Michael Johnston: 'What kinds of knowledge will serve our students best?'

Any standard registered on the qualifications framework can contribute credits towards NCEA. Photo / Stephen Parker
Any standard registered on the qualifications framework can contribute credits towards NCEA. Photo / Stephen Parker

One of the principles on which New Zealand's national certificate of educational achievement (NCEA) is founded, is that all learning is to be valued equally.

For example, learning that is skills-based or "vocational" is not to be valued any less (or more) than traditional "academic" learning. In the agencies responsible for NCEA - NZQA and the Ministry of Education - this principle is commonly referred to as parity-of-esteem.

The notion of parity-of-esteem is certainly well intentioned, and arose as a reaction against an entrenched hierarchy of school subjects that was in place under the previous qualifications system. That system was strongly geared towards preparing young people for university education, even though only a relatively small proportion were actually university bound.

Mathematics and the sciences were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by humanities disciplines such as history and (European) languages.

Much lower down was skills-based education such as woodwork (for the boys) and typing (for the girls). Students were often tracked into different levels of the hierarchy early on in their secondary schooling, either by explicit streaming or by informal persuasion and, once locked into a particular track, especially one low on the hierarchy, it was all-but-impossible to change course.

The architects of NCEA attempted to do away with the hierarchy of subjects, in part by allowing more-or-less any learning to contribute to qualifications. Any standard registered on the qualifications framework, whether it assesses toilet cleaning or calculus, can contribute credits towards NCEA, with all credits being of equal value as currency for qualifications.

While the intentions behind parity-of-esteem might have been good, it is not at all clear that it was ever a feasible, or even a desirable, idea. Its feasibility is in doubt because the hierarchy of subjects was based on cultural notions of what constituted the most worthwhile, or the most difficult, learning. Such notions are not easily shifted by policy or legislation.

The desirability of parity-of-esteem is questionable because it is patently untrue to say that all learning serves students equally well. In saying this, I do not mean to defend the traditional hierarchy of subjects. The devaluing of skills-based learning, in particular, was irrational and snobbish.

Moreover, the ways in which students were assigned to different levels of the hierarchy were frequently unjust, with students from poorer communities, including large proportions of Maori and Pasifika students, subjected to prejudiced assumptions about their capability to undertake the highly-esteemed learning.

But on what basis ought we to decide how to value knowledge? What kinds of knowledge will serve our students best?

Knowledge that makes people more employable, or which enables them to be self-employed, has obvious economic value. Knowledge that enables critical thinking has social and political value; the life-blood of democracy is the ability to think, speak and write critically about social and political ideas. Knowledge that promotes aesthetic, physical and social expression is valuable because human happiness and well-being depend on these things.

The list could certainly be extended. But the problem with the doctrine of parity-of-esteem is that it doesn't take such considerations into account at all. If the focus of senior secondary education is primarily on the attainment of qualifications, with insufficient consideration of the value of the learning that leads to them, we run a risk that those qualifications will be worthless.

The salutary example of this in the early days of NCEA was the Cambridge High School debacle. The school reported that all of its Year 11 students had attained NCEA Level 1, but it transpired that the "learning" behind this attainment was, in many cases, trivial.

The risk of qualifications being based on learning that is not, to use a term coined by the respected international educator David Perkins, life-worthy, is greatly exacerbated by political targets such as the current better-public-service target for 85 per cent of New Zealand school leavers to hold a Level 2 qualification. Under a highly flexible system such as NCEA it is all too easy to meet such targets by assessing students against standards that they can easily attain, but which do not certify learning of any real value to them.

The flexibility of NCEA is not something we should be prepared to relinquish. It has the potential to be used to assess programmes of learning that are innovative, engaging and enriching. However, since the 85 per cent target was announced, qualifications attainment has risen dramatically, especially for students at low decile schools.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that at least some of this apparent improvement is based on learning that is of dubious value. If so, the equality of all credits under NCEA - parity-of-esteem - has resulted in a degree of injustice which, just as it did under the old hierarchy of subjects, seems to have fallen disproportionately on our poorest communities.

Michael Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University. He has recently co-authored a book with Rose Hipkins and Mark Sheehan, NCEA in Context, published by NZCER Press.

- NZ Herald

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