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Tag: national standards

Talk-ED: Rdg btwn lines – Have we lost the plot?


Even if the stories in the media based on the National Standards data are wildly astray, even if the National Standards themselves might be flawed, even if a-whole-host-of-other-reasons- and-excuses, there is still good cause for concern about the lag in the results between writing skills and reading skills and the growing gap between girls and boys.

For a child that can speak, reading should come easily. Once the penny drops that those marked on the page are representation of something he or she already knows – words – then progress should follow. Once a child realises that those stories are about him or her and the world they live in then it quickly follows that the developing reader seeks the company of others through print and in worlds beyond their own.

So how does this process, mastered by so many, go astray? One answer has to be over issues of quantity. Some children read more than others, are read to more than others, receive books as presents more than others, snuggle up to Mum or Dad in an evening for a warm read more than others. They put in the hours and are greatly advantaged. Even though this all happens out of the reach of a teacher or a school, they come to the classroom task fitter and better prepared.

Then there are the considerations of relevance of material and so on. Reading is an inside out process in which children get meaning from print by bringing meaning to it. If the increasing diversity of students is not matched by diversity in the materials being used there will be an impact on progress. But schools are on to this.

So why the lag in the writing results? Well, it is obvious that you learn to read by reading but a little less obvious that you learn to write, no, not by writing but by reading. If reading development slows, writing development slows even more.

Comments following the stories in the press were initially on the impact of texting on language development and especially reading and writing. This was, I would suggest, well off the mark. Text language is a sophisticated use of language and requires sound reading skills to “de-code” the truncated forms of words. Even in reading conventional texts, readers get more clues from the skyline of the consonants than they do from the shape of the vowels. If texting impacts negatively on language development then it should impact much more widely and clearly across the whole cohort and yet it seems not to do so.

Now, what is this with the boys? This data makes sense only in relation to historical trends for there has always been a gap between boys and girls that flattens out over time. Boys start a little more slowly but do catch up. Has this gap increased? It is hard to tell from just one instrument.

So what would be the challenge posed by these media stories? Well, instead of indignation the education community could respond by taking a good look at the picture and assessing a little more closely any messages that are in it. I would guess that there is a concern about reading and writing – who cares about how large it is in national terms, the impact is at the level of each and every child for there has not been delivered to a school ready to learn these things (with the exception of the rare occasions when a child who cannot progress into uses of the printed word). The access to early childhood education could be a factor but one which primary schools have to deal with.

I wonder whether enough time is spent on teaching actual handwriting. The self-discovery of a version of printing seems to me to leave too many with a slow and laborious means of writing. On the other side of that question is the matter of using technological devices apart from a keyboard, can the touch screen be used effectively for writing without the skills of using a keyboard effectively – touching the letters one by one in the style of a hen eating grain does not constitute the skills of the touch-typist.

There is all that talk after Gladwell about 10,000 hours being important to really reach the highest level of proficiency in a skill. New Zealand students spend about 8,000 hours at school between the ages of 5 and 14 so clearly what happens outside of school is critical. Harnessing the community in the battle for proficient readers and writers will be critical. But first there has to be a clear emphasis on those areas.

Perhaps the curriculum now needs to be clearer in its expectations in these areas. Immediately I hear a great shout that this would be exactly what had been pointed out as the key danger of national standards – they would influence the curriculum. Well, if the curriculum is currently not producing readers and writers that would be a jolly good thing!

Finally, it is not enough simply to have only proficient readers and writers. As Vygotsky put it – “ideas are not merely expressed in words but come into being through them.” If we want our community to be nourished by elegant ideas then we need to have a supply of elegant readers and writers, those who use the language for good purposes and in ways that can inspire, challenge, clarify, argue, defend, express emotions, paint pictures, guide others and wallow in delight, mischief, light heartedness and powerful use of powerful words.

Reading and writing are much more than merely behaviours on a list is some educational statement, they are about the quality of our lives.



Talk-ED: Thwarting the belief in freedom of information

Stuart Middleton
19 June 2012


The Prime Minister thinks it a good idea that parents have more information about the schools their sons and daughters go to. Who could argue against this? It seems reasonable, in fact it is almost a right I might have thought.

But the trouble is that while each of us individually is beyond reproach in the use of information, we don’t trust the other bloke. Of course they are going to misuse it. Of course they are going to use it for purposes that are not proper. Worse, the other bloke is going to construct a league table!

What added to the fire on this occasion was that the comments from the PM came  on top of some discussion with decile rates – the ultimate league table if ever I saw one. Decile ratings drive the quest for houses in Auckland and parents ascribe the power of holy writ to  them. There is no room for a reasoned discussion – high decile rating good, low decile rating bad. And this is whipped up even more by the exhortations of the real estate industry.

