National standards: Signposts to a morass
By Kelvin Smythe
National standards: Signposts to a morass - Click here.
National standards: Signposts to a morass
My profound hope is that a good number of schools will say we are not taking up national standards; that we will meet in our own way any positive intentions in the national standards. So I don’t want this look at the NAGS, and the official process associated with them, to be interpreted as an alteration in my stance.
I was about a third of the way through this posting, when I thought I would check my e-mails.
The following e-mail exchange occurred:
National standards: another day another laugh: networkonnet
If you spent time just getting on with the task and less on this nonsense you may be ready to deliver the standards yourself.
In a sense, I know where you’re coming from. The national standards can, indeed, be looked at in a very straightforward way. I am at this moment taking a close look at the national standards to see whether that straightforward view stands up in the NAGS and in the processes slated to accompany them.
The introduction to what I’ve written does, I confess, start with that ‘nonsense’ as you put it, then settles to its task of examining whether an apparent straightforwardness is a reality. In a sense, for me, as I write, it is going to be little journey.
I sense intuitively considerable confusion. I'll be interested to see whether that is borne out on closer examination.
Much of my nonsense comes from a particular view of the curriculum and the value it puts on teacher knowledge and teachers’ ability to generate knowledge as circumstances change. Forty years of visiting classrooms in an official capacity has led me to have great respect for teacher knowledge, and great suspicion of the government’s ability to get curriculum change right.
There should be plenty of room for different views of the curriculum and the free exchange of ideas and the opportunity to act on them (within reason, of course) – which is the essence of a democratic society.
I'm sure I would have seen your likely view of the curriculum in action many times. I have come to respect the importance of variety in curriculum approaches. What I profoundly disagree with, is the imposition of one curriculum direction. In a way, it is that variety – still a characteristic of New Zealand primary schools – which separates us from the much better funded American system, but much less successful.
Usually, such a letter as yours is accompanied by a request for me to desist from sending posting alerts. That may well come, but in the meantime, nice to be communicating with you.
Now to return to the posting:
The government needed national standards because it needed a populist education policy which made it seem it was doing something for school education, but at little expense. The policy needed to scapegoat schools to distract attention from socio-economic influences on learning performance (so the government wouldn’t have to address that issue with any seriousness), to buy off the willingly gullible Maori Party with beads and baubles, and to prepare the way for further cost-saving populist policies and bureaucratic incursions into classrooms like performance pay.
Leaving aside the populist basis to national standards, the government has variously said the policy was to help the 20% of struggling learners, to identify bad teachers, to identify bad schools, to put competitive pressure on teachers to ‘pull their socks up’.
Most quantitative academics, whose ideology provides the rationale for national standards, have either actively encouraged national standards or at least gone along with them.
Teachers, who have a record of responding well to government policies which promise to be of benefit to children, recognised the standards’ policy for what it was, a political stunt, and have resisted it. The 2007 education review office report said over 80% of schools were doing well in gathering information on literacy and numeracy, and in using that information in children’s learning (a little better in literacy than in numeracy); over 90% were able to demonstrate effectively their students’ achievements. The more politically-nuanced 2009 report had very similar figures. In interpreting these figures it has to be remembered that the review office mainly gains its figures by looking at school policy processes functioning outside classrooms rather than how things are actually happening in them. (This, though, can cut both ways in establishing the credibility of the results.) But the main point I want to make is that the figures are for school numbers regardless of size. That means that with the usually more informal processes of smaller schools likely to be the focus of the review office’s disapproval, the number of children ‘benefiting’ from gathering and use of literacy and numeracy information would, in reality, have been significantly higher.
What are national standards?
As against standards which are developed by the school, national standards are standards imposed through legislation by the government.
Does legislation imposing national standards on schools, in law, mean inter-school moderation for comparability is also imposed?
In referring to standards, the NAGS refer to national which implies a responsibility for schools to have processes for comparability, but comparability or inter-school moderation is not referred to directly, suggesting that, as far as the NAGS are concerned, the school retains substantial control of the process. Because a fair amount of judging children’s performances is done in the process of teaching and learning, a fair amount of discretion for carrying out comparability will be owned by the school. In reality, though, inter-school moderation will become a significant and intense issue. I suspect teams will be formed, a combination of review officers and co-opted outsiders, to establish and impose moderation processes decided on by the bureaucracies. (If and when this happens, it should be challenged legally by the NZEI.)
How likely is it that national standards will be successful in improving literacy and numeracy?
For a number of reasons, there is little chance that national standards will work successfully. Just two of those reasons will be referred to here. First, standards, mainly in the form of indicators, are presently a notable and successful part of primary school functioning. Review office numbers confirm this. But national standards, because of the government’s expectations for their role, are high stakes. These high stakes will, inevitably, distort national standards’ results (also, much more unfortunately, they will have a flow-on distorting effect on current classroom practice).
Second, and this will be the focus of part 2 of this series, the official national standards’ process of relating children’s learning to the national standards via the curriculum levels in the national curriculum, will founder. The bureaucracies and ‘independent’ researchers will try to disguise this, suggesting increasingly complex and desperate manoeuvres as solutions, and blaming schools but, eventually, to no avail. National standards are indefinable; curriculum levels as part of national standards incalculable – so credible comparability and effective inter-school moderation impossible.
