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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Accountability in education, Uncategorized

My Experiences in England: lessons for New Zealand education.

My aim is to write a number of blogs on different aspects of schools in England. Governments, both Labour and Conservative, wanted to see major improvement for all students in England. They therefore began the search for accountability, and in so doing have created formulaic responses that in the worst cases have taken the creativity from teaching and from learning.

I will focus on the following:

Judging a lesson

Performance-related pay.

Teachers’ Standards

Judging a lesson. When I left teaching in New Zealand (1996) we were edging towards improved lesson observations. We were building the expectation within schools that every term someone would come in to observe the learning in your classroom. I must admit that the emphasis was more on the teaching than on the learning. We were exploring hierarchical observations vs collegial observations. We were building programmes which focussed on teacher growth rather than on judgement.

So I was surprised to find in English schools a wealth of advice on how to judge a lesson, led by the published Ofsted guidance on lesson observations. Lessons were graded, as were schools: outstanding, good, requiring improvement ( was called satisfactory until 2011) and inadequate. In most schools these observations were carried out by HODs or members of  the senior management team. Sometimes the observations were announced and sometimes unannounced.

Until last year the quality of teaching/learning was not related to teacher pay. That has now changed. But the records of observations done by the school were asked for by the Ofsted inspectors and those who did the observations also did observations with the inspectors to have their ability to classify verified by the Ofsted team. So the  routine practice of lesson observation was seen as particularly important in assessing the school.

If you go online you will find many many guidelines, books written on what makes a good or outstanding lesson. Ofsted expected that such observations were routine within a school. In some schools that was not so, and school leaders had to learn how to observe. And so a wealth of courses grew up and consultants and books. It became an income source for many in the consulting industry, and a cost to schools particularly at a time when local government education support was being cut back. Such support is now privatised.

I am confident that I could always classify teachers into outstanding, satisfactory or needing support, and as a principal in New Zealand I did, but not based on one lesson and not using that terminology or recording it. And yet I did see this happen in England, although I do believe that that was very poor practice. Poor practice saw these observations become judgemental rather than supportive. Poor practice saw the judgements recorded, but the necessary support not eventuate, leaving the  judged teacher losing confidence in their teaching.

And even more serious is when that judgement is based on half of one lesson alone.So much can happen within a lesson. The teacher may be trying group work for the first time. Not all students are going to adapt to that with fully focussed learning from the very first group work exercise. Under poor observation practices and judgements, because all students are not showing progress in their learning the lesson can be judged as inadequate or needing improvement. That mitigates against risk taking and experimentation. You might be observed just when you are trying out a new way of student learning.

Another issue I became aware of was the fine line between a good lesson and an outstanding one. In an out standing lesson every student is making rapid and sustained progress. While I can make that assessment for a class of students over a term, I find it really difficult to make that judgement over part of one lesson. And maybe it would not matter so much if these judgements were not so vital to a whole judgement of the school or to one teacher seeking promotion or a pay rise.

Every classroom teacher In England is expected to have a lesson plan, detailing what they expect to be learnt in that lesson, and detailing what levels each student is currently at, and what specific learning needs different students have. And that is good, but it can be turned into an exercise to please the senior management, rather than a means to teach better. It is possible to have all that written out, ready to be handed to the observer, and the learning still not be meeting the different needs of each student, because the teacher does not know how to do this. So sometimes the tasks become a barrier, another hassle rather than a means to improving the learning. In a good school, the support would be in there before the observations had highlighted the problems.

When an observation is made it is now common practice to ask one or two students to describe what they had learnt in that lesson. Student voice is really important in lifting standards in schools, but  in the wrong hands it can be misused. On the other hand students can be wonderfully honest. I watched  as one student advised the Ofsted inspector that this particular lesson , in which the student was obviously bored, had been taught twice by that teacher in the last week and the student thought that it was being repeated for the inspector!

The other activity carried out by most lesson observers is to look at a range of student exercise books. The aim here is to look at the feedback that the teacher is giving to the student. Feedback is very important, and  parents often complain that their children’s homework is not marked. A tick alone is not feedback that can help the student improve. Again in England there are a range of guidelines and advice on the different ways to feed back positively to the student. Sometimes that feedback is tailored to how the student might attain their target grade for that term in that subject and where the particular piece of work fits in. So an exercise book where there are no grades or advice or targets mitigates against that teacher gaining a satisfactory grade for their lesson.

In a judgemental school where the senior team are trying to lay blame for poor progress on the teachers, the observation routines can become a means of putting teachers down, rather than of lifting the learning.

Lesson observation is a positive means to improving how we teach. But when  this tool  is used for pay  and promotion purposes and for judging the school, it becomes a whip, something to be feared, rather than something to be welcomed, because you, the teacher can learn from it.

I believe that where we were in New Zealand in the 1990’s where observation was collaborative and supportive, is where observation can be of most benefit. I value observations including the emphasis on feedback to students, the use of the student voice and evidence of knowledge of where each student is at in their journey, but I am very wary of how these good practices can be abused and actually work against good learning and teaching.

Most importantly, the purpose of such lesson observations must be clear. They cannot serve two different purposes: lifting the learning and teaching within a school AND a tool for pay/promotion progress. That confusion of purpose endangers the really good things that can come out of a positive observation practice within a school community. Sadly, it is in schools where their relatively poor student achievement indicates that improvement in learning and teaching is urgently needed, that the different purposes of lesson observations can become so confused and where poor practice in observations is the norm.

My next post will be on performance-related pay and what has happened in England.

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