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Pathway-ED: Do we need standards for professional discussions?

Stuart Middleton
14 April 2011

There is a lot of talk these days about reporting. Most public is the debate about National Standards. The subtlety of most of it is lost on the public that includes parents and grandparents who simply continue to be confused by public statements which trumpets out that Group A or Association B are “opposed to National Standards”. At one level this is Gilbertian and to argue that schools will not report on a child’s standard of achievement because of issues they claim to have with a government brings a new dimension to the word “professional”.

I have some questions about this:

  • Do parents wish to know or even perhaps have a right to know this information?
  • Has this been done effectively and diligently in the past?
  • If the current system of National Standards is flawed, then who would you expect to be able to design a better approach – dentists, panel beaters or school principals and teachers?
  • Why have Principals not embraced the intention of National Standards and come up with a better approach?

 The intent of the government is clear – parents have a need and a right to know how their children are doing. Schools are good at assessment and evaluation (this is constantly stated by the Minister) but less good at communicating to parents about this information.

The other members of the ESES (English-Speaking Education Systems) Group have decided to go down a testing route and there are serious issues with this that are well-known and are becoming apparent. New Zealand has chosen a reporting route. The spokesperson of the principals who told national radio that “we were adopting this system just as other countries were dropping it” simply didn’t know what those other countries were doing nor did he appreciate the critical differences.

Some years ago I wrote about an analysis I had done of all the school reports that a single child had received over thirteen years from his various schools. I can reveal now that the child was me. My parents received almost no information about my academic growth and progress. The single exception was a Form 4 English teacher who stated that “Stuart writes quite well.”  A plethora of test results, the assignment of As and Bs and Cs all without much explanation, had to do.

As a result I suspect that my parents focussed on the things they understood – behaviour, politeness, enthusiasm, and so on. They beamed with pleasure when those were As or Bs and any discussion of reports that took place simply ended with their conclusion that there was room for improvement. I never received a gift for outstanding achievement or “passing” this that or the other. You went to school for a purpose – to learn things – and the teachers were trusted to do what they had to do to see that done. But that was a simpler time when teachers were trusted and the relationship with a community much less fraught. Parents sent you to schools and teachers did what they were best at doing. Trouble at school meant trouble to the power2 at home.

It’s much more complex these days. For a variety of reasons there is less trust in the system to work its magic with all children as the evidence grows that there is significant failure matched only by marginal and incremental improvements in achievement, there is a discontinuity between education and employment, there is a generation or a fairly large group of parents and caregivers who themselves are dislocated from the process. It is very much harder for everyone wrapped up in this equation.

What we do need is to nail the issue of reporting to parents and caregivers – National Standards or some better system if the principals and the schools they represent can come up with one. Bland refusal at the first fence is not enough.

What we do not need is increased confusion in the community. Eventually we have to have parents centrally involved in the decisions about educational pathways for their children. On what basis are they to make these life-critical decisions, provide guidance to the ones they love most dearly and, in a system committed to equity, be able to do all this with the effectiveness of other members of the community?

This week the legal profession went public in a discussion of legal aid. Compare the style of this discussion with that of national standards from the different professions’ perspectives.

Published inEducation


  1. Els Els

    I agree that TV and news media make bullying seem like normal practice. However, when you look at our leaders (Parliament) and our heroes (sports performers)we know that bullying is not only TV/Media make-belief but it really is ingrained in all layers of our society. Our leaders shout each other down in Parliament and consider themselves civilised; we all know what our sporting heroes get up to. Furthermore, as long as New Zealand suffers from the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ violence and bullying are part of our way of life. WHERE RESPECT STARTS, VIOLENCE STOPS.

  2. Margaret Margaret

    Hi Stuart

    I suspect every parent who has had my experience will be hoping national standards will lead to better reporting. Having chatted with a lot of fellow parents with children with issues, I believe my experience is the norm – not the exception. I think that is why there has been so little parental concern about on national standards.

    My son had struggled with maths throughout primary school so, as parents do, we paid for after school lessons and tried our best to give helpful extra support at home. His reports usually focused on how nice he was to teach — we would not have guessed that he was having trouble had I not every year asked for his PAT test results, and because he was our fourth child, I had some idea of what OK really looked like.

    Then in year 7 [at the same primary school because it went through to year 8] his teacher assured us that, while no mathematical genius, he was now “doing nicely” and that it would be best to leave it to the school (with the implication that they knew what they were doing, and I was being an overanxious parent). A different teacher in year 8 had the same advice. Despite asking repeatedly I was not able to get his scores from the new numeracy project (which eliminated the PAT tests) as “they were too difficult for the lay-person to understand”.

    He then went to college – and within two weeks was in a remedial maths programme and being teased by his peers that he was “dumb”. I have to take my hat off to the college — which finally treated me as an adult instead of someone to be patronised — and also managed to convey to my son a vision of what he could achieve if he worked with them on the problem rather than platitudinal choruses of “How great you art”.

    The real test will be this year when he sits NCEA level 1 but in the meantime:

    (1) the college provided targeted classes throughout year 9 and 10 – year 9 was a small group so he got more attention; year 10 was a “mainstream” class but one where kids were needing extra help — and they got it. Great teaching from a great teacher who gave them confidence that they could do it if they tried.

    (2) the college suggested I use outside tutors to provide extra support — including suggestions of who was good and what was the best way of using them (The message was: Make the tutor first focus on anything my son hadn’t understood at school that week; then once the immediate issues were sorted, get the tutor to ensure he understood the Primary school level of next topic that is going to come up — and they provided a list of which topics would be taught when so that the tutor could do it. ie an approach focused on the child’s areas of confusion, and preparing him for and integrating with what goes on at school).

    This year he is in a truly “mainstream” classes. I have been shown his performance tests — and had them explained to me so that I understand them enough to trust their assurance that he is now doing nicel, and he will be able to pass NCEA 1 with enough of a safety margin that he does not need to worry himself sick about it — and he also has enough understanding of how he is doing to accept that and relax and focus on doing his best.

    If national standards make the primary schools act in the way our secondary school has, then I am all for it. In my view as professionals they should be doing it now – but they aren’t.

    I should add this boy is not your classic struggler at school – he has always done really well in every other subject. I think he got behind on maths early on, and it then fed on itself. So when will we have primary school “maths recovery”?

    For obvious reasons I am not going to give my surname.


    • Stuart Stuart

      Thanks Margaret for this very frank outline that puts the issue into the only context that matters – that of the student. I think your boy’s story is powerful support for reporting that will help parents of children who are out of sync with their cohort either generally or in one particular subject.


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