Education expert John Hattie helped inspire the Government's national standards reforms. Now he says they're not working. Andrew Laxon reports on the influential academic at the centre of a growing political feud

John Hattie chuckles down the phone line from Queensland.

The Sunshine Coast may be living up to its name today but for the first three days of his family holiday it was cyclone season and the rain wouldn't stop.

For Hattie - Auckland University professor, student assessment expert and the man top politicians in this country see for advice about education - it must have felt like flying out of one storm and straight into another.

Ten days ago he was summoned to Prime Minister John Key's Beehive office to explain what was going wrong with the Government's grand plans for national standards in reading, writing and maths for all primary school children.

Education Minister Anne Tolley, stripped of her tertiary responsibilities the day before, attended the private meeting but it was Hattie that Key wanted to hear.

Both National and Labour have paid close attention over the last decade to this internationally recognised expertise on how to improve children's learning.

Bill English sought Hattie's views when he originally developed the party's national standards policy and Key took the same route, drawing inspiration from Hattie's advice that a standards-based approach could work wonders in even the poorest schools.

Not everyone in the educational establishment agrees with Hattie's views, which include support for teachers' performance pay and rejecting the popular argument that lower class sizes improve children's learning.

But he has a common sense touch which goes down well with many parents and the Government was confident that his support for national standards would help it drive the policy through.

So it came as a shock when Hattie returned from a six-month study tour in the United States last July to tell the Herald that he was deeply concerned about the direction the Government's policy had taken and worried that it could set back education 50 years.

In November he repeated his criticism, warning of a potential disaster with no improvement in children's learning. A few weeks later he joined three other education academics in writing an open letter to Tolley, which pleaded with the Government to delay the introduction of the new system.

So what went wrong and where exactly does National's education guru stand on the issue? Hattie says the Government didn't consult him about the details, which were developed while he was out of the country. He adds that Key is right to say that he supports the idea but has concerns about its implementation.

But listening to his concerns (see story below), a different picture emerges. Hattie insists the system can work but admits if he had the choice, he'd drop it and start again from scratch.

Hattie was born in Timaru but has lived and worked in Australia and the US for much of his career. He turned 60 this week - the family holiday to Australia was a celebration - and is married to Dr Janet Clinton, a senior lecturer in population health at the university's medical school.

They live in Orakei and have three sons in their 20s. Hattie's passion outside work is cricket; he is president of the university cricket club, coaches an under-15 team and has just qualified as an umpire.

As an academic, his overarching interest has been finding out what makes children learn.

He is best known for developing the AsTTle (Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning) system, which many primary schools use to test children's abilities in reading, writing and maths.

A decade ago he also shook up schools with a scathing assessment of the lack of information in reports to parents ("Johnny has been a pleasure to teach this year"). His call for more specific, useful reports went straight into the national standards reforms.

Last year he published Visible Learning, a book which analysed the results of 50,000 educational studies covering 83 million students around the world. Hattie concluded that many of the topics which dominate the headlines - including class size, amount of homework and even which school a child attends - had very little effect on children's learning.

The most important factor was students' ability to assess for themselves how well they were doing and to discuss with the teacher what they needed to do next to improve.

This in turn depended on the level of feedback students received from teachers - most did not get nearly enough - and the level of trust in a classroom, which allowed students to admit out loud that they didn't understand something.

The book drew on 15 years of work by Hattie, who split possible factors affecting children's learning into about 100 categories and gave them a score between 1 (most positive) and 0 (most negative).

In 2004 he told the Listener that many of education's sacred cows did not stand up to close scrutiny. Computers rated only .32 - Hattie commented that money raised for new computers would be better spent on professional development courses for teachers. Homework rated .3 (good for kids who are already doing well but a waste of time for those who are not).

To the outrage of many education liberals, he virtually dismissed the effects of poverty, saying the crucial problem in a child's home environment was low parental expectations and encouragement, not low income.

And despite his specialisation in assessment, frequent testing rated only .35 on his scale. Test results alone were of limited use, he said, because they didn't help students see where to go next.

When Hattie drew the results together in Visible Learning last year, the Times Educational Supplement referred to it as "teaching's Holy Grail".

Tolley also expressed her admiration, particularly as Hattie said it suggested teachers' pay should be based on ability rather than experience.

Hattie's comments about performance pay and classroom size cemented his reputation among left wing teachers and academics as a trouble-making conservative in league with National. However his increasingly outspoken attacks on the Government's national standards policy last year seem to suggest otherwise.

Hattie has also worked closely in the past with former Labour Education Minister Trevor Mallard, who was so impressed with Hattie's AsTTle testing system that he made it widely available to schools.

It wasn't just the huge amount of information the tests provided, says Mallard in a comment echoed by school principals. The most exciting part was seeing how the tests could identify each teacher's strengths and weaknesses, which enabled them to improve the way they taught.

Mallard acknowledges many teachers and Labour people don't trust Hattie because of the performance pay issue but he regards him as a positive person who was good to work with.

Mallard also agrees with Hattie's refusal to accept poverty as an out-clause. While many children from poor homes do need a lot of help, he says, some teachers have used this as an excuse for their own failure.

