Archive for October 2009

A standard response

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.42, 30 October 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The recent events surrounding National Standards suggest both confusion and a situation that is getting out of hand – a little like the sort of playground squabble that Principals have to sort out from time to time.

On the one hand the government is clear and is holding fast to a course of action about which it has been adamant. It is their belief that the community demands better reporting on educational progress in terms of the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. It has introduced National Standards in an attempt to achieve this.

Inevitably, given the pattern of such moves in other systems, there is controversy about this as the form of the standards is challenged and their impact questioned.

On the other hand the profession seems to wish to adopt a position in which they are both in favour of high educational standards (who wouldn’t be) but against the introduction of these “standards”.

Watching all this is a community that is perplexed. Grandparents (and older people) were educated in a system in which you went through (and up) the standards to reach proficiency. That is what education was all about. Their children and grandchildren have no doubt – getting an education is about learning the basic skills needed to get on in life, to get qualifications and to get a job.

Of course it is good that you learn a lot of subjects on the way through but education is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. And the community is worried about the end.

George Sampson back in 1928 wrote a dissenting opinion to a Royal Commission he was on in the UK. He argued that the reason you have subjects like Geography, History, Social Studies, Science and so on, was to give you something to teach English with!

For it is one of the glorious facts of teaching that our students who are highly literate and numerate can do anything. Those who struggle with literacy and numeracy struggle not just with those as subjects (if they are) but with everything we try to do in schools.  If you can read, write and do sums you face a brighter future than if you can’t.

Yet the community sees the profession seemingly arguing against this.

It is argued that the National Standards will be educationally limiting and a constraint on schools. Try educational failure, try disengagement from education – they are really educationally limiting and constraining.

It is argued that there is much more to education than literacy and numeracy. Of course there is but without either there is nothing.

If we attend the launch of the National Standards we will be seen to be supporting them. True – and the community might feel that the profession could well do just that.

Then the arguments heated up as it was revealed that “support for teachers” in the form of the teacher support services contracts was to be restricted to literacy and numeracy. This set up quite chorus of people arguing that other subjects are important. Of course they are but with low levels of literacy and numeracy they remain a mystery to many.

Now, if the profession can show that the skills of literacy and numeracy can be successfully embedded in the teaching of those subjects then their arguments are stronger. But I heard no-one argue that those “other subjects” had the potential to be a valuable means of achieving those foundation skills on which skill and expertise in all subjects is built. The argument that teachers need the support in order to teach those other subjects is not one the community quickly understands being perplexed as to why teachers cannot teach the subjects in the curriculum being highly trained professionals.

There are some worries about National Standards. The key one is their ability to reflect the linguistic diversity that now characterises our schools. I have previously and often wondered when ability in more than one of the languages of the New Zealand’s community would be considered a requirement of and an advantage to being literate in New Zealand.

I have also questioned whether resourcing will follow the emphasis on acquiring the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. Some communities simply require a greater effort from their schools than others in this regard. If the standards are the standards, has a study been completed on resourcing models that give all students a good chance to achieve them? Without some response the standards could simply become a set of descriptors for serious road accidents.

Hierarchies are inevitable when a standards approach is taken to reporting progress. In the family of five education systems in which we sit (UK, USA, Australia and Canada are the others) all attempts to introduce standards have resulted in the same hierarchical picture.

Schools drawing on high socio-economic communities perform better on these measures than those in middle socio-economic areas and both are ahead of low socio-economic schools. We hear talk of “value added” as a measure but there is little progress in actually reporting it and getting it accepted.

Girls come out of these processes better than boys. We all know this but is there a way in which the reporting could show that this is natural (if it is) or can be attended to (if it can)? Does it matter?

Indigenous communities do not do well!

Students who come from an English language background are ahead of those who come from backgrounds other than English Language. This is a huge issue but one that New Zealand is decades away from both understanding or responding to – getting the Rugby World Cup onto an English-speaking channel is about where the nation’s understanding of this issue is!

But what do we have that is an advantage by comparison? The standards are quite focussed and only in clear areas unlike the USA for instance where they are all over the place. We have a liberal and non-constraining curriculum on which teaching programmes are based and we would have to ignore this were we to teach to the standards. Our history has a commitment to a fair deal for all children.

With the introduction of the revised New Zealand Curriculum and the National Standards happening at the same time, decisions made by schools and by teachers have never been more important. The direction we take is up to us. The National Standards, like the NZ Curriculum, will be what we turn them into.

