Graeme isn’t it. You want, for reasons I don’t want to go into here, to break children’s performances from the bell curve, so it becomes a kind of testing Wild West?

In comparison with Chris, Graeme has put up a much more sophisticated argument, but just as absurd.

He says that ‘Given that schools have been using scale scores with the Progressive Achievement Tests (PATS) since 2006, we underestimated the need for ongoing learning about the usefulness of scale scores for STAR, as opposed to stanines.’

He’s a wily one this Graeme.

Most principals I know don’t scale PATS and when they do they give priority to stanines, that is because stanines rule the PATS’ roost and in doing so give some kind of credibility to the scaling (but not much).

In STAR, scaling now rules the roost hence the shambles in the stanines and STAR.

Then, he comes clean, ‘Most schools would be using a mix of both methods.’

Oh! So the old stanines are still in. But the problem is that without the bell curve the stanines are just blowing in the wind.

Your argument acknowledges that in STAR, scaling predominates over stanines, that STAR is in a shambles, that you didn’t come clean in the presentation of the test, that STAR is undoubtedly contributing to national standards inflation, and that you have made a colossal error.

I’m just not going to get caught up in why all this has happened, the motives and influences behind it: what I want to demonstrate here is that Chris and Graeme have to my ears been talking rubbish and they know it. They are playing a game about which we can only speculate. A standardised test has a role to play in providing a source of relative information; it has a role in the context of a lot of sources of information. But if a standardised test is let loose from the classic bell curve it becomes something else and if it becomes mixed up in a whole lot of other stuff, that should be acknowledged – while it might be trendy, it becomes a dangerous mutant, crashing around with all the authority provided by numbers.

[It is 3.30 a.m. and I am tired. Tomorrow I will check it again to make it more readable, but the message should be clear, no matter what.]

Sorry the links don’t seem to be working but the list gives the names of the postings and the order.

Miracle on Swann

STAR and now e-asTTLe: I now accept the likelihood of a jack-up – enquiry called for

‘The stain of ideological corruption�

�The e-asTTle and STAR scandal made clear�

‘A tale of two tests: and lo and behold the first post-modern ones�


Talk to West Coast principals (1)

Talk to West Coast principals (1)

‘Don’t be the chameleon on the plaid’

Recently, I spoke to the West Coast Principals Association. I prepared a talk in two parts: the first part was about morality and being a principal and the education context they work in; the second on how these matters might relate to the revised curriculum.

I would like to thank the West Coast principals for their courage in inviting me to speak, their friendliness and hospitality; also to admire the collegiality they maintain, and continue to develop, in their relationships with one another.

It’s wonderful to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

And it’s great to meet Bruce Hammonds again. Bruce and I have a similar philosophy which means we often say similar things – but he draws a laugh with it; I draw blood. It seems most unfair.

You have beside you, the final compendium, in 1999, of Network Magazine – a relic, an artefact of the final decade of the last century. The magazine from its inception was intended as a tribute to the teachers and principals of New Zealand. You were and remain my heroes.

Mao Zedong in 1956 said: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom/Let a hundred schools of thought contend’. But did he mean it?

We too, in education, have to ponder illusion and reality.

The first part of today’s talk is about morality and being a principal; in other words of the good that can be done by the contending Mao refers to.

I learnt early, though, about contending, illusion and reality. I was at Devonport School – my first day in the new entrants – and the teacher said she was going to read the story of Goldilocks and the three bears: Anyone not want to hear it? On the inside of the back cover of the magazine, you can see a picture of me outside the door. (I was saying goodbye to my readers with the message that when I got back into the class I was back in boots and all, and when I came back into education, I would be back in boots and all, as well.)

I was probably marked out as a potential nuisance then, as were those who took Mao’s words at face value, with the consequences for them much more dire.

As I proceed, it may seem otherwise, but I have not set out to crash into your dearest ideas; the ideas you have probably just relayed to your teachers as being the bedrock of your philosophy. The last thing I want to do is to irritate you. Anyway, comfort yourself if you fundamentally disagree with me, you are in the majority. But the main idea in my talk is that I want teachers and their principals to be more in charge of their own destiny. I might argue hard for the holistic; for a naturalistic, straightforward view of teaching – but, above all, I want you to have choices, real choices, not rhetorical, fake, or trick ones.

I want you to be able to contend – safely.

Fifteen years ago, in this outrageously beautiful setting, in this month, I spoke to this same association. I introduced my talk by showing the principals a cartoon I had my artist draw for Network Magazine. It had a principal saying: Hi Bill! Could I borrow your assessment policy? Yes! I know you borrowed it from Mary, but if it’s good enough for half the South Island, it’s good enough for me.’  I also displayed the chart, set out above. It resonated then, and still largely does, but the reality as set out in the last three boxes in the second column has changed. Schools now have to take the writing of official assessment policy seriously which, in a way, sums up the concern that forms the basis for my talk today. [The cartoon and chart will be posted later.]

This talk is about morality and being a principal. In saying that, I’m not suggesting you aren’t aware of the way your decisions as principal have a moral component, but I want to give even further weight to the way education is a morally-laden exercise; to point out some areas of particular moral interest; and, to be direct, to fire you up, though with realistic expectations. And the area I intend to concentrate on is the curriculum.

Friedrich Karinthy an obscure Hungarian pre-war writer posed a question still really unanswered: ‘What can you make of a day that starts with getting out of bed?’ This could be turned around for principals to: ‘What can you make of a day that starts with shuffling papers?’ In Kiwi Principal, ministry research showed New Zealand principals work fifty per cent harder than their overseas counterparts. And most of that fifty per cent and more is to do with meeting bureaucratic requirements, not children’s needs. Simply standing aside from everything you do, to be able to take a moral perspective, is difficult to achieve. I suggest, nevertheless, that getting yourself even more involved in the curriculum life of your school is a key and powerful expression of moral behaviour.

In an interview the minister was pushed to give examples of the reduction in regulatory demand promised in National’s policy; after  umming and aahing she finally cited the ‘myriad of forms’ that had to be filled in for building projects. As I wrote in a networkonnet posting: ‘And there we have it, the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for – a message should now be sent out to all those who have left teaching because of “endless form filling” (as the minister put it) or are considering leaving because of it. We have the minister’s promise that there will be a reduction in the form filling for building projects. There was, though, a proviso, that this reduction would only be for projects “with a value of less than $20 thousand” so you need to keep that in mind when you are calculating whether or not you will keep on being a principal.’

So I am agreeing that maintaining a moral perspective in what you do, in the hurly-burly of what you do, is not easy or likely to get any easier.

Education systems go through cycles in posing moral dilemmas for principals; my suggestion is that we are presently at a time that poses particularly stark dilemmas. A central argument of this talk is that primary schools function better when schools have considerable latitude for curriculum manoeuvre, allowing them to colonise the official curricula (indeed, all official policies) to modify what happens in classrooms to the benefit of children. The issue of our times is the degree of intervention by outsiders in relationships between principals and teachers, and teachers and children.

The nub of my argument is that the official system always gets curriculum policy wrong: all that can be said for it is that at times it gets it less wrong than other’s – if you work and act on that understanding, I can assure you, you will have taken an important step towards greater morality in leadership. No official curriculum policy, even from the less wrong category, can get close to the variety of school circumstances that curricula interact with. Any curriculum transmitted to classrooms – to be vital – needs to be transformed by teachers to make it work for them, and from them, for the children.

As well, the context is always wrong, sometimes more wrong than other’s. And, anyway, curricula aren’t that significant  in changing teaching and learning. (A huge amount of time is also wasted learning about new labels for existing ideas.) It is like that famous example of deductive reasoning: All men are mortal/Socrates is a man/ Therefore Socrates is a mortal – leading to: All curricula are wrong/The revised curriculum is a curriculum/Therefore the revised curriculum is wrong.

At the moment the curriculum screws are being tightened as a result of review office behaviour; the research of quantitative academics is being used to bolster conservative ideology; the ministry is changing tack with the change of government; and there are worrying pronouncements from the minister. Overall, there is a greater centralisation of education power. Through contractual arrangements, the centre has dominance over professional development and academic research; and through standardised testing and the working of the review office, dominance over what happens in classrooms.

Ten years ago, which was ten years after I began publishing Network Magazine, I spoke one evening to a small group of principals. My message was that they should see their role as very much a moral one in which they should be prepared to act on what they considered right for teachers and children. Throughout, my message was a moderate one, suggesting that there would be times when they acted against what they considered the right thing to do – the important thing in that event though, was to be honest with themselves about what they had done and why; in other words, be willing to admit to themselves that sometimes their actions would be self-serving. This is about the distinction between moral judgement and moral action, and that in the real education world, especially with increased centralised and bureaucratic control, acting to make the second follow the first can be perilous. What I had to say that evening was politely received but not really accepted.

I usually fly close to the sun with my talks, so it could be the same today, except you may not even receive it politely.

The y. 3 class was doing a study on communication: a boy suggested prayer as an example – my granddaughter, I’m embarrassed to say, came over the top with: ‘You’re wasting your time – there’s nobody listening.’ (This despite her being a firm believer in Santa Claus, and me having just talked to her about Thomas More whose biography I had just read).

When I looked into the principals’ eyes, I saw incomprehension, mainly, I think, because amongst all the other things they had to worry about, why was I worrying about that. (I should say, though, that the teachers who were there got it and were intent.)

At that moment I decided to end the publication of Network Magazine – I suspect I was looking for a signal – and take a break from the fray. I had been locked in a torrid battle with the review office and had come out the worse for wear. I did not go out with any bad feelings at all: the system needed time to show its true colours, and I would be better for the break. While teachers were still listening and, on the whole, principals too – I felt a lack of bite on the power brokers. Time for a re-think: a seven-year one as it turned out.

The incident that follows is not exactly a model for moral behaviour, indeed, may not show me in the best light, but is an incident of some interest, I think, in the matter of morality and behaviour in education:

The phone was in the principal’s left hand; the right hand poised, with index finger loosely extended. I sat facing the solid round-edged desk.

