Tag Archive for achievement

Pathways-ED: Yes, Minister. It's not quite as simple as that!

Stuart Middleton
15 December 2011


There is always interest when the captain of the team tells who will be playing in what position and the announcement of the cabinet posts earlier this week was no exception.

In fact this single theme could well serve this government right across the array of education sectors. Accountability in education in New Zealand is not one of our strong points – no-one is clearly held responsible for failure and disengagement. If we are to have National Standards for the schooling sector, the close scrutiny of NCEA results and accountability measures and levers for the tertiary sector then let’s develop a scorecard for the performance of a government in education and the performance of the Education Ministers as a team.

The Auckland Council has set the pace in this by building into its Auckland Plan clear goals , targets and priorities in education that are centred on three clear statements well familiar to readers of EdTalkNZ – 100% access to quality early childhood education, Level 2 NCEA for each and every young person and postsecondary qualification for all school leavers. The team of government education Ministers would do well to focus on these as a measure for the difference they make while in office.

And as they should be measured as a team, it will be no good if each of them simply gets on with their patch while ignoring the fact that young people have to navigate a system characterised by transitions and tracks that seemingly lack continuity. They will have to work together. So what about each Ministers role?

The continuity in the Tertiary Education portfolio is welcomed and Hon Steven Joyce will bring the sort of focus that is critical to continuing the progress to towards a system that is accountable for results and measured by them. Without the distraction of ships sitting on rocks and trains running under the rocks in Auckland, the Minister can with profit focus on working with his Minister of Education colleague to make Youth Guarantee (something of a flagship policy for this government) reach full expression.

The Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata, brings wide experience in the state sector to the role and provided that there can be a clear focus in her tenure in the role, she will do well. The being-all-things-to-all-people-approach has never worked and will never work. I would not think that Minister Parata will fall into that trap. Schooling is a simple process – students arrive at school ready to go – well more of them would if we got the ECE business right – and over 9 years lay the foundations for future learning.

A focus in the nine years of a general education simply has to be on essential skills and knowledge. We get it brilliantly right with the top end of the cohort and the challenge is to get it right for all young ones. To achieve this, schools will have to do more by doing less. Focus will be everything.

The new Minister can be expected to bring to her role an understanding of the importance of first languages and their impact on literacy development. Her colleague Hon Pita Sharples knows about all this with regard to Maori young ones and should be given scope to get on with doing what is necessary. As Minister of Education, Minister Parata might direct a lot of attention to the language needs and development of Pacific Island young ones (useful here that she is also Minister of Pacific Island Affairs), the migrant communities and Pakeha whose start in life simply hasn’t prepared them for school.

New Zealand is blessed in having an educator of the calibre of Hon Pita Sharples in the role of Associate Minister of Education. He talks about this being his last term. He must be given the opportunity to make a lasting impression as an Associate Minister of Education (and appropriately as Minister of Māori Affairs – he has much to offer to us all.

And completing the team of Education Ministers is Associate Minister of Education, Hon John Banks. I do not think for one minute that his call for charter schools was anything more than the exuberance of the agreement between ACT and the Government and his appointment to the role. It certainly wasn’t based on the ACT Manifesto, the needs of young people or the evidence that is available to us from other countries. If he wants to make a contribution he should realise that all New Zealand schools have the attributes of a charter school and set about helping the team assist all New Zealand schools to be high performing and results driven.

This concept of a team of ministers will be critical. I have written many times of the disastrous lack of connection between the parts of school in New Zealand (simply because we want so much to be like the US, the UK. Australia, and parts of Canada). If our Education Ministers can act like a team in which developments and decisions are assessed against a template of a connected and seamless education system and are measured not only for their effect in one Minister’s patch but also for their effect across the other patches, we might start to make progress.

Systemic discontinuity is clearly the greatest obstacle faced by learners in New Zealand. Any serious effort to address it at the delivery end has to be matched by an even greater effort in the approach the Government takes to education in its team of ministers. Actually it has also to be matched by a set of seamless relationships between the MOE and NZQA and TEC and ERO.

