It is not just in New Zealand that there is disquiet being expressed about the trend for governments to look to assess the effectiveness of teaching and learning in postsecondary programmes by wanting increased reporting on successful completion of qualifications. English and Australian tertiary organisations are expressing sentiments much along the lines of those expressed in New Zealand this week.
Essentially the argument is this: if there is to be increased scrutiny on successful completion then that could affect funding and that in turn will lead to tertiary institutions lowering standards in order to avoid such an outcome.
It is of interest that it is often the organisations that represent tertiary staff that make these arguments most often. Presumably it is never their members who would lower standards but someone else in the institution. There is no-one else – standards in an institution rely almost totally on the quality of work done at the interface between teaching staff and students. There are other interfaces – student support, pastoral care, administration and suchlike – but academic standards are a reflection of the quality of courses, the quality of the ways they are taught and the quality of learning i.e. results.
So a starting point might be to accept that if no learning has taken place then arguably no teaching has had impact. Of course that scenario is ridiculous but more palatable is the view that increased positive outcomes are a reflection on increased quality in teaching. Therefore, tertiary teachers should welcome the focus on outcomes as a measure. If they matter more to an institution, teaching staff are in a stronger position to be highly valued.
So why, are tertiary teachers not backing themselves? Perhaps it is largely because it has never been accepted that educational institutions are responsible for student success. The old question asked by groups such as Treasury, Ministers and the public generally, “Who is responsible for educational failure?” has for so long got the answer “No-one!” Only this year was the Education Act amended to reflect for the first time in 134 years that someone in schools actually is – the Boards of Trustees of schools. Well they cannot actually be the ones who ensure that their responsibility is discharged but they can help by hiring good teachers, providing ongoing growth and development opportunities and helping to create the environment from which success flows.
Other factors external to the institution do get in the way but evidence is that excellent teaching to succeeding students does make a measureable impact on a student’s capacity to cope with those external pressures and obstacles. So, again, excellent teaching matters.
Arguments will be put forward that some institutions cope with student groups that are of higher maintenance than others. That is true and that is why the OECD persistently identifies as the most important factor in increasing levels of equitable social outcomes from education as making sure that such groups get the best teachers. Excellent teaching matters.
So what, then, is the point in measuring successful completion as an indication of the quality of an institution? Well, I believe that it might be tied up in the assertion that the issue in education is not that we lack competent teachers but that too many competent teachers are doing the wrong thing. Excellent teachers doing the wrong thing (in terms of the appropriateness and effectiveness with those students in those programmes) is measured by the results.
There is no hard evidence that there are children full of faculties and strong of limb who cannot learn at the point of birth. But their journey will place many things in the way of achieving the gifts that are by right theirs.
The quality of the first three years when so much critical intellectual and social development takes place will set in place the frame within which future learning will grow.
Access to early childhood education will further develop the young persons as to be ready for school.
Primary school will establish the sets of basic skills required for application in the secondary schools where the first steps along pathways to various futures take place.
Then at postsecondary the high level specialist knowledge and skill is put into place.
If the whole business of education and training is working it would show in the outcomes. But it requires everyone at every level to be measured by outcomes, by successful completion and by successful completion at increasingly more complex and demanding levels.
Rather than resisting calls for measuring the quality of institutions by successful completion levels, we need to be embracing the better futures they bring for us all and especially those we teach. Finally there would be a dent in that most stubborn of educational statistics – that only 50% of those who start a postsecondary course will complete it and those successful students represent only about 30% of the cohort born 25 years previously, full of promise.