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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.

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