National Standards

Thinking about National Standards in NZ.

So today, I went on to the NZ Ministry of Education website to read all their material on National Standards.

First up. I dislike the name, and not for the obvious reasons that a former Labour member of parliament might dislike the name….NATIONAL standards.

I dislike the notion of a standard in learning. It is too definite, too black and white.

But I did like the description of criterion-referenced assessment, as long as this was only a conversation between the teacher, student and student’s parents. This was because words were used, not a conversion to percentages and numbers. And because it did seem to enable the teacher to gain confidence in knowing the next steps. However, some may not need this and may have a sound professional reason for trying another way forward to tackle punctuation or whatever the problem was.

When I began teaching in the 1970’s, I was not sure what students in the then Form Three should be able to do. Instead the students would write some paragraphs on a topic, and I would work through the areas in which they could improve, because my simple objective was that wherever a student was, they could improve.

The standardisation did not really begin until School Certificate, and if you were a marker there were some wonderful arguments about what marks a piece of writing deserved. That is why I am suspicious of National Standards: I can remember the arguments!

But in simple terms with National Standards this has now all shifted to students from age 5 to 18. And I do not like this. I do not like each child having a number assigned to them against which their personal progress is recorded. This occurs in England. As a teacher I can enter Raise-on-Line and look at the progress of my students  before I even meet them. I can see what standard they can be expected to get by the end of the year. And here is the sting in the tail, as a teacher I can be held accountable if that student does not make the plotted progress.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want all teachers to work with their students on improving their skills. I never ever want to hear a teacher say, as I did hear in NZ and in England, “These students cannot learn because they live in those streets….”. But there are better ways of working with teachers to improve progress for all students than National Standards.

There are two really scary aspects of National Standards.

The first is with narrowing the curriculum. Imagine not reading all of Romeo and Juliet, but just concentrating on the  love sonnet, the balcony scene and say  the final deaths of both Romeo and Juliet. Many teachers will do this and text books will be written by the same examination boards, focussing on say these scenes, speeches. Why? because that is what the examination board will ask questions on ( this will be made quite clear), so why waste precious time really enjoying all of Romeo and Juliet…just study in depth the parts that will be examined, because it is important for your students to get the required grades. And the students will know the vocabulary they should use and the examples given to get these grades. This is machine learning….in fact it is not learning at all.

The second scary aspect is the school league tables. I finally found the New Zealand version as published on Stuff. I compared my two local primary schools and I was so so sad. What is the purpose of doing this? Is it to give parents choices so they choose the school where children are above the national average? This is treating education like a commodity, that is bought and sold. What do those statistics say about bullying in the playground? What do they say about opportunities for leadership/creativity/ exploration by the students? And neither do the ERO reports say much, if anything about those issues either.

So I do not wish for the system and practices that lie around these so-called National Standards.

I do want to have guidelines as to what an average child ( whatever that is) might be able to do, or what we might aim for them to be able to do, aged nine in mathematics.

But I do not want that to become a personal record for each child , or a measuring stick for teacher and school to be judged by.

In England they worried because more and more students began to attain the necessary grades. So now their Minister says that the standards are too easy and they readjust them. It becomes a nonsensical game.

Please, please New Zealand, do not go down this path. Do not have little five year olds sitting tests and crying from fear and confusion as has been reported from California.

PS dear readers, soon I will learn to do links…I know that I am scoring below average in this skill. But to hell with the score. I know that links will show evidence to back up my assertions!!! I do not need a score to tell me this.

 

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student progress

How is progress measured?

The New Zealand Minister of Education noted in an interview that the government was considering new ways of improving the funding of new Zealand schools.

“The government is considering” is a phrase to cover either there is a working group inside the Ministry looking at this issue, or this came up in a recent conversation.

I tend to think that there is a group inside the Ministry of Education reviewing funding mechanisms for school.

For readers of this blog from outside New Zealand, schools here receive funding for everything apart from total capital cost of new build and salaries of teachers. Each school receives a staffing allowance of the equivalent of how many full-time teachers will be paid for by the government. So a school might receive finding for 84.65 FTE (full-time equivalent teachers) and this will include time for special duties as senior reading teacher or Head of mathematics etc. Unlike in England where you you receive  bulk moneys for staff, so it is of advantage to replace an experienced teacher with one at bottom of teaching scale. Our unions in New Zealand fought a very successful campaign against bulk funding which has made it just a little more difficult to begin performance pay for everyone. Although I do have big worries that this is in the wind following the publication of Morris/Patterson study.

However the worrying element of the Minister’s comment over funding linked to student progress is that this too can reinforce  performance pay.

Her comment was really about performance pay for the school. The school would receive more from the government, if its students could demonstrate progress during the year.

In simple terms that does sound good. because we all want our students to make progress. But for most of us progress is defined in a number of ways. It can be that a student stops using “gay” in a pejorative sense; it may be that a student has completed a task when their prior history has been to give up; it may be that the student who is a reluctant reader has read five books at home in last month. These are all elements of progress.

But the English method of measuring progress is both more strait-jacketed and convoluted than that. And there is always the outsider measuring whether progress has been made in every lesson that is observed.

So in England we have Raise-on-line data and also the data collated by Fischer Family Trust (www.fft.org.uk). Every child is in the system from the first time they are “measured”, and then their expected progress is plotted. So a child of a lawyer and a medical doctor who scores well initially will be expected to make 5 levels of progress  between the ages of nine and fifteen. While the child of immigrant cleaners will not be expected to make so much progress. This is a very bald description and I do apologise…you can find clearer descriptions on their websites. So, if in your school the students are not making expected progress then under Hekia Parata’s proposal the school will not receive as much money. And that could affect a well-to-do school as much as a school in Manukau.

That was the problem I was sent in to address in a school in a well off town in England. But the measurement is still based on the tests: pen and paper tests on a very very narrow curriculum. I was thrilled one day when the shyest girl in my year nine English class gave an explosive and well argued speech about how it felt to be constantly looked down on because she came from Essex. But according to the tests she only made minimal progress that year. I saw differently.

And this is the crux: as teachers we are professionals. We are making judgements every day. We adapt our classes every day to ensure the progress of different students. I want my wide-awake thinking students to grapple with a different point of view from what they are familiar with. I want my shy one to be listened to..you get the picture. Those progressions cannot be measured by tests.

I and all teachers love and are committed to progress for every learner. Tying money to that progress will mean that progress will have to be measured and therein lies the major major problem!!

 

 

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