Why teachers are furious (and parents are curious)

By Kirsty Wynn, Kasia Jillings

This week, for the first time, the Government will publicly rate all primary schools according to their pupils' achievements in reading, writing and 'rithmetic. A comprehensive Herald on Sunday survey of primary schools has revealed wide discrepancies in our kids' education. By Kirsty Wynn and Kasia Jillings.

Tarzan Tagoai and Deanne Taaka Te-Kaute with Judd McLauchlan, principal of Rowandale Primary School in Manurewa. Photo / Michael Craig
Tarzan Tagoai and Deanne Taaka Te-Kaute with Judd McLauchlan, principal of Rowandale Primary School in Manurewa. Photo / Michael Craig

As Wendy Sheridan-Smith walks through the playground, children run to hug her. Their fingers toy with a keepsake penny on the deputy principal's necklace.

"Is this money Miss?" one asks.

This is Rowandale Primary School in South Auckland.

These children do not have toothbrushes at home. Many rely on the decile 1 school for breakfast and sometimes lunch. Some - extraordinarily - have never driven across the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

These children are not the national standard.

Principal Judd McLauchlan says it is impossible to measure the pupils against national standards when they come from backgrounds of poverty and sometimes violence.

"Our goal is to have all students feel a sense of self worth but that's taking a whole lot of hard work because of some of the stuff these kids are bringing into school," he says.

"It's incredible to see the positive attitude they have when you know they are leaving a world of poverty and violence at the school gate."

In the classroom, McLauchlan asks the kids who wants to come to school tomorrow.

"Me," they all shout back.

They can't, though: It will be the weekend.

THAT SCHOOL gate, for some primary-aged kids, can provide a welcome refuge from a world that increasingly loads them with adult work and expectations.

But now, from Monday to Friday, they will know their teachers are assessing them against the government's new national standards. The results will be posted online by the Ministry of Education to be measured and scrutinised.

It is a brave new world of assessment, measurement and accountability, and schoolteachers are baulking on the threshold. However many times you weigh the pig, they warn, it won't get any fatter. Worst of all, they say, the scales are wonky.

So these kids will turn up to school to be weighed, measured and prodded, so politicians and bureaucrats in Wellington can claim yearly improvements in their results. Yet everyone, including Prime Minister John Key, admits the measures are dodgy, in his words, "very ropey".

That's why staff at schools like Rowandale Primary say they won't log on when the national standard results go live on the educationcounts.govt.nz website on Friday. But even if they don't check the school's end-of-year report, you can be sure many parents in Manurewa will. Because John Key is right - this data is ropey. It's tangled and confused but better than nothing, which is what parents had before.

Education Minister Hekia Parata says national standards will "set clear expectations of what knowledge, understanding and skills students should be achieving at each year level to be on track to achieve NCEA Level 2."

Teachers must assess students twice a year and provide reports to parents.

New Zealand parents are entitled to know how their children are doing in school, Parata argues, and national standards are a good yardstick.

"The information gives us a picture of how and where we need to invest to improve. We won't be perfect this year, or possibly next year, but we do have to continually improve and we will do that."

Parata is excited by the initial findings and says the Government will act on the problems.

"We have had certain cohorts that are underperforming and we have to make sure our system is working for every learner - not just the average learner."

Here, then, are some key revelations contained in a comprehensive Herald on Sunday survey of primary schools' previously unpublished national standards results.

* from the very year they enter primary school, boys are falling behind girls in reading, writing and maths;

* all kids are struggling at writing, which is fast becoming a lost skill;

* Maori kids are well behind the average; Pacific children are even further behind;

* children at integrated and church schools are 9 percentage points more likely to achieve standards than those in regular state schools;

* 80 per cent of children at prosperous decile 10 schools achieve the writing standard compared with only half of those at low income decile 1 schools;

* primary schools in the Manawatu-Wanganui region topped the North Island tables; those in Hawke's Bay were at the bottom.

The first comparisons between different subjects and groups of pupils - boys and girls, Maori and Pacific Islanders - are meaningful and important. These are the issues that New Zealand and its education community should be talking about, if they weren't too busy trying to conceal the data or delay its publication.

The last few comparisons between different types of schools and regions, on the other hand, should be taken with a large pinch of salt. It may not be that the kids are smarter or the tutelage better. It could be that teachers in successful Palmerston North just mark their pupils easier than those in struggling Napier.

World-renowned educationalist professor John Hattie says the results cannot be trusted and the minister should not yet publish them.

"I think the results are four years away from being trustworthy," he argues. "At the moment the data is not believable so why publish it?

"It damages credibility."

He believed the decision to publish National Standards so soon after the 2010 introduction was ill-informed and rushed.

He warned officials there is little moderation between different teachers and different schools.

"A kid can be below national standard in one school and above at another. How credible is that?"

Officials hope to improve moderation in time for the publication of the next 12-month tranche of data, in the hope the national standards can identify and diagnose any malaise in our primary education system.

Which brings us to another metaphor: Parata says national standards for reading, writing and maths are the blood pressure and heart rate checks at school. They are the health check for the entire system.

And just as doctors look at the overall health while assessing a patient, so too parents should look at all information available about a school; socio-economic decile, government funding, the regular reports by school inspectors ...

"When we publish the results there will be the ERO report as well as other information about the school," Parata says. "The national standards results are just a part of that."

