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Tag: accountability

Talk-ED: Electing a better option

Stuart Middleton
22 November 2011

Six days out from the election and the National party unveils its education policy. Labour was out of the blocks a couple of weeks ago. What is remarkable is the focus of both is on skills training. It is clear that both major parties recognise that this is where action must be concentrated. Levels of 15-24 year olds who are not in education or training is, quite simply, unsustainable.

Of course the party in power, National, starts the race with something of an advantage as the policy is very much based on work in progress, plans that have been previously explained and actions of which a first hint has already been given.

The Youth Guarantee policy has developed over the past two years to have multiple prongs to its attack. The extension of the fees-free places for 16 and 17 year olds will reach 12,000 places over the next few years. And while the reduction of qualifications (which had reached a promiscuous 6,000) has continued, within the NCEA  (the national school leaving qualification) the development of vocational pathways in five industry sectors starts the process of bringing more shape into that qualification.

And shape and direction is what both major parties are seeking in their respective policies. For too long we have continued to allow young people to drift through school either failing to collect credits for the NCEA or collecting a set of credits that lack cohesion and integrity.

Other countries, Australia among them, envy the fact that New Zealand has one qualifications framework that should allow different parts of the education system to work together to provide pathways through the different levels and to relate qualifications to each other, to credit work done within one programme into a qualification being pursued in another. But have we exploited that flexibility? No.

Similarly, the achievement-based approach to assessment not only should enable new programmes and different ways of teaching in a variety of settings to meet the needs of increased numbers of students but also actually for the first time give credit where credit is due.  At long last we have the framework of a qualification that ought to mean something, if you have the credit you have been able to demonstrate the learning. But has it? Not really.

Over all of the policies is a gloom of anxiety from the political parties that there is insufficient accountability than there should be. Both seem to feel that there is starting to be some accountability in tertiary programmes but the schooling sector has them all flummoxed. That it is because it is genuinely difficult to come up with a system that is both rigorous and yet at the same time fair. Value added? Raw differentials in performance? Take account of prior experiences and learning? Ignore the differences students bring with them into the school? What sanctions are available when accountability measures identify shortcomings? Very few.

Meanwhile the teacher organisations simply seem to react to every suggestion of increased accountability with the old slogans of the 1970s give us the resources and we will do the job. 30 years later we are still seeking evidence for such claims.

But there may be things that can be done. The focus on the narrow but critically important skills of literacy and numeracy in the primary school seems justified and if schools struggle with this then they will simply have to focus through narrowing the curriculum or learning how to better embed literacy and numeracy in a rigorous manner into a wider range of activity across the curriculum.

Attendance at school might be a simple measure. Is it too outrageous to suggest that schools should be paid a bonus for reaching targets of school attendance? Of course it is. But being there is a necessary first step to learning. At a secondary level there are real issues when the student body arrives at that level with such a huge range of achievement or lack of it. The result is that in the school sector no-one is accountable for failure.

There is a hint of a suggestion in the National policy that in order to facilitate the development of better pathways for students requires greater alignment between the secondary and the tertiary sector especially between the senior secondary and tertiary.

Good people work in education, they can’t possibly be held totally responsible for the levels of failure and disengagement that all political parties struggle to address. The issues are not because of people – they are structural. The structure of education needs a good shake-up.

Here is an idea. make the primary sector start at Year 1 and end at Year 6. Have a “Junior High School” from Year 7 to Year 10. Then re-position the senior secondary school (Years 11+) as a Senior College within the tertiary sector. This would allow the funding formula for all students from Year 11 on to be synchronised regardless of whether they are in Senior College or a tertiary provider. In fact, the Senior College could well be the tertiary sector (these ideas will be expanded in Thursdays EdTalkNZ).

You see, a structural solution to a structural problem!

We don’t yet have a political party happy to tackle that. Nor probably an electorate that is open to these ideas for that matter. We can change governments, keep the same governments. But only radical solutions will address the issues they earnestly seek to address in Education.