‘If you don’t agree to comply, I am going to ring the education board.’

It had been building for months.

I was at a school in Tamaki, in my third year of teaching. They had given me a class of 30 troubled children, carefully extracted from a range of classes, and then put us in a prefab a safe distance from the rest of the school.

I loved those children.

There was Paul (I’ll call him Paul because that was his real name), who only very occasionally spoke (a kind of a grunt), but who mostly did fantastically detailed drawings of steam engines with sea gulls wheeling; then there were the Smith twins (boy and girl) fiercely protective of each other, who often came to school in a fragile and knocked about state. I could go on, but you get the idea

The prefab had a potbellied wood-burning stove in the corner and when we were all in there having a laugh (we did a lot of drama), with the heater blazing away, I felt like a captain of a pirate ship.

While the children weren’t supposed to come inside before school, they often did to seek consolation; other children would sidle in to be part of it. The principal asked some senior members of staff to have a word with me about missing some morning assemblies (about once a fortnight) because of those tête-à-têtes; then twice raised the matter directly with me. Now it had come to this.

His face was flushed and his cropped hair bristled. His index finger moved closer to the dial. I suppose I knew it was a defining moment about whether I was going to continue to be a teacher; it’s hard to recall exactly – but I did know I wasn’t going to budge.

Then, suddenly, he stared hard at me, exhaled deeply, sat back, and said in a choked voice: ‘We’ll leave it this time, I’ll give you another chance.’

But both he and I knew that nothing had been resolved or would change, except, perhaps, an initial face-saving compliance (for him) by me.

The moral of this sorry little melodrama might seem obscure. But my plea to principals about taking moral stands is suffused with realism: principals should be clear in their moral judgements and, from there do their best, which probably means with a degree of calculation. You see, there is a subtext to this matter with the principal. He had been moved from another school to this one because of a breakdown in relationships with staff and the last thing he needed was an incident like the present one being brought to the attention of the authorities. Did this play a part in the position I took? Yes – possibly it did.

Mind you, we do need a few principals who go for the principled stand come hell or high water, but I’m setting my target at a more attainable level. To set the ideal too high is to provide a too readily available conscience escape clause. We sometimes tell ourselves that if it wasn’t for this and that we would do wonderfully, and we may well be right, but we should make sure we are not just resorting to excuse, and that with only a little more courage we could find ourselves breaking through to act more freely. Jean Cocteau tells of the chameleon owner, who, to keep it warm, put it on Scottish plaid and it died of fatigue. Sometimes standing out can be refreshing and a relief.

In the curriculum colonising I am arguing for, I want to suggest that a key area of moral action is the greater inclusion in programmes of the affective, the aesthetic, the symbolic, and the intuitive as being at the heart of successful classrooms, not at the periphery; and that a clear recognition of their role could be the missing link for some teachers, and the system as a whole. (In other words, the second competency – can you see the irony in that?) I want to demonstrate that such affective qualities are well-grounded; that an important step in their direction is as simple and elegant as teaching to a main aim and transforming objectives into criteria and, in the course of a series of activities while pursuing the main aim, teachers noting (mainly in their mind) interesting behaviours by individual children in relation to those criteria. What is nebulous about that?

I want to advocate for the idea of the holistic duality of the affective and the cognitive. This means that the affective needs to be grounded in detail and reality; in knowledge that brings with it an affective response.

And, of course, I want the arts to have a bigger part in children’s learning: I want to see a renaissance of the arts in our classrooms: clay work, weaving, painting, drama, dance – the works. Where better for this to happen than the West Coast?

Does the following from Hard Times by Charles Dickens, remind you of any education organisation of your acquaintance?

‘You are to be regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact.’


‘We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force people the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but the fact.’

‘You must see,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes – combinations and modifications of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact.’

And challenging this view of the education world in its contemporary expression, I suggest, should be a major area of moral challenge.

The education review office, by obsessively concentrating on what can be measured; on so-called ‘proof’ – is the Gradgrind of out times.

The review office’s control by fear, much of this now unconsciously absorbed into the principal’s function, is a hugely complicating factor in school practice, and similarly restricting on teachers’ ability to carry out their important colonising process. I have written at length about this in other postings. In the case of the review office, I acknowledge the need for outside reviews, but am adamant a better more positive way needs to be devised. It is not when the review office is in the school that is the central concern, but the time in between when they are not, and schools anticipate when they will be, meaning they are continuously and pervasively affected by their perception of what the review office wants. (Power by anticipation and fear is a bureaucratic apotheosis because it is mainly invisible, based on the avoidance of disquiet, responded to largely unconsciously, and bureaucratically efficient.)

(I watched Lester Flockton’s DVD with interest – have you seen it? Did you pick up on the elephant in the room? Behind most things he was saying, it seemed to me, lurked his concern with the influence of the education review office.)

A feature of political, bureaucratic, and some academic demands on schools, is to make those demands plausible but impossible, thus putting schools at a considerable psychological and power disadvantage. It is plausible but impossible for schools to meet all curriculum requirements. It is plausible but impossible to do next step teaching on the basis of testing which is the review office’s idealised fantasy – they know it is impossible, but anything to give them a power edge.

The absurdity of the situation becomes clear when you consider that the kind of balanced education I am advocating for, that I’m asking you to take a stand for, is really in the curriculum, can really be considered part of official policy (for example, in the second competency). But this part of official policy faces contrary official pressures: from the ministry through national standards and the kind of professional development it pays for, mainly literacy and numeracy; and from the education review office through its focus on measurement-based next step learning.

This brings us to the question of the nature of the moral principles to be applied to matters of education. The best recourse for this is still Ivan Snook’s 1978, Department of Education publication, ‘more than talk’. Snook’s central argument is that morality is a practical matter ‘about helping us to decide what to do’ and is functionally connected to the concern of ‘the moral implications of the kind of society we are creating’ with the purpose being ‘to make the human predicament more tolerable’. He sets out five principles: minimise the harm you cause; maximise the good you do; be fair to all concerned; have some concern with the truth; do not unnecessarily impede others in their pursuits (p. 40). You can sense, I suggest, a similar a realistic overlay, to the one I’m advocating in this talk. What is required says Snook is that the individual sees ‘these principles as relevant to moral argument and moral decision-making.’ As well, and very pertinent to our situation, there must be occasions when ‘rules must yield to principles’.

There is another way to approach the basis for morality; though both approaches are entirely consistent. It is an approach that addresses the central problem faced in education today: bureaucratic intervention in schools between principals and teachers, and between teachers and children. We’ll start off with the idea that school education should be about teachers grasping the big ideas about learning and, from there, working things out for themselves. The issue is ethical: ethics starts from the immediate affective relationship between an individual and the individual being addressed; a relationship established before the individual speaks or acts. Ethics does not start from reasoning, or rules, or contracts – it starts from empathy. The other less immediate relationships an individual has to negotiate, necessarily requires more abstract relationships, but empathy should always retain primacy. That means the basis for our relationships should not be contractual or rule-bound but predicated on empathetic responsibility. The teacher (in this case) as the individual to promote good, carries the responsibility to do good for the child; to do good for the child the teacher needs to feel free to respond to the child, and to be relatively unencumbered by contracts, rules, bureaucratically induced fear, and asTTle. Think of the issues that face you now; and that are in the offing – and it is clear that the power of this approach to morality is strong and immediate.

In a recent posting (‘Truth and morality in academia Aotearoa’) I applied Snook’s five principles to the behaviour of an Auckland professor who, through her research, supplied education services to the commercial arm of the University of Auckland headed by John Hattie. You may remember that Hattie, the minister’s golden boy, had a spat with the minister, and said that national standards would set back education by ‘fifty years’.  I reported on this, but concluded that they would make up because they both needed each other: he to provide ideological cover for what she intended to do (performance pay, for instance), and she to provide contracts. Sure enough, few weeks later  a piece of puffery appeared in the NZ Herald with the close associate of Hattie saying she supported both the national standards and the new reports, and that she was looking forward to going to Wellington next week to discuss providing professional development for these. I spend 21 pages analysing the professor’s behaviour; in this instance I’ll stick closely to the application of Snook’s principles. I think you will agree that this application demonstrates their power and utility.

‘You have written a paper on partnership in education especially with teachers – very pretty words they are – would you say your support for national standards is a good example of the kind of partnership you espouse?’

‘As an academic what would you say to the claim that a standard cannot be defined? That a standard can be worked towards, but it cannot be defined? That an education system based on standards is a system based on a false premise?’

‘Have you examined your support for national standards, and teachers’ opposition to it, on the basis of morality?’

‘Is there any self-interest involved in your support for national standards?’

‘Is your action in supporting national standards being “fair to all concerned?” ’

‘Is your action in supporting national standards “maximising the good” and “minimising the harm?” ’

‘Does your support for national standards “have some concern with the truth?” ’

‘Will your support for national standards “not unnecessarily impede others in their pursuits?” ’

‘Does your support for national standards take into account a concern “for the moral implications of the kind of society we are creating?” ’

‘And when some principals – human nature being what it is, the fear-based and falsely-premised education system being what it is – carry out and use standardised testing and national standards’ assessment in suspect ways, does the moral dilemma of that concern you professor?’

To allow the school to act more freely with official policy, the first move would be to get your board of trustees on side and your community (also your teachers, of course), then to be adroit in how you express your case in the school’s policies. A bit of tactical advice: England and France were going to bring in the same policy idea – England found a precedent some 400 years before and everyone congratulated themselves on such a reassuring change; the French said it was a revolution – so they had one.

The challenge will be made that what is a moral action for one person can be wrongheaded for another. That has to be accepted, but as people in primary education, who work closely with children and teachers, there is much more that unites than divides us. Look how we stood together over league tables and the shared value system that was drawn from.

Peter Altenburg, a Jewish intellectual from old Vienna, was challenged by one of his many young lovers that his interest in her was based only on sexual attraction. Altenberg replied, ‘Was ist so nur?’ (‘What’s so only?’) When people seem to be asking me why I am so serious about education, it’s only primary school – my thought is: ‘Was ist so nur.’ (‘What’s so only?’)