So who is kidding who in the discussion about decile ratings and information about school performance?

Decile ratings were devised to help schools – we would come up with a formula that assessed the factors that impact on the degree of difficulty in teaching and learning and which depress the differences made explicit by talk that compares rich and poor, black and white,  leafy suburb and suburb under the power pylons, and so on. I remember thinking at the time that this was real progress. At last a measure that reflected the accumulative nature of disadvantage.I also recall the promises that such a formula would allow funding to be allocated fairer.

But it didn’t take long before I started to have doubts. The school of which I was Principal at the time was denied access to a programme and membership of what became the AimHi Group, because “it was Decile 2”! My best efforts to show that in fact the school roll of about 1,300 could be clearly divided into a Decile 1 school that was as large as several of the smaller schools in the programme and a Decile 4 school. The Fallacy of the Decile was exposed. At the very top of the decile scale, a school is as homogenous as its decile rating would suggest. At the bottom it is as evenly disadvantaged as the rating is meant to show.

But in between is something of a dog’s breakfast. The rating is simply the blended assumption of what the school would be like if everyone who went to it was the same. Those schools in the middle have a huge range of students in them that is not captured in the “think of a number between 1 and 10 game.

But let’s put the issue of the decile rating to one side and get back to the issue of information. Of course information about the schools should be available and it should be on some basis that looks objective. Wait, is that possible?

The Government has faith in the National Standards – the teacher organisations do not. The truth will as always be somewhere in the middle. the information will be as good and as accurate as the school makes it so it is in their interest to do a good job that is fair to the students and reflects the good work being done in the school.

In Australia the government set up the website for members of the public to get a snapshot of the schools. I took a look at it and found it to be helpful. It seems fair and I certainly got a good feel for the school that the grandchildren go to. I wouldn’t say that it represented a threat to anyone.

For the fact is that middle class parents will continue to compare schools in making choices about where their little ones will go. The genie is out of the bottle on that one. And generally the schools that do well out of it love it. Let’s be honest about it. They are flattered that so many scramble to get through the gates and they dine out on it at the drop of the hat.

It is not what others will do with information about schools that should worry us. It is what we do to ourselves and each other. And there could be protections in law about using information to construct league tables – I think that New South Wales has such restrictions.

But it is the league tables in the minds and hearts that does the damage.

Meanwhile, if the information is there and tells us that some schools are struggling and in some cases might be able to be expected to do better, why aren’t we using it to address the issues?


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Talk-ED: The right of the community to know

Stuart Middleton
2 May 2011

School holidays over and its back to the normal pattern. I had the chance to attend for varying lengths of time a few conferences over the past two weeks both here in NZ and in Australia.

The period has seen the publishing of NCEA results in New Zealand newspapers and despite dire predictions, civilisation once again did not come to an end. In fact I thought the response relatively muted with an almost helpful editorial in the NZ Herald.

It is still a problem that the reporting of these results is based on the percentage of students in a Year group who succeed in the anticipated “correct” NCEA level for that year. There is no requirement for perhaps even sense in relating Year 11 to NCEA Level 1,Year 12 to Level 2 and so on. The lockstep nature of this habit makes it difficult to actually know what the success is for a cohort. For instance, if 70% of a Year 11 group succeed in getting NCEA Level 1 and are then allowed to proceed to Level 2 in Year 12 and the reported success rate is 75%, the actual success rate in terms of the cohort coming through is at 56%.

But it must be inevitable that there is study at multiple levels and many students get their Level 1 in their Year 12 or even Year 13. How is this communicated?

So in reality the figures might be a pretty poor representation of what is happening with lower decile schools probably being shown as succeeding at levels that are lower than their actual achievement. Higher decile schools are probably about right. The NZ Herald editorial suggests that funding is the only way to lessen the gap between high and low decile schools. It is probably the case that the advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is still at about 20%.

The matter of National Standards continued to get attention with a “boycott” by some primary schools. The actual number of the boycott group was a little hard to judge from reports. If every principal at that particular conference vote for the boycott then it suggests that perhaps as many as perhaps 30% of primary schools will not be reporting to the National Standards. But it is hard to tell from the reports. It might have been a small majority (and therefore only 15% of schools). It seems as if we have real issues in telling an accurate story. Many parents that I meet are very happy that their childrens’ schools are simply getting on with the job and they appreciate the additional information they are getting.

At the heart of anxieties about NCEA reporting and the National Standards is a view that it could all be damaging to schools when they are compared with each other, if they are compared with each other.