All this sounds like a Royal Commission or must they be reserved only for physical disasters?  

We wish the team of Education Ministers well.


Pathways-ED: Charter Schools – what would they add?

Stuart Middleton
8 December 2011

Who would have predicted that the idea of Charter Schools would have emerged from the volatility of an MMP election? It is a time for quiet and calm reflection on the matter rather than our usual search for the boxing gloves for three rounds in the ring.

Charter Schools go back to 1988 in the USA when the notion that the introduction of autonomous public schools with a clear focus on student achievement would address the stubborn issues in English-speaking education systems (and especially the USA) of the poor performance of too many students who seemingly were clustered in too many schools. Nothing unusual in that and New Zealand then and still (like the USA) continues to address that very same issue.

Charter Schools were to have a charter, an agreement between the state, the government, and the school, increased autonomy, a more flexible reach for students that went beyond the mandated zones and an ability to access funding from outside the conventional public / state funding.

Does all this sound familiar? It should. Because in 1989 the New Zealand government handed to all New Zealand schools the very same degree of autonomy. Every school was to be a charter school, there was to be increased flexibility of access (the zoning system was to challenged), funding could be used by the school flexibly (it was called bulk funding) and relationships between schools and business was to be allowed to flourish. All this followed the development of state integrated schools – early precursors of the charter model.

No education system in the world gives schools the autonomy they have in New Zealand but it is beyond the scope of this short piece to provide a commentary on what happened to all this but the point is that the notion of a “charter school” is not new to New Zealand and the concept has by and large been found to not be a silver bullet.

The critics of the charter school idea are silly to claim that the idea has been tried and has failed in the USA and the UK. It is just as silly to claim the idea has been an unqualified success. The truth is that charter schools have been about as good and as bad as public / state school systems. The jury is out on this idea. It would be foolish for us to go chasing after the concept at this time and there is no sound educational argument that we should.

Of course, the ideological argument which is really no argument at all, might win the day and we could continue the tradition of New Zealand claiming what it sees as its God-given right to suck up ideas from other education systems regardless of evidence of success or appropriateness. As for a trial or two – the road to hell is paved with good intentions and failed / stalled / forgotten education pilot programmes from New Zealand.

We need step changes at this time if we are to more successfully get on top of the issues of student achievement and success and the irony of the charter school proposal in both its nature and its timing is that the current government is on some productive tracks towards making progress in doing just that.

Regardless of whether teacher unions and principal associations like it or not, National Standards or something like it is essential to maintaining public confidence in state education. It was a lack of confidence in public education in the USA that unleashed the charter movement. New Zealand has never experienced the comprehensive lack of confidence in state education that other systems, the US, the UK and to a lesser degree Australia, have had to cope with. But it is not a given and we need to work at it. The primary sector needs to get on with the job of making National Standards work and the secondary sector should look forward to their introduction in some form or other for Years 9 and 10.

At the senior secondary school the government (and its MMP partners) would be advised to have confidence in its Youth Guarantee policy setting that seems likely to not only address achievement issues but articulate the school system into the wider world in ways that will enhance student success.

Continuing access to a free education in places other than the secondary school is both equitable and already successful. This is achieved within the existing education and training system at about the same cost as the conventional tracks in which so many of the students would simply fail.

The development of alternate ways of completing secondary schooling through mixed mode programmes (such as trades academies and secondary tertiary programmes) or through programmes such as the Tertiary High School are already leading increasing numbers of students to successful outcomes and qualifications.

The development of Vocational Pathways within NCEA is adding the sophistication to NCEA that was always meant to be there but was thwarted by the pressures to turn it into another examination system.

Meanwhile the performance of students at the top end of academic achievement is simply second to none in world terms.

In short, given continued commitment to the directions currently being pursued, we are likely to have success in addressing the issues of educational outcomes. Not only that, we will have found ways of doing this which are a good fit with the way we work – this is New Zealand and this is how we do it! A new maturity will emerge in an education system that has in the past lead the way.