As good as our secondary schools are, (I believe that in the circumstances, secondary schools serve us well) it is really last chance saloon for a balanced education. We can do so much more on the affective and cognitive side; so much more on the arts and the humanistic side; and our children are seriously under-challenged intellectually. And this is only going to get worse as literacy and numeracy continue their rampage through the timetable and curriculum, spurred on by centralised pressures for standardised testing. Literacy and numeracy are shallow, unstable things if children don’t have a context of knowing things, knowing how to think about things, feeling about things, being able to express themselves in a variety of ways. When I see children in trouble and this is ascribed to them being unable to read, I see things differently: I see children who are unable to do all those other things that are part of education – why isolate reading?

I challenge principals to undertake a task of clear moral purpose: defend the higher realms of learning – learning beyond the obviously utilitarian – by promoting the value of these higher realms because their values, while not immediately ascertainable as useful, are vital for the long-term welfare of our children and our society.

The deputy-principal met me by the office desk and informed me that: ‘Our school is a high-performance school and evidence-based.’


‘Well done.’


W. C. Fields, the liquor-soused comic genius of the 1920s and ‘40s, once said: ‘During a trip to Afghanistan we lost our corkscrew and were compelled to live on food and water.’ Well, it wouldn’t do any harm if, for a time, we considered academic pronouncements on classroom practice a corkscrew we lost, compelling us to teach on our shared knowledge of teaching. The best evidence for school education should start from the evidence we gather and share about our own classroom practice, informed of course by other sources, academic ones included. But we must avoid becoming in thrall to academics: quantitative research is especially suspect because it comes in the guise of objectivity. Quantitative research is characterised by being largely impermeable to classroom reality. I prefer academics who put forward philosophical-type ideas, then proceed from there, using arguments we can refer to our own experience, and in language that is accessible. Though we have to watch these academics too, especially if they come from the continent.

If we want to retain control over our destinies we need to challenge academics who produce self-serving, ideologically-skewed, numbers-based research, and those who produce philosophical nonsense tracts (like Foucault): these academics are the witch doctors of contemporary life; they provide words that we end up receiving as though part of a cargo cult – latter-day coke bottles fallen from the sky. My advice is that if the meaning doesn’t come easily, or your experience doesn’t back it up, don’t encourage them by trying too hard to make sense of it. These emperors of obfuscation should be exposed as spiritually threadbare. Above all, don’t denigrate your understandings of what works and doesn’t work in classrooms by calling academic understandings ‘evidence’ and your understandings, by implication, something else.

Associated with retaining control over our destinies is the need to challenge managerial language which is the lingua franca of the ministry, the review office and, very commonly, those leading professional development courses. Management language is not just the jargon language of leadership, but the jargon language that complicates teaching and learning, requiring us to defer to ‘experts’ for explanation. The language is the language of hierarchy and control; an instrument for projecting power; for evading meaning rather than conveying it. The initial casualty of such language is clarity; the ultimate, teachers and children. It is a language with a cold, hard, and brilliant surface; an interior devoid of warmth and humanity. Sometimes the language comes as a drizzle, like that of the Education Gazette.

If the talk at a meeting is unremittingly in managerial language, ask why the talking is like that, could it please be translated into plain speaking. You could request from the bureaucracies that they couch their communications in plain language. As well, you could make a statement in your own policy documents that your intention is to make them plain language ones.

Another aspect of moral behaviour and the principal’s role is the guidance you provide, the example you set, for the teachers on your staff. I am asking you to consciously develop the moral function of the philosopher principal: how you dispense that function will vary from teacher to teacher.

In the example that follows, I give attention to the potential exceptional teacher. Exceptional teachers are beacons for us. Do you come across as a wise person to those teachers, someone whose gaze has an encompassing perspective? Or are you more a principal fired up by the latest management nostrum?

In the best sense of our work as educationists, we do not speak, write or act as just ourselves, we are affected by the accumulation of influences that have touched our lives: we need to make sure, as a result, we extend those range of influences by looking back and looking around. While we might lose the details of knowledge we acquire, the principles and understandings that we draw from that knowledge will (or should) coalesce into that accumulation of influences referred to. (This coalescing is important because we don’t want school education to be done by numbers.)

The point is that principles and understandings can’t be properly formed unless the knowledge has been acquired. But then the obverse kicks in: while what we do is affected by the accumulation of influences, when teachers have something special on their mind, that will be an expression of their uniqueness. A characteristic of all exceptional teachers is that they feel they have that something special, very special, on their minds. The pride of exceptional teachers (their ego, to be blunt) is an essential element in them being exceptional, so you should protect this pride by understanding its provenance. (One of the moments in New Zealand education history I find especially fetching is Elwyn Richardson’s meeting in 1970 with Sylvia Ashton-Warner at Aspen, Colorado: the clash of the egos.) In culture, however, there is nothing entirely new because there is never anything new that does not come out of what exists, because the mixture of the new and the existing is what culture is.

A characteristic of the exceptional teacher in the making is the ability to recognise in a flash, ideas you proffer that provide them with an integrating insight, that’s why they are exceptional: then they make them their own, and move on.

I had an experience with a student I visited (I was a contracted visitor), one I didn’t know from a bar of soap. I was impressed with her classroom management, requiring little recourse to tricks so over-employed today comprising a mixture of sieg heils, I surrender, and Eastern European-type clapping, also the absence of over-planning, her insouciance, and signs of lesson depth. It was, however, her responses in the discussion afterwards that convinced me she was an exceptional teacher in the making.

We were discussing questioning, and I said, ‘If the reception of responses is right; the level of questioning is close to irrelevant.’

I said, ‘When Einstein was asked the key to his scientific discoveries he said, “When I was a child I, of course, like all children, asked childlike questions such as: What was time and what was space? – the only difference was I kept on asking those questions when I was no longer a child.” ’

‘Taxonomies’, I said, ‘especially of questions, can be described at best as plausible but unnecessary.’

‘Questions like: “What do you think happened to the water from the sun-melted ice cube?” or: “What is London?” or, for that matter: “What is space?”, “What is time?”, even, “What would I see if I rode on beam of light?” if received in an open way will move children up and down the taxonomy scale without having to be concerned with taxonomies.’

The response from the student would have been, if I hadn’t seen it before, astonishing – she indicated a highly significant recognition. I have said such things many times, but only a few take it further in their imaginations. She had already made it her own.

I went on to explain to her that while learning is complex, teaching should not be. It is because learning is the complex part of the equation, I added, we need to be hugely sensitive interpreters of children’s responses. Teaching, I said, is not at the peak of theory; it is something straightforward and naturalistic. In the future, I suggested to the student, demand of those who claim to know about education, to express what they know simply. That should be the stamp of their knowing. For example, I said: ‘The essence and purpose of social studies is, or should be, easily understandable – social studies is about getting children to come to terms with difference by helping them to recognise the underlying similarities in all human behaviour.’

The response from the student was similarly significant.

You will have teachers in your school like this. Cherish them; it is a way to maximise the good you can do.

To understand history, to understand the present in history, you have to be committed to the idea that no event is inevitable. Foretelling the past is a way of escaping responsibility for your place in the present as future history. Sometimes you can go with what seems the inevitable movement of history, hoping against hope that you are being taken somewhere useful, when, in fact, your contribution to society is simply being submerged. Everything you do as principal has moral implications: this talk has been about making you more aware of what they might be, the better to make them even more positive. There is no easy passage to the moral complexity you have to find your way through, but there is a clear responsibility. You are not fulfilling your moral responsibilities as principal by simply deploring the crassness of current education directions. You must, at the very least, shield your teachers from the worst effects, and through them, the children.

The situation is clearly Kafkan with schools increasingly caught up in the remorseless logic of an increasingly irrational system. It has become a commonplace to describe the new curriculum as freeing things up; but what value is that when we have an institution of state intent on screwing things down? In times of strong centralised control of education, no inspirational education theory (or even sensible education theory, for that matter) is capable of surviving if taken over and made official by the state. It will result in misunderstanding, suspicion, ideological corruption – and made repellent by the attempt to impose it, as against promotion through teacher-enthusiasm, for example, and word-of-mouth.

That is why, in this talk, I have advocated that it is morally and practically imperative that schools and teachers colonise official policies to make them workable and humanistically balanced. Schools in how they write up curriculum policies should feel they have the freedom to colonise official policies, and teachers the freedom to colonise school curriculum policies. The plausible but impossible nature of official policies, and the review office as sniffing bloodhound in support, are central to the system’s irrationality. Tomorrow’s Schools won’t have a payoff, for all your work, all your fantastic work, until these issues are attended to and resolved. At the moment, even taking into consideration the tremendous efforts of schools, it seems appropriate to quote Edgar Quinet (a post-French Revolution writer) who said: ‘But this success, where is it?’

The problem is that politicians want contradictory things in education: from sentiment, it seems, they would like schools to have more latitude, but from ideology they want more control. When it comes down to it, though, sentiment soon gives way contentedly to ideology. The trickiness of politicians and their bureaucratic support organisations is always having to be brought up because it is always being forgotten. The political certainties of politicians are out of place in education, because we all know that the only certainty in education should be our determination to avoid one. They are making an education landscape increasingly arid, while desperately calling it verdant. And the paradox is, that when the aridity becomes too obvious to ignore, the education system has been designed to benefit with extra powers, those who did the designing.

The call for you to stand out from the plaid is made against an increasingly worrying educational setting. There is the increased centralised authoritarianism – the main instrument of that being the education review office which functions on the basis of institutionalised fear and a philosophy of managerialism; the lack of freedom within the system for independence of thought and expression (the contract system has stilled voices in the universities and advisory services – we don’t want independent voices being ‘a country for old men’); the use by policy makers of ideologically-skewed and highly suspect research; the real curriculum being standardised tests, national standards, and the developments around the new reports; the false premise that national standards are capable of definition; the obsession with literacy and numeracy; the neglect of the arts and other higher realms of learning; and the even greater complexity of the role of the principal. Teachers, as we know, let most of this stuff swirl over their heads, only becoming concerned when the intervention between them and their children becomes gross – which it is becoming. Even those blithe spirits are becoming tetchy. These then are challenges of our time.