Karaoke on campus

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.41, October 23, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

Singing together is very much a symptom of unity. Soldiers marching off to war, a congregation in a church, weddings and funerals, powhiri and poroporoaki, a party late at night and little children playing in a sandpit – all sing along in to various degrees of tunefulness.

We even have a saying – “we are all singing from the same song-sheet” – that means that there is agreement, perhaps even enthusiasm, there is purpose.

The release of strategies in education is very much the development of the next song-sheet, it tells you what kind of party it’s going to be. And the Draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2010 – 2015 is no exception.

This strategy makes clear what tunes we will be singing (and more likely dancing to) in the half decade ahead. The tertiary sector is expected to get better at providing a more diverse community with skills that meet the needs of the economy and of the community. Research should make us a wealthier, stronger and better country with stronger and better institutions that innovate. Maori must be able to access success (with an emphasis on a good transition from school to tertiary education).

The focus of the strategy on more success for more young people is heartening. Getting younger people into higher level qualifications, getting Maori and Pasifika students into higher qualifications, getting increased success in transitions from school to tertiary and lifting the basic skill levels of adult learners becomes something of the chorus that develops through the document.

Of course it also comes back to note that the strategy also wants improved educational and financial performance of providers and, oh by the way, stronger research outcomes. These are a kind of “And so say all of us!”

Having said that clearly, the strategy then finds a number of different ways of saying it again and in different ways. This is song-writing at its best.

There is a revealing chart showing clearly that between 2001 and 2008 growth in tertiary education was very much at the certificate level with some knock on effect into diplomas. This should not be a surprise. It is the Myth of Increased Participation – a happy, happy jingle not accompanied by that other tune – Increased Outputs for the Academy. Increasing participation in tertiary was the sort of shouting/singing you hear in the rousing finale of primary singing festivals when tunefulness is less important than enthusiastic participation.

How tuneful it is to see the emphasis in this strategy on what that increased participation should result in and who should be there in the groups that achieve those higher qualifications.

The accompanying focus on links with schools and their performance and on the mechanics of connection between secondary and tertiary provides a clear key (in both meanings of the word) for tertiary education to practise its skills in working with a broader and more diverse group.

The system performance elements are interesting. The obligatory emphasis on quality assurance is important  and necessary but not in itself sufficient otherwise the tertiary system would have had better outputs a long time ago. More important is the repeated demand that student performance be a measure of success. The order in which it addresses this is a little back-to-front. Putting supporting and encouraging student performance before “providing incentives for providers to respond better to students and market signals” – a slightly dark song in the style of Mack the Knife – would have reflected better the dynamics of increasing success.

Linking funding to performance somewhere, sometime is probably inevitable but finding innovative and fair ways of doing this is better than simply threatening to do so. Linking funding much more clearly to the target groups in the strategy would be a good place to start.

The strategy hits its straps in the expectations section. “Expectations” is a very hard word for a songwriter to find a rhyme. So unless you write a Moonlight in Vermont style song without rhyme you run the risk of awkwardness. The strategy avoids this with the formulaic “core roles” followed by the stirring “Government expects” sections. Each sub-sector is given a clear steer as to its focus and these by-and –large work. But where is the connection?

Getting students into higher level qualifications requires connection between the sub-sectors. If you want to get good at the violin you don’t start with Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor. Someone has to teach Pussy Pussy Stop Stop. But you will never reach the soaring heights of the Mendelssohn on Saturday morning in the church hall with a Suzuki community group. Each sub-sector has its role and the connectedness of these is not developed well other than by implication in the strategy.

The trends section makes some good points about the challenges of the pattern of population in New Zealand. It is not the aging pattern that is the challenge – it is the increasing diversity. Put more harshly and stridently than tuneful strategy statements typically allow for, tertiary education has to do very much better with a very different group of students if any of the long term goals of the strategy are to be met.

Or put in an even more discordant way, the rather narrow band of the population from which tertiary education has traditionally drawn most of its success is getting thinner. The groups for which tertiary education has not yet developed a capability of taking through to higher level qualifications in significant numbers is getting larger. Tertiary education has to develop a new capability if the role of the sector in the economic transformation of New Zealand is to be realised.

If this is not achieved, New Zealand will increasingly be at the mercy of the global skill market. So too will Australia, the USA, the UK and Canada. As the countries that supply these skilled migrants increasing require them to work in their own economies, we could be reduced.