One final point. There is neither the tradition nor an appetite in the New Zealand business and philanthropic communities to use its money to take over what it sees as the responsibility of the state in the ways that there is especially in the USA. Relationships? Yes. Lending complementary skills? Yes. Partnerships? Yes. Picking up the tab for failure? No.

We have some frameworks in place, now we need focus and commitment, not distraction.


Pathway-ED: Focusing on achievement

Stuart Middleton
5 October 2011

Teachers in schools are trained, registered and paid to attend to student achievement. Principals, middle managers and anyone with responsibility in a school is expected to know a little more about student achievement than those without it. School Boards have a responsibility to oversee student achievement in the school. In addition to this there is a plethora of assistance available to schools by professional development, tertiary education  specialists, private consultants and suchlike – that can provide further assistance and add to this focus on student achievement in schools.

And yet we learn that 30 “Student Achievement Practitioners”  have been appointed at  salaries in excess of $100,000 to provide advice assurance to schools.

The question has to be asked – why is this necessary when we have Principals, middle managers and trained and qualified teachers all of whom can be expected to have specialist knowledge in and of – guess what? – student achievement?

Well the answer to that is clear. We have a problem with student achievement in this country. Students are not achieving to satisfactory levels in sufficient numbers. Why?

Lets discard the popular opinion loved by those who call talkback radio that teachers are incompetent. There is not a shred of evidence that this is true. The same systems of teacher preparation, professional development, leadership and delivery that produce this worrying level of student failure also produces the best students in the world.

Lets also put to one side any suggestion that principals do not know what they are doing. There are issues of balancing the demands of being an administrative, professional and instructional leader and it is likely that there will be some struggle to be effective in all three to the same degree. But there are many opportunities for principals to get support should they need it. There are even I believe a group of “Senior Advisors” available to schools to support the principal and board.

I am left concluding that the issue with student achievement in New Zealand boils down to one thing – too many schools and too many teachers encouraged by too many principals are simply doing the wrong thing. They are working with diligence, flair and competence  but they are not hitting the target.

If ever the statement “less is more” had meaning it is surely when it is applied to schooling.  The demands made on schools is simply to do too much about too many things. There once was an expectation that schools had done their job when a relatively restricted range of objectives had been met.  Prime among these were at primary school the foundation skills of reading and writing and mathematics now perhaps usefully called literacy and numeracy. Where schools fail to bring students up to good and agreed standards in these areas they have failed regardless of whatever else they do.

Developing in students a sense of their history and their culture is also useful. Above all, exciting young people about learning and also doing these things – literacy, numeracy and a sense of who they are – is the hallmark of a good school where the talents and training of teachers is being directed towards positive outcome.

At the secondary school the single most important purpose is to build on these basic skills and prepare them for whatever is to follow – university, trades, employment, citizenship and so on. Sports and other activity such as school balls are nice to have, but never have in themselves a sufficient goal of schooling.

At a UC Berkeley football match I went to a couple of years ago they had a parade of the university’s sports teams. Mid-parade the stadium announcer solemnly advised the 80,000 people present that “no sports person is parading tonight who has not maintained an academic grade point average of 3.5.” In other words, make no mistake about it, learning comes first.

How do we reconcile the brilliant annual Polyfest in Auckland each year with its outstanding display of Maori and Pasifika performance with the grim statistics of Maori and Pasifika educational attainment in those very same schools?

If ever there was need for a group with the grunt of a Royal Commission or a Review it is now. We have to get back to making effective use of the skills of our teachers before we are overwhelmed by the issues of achievement. We need to reinvent the primary school and the secondary school and give fresh primacy to learning in every classroom.

Without fundamental and widespread change, Student Achievement Practitioners will be just one more attempt.

Imagine the concept being translated into the health sector. Patient Healing Practitioners would be a notion that would struggle to get traction.

Having said all of the above I was greatly unimpressed by the attack on the SAPs by the leaders of the primary principals organisation who went for a blatant ad hominen attack.  He was mighty lucky that no journalist thought to ask “Why do we need SAPS in schools?”

