Peter O'Connor: Schools about more than passing exams

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Ministry's National Standards exercise is not visionary - it's more about failure than success, writes Peter O'Connor.

Schools are not merely training grounds, they help children make sense of their futures.
Schools are not merely training grounds, they help children make sense of their futures.

The release of National Standards data this week has been a meaningless exercise. The continued variation between classrooms, schools and regions makes the ministry report pointless. The data tells us nothing of the true value and worth of what happens in classrooms on a daily basis. It is, however, part and parcel of an agenda that will continue to undermine public education.

The Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, says often that the role of schools is to equip students with the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century economy.

This arid view reduces life to economic activity and schooling to the acquisition of narrow individual skills. The world view expressed here is informed by the idea that success in life is about getting and spending at the expense of others. Rather than a vision for education it triumphs a narrow and blinkered view that leads to the nonsense mantra of "5 out of 5 succeeding", of meaningless NCEA targets and the huge damage caused by the imposition of National Standards.

When the task of schooling is reduced to these parameters and their success is determined by them, the Associate Minister of Education, John Banks, has no problem in then labelling entire communities and ethnic groups as failures, and of course describing those who oppose his views on education as losers.

However, schools have much broader purposes than encompassed by the National Standards. They are not merely training grounds for the future, they also help children make sense of the worlds in which they live today.

The disciplinary knowledge that is needed for that task, found in science, history, the arts, geography and social studies, is in danger of being lost in schools as our world-acclaimed broad-based curriculum dies under the welter of assessment tools and the privileging of skill over knowledge, literacy and numeracy over everything else.

The new way of thinking about education reduces everything to success at NCEA and National Standards. Yet National Standards and NCEA league tables cannot tell parents the truly important things about schooling that they need to know.

Nor of course can they be used to value teacher performance. These crude measurements can't tell parents whether schools create safe places, where the uniqueness of their child is respected and honoured. They can't tell parents whether teachers find ways for their child to achieve in things not measured by these tests.

They don't tell parents whether teachers let their child know that they are not failures as human beings because they don't do well on a test. They don't tell parents whether their child is happy and content at school, not overburdened by a sense of being forever monitored and checked for progress.

They can't be used to accurately chart or predict future success in life as parents, as citizens, as contributors to the world. They don't tell anyone anything about how well a school connects to its community. They say nothing of how teachers and schools model the values of honesty, integrity and compassion on a daily basis.

We are creating now an education system that celebrates individual success over the building of community, that marks out, blames and shames what is inaccurately measured to be failure. The relentless pursuit of individual achievement at all costs reveals a soulless grip on education by a business model that kills creativity, innovative teaching and genuine learning in classrooms. It denies the wide variety of educational goods that schools provide to our society. It is why in Christchurch so much grief has been expressed at the loss of their local schools. These parents know only too well that schools offer far more to their communities than skill acquisition in reading, writing and numbers.

The nadir of this barren approach to education is realised in the madness of charter schools, where schools simply become competing business units, detached from their communities, without parental input, where unqualified and untrained teachers are free to experiment on the poor and the most vulnerable. The "success" of these charter schools will be monitored by a ministry group who are talking about how quickly they will close the charter schools down if they, like the communities they serve, are deemed to "fail" on the narrow terms they will be set up under.

Parents need to view the release of the National Standards data this week with suspicion. Student learning does not increase the more students are tested. The release of the data again demonstrates the Government is largely bankrupt in terms of creative and innovative approaches to solving issues of educational inequality.

Associate Professor Peter O'Connor is director of the Critical Research Unit in Applied Theatre at the University of Auckland.

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