This too is the concern in Australia and a report in last Saturday’s The Australian drew my attention with a headline TEST CHEATS BLOCK THE GOALS OF EDUCATION REFORM. The reform referred to is the National Assessment Programme for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and its associated MySchool website, a government initiative that puts all the information about a school on a website and this includes the latest NAPLAN results. But who are the cheats? There is quite a list of students who are valid omissions from the tests but schools are going beyond this to include students who might lower the reported success rate of the school. Apparently it is common. The cheats are those who lead school and instruct certain parents to keep their children at home on certain days thus removing them from that testing regime that is the NAPLAN. Apparently there is also a developing practice of preparing students for the tests – another form of cheating it is claimed. Some schools are circulating practice papers with exemplar answers.

Thank goodness that New Zealand went down a reporting road rather than a testing road, leaving the testing to the teachers and the school working in the context of their programme.

It is a mockery of professional standards when education is frustrated in reporting to the community on its performance by any lack of openness and certainly by any deliberate attempt to frustrate the system.  Those who wish not to take part would be better, rather than merely protesting, to suggest other and even better ways of getting information to the community.

Parents and caregivers want to know what is happening. Indeed it is their right.

For more information and to register visit:   or contact   [email protected]



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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.


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.


ThinkEd: Here we go again!

Stuart Middleton
17 January 2010

New Year and a new start? Well perhaps not. Taking the opportunity to have a leisurely read of the Sunday papers I was interested to see whether the New Year would bring a fresh perspective on education. A positive one which while celebrating our successes kept its feet on the ground when it came to commentary on the “could do better” areas.

It wasn’t a promising start with NCEA and National Standards the key headlines – I think that educational journalists see these topics as a soap opera and even if you have missed a few episodes there is still a good story in them.

This time it is the news that Auckland Grammar School will not offer NCEA to Year 11 students this coming year in order to direct them toward the Cambridge Examinations in Years 12 and 13. I suspect that the situation is not as simple as this as there were suggestions that some students might be able to do NCEA and some subjects would follow the NCEA assessment regime. The truth is usually in the middle.

I believe strongly in the view that schools should be able to set their own pathways and have long lamented the lack of exploitation of the opportunities to do this within the New Zealand framework of the National Education Guidelines and the New Zealand Curriculum. But there is another matter here – it is that offering NCEA is a legal requirement of the government and it certainly does create an issue if this is not done.

It could be that the school “offers” NCEA but counsels and advises strongly against it. It could be that the claimed benefits of external examinations have strong appeal to the parents of this group of students. It could be… You see it won’t be a matter of the letter of the law but rather a higher issue of what is best for young people.

The real test will be whether the option of NCEA is actually there and able to be taken up when it is the best option for students. We are told that two other schools might join Grammar in this approach to NCEA.

It is a similar issue with National Standards. It is a requirement of the government that they be introduced. But apparently 300 schools are dragging the chain on this one. But the monitoring report is optimistic telling us that “most principals believe information from National Standards will add value to the processes schools use for reporting to families, students and Boards, making informed decisions about how to improve student achievement, and identifying teachers’ professional development needs. While how much value principals believe National Standards will add to each of these processes varies, only a small proportion of principals believe information from National Standards will be very valuable.” This NZCER work reflects promising trends.

So the situation is not all that grim. Those of us who have had the chance to see what is happening in other English speaking education systems feel grateful that the NZ government has opted for a reporting orientation in the standards rather than a testing orientation. Communicating with the community of parents and caregivers on matters related to progress is a challenge to all education systems, the New Zealand approach has the potential to develop a confidence among parents and caregivers that the information they are being given will be understandable and helpful.

In any major change in education there is a period of uncertainty as we move away from the old way of working (or not working in some instances) to a new way of working. That uncertainty is an important reflection of the process of schools making decisions about what suits them best and what is most appropriate to their communities. Opposition to change is at one end of a spectrum that has willingness to change and optimism about the change at the other.

You would have to say that after the first year of a three year implementation, the National Standards are starting to bed in well. The real pity of the reported opposition is its emphasis on opposition rather than professional contribution to developing the standards in ways that reflect the special needs of the communities of New Zealand, the relationship of schools to them and the excellent skills of teacher’s in schools.

So, let’s hope that the New Year is not simply a re-hash of the old. There are 2,560 schools in New Zealand and if the unwillingness is reflected by the three secondary schools and the 300 primary schools, then both NCEA and National Standards developments are going very well indeed.