Pathways-ED: Foundations of success

Stuart Middleton
9 June 2011

I failed with some style in my first year at university. My twin brother and I were the first in our family to attend university and we took failure in our stride just as easily as we took success. Oh well, that is what happens we supposed. We bounced back and I have long since described the four year approach to the first three year degree as strategic and based on the view that allowing the concrete to set well in the foundations led to many a good building.

It is a complex business being the first. My subject choices through secondary school were relatively random and the only assistance I got at home was a single comment at the beginning of the third year secondary when my Mum said that “Dad wonders if you should be taking a subject that is related to getting a job.” This was when I determined that I would do music as a subject – at that point the only music I had was what was learned in a brass band having missed out on tuition on the bagpipes for various reasons which would have allowed us to follow in our father’s footsteps or is that fingerprints (with grace notes)?

I can recall no discussion about careers around the dinner table or indeed about subject choice. We selected subjects on the basis of what we thought we could manage and what we thought we might like. So Form 5, the School Certificate year and here I was taking English, mathematics, Latin, Music and French. I passed School Certificate in the days when you needed 200 marks in your best four subjects including English with 32 marks to spare. I wondered if I should perhaps ease back a little to avoid burnout.

Latin got dropped in subsequent years. So when it came to university, subject choice for the first year was based on what? Well that was simple; I wanted to go to the new fledging university in Hamilton (still a branch of Auckland University and only in my second year to become the University of Waikato) and had no appetite for leaving Hamilton at that point. So I chose subjects from the literal handful that they offered – French, English and History, declining to do geography. Yes, that’s it folks when it came to choosing university subjects in Hamilton in 1964!

It was in History where I came unstuck. Our Mother was very interested in history but it was New Zealand history and there I was becoming acquainted with Japanese, German and US history. And having not been taught at school to write a history essay my efforts were what might be described as hesitant. I blame no-one for this because it simply was how things were.

You see, there was never any doubt about both the job I was headed towards and the fact that I would get one. I had applied for and secured what was called in those days a Teaching Studentship – you got paid wages to go to university to be a teacher. Yes someone decided that at the age of 17 I was likely to be satisfactory teacher which was either an act of faith or a sign of desperation for teachers which were in very short supply in the 1960’s. We were bonded year for year to teach at the end of our education and training.

So it was with an incomplete degree that I headed off to teachers college in Auckland. I arrived late to be given a stern talking to by the principal of the day (I had been completing National Service in the army so he was on shaky grounds). I was given a ticking off by a respected principal of a prestigious school when I went there on teaching practice – what do you think of coming here with an incomplete degree? My suggestion that he should think of it as a BA -1 was clearly not a path to pursue. At the teachers college I was advised sternly (for these were pretty stern days) that I must enroll in Education at Auckland University. I could see no sense in this as I was at Teachers College where I had a not unreasonable expectation that they would deal with Education on the way through. I enrolled in Anthropology 1.

Of all the papers I did, these were the best. This was the only time in my first degree that New Zealand was mentioned. Maori Studies had progressed only as far as appointing a lecturer and Anthropology dealt with those topics. Dr Ranganui Walker taught a course that introduced us to dimensions of Maori, both modern and ancient, that my education had studiously declined to do up to that point. Rev. Bob Challis taught a course on Pacific Islanders in New Zealand and opened our eyes to the phenomenon of migration to New Zealand. Dr Les Groube in the physical anthropology course took us up to Orakei Basin for an archaeological dig on the pa site there. And there was a course on Aboriginal society in Australia. This stuff was close to home and excited me more than anything else I had studied. There was also a course on monarchies in African societies that I suppose we did because of a lecturer’s PhD studies.

It was the only paper in my first degree in which I scored an A pass. Finishing on a high note has always been a good philosophy in study as well as sport and most other things!

By the end of my first degree I no longer thought of myself as a first generation student. Twelve of the fourteen members from the next generation of our family completed a university degree. We simply expected them to succeed.

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 www.myschool.edu.au  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.

