Miss Direction

The biggest change currently happening in New Zealand education is the implementation of national standards in our primary schools. It’s been predictably controversial, and the arguments on both sides have, by now, been well rehearsed. Nevertheless, indulge me while I summarise them quickly, in order to make a point that seems to me to have been missed by much of the commentary.

The grand narrative of the Government’s move is simple enough: although we have a world class education system, the one glaring area of underperformance is at the tail of attainment, where a significant portion of students appear to be left behind. The key to raising bottom end achievement is identifying, as soon as possible, those students at risk, that their special needs might be addressed. A consistent sub-narrative has been the idea that students and parents deserve to know how they measure up against expected performance profiles.

The arguments against assessing primary aged students against national standards in this way are the expected ones. First, the premise is challenged. To anybody working in education, the idea that our problem is we don’t know which kids are struggling with basic literacy and numeracy skills, seems slightly bonkers. Primary schools were already awash with assessment information. The next objection is that a further layer of assessment diverts resources from the much more important business of, you know, educating. Another common objection is that the standards, as implemented, have the unfortunate quality of being neither national, nor standards. Descriptors are vague, and interpretations all over the shop. National moderation might fix this, but only by creating an even greater resource drain on a system that would maybe prefer to spend the money on, perhaps, remedial maths and reading programmes.

Next, many worry that by putting public pressure on schools to measure up against these standards, the very strength of our education system, a strength embedded in the new curriculum, of thinking of education in as broad terms as possible, will be undermined.  One can always rote learn one’s way through prescribed assessment tasks, but is this what we want our schools to be about? There’s also the hopefully obvious fact that neural development in children is not a clockwork process, kids develop at their own rates, and yet the national standards will tend to label the student who naturally comes to reading a bit later as underachieving, which is nuts. A related point is the crucial role self-assessment and sense of potential play in motivation and learning. The risk is clearly one of the crude results convincing the struggling student that all hope is lost.

And finally, and here I belatedly reach my point, there is the suspicion that the results will not be used to enhance the prospects of learning and engagement, but instead will become a tool for labelling schools as successes and failures. In short, that the end consumers of this information will not be those striving to lift bottom end achievement, but instead will be the educational equivalent of the worried well. In short, the parents of the bulk of our students, who do as well as any students on the globe. These parents, it is feared, will buy into politically motivated scare stories about failing schools, and will seek to use the data to judge the desirability of a school. A very real fear would then be an escalation of flight to schools perceived good, from those considered failures. And this, to be blunt, will be characterised by a movement of white students away from schools with too many brown faces in them. (Not that it was about race, you understand. Oh no, it was purely our concerns about the school’s achievement profile.)

Now, I would argue that the way the first round of data has been published absolutely confirms this fear. Because, if you go on to the Ministry’s website and search for a school’s results, all you are given are the percentages of that school’s students well below, below, at or above the standard (also by sex and ethnicity). And that, when it comes to judging how well a school is advancing its students, is absolutely useless data. Worse than useless, it’s misleading. Consider two cases. A school where all its new entrants are significantly below the standard. But, due to superb staff, they slowly catch up, exactly as we hope might happen. So, five years later, the same students are somewhere near the standard. A remarkable achievement. Should any such school exist, we should make it our business to find out how their miracles are being achieved. Now consider the school that serves the affluent settled suburb, where students arrive with extensive vocabularies, full stomachs, and a good night’s sleep. All start out well above the standard, but due to a complacent and dispirited staff, make only mediocre progress, so that five years later many have slipped back to average.  