We could huddle in the lifeboat and song Abide with me but it is probably in our own interests to start to become a lusty chorus singing from a song-sheet along the lines of the one outlined in the strategy.

Tomorrow’s missed opportunities

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
 Vol 14 No.40, October 16, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

“Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.”

–       John Ruskin 1862

If we could bring to our desire to reform education the same levels of passion that are brought to reform in other areas there would be very different result from the confused outcomes of major reforms in education such as that promoted by the Tomorrow’s Schools policy of the Lange Labour Government.

Imagine if the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms had been run by the Sensible Sentencing movement. The school leaving age would be 23, there would be a demand for a school on every corner and education would mean education!

Imagine of Rodney Hide’s passion for the reform of Auckland governance had been applied – sectors would disappear and the reforms would be managed by a very small and powerful group.

But they are not and education reforms inevitably end up being a bit like a pot of alphabet soup that is taken off the stove and waits too long to be brought to the table, lukewarm with the key words settled to the bottom. In trying to tackle too large a target, they miss the many closer and smaller and manageable changes that would make a difference.

Michael Fullan was clear back in the 1980’s that “educational change is no substitute for social and political reform.” This echoes the theme pursued by Aaron Wildavsky who wondered why would you expect curriculum reform to succeed when poltical reform has failed? And so the motives behind a change are often not clearly understood nor are the effects of any particular programme of reform kept in perspective.

David Lange was resigned to the fact that he has “seen so much attributed to Tomorrow’s Schools that I have long since given up trying to correct it.”  But what was Tomorrow’s Schools?

Essentially it was a brief policy statement that took a more detailed report on the administration of education and spelt out some key policy initiatives on which subsequent legislation would be based. But in between the report and the policy was the intensive consultation that inevitably softened the impact of the reforms. And then the government changed and key elements were again softened and some entirely removed.

The commitment of Tomorrow’s Schools to the notion of supporting the local school through zoning was challenged and has been knocked around by both those within education who profited from such a changes and politicians reflecting both sides of the debate. The increased controls over the uses of funding gave birth to a call for “give us the money in a bag and we’ll do a better job!”

But what was to be sorely missed over the twenty years since, was the removal of the commitments to local communities in the Tomorrow’s Schools landscape of the Education Service Centres and the Community Education Forums. No one idea however reforming is either a panacea or a silver bullet. But each little part of the larger reform helps and is there for a reason – leaving pieces out for whatever reason usually diminishes the overall impact of a reform.

The Education Service Centres as proposed would have been a useful link between the local Boards of Trustees and the inevitably remote central body of the Ministry of Education which replaced the old Department of Education. The old Dept. Was surely criticised by the report Administering for Excellence which begat Tomorrow’s Schools, but in a curious way it had a local connection which was respected and embraced as one would an old cardigan – useless at keeping you warm, patchy, but comfortable nevertheless. We had to watch some painful local failures in the mid-1990’s before there was a response – schooling improvement initiatives and suchlike. The cost of the transition from the department to local initiatives and the pain of that hiatus were disproportionately borne by local communities in disadvantaged areas.

The Community Education Forums were simply aborted. On paper they seemed like a good idea as they would have operated to allow the views of the communities to be heard and perhaps for a better discussion of options than has taken place. But we were never to find out.

Another aspect of the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms that is often not remembered is that they were only a reform of the administration of education and were surrounded by other reform packages – curriculum, qualifications and post-compulsory education and training (PCET). The disconnection between each of these was not helped by the lack of an overall plan which saw synergies established and some aims established at a higher level.

Questions should have been asked throughout that reforming decade about the kind of overall administration that education needed to manage a curriculum of the kind being proposed and how would it be assessed? How would qualifications be managed and what was the role and connection of post-compulsory education and training. Instead all four areas (administration, qualifications, curriculum and PCET) had a life of their own. As if to prove the inherent propensity of institutions and organisation towards centrifugal force they each spun off in different directions.

Education in New Zealand has been herding its seagulls ever since.

Last week in the UK, Ruth Porter noted that the “Conservatives [in the UK] are rightly pointing to Sweden as an example of what Britain must do if it is to create a fairer education system, where even those from difficult backgrounds are given opportunities to succeed, but the case of New Zealand has much we can learn from.” (Ruth Porter recently returned to the UK after five years with a “public policy think tank” in New Zealand we are told.)

She goes on to argue that the many good things achieved by the Tomorrow’s Schools package were ultimately diminished by what she sees as a failure “to inspire innovation”. She concludes that if “diversity within the system had been heralded as a positive step, things could have turned out differently.”