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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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Curves in the wrong places

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.38, October 2, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

Back in 2004 I wrote about the impact of The Plunket Chart on the community’s understanding of educational assessment and evaluation (see Education Review, Bell Curve Babies, 18 February 2004). I suggested that the obsession of the New Zealand community with norm-referenced assessment was in part due to the influence of that chart on successive generations of New Zealanders as it fed into people, along with mother’s milk and supplements bought from the Rawleighs man, a belief that such reporting could be applied to all aspects of human performance.

I received in response, a very thoughtful letter from a senior Plunket person who had read the piece in good humour and assured me that the uses of The Plunket Chart were now tempered with an understanding of its limitations.  I had been a little less than charitable towards The Plunket Chart on two grounds. My early life was lived in the shadow of very poor performance on the chart. Not only was I below that dark line of normality, I was also outside the shaded area of acceptability.

Actually the Plunket uses of such reporting were a proper use of such an approach. Physical characteristics can properly be reported using means and standard deviations which conform to the humped shape we have come to know as the Bell Curve.

I was shocked however to open the Sunday newspaper to be greeted with the headline “Plunket-style tables for school reports” above an article that exclusively reveals the exciting news that charts in the style of the Plunket chart are being developed to report on the National Standards being promoted in this country and which are to be publicly reported by schools in 2012.

Now let’s clear the decks of one thing – I favour clear statements of learning targets for students at different ages and anything that will allow a child’s progress to be better communicated to parents and caregivers.

But can a Plunket style chart shake off the distortions of the irrelevant norm-referenced basis of its progenitor? An educational standard is in no way similar to the average weight or height of a growing baby. If educational standards were to be set on the same principles as those which generate a mean or an average then they would not in any sense be standards – they would be simply statements of where the average performance is – and that could be good, bad or indifferent. If there is any commitment in the introduction of National Standards to lifting the performance of the education system then they must certainly not be current mean performance.

The example exclusively revealed in the newspaper imports so many of the features of The Plunket Chart that one wonders whether the “good idea” of using it as a model for the national standards reporting hasn’t overtaken a clear examination of what is being reported. The rising dotted line of progress suggests that there is a connection between living longer and meeting the standards. The shaded areas getting incrementally wider for “just below” and “well below” make no sense and have no statistical validity in the way The Plunket Chart has. The obvious way to report standards is to show that the standard is just that and a child’s performance can then be described in terms of its relationship to that standard. So the successive standards could and perhaps even should be reported as a straight line with the child’s achievement relative to that charted simply above, on or below the standard. There are many ways this could be done.

The principle that is paramount in reporting the standard is that this is a report on each and every individual student, not on groups of students. Inevitably, someone somewhere will be collating the information and producing descriptions that will have little validity that this group (i.e. school) is better than that group (i.e. some other school). What parents need to know is how their chjild is performing in relation to the standards.

Now all of this will get a bit tricky if the standards are taken as group measures. Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame has recently challenged us to think about performance differently. His book, The Outliers, list a series of factors that impact on performance.

He rates the following as key influences on performance – practice (10,000 hours is critical), timing (being born early in the year is helpful), upbringing (of course), cultural legacy (big challenges here for the system) and lucky opportunities (some are in the right place). So the national standards and the reporting on them might be only part of a complex jigsaw of high performance. Success in education is the critical foundation so the reporting should be rigorous, clear, and about individual progress.

Another troubling element of the proposed chart is the suggestion in its design that the standards are reported on the basis of Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, and so on. It should be important for us to report on the standards expected at critical transition points (age 5 for entering school, age 11/Year 6 for the transition to intermediate school, age 13/Year 8 for the transition to secondary school and at age 15/Year 10 for the transition into the senior secondary school or into other pathways.

Standards at these key points are crucial and no amount of reporting on the points in between will provide comfort for students who know that their little ones are simply not prepared for the transitions. No other years are as im[portant as the ones in which key transitions are expected of the students.

Accepting that the Plunket Chart is a good model for reporting educational standards would be on a par with accepting that passing the test for a drivers licence is evidence of both the skill and intellect required to drive a motor vehicle, or that turning 18 allows the community to relax knowing that the skills for safe use of alcohol is assured.

We can do better than this

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Standards of debate

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.26, 10 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

In 1996 I spoke about standards at a teacher education conference in Dunedin. In an effort to inject a little humour into my presentation I started out by saying:

“When asked what he thought about Western Civilisation, Gandhi replied that he thought it would be a good idea. I feel much the same way when asked what I think about standards – of course they are a good idea….”

The audience laughed recognising it as a whimsical way of providing a context – who would be against standards? That is not the question.