The main message from this talk is that the price of silence for not acting decisively and morally is that politicians and the education bureaucracies will conduct conversations with themselves, interpreting our silence as acceptance. In the matter of league tables, however, you forced them to listen: you acted on a moral principles that helped you ‘to decide what to do’; your concern was based on ‘the moral implications of the kind of society we are creating’; you ‘minimise (d) the harm’; and you showed concern ‘to be fair to all’, and ‘for the truth’. Your actions, in my view, contributed ‘to mak(ing) the human predicament more tolerable’.

Well done – keep up the good work – and good colonising.

[In Part 2 that follows, I look directly at the curriculum, suggesting where your colonisation processes might be directed, and ways they might be undertaken.]

Kelvin Smythe

West Coast Principals Association

September 17, 2009


You are not in Zimbabwe Mr President

A very brief note as I am working on another posting and, anyway you can see for yourself that Phil Harding is hopelessly compromised and the executive is without sufficient numbers to force the controlling group to act according to members’ intent.

Phil Harding talks in National Party catch phrases and propaganda expressions.

You voted he says for a proposal to ‘transform school leadership’.

Investing in Educational Success’ is the heading provided.

And so on.

Phil Harding, it seems, has lost control of the situation, a tossed cork, and can’t imagine himself being divided from Peter.

I went through the results carefully and on issues that mattered, the response against was over 80%.

The survey was skewed in nature; its presentation hopelessly biased; and its diffuse nature allowed strange totalling; above all, the ridiculous length gave the opportunity for Phil Harding to get what he wanted, a self-allocated or -organised right to carry on negotiating.

It is like Zimbabwe, even if you win decisively, you lose.

To me the whole process has been an exercise in manipulation. (I do commend, though, the recording of principals overall comments, that was unZimbabwe like and illuminating.)

This decisive vote against clusters and executive officers is not enough to stop Phil Harding.

 Congratulations on your decisive vote against the proposals no matter how they were tallied.

Anyway, as though something negotiated wouldn’t be changed, of course it would be. It will just be a bit of paper. As long as clusters are there under an executive officer (or any other name), National will have got what it wanted. Change from there would be easy because the executive officer could restrict freedom of speech; or he or she could  call in the review office (quite unrelated to a school wanting to speak out, of course) to put the school through the hoops. The powers of the executive officer wouldn’t even need to be that formal – he would be the government person on the spot.

Under Phil Harding and his supporting group we are heading for disaster. The executive under the leadership of Phil Harding is just not listening in the sense that actions and policies are changed in response to members’ expressed wishes.

Precious time is being wasted. Where are NZPF policies for children and teachers? Why are we wasting time on these right-wing education policies (the impetus for which came from John Morris)? We have the system bearing down on schools from all directions to make them come to heel. Yet here we have the NZPF turkeys helping to make arrangements for Christmas.

Why aren’t the moots to be used to advance NZPF’s policies to benefit children and schools? Has the executive no policies to advance, unable to think of any? Too afraid to?

Or what about changes to the Teachers Council to be opposed?

Phil Harding weeps crocodile tears for the new charter proposals (which came from his new chum Peter Hughes) and the way they are based on national standards; yet here is knowing, no matter the protestations from National, that they will be the heart of the cluster system.

No, Phil, my goodness you are tricky with your members, ‘lack of trust’ is not the huge obstacle for any proposed change: IT IS THE BLOODY NATURE OF THE CHANGE.

He doesn’t like the term executive officer as it implies power down leadership – how sensitive, well a rose by any name.

Clusters were suggested by Ben Levin in the early ’90s as away of controlling primary schools and reducing their number; Longstone salivated over the idea when talking about it – well here it is primary principals, recognise it for what it is, because your Phil Harding and his supporting group don’t, and once implemented that will be it.

Take my word for it, come hell or high water Phil Harding won’t be stopped, read his slanted spiel carefully, he was thwarted over PaCT, and it’ personal – only a tsunami of protest will do it.

You are not in Somalia now, Mr Shearer

I am eschewing the conventional form of introductory paragraphs except to say that this posting is a fairly long journey starting with David Shearer’s most unsatisfactory speech; to the need to rid education of the baleful American influence; to why the voices of teachers need to be heard in the interests of our social democracy; to a consideration of the influences around Shearer; to an unspoken agreement between Shearer and a particular journalist and his newspaper; to how that paid off; and to how the OECD report has validated New Zealand primary teachers and made fools of their critics.

I want to make clear to Shearer and his group of advisers that I lived and argued and struggled through the first betrayal of teachers by a Labour government in the form of Tomorrow’s Schools, often a voice in the wilderness, and I’m not going to tolerate a second betrayal – this web site will be relentless in doing what it can, to the extent of its influence, to that end. And I want to warn Shearer and his group that the teachers of today and their teacher organisations are very different from the teachers and teacher organisations of those days – they are battle hardened, savvy, and angry.

From the early ‘90s in Network Magazine, and now through this web site I have warned about the implications of rightwing structures being imposed on primary education – in particular, of course, has been the imposition of the rightwing structure of Tomorrow’s Schools and its so-called parental control of schools. I warned from the beginning that this was just a ruse, temporary moving station, before New Zealand school education became something very different.

And right from the beginning, as a result of governments acting on the neo-liberal anti-teacher idea of ‘provider capture’, and the accompanying denigration of teachers, the power of teachers to influence policy developments has been eliminated. In such ways, using such spurious arguments, is social democracy undermined. So we have the strange phenomenon of those who are close to children, who really know about schools – being shut out; and those who are distant from children and only know about schools though other means, mainly American-style academic research – being in control.

In Orwellian terms, this has set up the rightwing, especially the neo-liberal section of it, and bureaucrats and politicians, to control the present by controlling interpretations of the past (especially through institutional amnesia), and by controlling the present to control the future.

It is difficult for the public to believe, when confronted by research result numbers, that most American-style research is self-serving, politically laden, replete with tricks, and essentially dishonest, sometimes fraudulently so. (An important point to establish here is that American-style research is also practised by New Zealanders trained in the art of developing research findings to meet the requirements of their political patrons.) Such research has informed decades of American-style education, a style of education that is obviously in difficulty because the wrong analysis has been applied and therefore the wrong solutions. But no worry to the advocates of American-style education, because any failure is ascribed to teachers, so the cycle repeats but, in the wondrous way contemporary education works, rewarding the advocates of failure for their failure. Nevertheless, American education with all its tics, shudders, and horrors is our future.

That this is bad for education and a bad sign for social democracy is given little heed by right wing and, seemingly, not by those who helped to frame David Shearer’s desultory speech of Thursday 15 March, 2012.

His office I strongly sense has made a mephistophelian deal with the rightwing media, I can even suggest a particular journalist – John Armstrong – and a particular publication – the Herald – and that is that, he will be their creature. What the media can give, they can take away, which they will pronto, and his little no account stint will be over. His time, if he ever becomes prime minister, will simply be more of the same but not quite so much.

These are very serious times in education: in postings I have made clear the lying, severe propagandising, and scapegoating that has occurred. Teachers have, sometimes in fear, sometimes in exasperation, resorted, yes – inappropriately – to totalitarian imagery: this resort should not be dismissed, though, but seen an intimation of something threatening to our social democracy, an indication that all is not well.

Education is on the cusp – the next teaching age will be a digital one, an age of apps, with opportunities to be grasped and Orwellian dangers, if the concern is social democracy, to be avoided. Teachers need, in the interests of children, to be deeply involved in the decision making around digital education to maintain the cognitive and affective integrity of the curriculum in relation to children’s emotional and learning needs. Yes – there will be larger classes when schools are fully digitalised, teachers will accept that because it will be more than a slogan, the apps being able to undertake a lot of the basic work. Children will still have individual needs only a teacher can discern and meet, and teachers will have the function beyond whatever is provided by computers (and it will be increasingly amazing), of inspiring, integrating, and push for the transformational.

And there will have to be decisions about ways to meet children’s full range of needs: When is too much for children sitting at their digitalised work station? How will the provision for, say, music, the arts, and physical education be undertaken?

There are the terrible dangers, though, of increased opportunities for a kind of corporate authoritarianism to be established in respect to education, a dominance of education by experts who control without genuine democratic reference, an imposition of even more conformity on schools, an increasing narrowing of the curriculum, an organisation of schools and classroom learning on an industrial basis, an emphasis on that which is measurable, a movement to centralised surveillance and direct digital feeds between classroom and government offices, a propagandising through the use of programmes prepared by politically-slanted international corporations, and a loss of cultural identity as a result of unchecked globalisation.

For those who genuinely support social democracy, this is no time for teachers and parents to be cut from education decision making. But here we have the group around Shearer apparently oblivious to all this, using coded words to align themselves with the coded words of those groups set on denigrating teachers and public schools.

But to the Shearer group, this is so much hot air.

So my intention is to bore in.

Let’s have a look at what I surmised has happened. I want to emphasise that I am in receipt of no specific information about who the advisers in Shearer’s group are, there is, apparently, Josie Pagani, who stood for Rangitikei; her husband, John Pagani, who writes what is described as a left-leaning blog on Stuff and who will, I think, be in and about; and the group has the feel of Trevor Mallard being in the mix; I suppose Nanaia is in there too, but who knows what her thinking is, she hasn’t yet unburdened herself of her ideas on education, I hope her appointment is not a case of being there; and, now I think about it further, Grant Robertson would, surely, be in the group.

Now let’s get down to tintacks.

On Wednesday, 15 March, 2012 we had the most dismal speech from Labour leader it is possible to imagine.

Its amateurishness, clumsy obviousness, and inconsistencies were breathtaking.

Shearer laid claim to Finland as an example, but it was obviously based on passing knowledge, because the ‘programme’ Shearer laid out, was directly opposite to the Finnish example. In an offhand way he made a criticism of national standards, then a sneaky supporting reference to performance pay which is part of the national standards philosophy, and then a reference to putting schools on notice which is also part of that philosophy – because putting schools in a negative light is central to the neo-liberal policy in education.