I vote for change, structural change in Education!            

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Think-Ed: The National Sport of bagging the National Standards

Stuart Middleton
21 February 2011

There are, we are told, 500 primary schools that are standing out from the Government’s requirement that they report to their community on National Standards. They disagree with the approach one assumes and believe that they can do as they please in this matter.

Recently they leapt on some comments from the Prime Minister, made during the visit to New Zealand of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard, that there were issues with the National Standards and that the implementation was bringing these to the surface. “There we told you so!” was the cry, “even the PM says so.”

Well in fact what he said was only that there were issues with the National Standards and that further work would be needed. It seemed to me that he was being entirely open about a major policy being rolled out across the country that relied on the large number of Principals and even larger number of teachers in a large number of schools for its implementation. This is a complex development and while many in New Zealand have great difficulty dealing with uncertainty, it is not possible to finish a development without starting it as they would seem to wish. You can’t finish a development before you start it as some would seem to wish.

This results in pilot schemes, trials, reviews and a swill of consultation, the net result of which is usually the socialisation of a change into the ways things have always been done. It is not the issue of what a development does to schools but rather what schools do to a development.  Change, if it is to happen, requires us to cope with uncertainty and to demonstrate a flexibility of thinking and a capacity to modify our actions in the interests of continuous improvement. There is no fixed state.

It should also be remembered that PM Julia Gilliard, when she was Minister of Education, gathered together a coterie of like-minded Principals around her and with them agreed to push ahead with the  website. In its own words:

My School enables you to search the profiles of almost 10,000 Australian schools. You can quickly locate statistical and contextual information about schools in your community and compare them with statistically similar schools across the country…

My School 2.0 will be ready to be released from 4 March 2011. The expanded and updated version of the site will provide parents and the community with information about NAPLAN performance as well as information about school finances and school communities. To find out about the new features of My School version 2 click here.

NAPLAN is the Australian National Assessment Programme for Literacy and Numeracy, a national testing programme. Now if some New Zealand schools would prefer to have tests arrive at the school in sealed envelopes which after having been sat and graded will be reported on in a web site that offers an easy technology for the comparison of schools – the X-box of League Tables – then I am surprised. If testing regimes brought about improvements in performance then why do they consistently and comprehensively fail in the USA? If the test approach works to lift reading and mathematics standards then why does the UK struggle?

New Zealand has set out on an accountability regime that is different. It is a high trust model that says to schools that they have competence as professional for the teaching and assessment of learning and the evaluation of progress. Schools achieve this in many different ways. But let us have a consistent standard of reporting this to parents so that they can find out about their sons’ and daughters’ progress in a consistent manner that meets standards in reporting. Give me this approach over the test-driven one any day!

The height of absurdity from those who oppose National Standards was reached when it was announced that Mary Chamberlain, who has led this development so well after having contributed significantly to the development of the curriculum, was leaving the Ministry of Education in order to spend increased time in Auckland where she lives. This was seen as an ideal opportunity to stop the development, to pause in its implementation, to have a rethink and so on. Time to have a cup of tea!

Developments are never the work of one person and while the burden of leadership in them is a significant responsibility, a good development is not contingent on that one person. Ideas and principles will prevail, momentum will continue and life carries on.

I worry that once again in the Education system we will carry into an election year some of the old tired arguments and the opposition to National Standards has now become one of those. The real issues that we should be seen to have commitment to tackle are to do with achievement and the long tail of educational failure that in terms of the international community to which we aspire to belong, is as long as it gets.  The issue is the 20% who leave school before the legal school-leaving age and it is about those who stay in the system for little or no reward.

Real issues deserve attention and the irony here is that for once the issues we should be tackling head on are the very same issues governments (for the awareness is now bipartisan in New Zealand) would also care to address. We should be working with them to develop a strategy, a plan and a way forward. This would be much more productive than carping on about National Standards.

It is time to get over it and move on.