National standards sap spirit of inquiry

Detractors aren’t mincing their words over the government’s plans with comments in the media and on forums such as:half cooked proposals,strip mining of the curriculum in arts, creativity and innovation’,education…

Detractors aren’t mincing their words over the government’s plans with comments in the media and on forums such as:half cooked proposals,strip mining of the curriculum in arts, creativity and innovation’,education being strangled,national standards gobble up the curriculum, schools are already assessed to the gunwales, and the list goes on.

It’s politicised education says Frances Nelson, NZEI president:Because it was an election promise that put some stakes in the ground to say, “if your child is six this is what they should be doing”. That is counter intuitive to the way the New Zealand curriculum has been developed.

But despite overwhelming opposition from within the teaching industry Education Minister Anne Tolley is adamant. National standards will go ahead and teachers are going to have to learn to live with it.
The debate overTolley’s folly and related subjects such as plain language reporting has, as Kelvin Squire, principal, Stratford primary school in Taranaki puts it:sown a political seed that somehow or other we can’t trust the profession.

Election plank a petard

National standards for education were a central plank of National’s 2008 pre-election education manifesto and by May of this year Tolley was steaming ahead with the proposals. Each child aged five to 12 will be assessed against the national standards, which will be published shortly.

The standards will come into effect in 2010, and schools will be required to assess students and report in plain language to parents about their child’s progress and achievement. Schools will be required to submit annual reports of test result data to the Ministry of Education in 2012.

The big fears for teachers are:

  • That teaching will focus on testing rather than learning
  • Children will be stressed by tests
  • The media will obtain data using the Official Information Act and create league tables from the raw test results.

Straitjacket for teachers?

The debate over national standards will have passed few teachers by. But with the focus in schools squarely on the new New Zealand Curriculum it would be all too easy to fail to react before it’s too late.
Ironically the national standards could derail a broadly balanced curriculum and lead teachers away from its spirit and intent, says Nelson.

League tables

One of the biggest fears is that national standards reporting will lead to the creation of league tables based on raw data that give the public a simplistic view of the merits of different schools and lead to the unfounded selection of schools by parents seeking higher standards.

The excellent work done in many lower decile schools will be overlooked if it does not lead to a high place on the league tables, and these schools will struggle to maintain their rolls and good teachers.
If overseas experiences are anything to go by, teachers’ work satisfaction will also suffer.

As one teacher wrote on the Educationalleaders.govt.nz website:What rewards are there for the innovative teacher who finds different ways for children to succeed? We will lose these teachers from the profession when they are told they are not doing enough for literacy and numeracy.

Even a Ministry of Education paper in March to the minister admitted league tables can further disengage schools in the bottom quartile.

Feelings are beginning to run high among teachers and principals as they become more aware of the damage that a low ranking can do to a school and children’s learning – regardless of what is actually being achieved, for example, in a low decile school. One incensed principal, speaking out of frustration, went so far as to say – ‘We are going to teach to the easiest test we can find. We are going to re-teach and re-teach baby. My school is going to be top school on the league table parents will flock to my door. To hell with anything creative.’ His comments sparked a minor media storm.

Ryan wearable artWhat NZEI wants

A survey of 1000 primary school principals found 77% of principals would withhold data if it was going to be used to produce league tables ranking schools. Nonetheless Tolley is adamant. She told the Weekend Press:Taxpayers fund schools to educate children” who does that information belong to? Should that information be freely available? And she added in a Radio New Zealand interview on June 29 that she was unable to guarantee that the data from schools would not be used in league tables. But she did extend the timeframe by one year and hinted in a press release on August 5 that she would be prepared to reconsider how the data is used. We are all scrambling to find solutions for the minister, says Nelson. But in short, yes, we might boycott reporting. Solutions include ways that data from national standards could be safely warehoused away from the media.

NZEI is recommending to government:

  • Further work to be done on whether the level of achievement required is accurate.
  • That government should legislate to ensure students, teachers and schools aren’t harmed by the publication of achievement levels.
  • That an independent research organisation handle collection and analysis of data.
  • That the Ministry of Education clarify the relationship between the New Zealand Curriculum and the national standards for literacy and numeracy.