He cast public schools as part of the problem, whatever problem that is, not part of the solution.

So the public school teachers of New Zealand with their outstanding OECD results – 13% better than any other country when compared with poverty ratings; and the only decidedly multi-ethnic country in the top-rating countries – are part of the problem are they David?

So the public school teachers of New Zealand who told the country that national standards were unnecessary, that they were harmful to children’s learning, and that they would narrow and distort the curriculum – have been proved right, but you don’t find them worthy of praise.

You have joined in maligning the public school teachers of New Zealand – mainly our mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, grandmothers, and nieces – they will be picked on when they stumble you imply, and their schools put on notice. Yes, let fear and loathing reign.

Yes – you have joined the neo-liberals in using ‘teacher quality’ as a smokescreen for doing nothing for the poor.

You have joined the madness of the group that says education is the standout key to economic development – let an independent group investigate the validity of that claim – it will be seen to be pure balderdash. Let them show that doing anything different in education from what occurs now, is going to achieve an economic transformation. And we are apparently to have to wait 15 years for these better-taught children to work there way into the workforce for economic valhalla to be achieved, also, unfortunately, a good number of years to learn that the policy was balderdash.

The sheer inadequacy of Shearer’s address in moral terms was breathtaking – there was absolutely no moral and visionary basis to the speech. Remember, this was Shearer’s first address – there can never be another first time: he will forever be tied to the nature and tone of that address – and that nature was sneaky and the tone stale and pedestrian.

The important point, though, is that this lack of moral and visionary basis was intentional. It was intentional cracker barrel thinking spotted with little messages, almost at a subliminal level, like an advertisement. It was a group of people who have done too much West Wing and not enough contemplation of Labour’s moral basis.

Now what was the sequence of events that has led to Labour making an unspoken agreement with John Armstrong, political writer for Herald. I rather admire Armstrong’s political analyses but, of course, in an education, I am taken aback by his obsessive dislike of primary school teachers who he categorises as teacher unions. What is it with aging men and their yucky focus on public primary schools? In Armstrong’s case his usual shrewd analyses fall apart when it comes to teachers. The reason why, I think, is that those shrewd analyses derive from his cynical view of political behaviour which is a perfect derivation for that category of behaviour; but his analytical compass goes awry when it comes to understanding teachers – he is challenged and made uncomfortable by teachers’ genuine public service motivation, so much so, that his attitude is one of deep irritation, and it shows.

I believe this story can usefully be begun on Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, when my attention was drawn to John Pagani’s self-styled Left-leaning Stuff column. He had said that Labour would need to drop its opposition to national standards and detach itself from close association with the teacher unions.

There follows the correspondence that ensued. I have made no fundamental changes to the text. I come across as waspish and exasperated – compounded by my irritation at being diverted from my real writing.


[My e-mail in response to John Pagani’s blog.]

Dear John

We can measure children’s learning in the narrow 3Rs’ area to the nth degree. We don’t need any more tools or professional development for that.

Social democracy and children need a creative, intellectually challenging education not an industrial model being forced on schools through the rampant capitalistic model.

Social democracy is under pressure – in your columns you are doing your best to hold the ground for social democracy, yet when the ideology creating that pressure is expressed in schools, you recommend giving way. Very grand of you.

Education as the narrow 3Rs is a way for capitalism to indoctrinate children, control teachers, and to develop an obedient society. In a posting last week I said: The rise of quantitative academics is a symptom of capitalism in excess.

If parents had a say, as against the public, and the media took education seriously – you would find that there is a very strong demand for enlightened education.


John – when I write against an opponent or an opposing policy, I draw blood – sharpen up. You write like the tame liberal on Fox News.

Poor old Labour – hopelessly at sea – all policy points, and no coherent philosophy.

Best wishes


—– Original Message —–

From:   John Pagani

To:   Kelvin Smythe

Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 11:49 AM

Subject: Re: John – please pay attention

‘The tame liberal on Fox News’. Ouch.

You are going to have to explain to me in slow, carefully-enunciated syllables, what is not social democratic about knowing how well my kid is doing compared to other kids the same age. And then explain why most social democratic leaders around the world support national standards (see PM Gillard), but it becomes not social democracy here.

I think you’ll find most social democratic leaders list educational achievement as the number one social democratic value. I’m not quite sure I see the academic educational establishment as the keepers of the social democratic flame, but maybe they are and the overwhelming weight of social democratic thinking and leadership around the world is wrong.

While you are drawing all this blood, you might want to pause and review the basis for this statement: ‘not an industrial model being forced on schools by through the rampant capitalistic model.’

Not exactly sure who is advocating that model, but if you are suggesting that is a rough synonym for a system of national standards, it’s not me whose thinking is blunted.


Jeez John

A narrow view of 3Rs is not a proxy for education.

You’ve been sucked in John.

If you think the 3Rs is a sign of a strong democracy, well good on you.

You may be forgetting that we are in the top four in the world on that measure: yet we have significant poverty, and we spend significantly less on education than comparable countries. God dammit where is the problem?

I’ve been going into schools for 44 years in an official capacity and still am, and I can tell you that the curriculum has been narrowed and made shallow, with the disengagement of boys rife. Children are cutting and pasting not thinking, science has virtually disappeared.

Look read, say my last four or five postings.

The crisis in education is a contrived one to distract from the collapse of rampant capitalism and to shore it up.

Schools have mountains of information comparing children to other children.

Remember Marx? If the capitalistic model is rampant, why wouldn’t that be expressed in education as in any other part of society.

I can give you some very sad USA readings of big money taking over schools.

NZ is brilliant at the 3Rs – why can’t we concentrate on the children struggling mainly because of poverty, and give the 90% a brilliant, imaginative education.

[However, to correct myself, I believe we should also give struggling children plenty of opportunities for imaginative education.]

An industrial model has all children going through the same hoops, and only measurable things are valued. Wonderful basis for social democracy and the future.

[I made the references to Marx and industrial model to see whether John Pagani comes at these matters from a philosophical point-of-view or he near faints at the references.]

Gillard, Obama, Blair – for goodness sake, what is it follow the failed leader?



—– Original Message —–

From:  John Pagani

To:  Kelvin Smythe

Cc:   Allan Alach

Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:57 PM

Subject: Re: John – please pay attention

I’m afraid I have higher priorities for policy, government and kids than contemplating ‘the collapse of rampant capitalism’.

[So here we have a left-leaning blogger not concerned at the effects of the fall-out from the last recession. Qualifies as the best comic moment.]

Compare and contrast these statements:

‘God dammit where is the problem.’

[The problem is in the distortions being forced on teachers, eventually something is going to give – all the signs are there.]


‘I can tell you that the curriculum has been narrowed and made shallow, and disengagement of boys is rife.’


‘The crisis in education is a contrived one.’

Fundamentally, you set up a flawed dichotomy. I want to know whether my kids can read, write and add up a column of figures as well as other kids. I can’t see how my knowledge of that stops them from having an imaginative education, and in fact the attempt to press the point makes your entire argument look weak. It makes an ‘imaginative education’ sound marginal and weak. And you won’t find many parents who want their kids’ education designed to equip them for post-revolutionary society.

[The fundamental problem is that John Pagani refuses, or is unable to recognise, that schools have lots of information showing how children are doing, and how their performances relate to other children. As well, if schools and teachers are to be judged on a narrow view of literacy and numeracy, teachers will concentrate on those and neglect the other parts of the curriculum. He just needs to read the masses of reports to this effect from around the world.] 

Anyway, you’re wrong about the narrowing of the curriculum. It’s never been stronger or broader, and that’s why we’re doing ok on some measures. No one should be complacent.

[The latest OECD report confirms all my concerns – see below.]

The weakness with your argument Kelvin is you are trying to superimpose one argument on a different one.


On 18/10/2011, at 5:35 PM, Kelvin Smythe wrote:


The collapse of capitalism in excess is what all societies are having to confront now.

All Marx said was that the group that has most power in society, has most power in all parts of it. Obvious and mundane really. I’m sorry for scaring you.

I’m not against capitalism, far from it, just the need for it to be better controlled.

I don’t want a post-revolutionary policy: I want a healthy social democracy which, presently, is being undermined by capitalism in excess.

Note capitalism in excess and Europe; the small group controlling the media; the obstruction to climate policies; the promotion of asset sales; the last recession and the one coming; the increasing gap between rich and poor; and the troubles in the USA; and the high sense of entitlement the wealthy have.

[Apparently John Pagani doesn’t view these as concerns or, perhaps, anything to do with rampant capitalism.]

 What is it you are contemplating more than that, and the connection between this and that.

Re. schools: your school can tell you exactly where your children are re literacy and maths – we have available over 40 normed tests. I want you to have that information, schools want you to have that information, and you can have that information.

You are setting up a problem that isn’t there.

If society tells schools they will be judged on the measurable parts of literacy and numeracy, and that alone – teachers will concentrate on that largely to the exclusion of other things.

Creative thinking, getting children to enjoy books, getting them to enjoy writing, imaginative thinking, problem solving, divergent thinking aren’t measurable. The social sciences, the arts, aren’t measurable – so they are increasingly neglected. No-one disputes that, not even advocates of education as the 3Rs. This borne out all over the world.

I’m not talking post-revolutionary – I’m talking about a healthy social democracy. When parents are asked, they want a balanced education for their children; they want children to be thinkers, to enjoy learning, to be intellectually challenged, to be creative and imaginative, not just the 3Rs.

Your school can tell you exactly where your children are in the 3Rs – so I don’t really know why you are saying that information isn’t available.

Yes – science, as one instance, a terrific opportunity for imaginative thinking, has nearly disappeared.

I know it sounds stuffy, but I have been a main supplier of intellectually challenging social studies materials, and written a 20-set international science series, and I go into about 300 classrooms a year, on contract – I really do know what is going on.

I’m 73 and doing it for my grandchildren and yours, though clearly you don’t think so.

Our wonderful primary education system is in difficulty, a crisis is being created to the benefit of the wealthy and the ideological right.

