Hard News by Russell Brown


Moving from frustration to disgust

Yesterday, John Key's government lurched into the next phase of its benighted national standards project in what is now the established manner: idly, disingenuously, without consultation and with a foundation in little more than empty truisms.

It would be overly dignifying what happened to describe it as an announcement. The information emerged only because reporters asked Key at yesterday's presser to explain what was going on in light of the discovery that the Ministry of Education is working on a report based on national standards results filed by 2500 primary schools.

This news appears to have come to light only because news media had begun to use the Official Information Act to seek the first round of national standards data from schools, presumably to compile their own league tables -- a development the Prime Minister declared "inevitable" before last year's election, having previously depicted such a move as undesirable. They were rebuffed with the explanation that the ministry is currently devising its own such report, which is due in September. Lord knows when the government planned to proactively tell us what was happening.

From the Stuff story:

Mr Key yesterday defended the move as the information could now be discovered under the Official Information Act and media could put together their own rankings. "Some sort of coherent league table makes sense," he said.

"I've always had a view that somehow this information is going to be in the public domain. The question is what form is it going to take and what's it going to look like. What I don't want to see is schools actually damaged by the information being presented in the wrong way."

Good luck with that coherence thing, Prime Minister. Because virtually every step your government has taken down this path has militated against that. 

I wrote a blog post last week explaining the way the government blocked scrutiny in turning its standards slogan into policy, the way it refused to countenance a trial of the scheme, the way it rolled over and even threatened the people it expects to operate the system -- and the way it ignored its own expert advice all along the way.

Consequently, the information that schools have provided can barely be described as data. It is inconsistent, narrow and not subject to meaningful moderation. Even the standards aren't standard -- different schools have quite different written interpretations of what they mean. The information has not been provided in any kind of standard format -- most of it, I gather, has arrived on paper, rather than in any machine-readable form. The ministry has only just issued a tender for the database that will be used to compile and present the information. No one appears sure how what to do with it. But it will be published anyway.

Compare this, if you will, to the years of fine-tuning that preceded the introduction of NCEA in secondary schools and the problems that nonetheless followed that innovation.

Perhaps the most damning of a series of damning interviews aired on Morning Report today came from a man who has no direct stake in the matter -- Patrick Walsh, the head of the Secondary Principals' Association and no one's woolly liberal:

You should listen to the whole report (it's here if the player above isn't working for you), but pay particularly close attention to these parts:

All we've ever asked, which goes back to the furore over the class size issue, is that the government does its research and then sits down with the school sector so we can work in a collaborative way about raising student achievement and teacher quality ...

We're quite happy to sit down and dialogue with the ministry and the minister in relation to quality schools and quality teaching. What we object to is on-the-hoof announcements without any research being underaken and without a consultation process.

So is that what you think has happened in this case? The Prime Minister just sort of thinking aloud?

Well that's what it appears to us. He hasn't even spoken to his own minister on the subject.

Do you think in any way it's an attempt to get parents back onside after the debacle that there's been with the other recent policy?

I'm not sure what the motivation is Geoff, but I've been in Australia recently and spoken to a group of Australian principals who have league tables over there and they indicated to me what the downsides are -- which include that the princiapls are now discouraging students of low academic ability, such as English as a second language, from attending their schools.

They're subjecting their students to a constant diet of tests to improve their league results and they're only giving professional development to teachers who teach subjects that are going to be measured on the league tables -- like maths, science and english. And they avoid giving PD to teachers who teach art, music and social studies.

Did they see any upside?

No, they didn't. They saw it as hugely competitive, bad pedagogy and in fact destructive to their childrens' learning. As your commentator pointed out, the curriculum gets very narrow and I don't think New Zealanders want a very narrow curriculum. They want a holistic education that includes all the subjects and extracurricular activities.

These outcomes should not be a surprise. They were precisely what the government's former chief research analyst Ian Schagen had seen in Britain -- and the reason he strongly warned the minister against allowing the compilation of league tables.

The only positive commentary Morning Report received was from Roger Partridge, the co-chair of the New Zealand Initiative, which is allegedly pouring money into research on education:

Certainly as a parent I know I've always been very keen to have information about the performance of schools my children have been at and it just stands to reason -- you'd expect to be hungry for information on school performance so they can make informed decisions about where their kids are best placed to go.

So that's what we get from the organisation that purports to be our primary think-tank: it "stands to reason". Partridge seemed unaware of the existence of the Education Review Office, which was constituted to provide precisely the kind of information he says parents need. And as NZEI president Ian Leckie pointed out, parents who care should make the time to visit prospective schools, see them and talk to the people who run them.

Schools will manipulate national standards data because they can and because it is now an existential matter for them to do so. They will narrow curricula, fudge results and "teach to the test". (For an insight into the implications of teaching to the test, read Jolisa Gracewood's account of her experience as an engaged parent in the US.) And they will be very, very unwilling to take on students like my Aspie kids, who might drag them down the league table. The ostensible research purpose of national standards will have been long lost by then.

I have occasionally expressed my frustration at this government's feckless style and its constant contempt for process. I think this week my frustration has moved up the scale to disgust.

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