Think-Ed: ECE and the performance of 15 year olds

Stuart Middleton
7 February 2011

Hey, wait minute. For a number of years I have extolled the critical importance of early childhood education in terms of educational advancement and achievement. Two years of quality early childhood (i.e. 15 hours a week) would lead to such gains, I argued. This was on the evidence of research in the USA.

There is widespread agreement with this internationally. A Labour MP in Britain is arguing at the moment that early education will improve later school performance.

But, adopting its right of centre position and in order to challenge this MP, The Spectator weekly has recently published a table that, it suggests, shows otherwise. Here is that table:

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths (age 15) (Rank)
100% France 497  (6)
89% Sweden 494  (7)
87% Germany 513  (5)
83% UK 492  (8)
75% Japan 529  (3)
44% Finland 541  (1)
36% US 487  (9)
09% Switzerland 534  (2)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4)


Well, I thought, that is because it is mathematics and there could be many explanations why there is no correlation between access to ECE and later performance in mathematics. The story would be very different, I thought, if we also included Literacy and Science. So I added them to the chart.

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths at age 15 (Rank in list)  PISA Score in Literacy at age 15 (Rank in list) PISA Score in Science at age 15 (Rank in list)
100% France 497  (6) 496  (9) 498  (8)
89% Sweden 494  (7) 497  (7=) 495  (9)
87% Germany 513  (5) 497  (7=) 520  (4)
83% UK 492  (8) 500  (5=) 514  (6)
75% Japan 529  (3) 520  (2) 539  (2)
44% Finland 541  (1) 536  (1) 554  (1)
36% US 487  (9) 500  (5=) 502  (7)
09% Switzerland 534  (2) 501  (4) 517  (5)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4) 508  (3) 522  (3)


Just add a further bit of interest I added a line for New Zealand:

95% New Zealand  519  (5) 521  (2) 532  (2)


Of course this might all add up to nothing very much at all as is so usual in the popular media. The Netherlands rates well in this exercise but this conveniently ignores the fact that the system in that country has a “Mother and Child Health Care” programme that is universal and that 99% of all four year olds are voluntarily enrolled in primary schools (the legal school starting age is 5 years)

Then, this type of reporting also ignores that coarse nature of such a statistic as participation. Take New Zealand as an example. We might feel quite proud of our 95% rate but this is not evenly apparent across the system. Historically, Maori and Pacific Islands children have had lower access to early childhood education while the waged white middle classes have had both easy access and high quality provision. This is a fact and a trend that successive governments have always grappled with and it was exacerbated by the removal, for instance, of the targeting of the 20 free hours provision.

So let’s be impressed by Finland – only 44% participation The Spectator tells us but top of each category for achievement among the count rues in this survey (actually they did well in the whole PISA lists!). In Finland school starts at 7 years (but you can start at 6 years). About 75% of young ones in Finland have a significant exposure to day care and there is almost full enrolment in the pre-school classes at ages 6-7.

Reports such as that in The Spectator do not grapple with other issues – the extent to which the ECE curriculum is related to that of primary schools and premised on the fact that ECE should be preparing students for primary school. They don’t focus on the extent to which staff in formal pre-school classes are qualified (Finland has 100% degree qualified many up to Masters level!). They don’t report of the size of the tale of educational disadvantage and failure in the respective countries. Finland has a short tale we have a very long tale.

Stories such as this one in The Spectator start off by being political and never rise above the opportunity to take a few cheap shots. The key issue is to work towards quality early childhood provision for all students and perhaps a clearer distinction between day care and more formal ECE. I suspect that currently a disproportionate slice of the ECE resources are going to those whose focus is day care rather than ECE while those who might benefit from ECE are missing out.

I have long thought that adding ECE to primary schools was a possible and desirable way forward. But even if it were the same old sector division would arm themselves for war and protect their territory. It is not only the secondary / tertiary divisions that stop us being internationally competitive!

There are pockets in the community where access is very low indeed, perhaps as low as 40%. Whatever league tables we produce, this is a statistic that is intolerable in a developed, blessed and, in better times, rich country.