MUCH OF this debate comes down to the inability of either the politicians and bureaucrats, or the principals and unions, to communicate adequately with real people - with parents, with children, with the wider community.

Somehow, those most ideologically-wedded to one side of the national standard debate or the other, seem most reliant on edu-jargon and metaphor.

Paul Drummond, president of the New Zealand Principals' Federation, says: "If you know your garden is going to be judged just on tomatoes, you are going to focus on that. It doesn't mean you have a great garden."

What he is trying to say is that if teachers are told their school needs to up its game in numeracy, they will inevitably focus on lifting the kids who are just below the mathematics standard above the line. The best kids will suffer.

The worst kids will suffer. The reading and writing standards will be neglected. And as for subjects that are not measured by national standards, like art and music and sports - fugged about it ...

Drummond and many other New Zealand principals were in Melbourne this week at a transtasman principals' conference where he put a resolution calling on the New Zealand and Australian governments to put students at the centre of education policy and consult principals in making that policy. Unsurprisingly, the bland statement was carried unanimously by the 1460 headmasters, before they headed out for dinner and a river cruise.

In his own take on the resolution, Drummond argued it was a vote against "high-stakes assessment regimes" and league tables.

"It alarms me that we are going down this pathway that other countries have gone and regretted."

In New Zealand the principals and deputy principals who were left behind to run the schools took a more moderate stance on the introduction of national standards testing and reporting.

At Chaucer School in Auckland's Blockhouse Bay, principal David White says the school already does everything it needs to meet national standards, in their existing twice-yearly reports to parents and setting goals for pupils.

But the school is also focussing on other important markers that national standards ignore, "like the size of school, the atmosphere of school, how safe and happy your child is."

Some principals have even sent form letters to newspapers, warning that using the data to compare schools would be "potentially harmful to students".

White avoids such heightened rhetoric, such emotional blackmail. But he is concerned publishing results on a website could tag a child with the school reputation, good or bad. "It's labelling children. We like to say the only label you give a child is their name."

SO WHY do it then? That's the question from Auckland University's Professor Stephen May who describes national standards as puzzling at best, damaging at worst.

"Because schools use different assessments to track student achievement, the thought you can compare school X with school Y is a fiction," he says. "It is time consuming for teachers and unnecessary for students."

Why do it? Why publish data that is flawed? Parata seems a bit stuck for an answer, eventually falling back on the importance of telling parents how their children are progressing. But schools have always done that - they don't need national standards and they don't need league tables to do that.

Asked to recommend an educational expert to explain the benefits of the national standards regime, the Ministry PR adviser pauses, laughs and asks: "Have you tried the minister?"

Eventually, though, we find Professor Liz McKinley, director of the Starpath research project at Auckland University. Starpath seeks to get struggling Maori and Pacific Island children into tertiary education and McKinley says there are positives in the publication of national standards data.

"Everyone is concerned about league tables, but we need to look beyond that," she says. "The information is useful and as professionals we need to use the data and look at how we allocate our resources instead of worrying about how information might be used to rank schools."

McKinley admits there are problems with the data, but says time will make it more robust.

"If we waited for everything to be perfect we would never get started. It's good to get talk going - it is positive despite the shortcomings."

Back among Rowandale's struggling Maori and Pacific Island children deputy principal Wendy Sheridan-Smith can't see positives.

The school can't win when measured against national standards, she says. The problem is children don't all have equal opportunities, experience or upbringing.

"You can't expect a child who hasn't had the same foundations to be as successful as a child who has had books at home and someone to read to them."

Education Minister Hekia Parata wants numbers in boxes. Sheridan-Smith has some "real numbers". She says children without pre-school reading miss out on one million words.

"How do you get them up to standard quickly enough when we're starting so far behind? We're labelling some kids failures by ticking the box that says you don't meet the mark."

Wendy Sheridan-Smith isn't one to waste her time with metaphors.

Number-crunching 'nonsense'

There is nothing special about our special schools when it comes to national standards.

Their numbers will be crunched and most children will fail, every year of their school life.

Despite being told they would be exempt from national standards, New Zealand's 37 schools now have to provide results. Many show a line of noughts for the numbers of pupils achieving at or above standards.

"It is a nonsense," says Barrie Wickens at Kaka St Special School in Tauranga. "The students that fit the criteria all achieve well below the standard and they will always be like that so what is the point of collecting this data? It has no relevance."

Wickens says the school's recent ERO report paints a picture of excellent service but that result is ignored by national standards. "We need a holistic approach not a system where we tell a child every year from 5 to 21 they have failed."

At the Kelston Deaf Education Centre in West Auckland, the national standard results are also deemed irrelevant. For staff at the 37-pupil special school, the requirement is a box ticking exercise and nothing more.

"It is not telling us anything we don't know about our students," says principal David Foster. "We already have individual planning for every student twice a year and we have conferences with parents and we set goals for the students."

All of their pupils were below the reading standard, 83.7 per cent of them "well below". Only in maths did a handful make the grade - it's not language-based, so deaf children can comprehend it better.

All of the children at the Deaf Education Centre are either below or well below the standard in the early years but, by the time they are ready to leave school, more than 60 per cent achieve NCEA level 2.

Foster said he couldn't see how gathering data and publishing it on a website could make a difference.

"If governance and school leadership is strong then the school results will be strong."

- Herald on Sunday

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