He says Hattie should be wary of becoming a political football as the national standards debate heats up. "I think he can be part of a compromise but he's got to be careful that he's not part of the problem."

Even if Hattie manages to stay clear of the politicians, his outspokenness and willingness to take the limelight has led to some resentment among his peers - not that most will say so publicly.

Educationalist Warwick Elley, an expert on assessment and literacy who opposes national standards, told the Weekend Herald that he was pleased to see Hattie's public criticism last year and agreed with the points he made.

Asked how Hattie was regarded by his fellow academics, Elley said he had not worked closely with him but added: "He's a man who's been ambitious and has reached the top in his field and it's possible that he hasn't always made himself popular with his colleagues. I think there are some in his department who didn't like the way he handled his brief - but that's only hearsay."

Hattie's sworn enemy in all educational matters, former school inspector-turned-blogger Kelvin Smythe is far more forthright.

Smythe, who writes on networkonnet.co.nz, says he admires Hattie's drive but accuses him of being egotistical, self-serving and insincere in his criticism of national standards.

Smythe argues that a standard is a standard, so Hattie's insistence that he is for them in principle but not the ones the Government has created is nonsense.

He believes that Hattie has worked hand in glove with the Government on the system and claims his influence is so great that other academics are too scared to speak up against him.

Hattie says he has heard all the conspiracy theories about him. The one that annoys him most is Smythe's claim that he secretly drew up the plans with Tolley. "I didn't meet her, correspond with her or have any communication with her until last July because I was out of the country.

"I do have my own political views but I bet no one can work out what they are from any comments I make because I'm very careful to talk about what I know about, which is measurement in schools."

He has realised how carefully he has to speak as every public statement he now makes is scrutinised for its possible shades of meaning. "At times I feel like I'm a politician, even though I'm not. It would be a lot easier to say nothing and just disappear behind the woodwork."

But there's little chance of him changing his mind about speaking out. "I think it's what we should be doing in the academic community. If we have things to say about our discipline, we should talk about them."

JOHN HATTIE'S ASSESSMENT

So does the Government's favourite education adviser support national standards or not? Prime Minister John Key and many of Professor John Hattie's ideological opponents claim he does, despite his strong public criticism.

Hattie replies that he supports the concept of standards-based learning but not the system the Government has introduced - in fact, given the chance, he'd scrap it and start again. These are his biggest concerns.

If it ain't broke...

Hattie's first point is that, despite sweeping claims of failure by Key and Education Minister Anne Tolley, the New Zealand school system is in good shape, especially compared with the rest of the world.

National standards, he argues, are usually the catchcry of countries where the education system is in serious trouble. They have been introduced in the US, Britain and Australia but none of these countries have been able to show any overall improvement in student achievement.

Hattie believes national standards may lift the performance of a few children at the bottom of the educational heap but says the average will not change because bright children will be neglected. He thinks the policy threatens to destroy one of the great strengths of New Zealand's education system, which recognises that children of the same age have different academic abilities and allows them to learn at the level of their current ability.

What are we testing for?

National standards applied uniformly across every school at every age level are a hopelessly crude way of raising student achievement, says Hattie. "When I ask at the moment what percentage of kids can pass each of the standards, I don't get an answer at all and I think that's just absurd."

Despite the political rhetoric, he says, some children will always fail - a 100 per cent success rate is impossible - so no one can tell if the policy is working or not. More importantly, no one has worked out how well students are doing now or how well we think they should be doing. So the standards are at best a "data free" educated guess about what they should know.

In any case, says Hattie, they are far less important than the progress children make each year.

Teaching to the test

Hatties argues that this emphasis on benchmarks rather than progress can lead to a series of perverse games designed to hide student failure and make schools look good in national statistics.

In the United States schools excluded more than a quarter of students with problems such as special needs or poor English from the results - precisely the children who needed the most attention.

In the US and Britain teachers became less innovative and spent far more time preparing children to sit tests. US schools cut back on other subjects such as social studies, science and art to concentrate on the literacy and numeracy tests.

Hattie acknowledges Tolley is sidestepping this problem by letting schools keep their own testing system, rather than introducing national testing. But the danger remains, especially if the present mishmash of testing systems proves hard to administer.

Inconsistent results

Hattie fears a repeat of the NCEA debacle in secondary schools, when a lack of Government direction allowed every school to create its own marking system - with wildly inconsistent results. This lack of consistency, known as "moderation", is still a problem in NCEA today and several principals have echoed Hattie's concerns.

For instance, good writing is highly subjective but teachers do not have an agreed national marking schedule, let alone training in how to use it. One teacher could decide a child's work meets the standard, while another teacher in a neighbouring school (or even a neighbouring classroom) could decide it does not.

League tables

Hattie agrees with teachers' fears that league tables comparing schools will misrepresent the real educational achievements of both children and schools.

He argues that contrary to popular parental belief, debates about "best schools" are almost irrelevant, as the biggest differences in student learning occur within schools, not between them.

However on the basis that some form of league table looks inevitable, he is working with colleagues on how to present the information in context - such as comparing schools with the same decile rating.