However, poor boy, you remain unconvinced I’m sure, and Allan has been hammering you too, so goodbye and out.


[I’ve had enough of it and want to get back to my writing, but, no, he has another go.]

—– Original Message —–

From:  John Pagani

To:   Kelvin Smythe

Cc:  Allan Alach

Sent: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 5:41 PM

Subject: One more thing

Just this sentence:

‘Your school can tell you exactly where your children are re literacy and maths – we have available over 40 normed tests. I want you to have that information, schools want you to have that information, and you can have that information.’

‘If this is true, then what is wrong with national standards? I don’t mean National’s national standards, I mean the concept. This is an example of the talking past I was writing about: you can come out and say – national standards are fine for literacy and maths. They don’t work for other important skills; and then we are on the same page.’

[What a tin ear for education. Can you believe it? All the things teachers been saying about the invalidity of high stakes’ testing; the huge increase in centralised government powers to enforce national standards; the coercion by the bureaucracies; the detrimental effects on the curriculum and children’s learning – this and a myriad other effects have completely escaped John Pagani – the inference is that teachers are self-serving, unreliable thinkers who wouldn’t know, and Tolley and the government are paragons with special knowledge and insight.] 

I think you’ll find, though, that’s not what the principals say in that video, where they argue you can’t say a child should be at ‘*this* level when they are 8’. Their view is nonsense.

[Oh my god: norms give that kind of relative information, but you can’t have all children at a norm and above. As for the individuality of children’s learning, the pace at which they develop, home environments, it all means nothing to John Pagani.]


On 18/10/2011, at 5:35 PM, Kelvin Smythe wrote:



We have reached the nub – good on us.

[My new ploy for drawing things to a close.]

Schools do school standards brilliantly – using the myriad of normed tests to give national comparisons. It’s all there for us – and not high stakes, so the results can be trusted to be authentic.

National standards were a diversion by Key to appear to be doing something for children while doing very little, at even less cost.

Remember, it was touted as a main way to reduce unemployment.

National standards distort the curriculum (there is really no question about that); give less accurate information (for reasons I won’t go into here); and give control of education to education to bureaucrats, politicians, and academics of a certain sort.

If you trust this last group more than teachers you will like national standards, but irrespective, it is teachers who do the teaching. The right hates the idea of a group of people largely motivated by genuine public service – it is anathema to what they want to believe about human behaviour.

Sorry about this John – but in the balance, I deeply love, admire, and trust teachers.

In the end, control by education bureaucrats and the like drains initiative from teachers, undermines trust, and gives control to a group, many of whom have never been in a classroom, or are not free to be independent in their thinking.

Schools are being set to fail, so this centralised group assumes more control, leading to the demise of the public education system, leading to more schools being specially set up for the privileged.

Confer USA.

In case you over-read this, I do support external evaluators (after all I was a senior inspector of schools).

National standards are bound to fail because they are not addressing a real problem, they are a symptom of a problem wider than education.

[I say mysteriously: I’m referring to governments wanting to take parental and teacher involvement out of education decision making and transfer it to themselves, carefully chosen experts, bureaucrats, and corporates in response to economic events as these groups see them.]

All best


Then we come to an opinion piece by Josie Pagani published in the Herald on 12 January, 2012.

Now my intuition tells me the following sequence occurred.

The opinion piece was written under the guidance, and with the approval of, the Shearer advisory team, then the contents were, in general, discussed with John Armstrong.

An unspoken agreement was reached.

Josie Pagan’s item is pleasant and skilfully written. It poses the question as to how Labour can best represent working people, who she opined, and correctly as it happens, had turned away from Labour. The message is confused, but amongst it she referred to how unpopular the extension of the ‘Working for Families’ tax credit was. The term aspirational is referred to quite bit, and she sees the need for contract labour, and employment flexibility. She concludes in breezy style saying that Labour’s policies for creating jobs evoked a pleasingly positive response from her constituents.

I can see where she’s coming from, but there’s something very stale and limited in all this. In some respects, one asks: how does it differ from National’s kind of election offerings?

But this is not the time to go into what could have been. For instance, I believe the Labour should be a party of individuals not a mix of individuals and unions; on the other hand, I believe in strengthening unions and associations in the interests of the dignity of labour, greater democracy, and a genuine and evenhanded restructuring of the economy.

Such things, though, miss the point of the Josie Pagan’s item: it was intended to appeal to the media and to signal a middle of the road policy, it was not about seriousness and sincerity in policy making.

But what the Herald gives in the form of muted support the, Herald can taketh away with a blast of its rightwing voice. If Shearer becomes prime minister, New Zealand will go through its Tony Blair phase who, in his case, had a temporary accommodation with Rupert Murdoch.

Well – how did Shearer do in the Weekend Herald? Armstrong kept his side of the bargain, heading his column, ‘Shearer takes reins of a different beast.’

‘Perhaps, most significant of all’, Armstrong says, was [Shearer’s] incursion into … the seemingly unfettered power of the teacher unions to run a ruler over the party’s education policy.’

There is much more along these lines, in particular: ‘Shearer intends shifting Labour’s mind-set away from not upsetting the practitioners of policy … to satisfying the consumers of policy, parents in this case.’

(When Ann Tolley surveyed parents to see whether they were satisfied, the results were so pro-teacher that Tolley tried to hide the results.)

New Zealand will solve its economic and social problems, it seems, by having teachers do exactly what they’re told by governments, bureaucrats, and selected academics. Does Armstrong still believe in Santa? Where is Armstrong’s cynicism about governments and bureaucrats just when you need it?


What Warwick Elley’s has to say in a Herald article, Friday, 2 March 21, 2012, commenting on the OECD report, is of high significance to the matters in hand: Shearer’s coded rightwing references to school education; John Pagani’s stunning lack of awareness of how schools work; John Armstrong’s emotive, irrational criticisms of primary school teachers; Josie Pagani’s Tony Blair-type lack of challenge to the status quo; and the correctness, professionalism, and moral courage of teachers in opposing national standards.

Warwick Elley said New Zealand educators were praised in the OECD report for generally high standards even though ‘we spend far less per student than nearly all of them.’

New Zealand was ‘praised for avoiding “high stakes” testing in primary schools’ because so far, ‘like Finland, the OECD’s star performer, we have kept compulsory assessments and league tables out of primary classrooms.’

‘But this is about to change’, says, Warwick Elley. ‘Our national standards policy was identified as our one weak spot needing change … a potential threat to our high standing.’

The OECD, as reported by Warwick Elley, says that countries like America or England, which have used high stakes testing and league tables for decades have found that ‘the big tails of underachievement have not disappeared, and their top students are fading’.

The OECD is also reported as saying that the focus on literacy and numeracy will ‘marginalise other curriculum areas’. (Are you still with us John Pagani?)

How did the Herald mark this important report and commentary by Warwick Elley? A major article? An editorial?

No, by restricting it to a limited edition of the newspaper.

When Sarah Palin was announced as candidate for vice-president, a Republican woman commentator said, ‘Oh no!’ candidates with back stories never work for Republicans.’

In a similar vein, however Labour might wish for the freedom, sneaky never works for Labour.

And when that sneakiness is aimed at teachers, with children bearing the collateral damage, it becomes, for a party, that still retains a certain idealism about education, something that will never work for Labour.

I was taken aback by your speech – I will not let it go.

I expected to hear about an underlying philosophy of the need for a cohesive society, bolstered by healthy public institutions, supported by clever economic development, and based on fostering a healthy social democracy – we needed a speech that advanced on all fronts, not one that speciously and dangerously brought it all down to education, and school education at that.

I was so sure you were going to use the strengthening of social democracy as the philosophical basis for your speeches: with references to the need for a broad, rich, creative education; to opportunities for life-long education; to a more balanced and varied media; to ways of raising capital for new economic ideas; to the fostering of an enlightened sense of identity; and to creating more social cohesiveness and trust.

You’re not in Somalia now, Mr Shearer – where you and your team benefited from working under the inspiration of the ideals and vision of the United Nations.

You are in New Zealand now, and as leader of the Labour Party, it is your task to establish the ideals and vision for the next little while – it won’t be done for you: you will have to do a lot better than the mean-spirited message of your opening address which made victims of New Zealand primary teachers and the children who are their responsibility.

Will the NZPF campaign get it right?

I’m worried that it won’t. We all know that the technicalities of national standards are irreconcilably flawed, but are we sufficiently focused on national standards as a concept being irreconcilably flawed? National standards are irreconcilably flawed as a concept because they set up narrowed versions of literacy and numeracy as proxies for the curriculum, resulting in a lack of time and attention to the broader curriculum, laying it waste. This means children who are having no problems with literacy and numeracy, for no good reason, have an impoverished education; while children having problems with literacy and numeracy, for good reason, but doomed means, have an impoverished education as well.

The big issue of national standards is not that they don’t work for literacy and numeracy but that they harm the education of all children by working against the wider curriculum in the process of not working for literacy and numeracy either.

Understandably, we pay a lot of attention to the implementation flaws of national standards, as does this posting, but the effect on the wider curriculum is the number one issue for children and teachers, and the most potent one for getting the message across to the public about national standards. The devastation national standards inflicts on the wider curriculum, and how this comes about, is where the NZPF campaign should concentrate.

Now to a speed dating overview of national standards and its irreconcilabilities.

This web site has continually made the point that national standards cannot be defined and that in the absence of this definition, formal assessment tools function will come to act as de facto definitions. National standards cannot be defined because in any definition there is always at least one idea that requires further definition.

It needs to be made clear that if the discussion was about school standards, it wouldn’t matter if there was some imprecision in the definitions because it would simply be an agreed goal towards which a school was working, but national standards are a very different thing.

I sometimes hear teachers say their school is doing national standards. Rubbish – no school is doing national standards. National standards, by definition, are about high stakes’ assessment (meaning individual and school reputation, and career aspirations, are at stake), involving national moderation procedures and external checking. The ministry and review office will be all over schools. It will be a Disneyland for the bureaucracies. When you are doing them you will know – you will be feeling the pressure in relation to the decile you are – an intense, unpleasant pressure. And always in these circumstances ‘distortions’ occur. Wow! That decile 1 down the road has done amazingly well. What’s going on there? Yes, what is going on down there?