True but I wonder if we mean the same thing by “diversity”? Doing your own thing or celebrating the demographic change that still calls out for significant reforms in education. And a decision- do be build a strong education system or more prisons?

Curves in the wrong places

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.38, October 2, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

Back in 2004 I wrote about the impact of The Plunket Chart on the community’s understanding of educational assessment and evaluation (see Education Review, Bell Curve Babies, 18 February 2004). I suggested that the obsession of the New Zealand community with norm-referenced assessment was in part due to the influence of that chart on successive generations of New Zealanders as it fed into people, along with mother’s milk and supplements bought from the Rawleighs man, a belief that such reporting could be applied to all aspects of human performance.

I received in response, a very thoughtful letter from a senior Plunket person who had read the piece in good humour and assured me that the uses of The Plunket Chart were now tempered with an understanding of its limitations.  I had been a little less than charitable towards The Plunket Chart on two grounds. My early life was lived in the shadow of very poor performance on the chart. Not only was I below that dark line of normality, I was also outside the shaded area of acceptability.

Actually the Plunket uses of such reporting were a proper use of such an approach. Physical characteristics can properly be reported using means and standard deviations which conform to the humped shape we have come to know as the Bell Curve.

I was shocked however to open the Sunday newspaper to be greeted with the headline “Plunket-style tables for school reports” above an article that exclusively reveals the exciting news that charts in the style of the Plunket chart are being developed to report on the National Standards being promoted in this country and which are to be publicly reported by schools in 2012.

Now let’s clear the decks of one thing – I favour clear statements of learning targets for students at different ages and anything that will allow a child’s progress to be better communicated to parents and caregivers.

But can a Plunket style chart shake off the distortions of the irrelevant norm-referenced basis of its progenitor? An educational standard is in no way similar to the average weight or height of a growing baby. If educational standards were to be set on the same principles as those which generate a mean or an average then they would not in any sense be standards – they would be simply statements of where the average performance is – and that could be good, bad or indifferent. If there is any commitment in the introduction of National Standards to lifting the performance of the education system then they must certainly not be current mean performance.

The example exclusively revealed in the newspaper imports so many of the features of The Plunket Chart that one wonders whether the “good idea” of using it as a model for the national standards reporting hasn’t overtaken a clear examination of what is being reported. The rising dotted line of progress suggests that there is a connection between living longer and meeting the standards. The shaded areas getting incrementally wider for “just below” and “well below” make no sense and have no statistical validity in the way The Plunket Chart has. The obvious way to report standards is to show that the standard is just that and a child’s performance can then be described in terms of its relationship to that standard. So the successive standards could and perhaps even should be reported as a straight line with the child’s achievement relative to that charted simply above, on or below the standard. There are many ways this could be done.

The principle that is paramount in reporting the standard is that this is a report on each and every individual student, not on groups of students. Inevitably, someone somewhere will be collating the information and producing descriptions that will have little validity that this group (i.e. school) is better than that group (i.e. some other school). What parents need to know is how their chjild is performing in relation to the standards.

Now all of this will get a bit tricky if the standards are taken as group measures. Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame has recently challenged us to think about performance differently. His book, The Outliers, list a series of factors that impact on performance.

He rates the following as key influences on performance – practice (10,000 hours is critical), timing (being born early in the year is helpful), upbringing (of course), cultural legacy (big challenges here for the system) and lucky opportunities (some are in the right place). So the national standards and the reporting on them might be only part of a complex jigsaw of high performance. Success in education is the critical foundation so the reporting should be rigorous, clear, and about individual progress.

Another troubling element of the proposed chart is the suggestion in its design that the standards are reported on the basis of Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, and so on. It should be important for us to report on the standards expected at critical transition points (age 5 for entering school, age 11/Year 6 for the transition to intermediate school, age 13/Year 8 for the transition to secondary school and at age 15/Year 10 for the transition into the senior secondary school or into other pathways.

Standards at these key points are crucial and no amount of reporting on the points in between will provide comfort for students who know that their little ones are simply not prepared for the transitions. No other years are as im[portant as the ones in which key transitions are expected of the students.

Accepting that the Plunket Chart is a good model for reporting educational standards would be on a par with accepting that passing the test for a drivers licence is evidence of both the skill and intellect required to drive a motor vehicle, or that turning 18 allows the community to relax knowing that the skills for safe use of alcohol is assured.

We can do better than this