On the ministry website the second school, the epitome of a bad school, looks pretty good, while the first, the very model of all we aspire to, looks pretty bad. So, even if the standards were reliable measures of achievement (and for now they’re not) the way they are being presented works directly against the stated aims of the reforms. Either this is because the Government is bowing to the demands of its natural constituency, who want only to see their favourite myths of superiority reinforced, or it’s sheer laziness and incompetence. Neither explanation is flattering. I say laziness because, with only a modicum of effort, a quite different performance profile could be complied. Consider results against standards for the school’s entry year, and compare it to results for their leaving year. Calculate the net change percentage (e.g we start off with 45% below the standard, but end up with only 13%) and report that. In time, the more accurate record will be comparing the same cohort ‘s results in later years, but to start with, this isn’t a terrible first estimate. The trouble is, it will show that the very best schools, those having the most profound influence on their students, aren’t necessarily the ones we think they are. And that would never do, would it?

3 thoughts on “Miss Direction

  1. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    We also see school ratings here in Québec (education being a provincial responsibility) but it’s not a government thing.

    There’s a monthly magazine that publishes once a year its own ratings of what we call here secondary schools (roughly grades 7-11). Many parents no doubt find this very useful when comes the time to select a school (especially private schools) but I can’t help thinking of the perverse effects of the system.

    For one, private schools fare better (because they can select their students), biasing the results in their favour – this is a similar problem to the one you describe. In addition, many schools (again, especially private) focus so much on ratings that they spend way too much efforts aimed only at improving results on government exams to the expense of other parts of the curriculum that could be more profitable to students. It is even said (but I cannot vouch for that) that some schools tell their worse students not to attend national exams at the end of the year so as to improve the overall score of the school (these students have a second chance to pass the exam later but these results count differently for the school).

    Are you familiar with the work of Alfie Kohn? I have read some of his books many years ago and I found him very interesting. He wrote, convincingly I think, against competition, standardized testing and similar topics.

    BTW, nice web site you’ve got. I look forward to reading your posts and to some interesting exchanges.


    • Thanks Jean-Paul, and nice to see you here.

      I’ve not read Alfie Kohn, but thanks for the reference. My experience in schools would certainly reinforce the notion that competition in education tends to be a negative. From the individual student’s perspective, the ability to measure oneself against peers is only exciting for that small proportion likely to come at near the top. Using competitive measures for success and failure has the unfortunate effect of extending the scope of failure, and hence the powerful demotivating force of an accrued experience of not measuring up.

      Competition between schools seems even less likely to yield results. The central premise appears to be that schools and teachers will use the need to succeed as motivation for lifting their game. The reality of teaching, however, is that it’s one of those activites where doing it well is extremely satisfying, and doing it poorly can be crushing. As a result, I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want to do well in their job. Given that motivation isn’t the problem, then, it’s very hard to see what competition is supposed to bring to the table.

      I suspect it’s a case of the competitive metaphor being so pervasive in sport, business and any number of cultural myths, that people are prone to thinking of it as a ‘good thing’ without taking the time to analyse its mechanisms in any particular context.


  2. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    What Kohn has allowed me to do was to think differently about subjects like competition in school, grading and reward and punishment (he has a book titled “Punished by Rewards”). That was at the time my son started school – or more likely a few years before that (he’s 18 now). I didn’t know anything really about education at this level and his books (among other things) gave me the tools I needed to make up my mind about this.

    I felt lucky that my son started school in the years following an education reform that, in addition to many other changes (emphasis on team work for example), replaced traditional grades by a more qualitative system (just a few different possible grades, evaluating competences instead of, or in addition to, knowledge of individual subjects). This worked very well for my son but you can probably guess what happened: parents started to complain, they didn’t like the change, they preferred the meaningless precision of the traditional system (is this 71% in math or 75?). So, now, they might rollback some of these changes. Sometimes I think the worst enemies of education are parents and the ministry of education. How are things in New-Zealand?

    As you say, competition between students can be crushing to those who don’t perform well – and once tagged an underachiever, the label is hard to get rid of. But it’s not necessarily good at the top either. I was one of those who came near the top (to use your phrase) and, as far as I can figure out in retrospect, school was just this arena where you played the grade game. I was good at this but I probably missed much because of the over-emphasis on the “game”. When grades are the price we aim for, even learning becomes an obstacle we need to overcome, something standing in our way.


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