This seemingly harmless event provoked outrage in a 1997 report written for the Education Forum by Geoffrey Partington on teacher education. He thundered on about how my little whimsy demonstrated the extent to which teacher educators in New Zealand had embraced double standards.

“Had Middleton substituted ‘Maori’ for ‘Western what a reaction that would have received! Instead of roars of appreciative laughter, there would have been angry cries about racism, followed perhaps by demands for his dismissal.”

He went on to chide me for one of those little slips that even I make taking comfort from Somerset Maugham’s view that only the mediocre are always at their best. I had quoted G K Chesterton but it ended up in the paper as G K Chesterman. Oh dear! “Middleton’s own depth in Western Civilisation was indicated by his reference to one ‘G K Chesterman’ ” claimed Partington.

This was all picked up with enthusiasm by Martin Hames in his 2002 book The Crisis in New Zealand Schools, who reported all the above and went on to say “It may seem amazing that ‘educated’ people who owe their very affluence, freedom and security to Western civilisation, should be so ignorant as to the origins of those things as to denigrate the very civilisation that produced them. It may seem shocking that many such people are part of our educational establishment, but it is true nevertheless.”

I don’t mind being called ignorant, uncivilised, even ‘educated’ in inverted commas, but I do object to be labelled “part of the education establishment”!

It was about this time that C K Stead (Metro, 1997) referred to “the framers and defenders of this document [i.e. the then recently released English Syllabus] – the Roger Robinsons, the Stuart Middletons,…..” I along with Roger had become a class of people, a type of nasty.

I dwell on this a little to illustrate the point that a real issue that we have discussing education issues in New Zealand is our wanting to personalise the attacks. Or if real personal attacks are not possible, then attacking the character-type is the next best option. People are characterised as something like: 

  • the radical change merchant;
  • the union one;
  • he / she of political persuasion;
  • leader of conservative school;
  • leader of non-conservative school;
  • academic;
  • community spokesperson on everything;
  • the nasty……..

 Having got the character type sorted out, the argument can unfold in choreographed tedium. Take the recent discussions / arguments about national standards.

It would be a brave person who declared a complete opposition to standards. It is therefore necessary to be both in favour of standards and against the standards proposed.

The issue is not a difficult one. Do parents want to know how good the local school is in providing an education for their children? Yes. Does the community at large have a right to know that their money spent on education is being well-spent? Yes. Is an education system that is a high-performance one that is committed to standards? Yes.

So, national standards are needed. That then raises the question of how they should be designed, implemented, monitored and reported. I will leave the first three of those – design, implementation and monitoring to officials, experts and schools to sort out. And I presume they can because most of the discussion is not about those elements, it is clearly focussed on the reporting.

Some of the arguments about “league tables” are spurious. We like league tables when they apply to sport, to consumer goods, to movies and to a whole variety of things. We even tolerate them in education when the universities lust after whichever international league tables appear to advantage their position in the market.

So why are schools so worried? It gets back to the education types. The radical change merchant has a bob each way – they might bring about change but then again they might not. The union one rightly feels that spurious distinctions will be made about teacher quality and that complex difference between schools will be glossed over. Politicians always like them because generally speaking the community supports standards. The leader of a conservative school will like them backing themselves to do well while leader of non-conservative school will fear that the types of standards developed will punish them. And so on.

In other words the discussion can be scripted in advance and little additional light gets thrown on it as the debate continues. Standards are critically important and if the profession doesn’t grapple with it others will – the difference between developing and introducing them and having them imposed I would have thought.

But standards are a vexed issue throughout society. This is seen in the recent sacking of Lothario Worth. John Kay sacked him because he had standards. The media continue to press him to talk about it because they have few standards and are driven by the prurient desire to give their readers a second-hand, low-grade pornographic read. Of course they dress all this up as a matter of high principle.

And so do we when we talk about league tables. It is not what they contain as much as how they will be used. Ted Wragg wrote about such tables and their promotion by the Government of the day in the early 1990’s in the UK in his inimitable satirical style.

“A Department of Education spokesman described the league tables as a triumph for the Government’s information revolution. ‘This is a triumph for the Government’s information revolution,’ said Mr Henry Farnes-Barnes (59) from a prepared statement.

Asked why Swinesville girls’ secondary modern school had come top of the GCSE league table, when it had in fact been closed down in 1967, Mr Farnes-Barnes said that it was the view of ministers that good schools never die.”

Nor will the propensity of many in the education system to make use of the very worst features of league tables to their own advantage. That is why so many argue against them. It is not the league tables but the use we make of them.

Having said that, I do remain worried about the position on the league tables of my beloved Warriors.

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