Hard News by Russell Brown


Media3: Standards Showdown

On Monday and Tuesday respectively, The Press and the New Zealand Herald responded in their editorial columns to criticism of newspapes' handling of the first round of national standards data. And both, in the name of greater academic achievement, bitched about those fancy-pants experts with their darn book-learnin'.

The Press lamented the "we- know-best professional arrogance," of experts critical of national standards, when "Parents are those in the best position to judge all the requirements necessary for the best education of their children."

And the Herald, even as it acknowledged the shortcomings of the unmoderated data the news media have been building stories from, delivered really dreadful paragraphs like this:

There is much intolerance of any use of this "ropey" information. A high priesthood of data analysis bemoans news media interest, however hedged with caveats, as betraying the apple in favour of the orange. Yet the combined "wisdom of the crowd" of thousands of schools and teachers, warts and all, does suggest, for example, fewer children meet standards in writing nationally than reading or mathematics.

Which, strictly speaking, tells you very little. Does the fact that twice as many children nationally achieved above the standard in reading as writing suggest a puzzling gap between two skills that ought to be closely related? Or (and this seem more likely) that the reading standard and the writing standard are themselves out of alignment? Or that the writing standard is subject to such widely varying interpretations by schools that it would be irresponsible to draw any conclusion from the numbers?

This didn't stop the Weekend Herald leading its front page on Saturday with a preposterous story headed Why children fail in writing (billed on the home page of the website as 'Our kids' failing standards') which failed to do justice to either its headline or its apparent premise.

The author of that story, education reporter Vaimoana Tapaleao, also wrote the page two lead, which had teachers and education professionals condemning the standards data. It's a solid story, but I think the problem is that "teachers condemn national standards" ceased to be news some time ago.

What we have seen, however, is the news media warning about the reliability of standards data even as they dish it up for us to read. The Herald on Sunday's Jonathan Milne, who wrote a story correlating greater class size with national standards performance that appears to be just wrong, also wrote this thoughtful commentary on the unhappy effects of a similar standards system in Britain.

Even John Hartevelt, who worked on Fairfax's School Report for three months, battling to get results from schools on the Official Information Act, was at pains to emphasise that the numbers should be read with caution:

Anyone who read the National Standards results as a proxy for quality would be quite foolish. We wouldn't do that and we don't suggest you do, either. For starters, they are not moderated, so one school's "well below" may be another's "at" or "above". There is just no way of knowing - yet - exactly how the standards have been applied across schools.

And yet, Fairfax built a tool specifically to enable comparisons between schools -- and its publicity release on Saturday had Fairfax Group Digital Editor Sinead Boucher touting parents' ability to compare schools "in order to make the best possible decisions for their children."

Hartevelt was criticised by Keith Ng and others, and, creditably, has responded in a more coherent fashion than either the Press or Herald editorialists. Never mind the comparisons, look at all the context we've provided, he says. And they have: there's some good reporting there. I'm not inclined to blame them for jumping the gun and publishing their OIA data ahead of the Ministry's planned release this coming Friday -- not when the government's policy has been so haphazardly announced all along.

Opponents of the standards process might wish to reflect on what they have achieved in the process that began when John Key's new National government shoved through national standards under urgency shortly after winning the election in 2008. Neither of the big newspaper groups has actually published a "league table" of schools: both made positive decisions not to do so. It's doubtful that we would be seeing so many obvious caveats on the reporting had the issue not been pursued.

There is no doubt that many parents believe national standards data should be gathered and published. They want to compare schools on the narrow basis of standards performance, and have little patience with explanations of why that's a dangerous road to go down. It's not actually easy to explain, as Danyl does today, that taking the data at face value may lead them to "make uninformed, and possibly terrible choices about their children’s education." Certainly not without appearing patronising.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in a seminar that brought together media and the judiciary -- as a representative of the blogging community. When the topic on my panel turned to what bloggers and their readers think of mainstream journalists, I said "basically, what they think is that you guys can't count." At that I looked out into the audience and saw the distinctly unimpressed face of Herald editor Tim Murphy. What we've seen is that perception playing out not for the first time and probably not for the last. But it'll get better. Really, it will.

We will pursue this discussion with Fairfax's John Hartevelt and blogger and data visualisation specialist Keith Ng in this week's Media3 programme. We record the programme tomorrow (Thursday) at the Villa Dalmacija, 10 New North Road, Auckland, and you are welcome to join us from 5.30pm.

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