Then there is Overall Teacher Judgement (OTJ). In New Zealand, as a selling point that our national standards are somehow different from national standards that have occurred elsewhere, OTJ has been introduced. What a merry dance leading nowhere that is going to take us.

National standards will not be real national standards for about five years. The time in between will just be play time.

Let us go back to national standards and follow the lead from there to establish the real national standards. Clearly those bland statements called the national standards aren’t the real national standards; they are general statements lacking any semblance of precision. So national standards are not the real national standards. Those non-national standards’ national standards point to the curriculum levels. But those curriculum levels were not designed to be national standards; they were designed as general levels for a curriculum. This is demonstrated by the curriculum levels requiring a large number of achievement objectives to explain them. But these achievement objectives were not designed to be national standards either; they were designed as indicators for the curriculum levels. The achievement objectives are too numerous and too lacking in scope to be the national standards. The same can be said for the progressions that have been produced, and which have no formal recognition, anyway.

So far, no luck with finding the real national standards.

We are now left with the standardised assessment tools and the press-ganged assessment tools, and OTJ. Ostensibly the standardised and the press-ganged assessment tools are there to place children at particular curriculum levels, but seeing curriculum levels are not real national standards, that is not possible.

The standardised assessment tools (PAT and the semi-standardised asTTle), and the press-ganged assessment tools, however, are producing numbers which are putting children in categories. What are those categories? Are those categories the real national standards? My answer is yes. What, then, are national standards? National standards are the categories that assessment tools are putting children in. Yes – but what are national standards? They aren’t anything you can define in words; they are the numbers allocated to children by the assessment tools. They can’t be defined in words, because the assessment tools whether already established, or press-ganged, perform their function by producing their numbers. Anyway, as has already been suggested, national standards cannot be defined.

The already established standardised assessment tools can be turned to producing numbers for national standards because they are normed to some degree – well normed in the case of PAT; and marginally well (and for the later years) in the case of the sprawling, wayward, and fitfully insightful asTTle. The press-ganged assessment tools weren’t designed for national standards; they were forced into service to produce numbers in relation to levels, which, as already discussed, do not work for national standards.

The end result will be that the press-ganged assessment tools will be sidelined, and we will be left, believe it or not, with PAT and asTTLe. All that kerfuffle and we are back with PAT and to some extent asTTle. This will, of course, take a few years to shake down, but that is what will happen.

What about OTJ? When national standards are fully moderated and externally checked in, say, five years, very little differentiation will be allowed between assessment tool numbers and OTJ. Schools will have to justify any significant differentiation and that will put a real crimp on that manoeuvre. To allow significant differentiation would be to concede that the assessment tools were faulty; and, above all, make the moderation process incapable of moderation.

With New Zealand national standards we have national standards which aren’t national standards; curriculum levels which weren’t designed for national standards; achievement objectives that were designed for the curriculum levels not national standards and, anyway, as achievement objectives aren’t suitable for national standards; and OTJ which, when national standards become high stakes and real national standards, will be seen as antithetical to the nature of national standards.

I want to stress that real national standards won’t happen for about five years, up until then we will be playing at national standards. The settling in period will really be a phony period for suckering schools. After that there will be a winding down to PAT and to some extent asTTle as defining national standards by whatever numbers they produce and wherever the national standards’ bar is placed.

And the irreconcilable flaws, well – there are no defined national standards or any other words that define them (levels and the like); all the press-ganged assessment tools don’t and can’t work for national standards; OTJ can’t be accommodated in national standards; leaving aside asTTle, only PAT works for national standards, but it is already working for standards, it is already moderated, it is already standardised, and OTJ is already used to put the results into context and perspective. Why would we want to stuff up that old faithful by forcing it into a task it wasn’t designed for?

Indeed, why would we want to stuff up our children, teachers, schools and system by having national standards?

How did this gigantic stuff up come about? Well it came about because our used car salesman wanted a stunt as a substitute for an education policy; the ministry said Oh no! It has been a disaster every other place it has been used, we’ll try and give it some credibility; but national standards can’t be given credibility, they only ‘work’ if they are imposed arbitrarily because, as an education idea, they are irreconcilably flawed; and in trying to give them some credibility, we have, ladies and gentlemen, this gigantic stuff up, Aotearoa-style.

If certain assessment tools are going to define national standards by the numbers they produce, as they will, we might as well go straight to national testing. It is probably the more honest thing to do. Then we can see our future more clearly: a devastated wider curriculum; and a child-time of children being prepared for tests. We will see our future in how it is reported from America; how it was reported from England by Robin Alexander in the monumental The Cambridge Primary Review.

Behold the wasteland.

We will, also, see quite clearly what monumental ….. we are making of ourselves.

When will the testing bubble burst?

Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/02/2011 Washington Post

When will the testing bubble burst?

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network

In the mid-1920s our economy boomed. The stock market, then relatively new, soared to amazing heights, as the middle class invested their money and saw their wealth grow. But there was a problem. The stock market prices had inflated beyond the intrinsic worth of the companies they were based upon. This came to be known as a stock market bubble, because when the inflation of value stopped, the bubble burst and the economy collapsed.

The nation experienced another bubble recently with the rising value of real estate, which blew up in our faces a few years ago, and is still costing many of our communities dearly.

Take a look at the dynamics of these bubbles. In each case we had something with some intrinsic value, which people began obsessing over. The future value was projected to be far greater than the current value, and investors started pouring money into the market, bidding up the prices. The phenomena started to feed itself: as the price rose, people saw others making their fortunes, and more money flowed in.

In the case of the housing market, government policies fed the boom. Lax regulations allowed financiers to create “innovative” loans requiring no documentation of earnings or collateral. Loans were packaged and sold so the risk was passed on to investors. And those who stood to profit worked to inflate the bubble as much as they could, spinning projections of wealth, saying that growth is inevitable, and denying the dangers even as they grew. Real estate speculators, investment bankers and loan agents all saw their fortunes grow as money poured into the market. And very few saw what was coming, and even fewer raised any alarm.

But at some point reality began to set in. The bubble expanded to its limits, tottered, and when the money available to feed its irrational expansion dried up, the collapse was inevitable. And prices returned to earth, to some proximity to the intrinsic value of the stock or property. Our economy is still reeling, and millions have lost their homes and jobs.

We are now in the last upward push of the testing bubble.

Just like real estate, test scores have some intrinsic worth. They can be used to see how students at a given school are performing in some important areas of basic skills. We have had tests available for this purpose for decades, and they allow us to see patterns at the whole school or district level, and to judge the effectiveness of different curricula or instructional programs. But the value of these tests is being vastly inflated as a result of the phony imperative that we are in an “education crisis,” and the only cure for this is “accountability” for test scores.

Corporate education reformers are so happy to have introduced “market forces” into the education arena, they have overlooked the fact that they are creating the most destructive dynamic of the marketplace — the unsustainable bubble — which is inevitably followed by a calamitous crash. And as with all of these bubbles, the longer it takes to burst, the greater the damage it will inflict.

Here are the things tests are supposed to accomplish for us:

Exit exams ensure high school diplomas “mean something.” However  research has revealed they do little good.

Make us competitive in the global economy. Except, as Yong Zhao has  described, our biggest competitors are trying desperately to escape the trap rote learning and testing have landed them in, and are trying to change so as to foster the creativity our schools produced in the past

Furthermore, as  Stephen Krashen reminds us:

“The core issue remains U.S. [student] performance on international tests and the studies relevant to the discussion are those showing the huge impact of poverty on these tests. When we consider children who do not live in poverty and who attend well-funded schools, U.S. test scores are at the top of the world. Our ‘low’ (actually mediocre) scores are because we have so many children living in poverty, more than all other industrialized countries.”

Close the achievement gap, by allowing us to reward teachers with good scores, and punish or fire those with low scores, driving out the “bad teachers” responsible for the low scores and attracting ambitious effective teachers to replace them.

The trouble is, performance pay has not, thus far, even worked to raise test scores. Furthermore, raising test scores often results in WORSE education, rather than better, as Alfie Kohn recently explained. High stakes tests have driven schools attended by poor children towards a “pedagogy of poverty,”

One thing that always happens when there is a bubble is that the people who are benefiting from the froth work as hard as they can to keep it inflating. In the housing bubble, the banking industry was making a fortune, and since they were selling off the loans as quick as they got them, they were not worried about the crash. And they convinced themselves it could only go up.

There is a phrase in Latin — cui bono – which means “who benefits?” Whose interests are served by the inflation of the testing bubble?

Billionaire philanthropists and political leaders want poverty off the table as an issue needing attention. So instead of recognizing the crisis created by one in four children living in poverty, they have relocated our schools as the cause of the crisis, and accountability for test scores as the cure.

Politicians who wish to destroy teacher un ions have also seized on this as a means of attacking them. Teacher unions must be resisting the removal of due process protections and seniority because they are trying to protect the “bad teachers” responsible for low test scores. Get rid of the unions, and then we can get rid of these lousy teachers and the scores will rise. At least that is the justification. And once the unions are weakened, pensions, benefits and salaries can be cut. Then there will be more money for tax cuts for the big corporations that provide the campaign dollars for the next election.

Projects that are able to focus narrowly on improvement of test scores for children in poverty are also winners. Once we define success as test score gains, then schools and teacher preparation or intern programs that master test preparation can appear successful.

Test publishers are big winners. Though the use of low quality multiple choice tests discredited  No Child Left Behind, the test makers have come up with a way to keep the bubble full, by promising vastly improved tests. These new tests will, of course, cost billions of dollars more, but their value will be inflated even more, because now they will supposedly measure critical thinking and creativity.

And recent news announcing the partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Pearson, a huge education company, reveals that any line separating philanthropists from profit-making test and curriculum publishers has been wiped out.

Scores of consulting firms that specialize in “school turnarounds,” test preparation, student data analysis and other “reforms” that revolve around test scores are making their money off this trend.