In the meantime, NZEI is focusing on:

  1. Making sure schools continue to focus on the curriculum and the big picture of where children sit on the continuum.
  2. Ensuring that national standards when published are suitably fine tuned and are driven by the curriculum, not vice versa and
  3. Working with schools to improve reporting to parents. Without this the government could see reasons to justify individual schools national standards results being released to the media.

Teachers need to keep parents in mind. Chris Morris, principal at Rosebank School in South Otago says:Parents want reporting against something tangible” that’s the mood out there in parentland. We have to handle that, do it professionally” and also acknowledge that we’re doing it anyway.

“Education is seen not just as a right but as a service” we have to meet our clients’ demand for quality information that gives them a good idea about where their children are at,’ says Morris. Taken the right way that’s quite a strong message for us and how we need to behave.


Every parent has the right to know how their child is doing at school and how their performance relates to others. Many parents will support the government’s national standards initiative” even if that support is based on ignorance. To those parents, testing and league tables may appear a sensible idea.
They don’t understand the damage that league tables can do to curriculum provision, students and entire school communities. The difficulty is communicating this to parents and voters.

What’s more, the nation’s media, which represents mainstream parental opinion, isn’t singing from the same song sheet as teachers and principals. A Dominion Post editorial for example wrote that teachers’ fears were based on self interest.

The message was clear in the Listener in July. National standards would give schools the opportunity to raise standards and that schools shouldn’t be hiding the results.

The secondary school system has not collapsed as a result of its performance being published in a league table, the Listener wrote. It added:There is neither a God-given right nor any educational imperative for them to hide their ability or inability to meet national standards.


Parents might want to listen to their children” instead of basing their view of education on their own time at school decades ago. Twins Sasha and Kelly and year 6 classmate Henry consider they do quite a lot of regular testing.

They do astle, PAT tests and pre and post tests each term. The New South Wales Tests are optional.
They don’t dislike doing the tests” but think there are better, less stressful, ways of learning.

‘Sometimes you learn from being able to explore your world,’ says Henry. Sasha and Kelly’s preferred method is when they are required to teach something they’ve already learned to others in the class. 97% of what you teach you remember,’ says Kelly.

What can teachers do to oppose league tables?

The NZEI, says Nelson, is working with a range of stakeholders from the Ministry of Education to teachers, parents and business to ensure that the reporting of national standards don’t subvert the national curriculum. Teachers can also help by writing to the Minister of Education or to their MP or local newspaper to reinforce the message. or get involved in the NZEI’s regular fax attacks. At a school level says Nelson, schools need to communicate with parents and the community about this debate. We need this wider community to be informed.

What we know from overseas

There is little evidence here or overseas that national standards and subsequent reporting improve achievement.

The strongest predictors of achievement are socio economic circumstance, home background and the make-up of the individual. What happens in high stakes testing countries such as England and the United States is that the tail wags the dog.

Teachers teach to the test/standard” narrowing the curriculum they teach. Schools focus on some children at the expense of others” those that can get across the line, ignoring the more able. Special needs children and those with behavioural problems are discouraged from enrolling.

One New Zealand-based UK teacher who experienced the testing regime in the country of his birth had this to say:I can only dread the implementation of national standards. I have seen the media-induced anxiety of parents who can’t get their children into the “good” schools and the lengths that they go to, including moving hous. I have also seen the damage bad publicity can do to a school and even if that bad publicity is completely unwarranted it is very difficult to eradicate.

Finland, on the other hand has a national curriculum, but no standardised testing. Yet its 15-year-olds are among some of the highest performers in the OECD. The high performance is often attributed to a high degree of school and teacher autonomy in decision-making.

Industry leaders fear ‘dumbing down’

It’s not just teachers that have concerns about national standards in schools. So do industry leaders.
Internationally recognised researcher and head of an Auckland cancer research company Caldera Health, Dr James Watson says he fears the focus on making school results look good rather than producing top-class students.

Those that come out at the top are still good, says Watson. But further down the scale he sees dumbing down of the sciences in order to massage school’s results.It seems that the politicians that dream up (national standards) don’t listen to the teachers in the trenches. The losers are the children in the first instance and secondly the community.

Teaching to narrow standards also stifles the number 8 fencing wire mentality of young kiwis because there isn’t time and energy in schools, because of the focus on mass adherence to standards, to encourage children to look for novel or unusual ways to solve problems.