Raising the Standard

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John Key's been going on about raising educational achievement for quite some time now. Back in April 2007, well before last year's parliamentary elections, he gave a campaign speech outlining National Party policy on education.

It boiled down to three things:

  1. The introduction of national standards in reading, writing and maths.
  2. National assessment against these standards.
  3. Clear reports to parents on kids' progress against the standards.

Now, I can certainly agree that parents deserve clear reports from schools. Some of what I've seen is pretty confusing, to say the least. John Key's election promises stipulated that reports would be "in plain English", which was beautifully intentioned, if somewhat vague.

There are (at least) 2 problems though:

  1. Where do you draw the line in the sand?
  2. Once you've got your line, how do you actually get kids over it?

High standards won't make kids perform better, any more than Usain Bolt setting a new record makes me run faster.

Anyway, the new National Standards were released last weekend, along with the usual political fanfare and talk of fulfilled election promises. Detailed information about the standards is available here, and more general information can be found on the Ministry of Education website. The response hasn't been all that favourable (see, for example, this editorial from the Herald on Sunday) and it's not a good look when the Principals' Federation and the like boycott your launch!

Anne Tolley, the education minister, spoke to the media. Here she is, on Breakfast talking to Paul Henry.

Source: TVNZ

I find their performances incredibly irritating, especially the minister's.

Of course, she is unable to give an objective rationale for where the line's been drawn. It seems that she's just worked back from NCEA level 2, which is an arbitrary benchmark for school leavers. She does, however, claim that the standards are based on averages. In that case, we can guarantee that half the children in New Zealand will be below standard.

She tries to paint the critics as, “some people [who] might feel challenged by it, as if only teachers who aren’t up to scratch are resistant to the standards. The clear implication of what she's saying is that schools are not teaching effectively if children in them are underperforming. And this is a worry.

Where she gets it really wrong is when she says “good teaching has the most effect on a child’s learning.” The evidence simply does not support this. John Hattie says, “it is what students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable.” He attributes 50% of the variance of achievement to the child, and a generous 30% to the teacher. (You can download the article here.) Others, such as Marzano, credit the teacher with less influence.

I know what it feels like to mark a test and feel that my students are not performing. I start to feel personally responsible for their shortcomings. Then I mark an able student – not a “gifted” student, just a regular good worker, with supportive parents and some application – and I breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank goodness, someone has learnt something!" I say to myself. There is no way that a teacher’s performance can be rated by the performance of their students. Anyone in athletics can tell you that. You can be the best coach in the world but you will only succeed if you find talented athletes to mentor.

In this beautiful egalitarian society of ours, we cherish the idea of a level playing field. In theory, everyone has a shot at success. And yet we believe that only a very few are talented enough to “make it”. Or lucky enough. I'm pretty sure that teachers and parents know which of their kids are struggling; the standards won't tell us anything we didn't already know. We don't want teachers becoming like talent scouts, who will only mentor those who have potential for "success". We need people who are prepared to nurture the children who will never reach those benchmarks.

Meanwhile, politicians might want to start addressing some of the systemic reasons why many children aren't reaching their full potential.

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