One does not have to be venal to contribute to this problem. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” And some people have convinced themselves that improving test scores is a meaningful goal — even a moral imperative.

But moralistic proclamations notwithstanding, high stakes tests thus far have yielded few if any of the benefits we have been promised. They have not significantly budged the achievement gap – and in many ways have widened it. They have not made us more competitive, or prepared students better for college – as the rising number of students who need remediation indicates. They do not allow us to accurately identify the best or worst teachers, and when used for this purpose are likely to lower the quality of instruction, rather than raise it, by forcing teachers to focus on test preparation.

Parents have begun to join teachers in calling out this charade. The testing bubble relies on most us believing that the scores offer real value, and can deliver even more if we just invest more money and importance in them. This town hall meeting in Florida gave Rep. Ted Deutch and Department of Education official Michael Yudin a taste of the skepticism that signals the beginning of the end for this bubble. When more superintendents join   Texan John Kuhn in speaking out, more holes will appear in the bubble.

The sooner this bubble bursts, the sooner we can get to the REAL work involved in improving our communities and schools. We can roll up our sleeves and deal with some of the social issues that affect students’ abilities to learn. We can allow teachers to reflect and collaborate with a focus on authentic student work that is creative, rich and open-ended, instead of focusing on test score data.


From: Roger Goulstone <>
Date: Thu, 05 May 2011 09:53:31 +1200
To: “HighTrust (MIN)” <>, Paul Hutchison
Conversation: Leadership capability
Subject: Leadership capability


I am professionally and personally insulted by your remarks as quoted in the Herald this morning and wish to issue you a challenge and invitation to stand by your comment and prove its validity. If you are a politician with integrity I trust you will accept my invitation.

You are quoted in the Herald as saying that in schools that are not
implementing national standards leadership capability is an issue.

I have not implemented national standards in my school, and now a government minister has questioned my leadership capability in the public arena.

My invitation and challenge to you Minister is to meet with me at Valley School and for you to demonstrate to me how I am lacking in leadership capability. You can be absolutely assured of a cordial and respectful welcome to Valley School, a nice cup of tea with refreshments, and a challenging professional discussion in pleasant surroundings.

My opposition to national standards has nothing to do with lacking
leadership capability  – the easy road for me would be to become a compliant leader and follow your path. I believe I am displaying leadership capability of the highest order in putting the learning and the welfare and future of my pupils above everything else.

This is why I invite you to come to Valley School and show me where I am lacking – you will not find me lacking in providing a top class learning environment, nor do I believe I am lacking in making sure achievement data is used effectively to inform teaching and learning. You will not find me lacking in providing quality professional development for my staff, nor will you find me lacking in setting high expectations for our kids. You will not find me lacking in having a passion for kids and having a strong determination and professional integrity for doing what is right to provide the best I can for their future.

My leadership capability, professional ethics, and integrity means I cannot be a compliant leader who follows a path that has no research to prove its validity, and in fact is a path that has research to show it does NOT lead to the outcomes we both want – improved achievement for all our children.

Perhaps though you know something about my  19 years as a Principal and my leadership capability that I have missed? I look forward to meeting with you.

Thank you

Roger Goulstone
Valley School

What is Phil Harding up to?

It was not so long ago that Phil Harding appeared to be flirting with supporting PaCT without, it seems, undertaking anything like full consultation. Then, following a series of tracking postings from a particular source, he underwent a remarkable epiphany, going all shiny on us and deciding to join the far steadier NZEI in a united stand against PaCT, leading to a rare win against the grim and oppressive anti-democratic regime that is the current reality for the teachers and children of New Zealand. You would have thought that that might have brought some glimmerings about how to proceed against subsequent National oppressive policies, for instance, the present one of a new Teachers Council. But no, unlike Paul who was never the same afterwards, he seems to be driven once again, as have many teacher organisation heads before him, to respond to a vision of himself as a cross between Metternich and Kissinger.

Phil Harding in the NZ Herald, 2 November, is reported as saying that ‘overall he was “pretty happy” with the new council’.

‘Pretty happy’ what on earth got into him? Here we have a policy that began with a lie that the new policy was occasioned by the Northland imbroglio when, in fact, a ‘reform’ of the Teachers Council was always intended by the government and Treasury to curtail  teacher freedom of expression; to bring in further bureaucratic measurement controls of teachers; and to increase the privatisation of schooling. And here we have Phil Harding apparently wandering off on his own, seemingly ill-prepared, willing it seems to make some kind of accommodation with Hekia Parata and government policy.

What is particularly worrying is that having made a bit of a dick of himself last time, I sense that Phil Harding, once again, has failed to consult with either the Federation council or the membership. Being ‘pretty happy’ adds up to a near capitulation to the Treasury long term plan for authoritarian appraisals; one way to run schools and teach the curriculum; and individual and school payment by test results. In other words, it is the next step on for the national standards philosophy, and the ideological and political pay off for National in respect to its education policies.

Harding, after saying he was ‘pretty happy overall’ went on to say ‘he urged the minister to ensure the governing body was independent’. This is remarkable for two reasons.

First, what a strange way to ensure independence by having no teacher or principal representation in the so-called transitional agency, all the nine members, irrespective of their educational status in being selected by the minister represent the minister and cannot represent teachers and principals – to say they do is a corruption of the meaning of the word. The founding principles for the new agency will be decided by members who are not independent of the minister therefore the subsequent council cannot and will not be independent – even if some members acted independently that would be a different expression of the same word. There can be no true council independence without true council representation.

Second, Phil Harding, only urges, cap-in-hand, that the council be independent, he does not demand it. Harding has really given NZPF approval to a new kind of teacher participation in policy making, a participation exemplified by membership of the Cross-Sector Forum. If the teacher organisations are going to be ‘represented’ in this way, then schools and teachers might as well stop paying membership fees. Most of the money will be spent on, overseas jaunts, hi-mum moments, and indulgent power displays for the boys and girls.

Phil Harding couldn’t even articulate the obvious and say that similar professional councils for, say, doctors, nurses, and lawyers, had a predominance of representative members. The transcendental insult will be further compounded by teachers having to pay substantially more for something that will be substantially worse.

Phil Harding then further expounds NZPF his stance when he says: ‘The challenge is to make sure the profession has confidence in the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand that in fact it reflects a sample of the profession who do know the challenges that schools and educators face.’

And there it is, the game given away, by a president who can’t consistently get it – ‘a  sample’. A new definition of representation, independence, and democracy – all the minister has to do is to present a sample. Well, a sample has been selected by the minister – Harding has what he wants: governance by government chosen sample; democracy by sample.

Phil Harding goes on to say: ‘The new board needs to be one that makes teachers say:”Wow, that’s an impressive group of educators we trust”.’

No Mr Harding, let me explain democracy to you. What teachers need to be able to say is: ‘Wow, that’s an impressive group of teachers we have elected or represent us through our elected representatives.’

Phil Harding’s stance is outlandish.

The political ineptness of teacher organisations is something of a horror story (thank goodness NZEI is going through a pretty good patch).

Two days before Phil Harding’s macabre performance, he would have read the OIA information that Treasury had ‘urged the education minister to keep the “ambitious agenda” for schools low key’ as far as presentation was concerned. The lie that purportedly began the new agency, the purposes declared for it, and the propaganda surrounding it are all examples of such low key presentation techniques. But carrying the import of that OIA document just a few days to shape the NZPF response to the new agency proved too much for him.

Including some of the points made above, the teacher organisations should have a formula for quickly dismissing such government policies, for instance:

  • New Zealand schools do not need another layer of bureaucratic control.
  • New Zealand schools need more government bureaucracy like a hole in the head; these suggested centralised and bureaucratic ideas will make education worse for schools already groaning under the burden of failed bureaucratic ideas – ideas imported from overseas.
  • Teachers and schools need to be freed from ideas that have no backing from academic and teacher knowledge that is in anyway respected. (In this instance, much should be made of the persuasive paper put out by the highly respected academics Ivan Snook and John O’Neill et al on education by measurement.)
  • Teachers and schools know how to help all children in schools from the ones struggling because of home background characteristics to children of high ability. What these teachers and schools need is for bureaucrats to get out of teachers way and to concentrate on getting resources to them that will help them in their task.
  • To this end, public schools are asking for class sizes to be brought down to the equivalent of those of private schools and funding to be lifted somewhere near that of charter schools.
  • A huge investment in maths programmes needs to be provided – as it is a programme that is struggling from faulty bureaucratic direction and lack of in-service funding.
  • The same for science.
  • Reading recovery, a proved programme, needs more funding.
  • Every class needs a teacher aide.
  • Greatly increased funding for ‘Reading Together’ and programmes like it is needed.
  • A greatly increased funding for computers is needed.
  • Special education funding needs to be greatly increased, including for helping children with dyslexia.
  • Emphasis should be on extra funding for class programmes away from grandiose building programmes.

The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Teacher organisations should not get caught up in the government’s grubby anti-public school policies; they should daringly outflank those policies by focusing determinedly on funding policies to better meet the classroom needs of children and teachers. Teacher organisations should set the pace, not slip into the torpor of conceding the initiative to the government.

The teacher organisations, even the NZEI (though to a much lesser extent), are failing us in the overall policy stance to government policy authoritarianism. They have fallen into a languor, waiting for the government to announce its next item from its stock of horrors, then displaying surprise, confusion, and low tactical astuteness; concentrating on the particular rather than the conceptual; and acting apart from each other. This must stop. What to do about Phil Harding?  Perhaps, democracy can be made to work within NZPF, who knows? Above all, the teacher organisations must stand together as they did over PaCT, making very clear in regard to the council that there will be no co-operation without representation and majority representation at that. Tip the tea into the harbour and, throughout this fair land, ring the Liberty Bell loud and clear. As for Hekia Parata she steals in her policies in the dead of the night, too ashamed to allow the light to play on them. And she talks down to teachers, using her position,  well aware she can’t foot it with our wonderful primary principals and teachers if on equal terms. We have your measure Hekia, you neither fool nor frighten us.