Warwick Elley: Worrying consequences for National Standards

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The legacy of National Standards, in undermining the school culture that generates so many desirable outcomes, will be entirely negative, writes Elley. Photo / Mark MItchell
The legacy of National Standards, in undermining the school culture that generates so many desirable outcomes, will be entirely negative, writes Elley. Photo / Mark MItchell

Education Minister Hekia Parata's own sympathetic advisory group has called for an investigation into the potential harm that her controversial "one-size-fits-all" National Standards policy could be having on young low achievers.

When the minister's own supporters finally recognise one of the many dangers in her policy, they are lining up with most academics, principals, teachers, political parties and thoughtful parents in acknowledging that the policy is short-sighted. The culture change that occurs in schools, when their assessments are reported in the media and schools are judged on dubious data, is typically ignored by politicians who are ideologically driven.

The minister's advisers should have gone further and called for investigations into other side-effects. We should certainly worry about those young children from dysfunctional or bookless homes, who have never been read to, who are judged as failing because they have not caught up to their peers.

But we should also worry about the inevitable distortion of the curriculum, the pressures on teachers to drill students on the assessed areas, and the slighting of the others. We should worry, too, about the neglect of brighter students who have already reached the standards.

We should worry that the standards are too vague to be interpreted consistently across schools. We should worry about the vastly different ways teachers choose to assess their students. We should worry that the tools teachers use to help guide and justify their judgments about standards are already available in schools and easily coachable.

We should worry that students, teachers and schools are being judged unfairly, because they do not show individual progress or value-added. We should worry that low-decile schools will find it increasingly difficult to attract good teachers to work in their schools, a trend that is already obvious. We should worry, too, that teachers have been forced to comply, against their better judgment. Policies that teachers reject are rarely implemented successfully.

Preliminary local studies and well-funded reports from overseas confirm these serious flaws and unintended consequences are widely found, making schools less interesting or caring places. In Britain, for instance, the Scots rejected the British National Standards plan at the outset. The Welsh tried it and after realising the dangers, followed suit. England has been gradually pruning its policy and many there say it has failed. Indeed, a recent Cambridge-led review of primary schooling there slammed the authorities for running a regime "even narrower than that of Victorian elementary schools. It has squeezed out curriculum space for history, music and the arts, and stressed children with its testing and league tables".

Moreover, it should be said that England, the United States and Australia cannot claim to have reduced the proportions of their underachieving students, despite years of compulsory testing and reporting against National Standards. Yet our ministry is determined to follow their poor example. Why?

In international surveys, New Zealand primary school teachers stand out consistently for the way they prioritise the aim of creating a love of learning. Most of our schools are attractive and pleasant places in which to work and study. This approach bears fruit in secondary schools where official PISA surveys show our students' achievement levels are repeatedly world-class. Even the recent OECD Report on NZ's assessment systems praises us for avoiding high-stakes assessments in primary schools. What a pity the minister did not take note.

I predict that the legacy of National Standards, in undermining the school culture that generates so many desirable outcomes, will be entirely negative.

However, by the time the minister takes note, it will be too late.

Warwick Elley, Emeritus Professor of Education, was previously Professor of Education at the University of Canterbury. Since his retirement he has served as an international consultant on education assessment policies for the World Bank, International Reading Association, NZ Aid, and other agencies.

- NZ Herald

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