The government’s literacy and numeracy crusade in the form of national standards has been portrayed as the most important educational initiative for the past 20 years. Maybe it is—but more likely it is important because of the huge risk it poses to New Zealand’s highperforming education system.

On 23 October 2009, the veil of secrecy around what the national standards had morphed into was lifted. Since then, teachers and principals have examined them with a critical eye—all the while wondering why they had been effectively excluded from their design. It is clear that the nature of the standards in relation to the New Zealand Curriculum poses some challenges.

Professor John Hattie went so far as to say the standards represented “considerable risk to student learning”. Problematic indeed given that the government promises they will solve the challenges of underachievement for the 20 percent of students not achieving in literacy and numeracy.

As educators, we live in a world where ‘evidence’ is the driver for all our decisions around teaching and learning. While we have plenty of evidence that our system performs well in international terms for approximately 80 percent of students, we have no evidence that imposing national standards will help the 20 percent of students who underachieve. In fact, the opposite is more likely to occur when the international evidence is examined.

The million-dollar question is: does the government and the electorate really want to put the whole system at risk by ‘bolting on’ a potentially risky policy such as this. Why, for example, are we not focusing on the 20 percent of students currently not achieving and implementing systems we know will work for them?

The National Standards Forum hosted by NZEI in November gave practitioners, parents and academics an opportunity to put their combined intelligence and problem-solving skills to work in finding a solution. It will be no surprise to find that first and foremost, the exclusion of the teaching profession from both the debate and the finding of a solution came under intense scrutiny. Are we doing this ‘for’ students or ‘to’ teachers? The validity of the standards and their design is another concern.

Why were these not trialled to ensure they would produce positive outcomes for students? The expectation that schools would implement them without appropriate professional learning to guide their practice is a recipe for disaster.

Frances Nelson President, NZEI Te Riu Roa