What are the high stakes involved?
The government has said an additional purpose of national standards is to apply pressure on schools by using them to identify bad teachers and schools. In this respect, the review office will give different statuses to schools on the basis of national standards’ results – schools will put on different rotations for reviews, effectively placing schools on a below standard, on standard, and above standard public footing.
What, specifically, are national standards?
National standards are the shaded bits in the national standards’ publications.
For instance, for writing: ‘By the end of year 4, students will read, respond to, and think critically about texts in order to meet the writing demands of the New Zealand Curriculum at level 2. Students will use their writing to think about, record, and communicate experiences, ideas, and information to meet specific learning purposes across the curriculum.’
Diagrammatically, the writers for the mathematics’ national standards try to sneak in more detail into their standards, but the national standard for year 4 is:
‘By the end of year 4, students will be achieving at level 2 in the mathematics and statistics learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum.’
National standards are nothing more than this list of shaded statements in the national standards’ publications.
Already, though, an inconsistency has appeared: the mathematics’ national standard states that ‘students will be achieving at level 2 – the writing standard makes no such definitive claim. The writing standard is more an aspiration than a standard. But the mathematics’ national standard defies logic: not all ‘students will be achieving at level 2’ by the ‘end of year 4’, some will be below it, some exceeding it.
For legal purposes everything else except the NAGS and the New Zealand Curriculum should be disregarded, and for the purposes of this consideration everything else but the NAGS and the New Zealand Curriculum are disregarded. The wild card in all this, though, are the legal rights the education review office has in regard to the NAGS, and their likely attempts to impose their interpretations.
The contestation over national standards, I predict, will not be so much with the NAGS, but the increased policing and policy-interpreting role of the review office.
As a check at this stage of the questioning, what do you think will be some likely outcomes of the national standards’ process?
In the lead-up to the first set of results, implementation courses will be undertaken with increasing desperation. My advice is to shun them, but if you attend you will find they will be highly confusing, and worse than a waste of time. Many hours will be spent telling you how to suck eggs, and trying to induce you to incorporate into your national standards’ processes, complex and redundant amounts of information from the national standards’ publications, the progressions, material from the ministry, and declarations from the minister, especially about the role of the review office. It will be largely a case of those who don’t know leading those who don’t want to.
Quantitative academics will have two responses: one group will work to change and make more complex the implementation courses. Another group, like the Hattie offshoots, will more-or-less wash his hands of the ministry process and set up an alternative national standards’ process based on standardised tests.
The minister will keep repeating that she knows there are problems, that the ministry is forming this or that independent committee, or consulting this or that independent advisory group. Meanwhile, the flow of ministry memos will become a torrent. Remember, though, these have no legal basis. The review office, on the other hand, has its own set of legal rights, and will be used to try to plug the holes in the legislation and processes.
Because it is drawn from existing teaching practice and works somewhat independently of the shifting sands of the national curriculum levels, one part of the national standards will work better than other parts; that better part is the first three years of the reading national standards which is based on the Ready to Read colour wheel. The unfortunate thing is that this wheel, around which children’s reading has been successfully rotating for many years, will become a victim of the distortionary effects of high stakes’ testing.
When the first results are totted up in a couple of years, something remarkable will be found to have occurred: the 20% for which this education episode was particularly designed to help, that is children who are at serious risk of not achieving, will have reduced to below 15%. The wonder of national standards? In reality, this ‘improvement’ will be due to the titivating effect of judgements made in high stakes’ contexts, and apples not being compared with apples (national standards work on categorising children; standardised tests on putting them into hypothetical curves.)
One response to all this will be pressure from the bureaucracies and some quantitative academics to have more standardised tests and greater reliance on them. Standardised tests will be promoted as a way of keeping a check on teachers and their judgements. The promotion of standardised tests, and the beguiling certainty of their numbers, should be sturdily resisted. Standardised testing brings its own set of biases. Standardised tests are only standardised to themselves (and some like asTTle aren’t even that) and in mysterious ways. Principals are well aware of the tests to dial down that are easier, or lend themselves to what the school lends itself to. All standardised tests have measurement errors of various kinds, and they assume a common set of curriculum and learning priorities in what they test and measure. They stretch children out onto a hypothetical ‘normal curve’, and children from low socio-economic strata are highly over-represented in lower deviations. In other words, use standardised tests sparingly and interpret them sceptically.
What publications are referred to in the NAGS?
The New Zealand Curriculum or Te Marautanga o Aotearoa.
What about national standards?
No publication is referred to.
Which NAG is the national standards’ one?
How does this NAG set up and formalise the process for national standards?
It doesn’t in a direct way, nor does a further reference to national standards in the NAGS (NAG 2). It’s all rather strange. First, it needs to be stated that the NAGS, as a whole, are a repetitive, illogical hotchpotch demonstrating what a mess we have got ourselves into administratively – but that is an issue for another posting. In the matter of national standards, the process works from fairly bland references in the NAGS, to bland expressions of the national standards, to the national curriculum levels, to the profusion of jargon-laden achievement objectives. And it is these achievement objectives that are the real national standards, that are supposed to define the national standards, and on which moderation is supposed to be attempted, and on which national standards will founder.
Yes, the requirement to respond to national standards is in the NAGS, but no direct legal basis provided for the process. The national curriculum is mentioned in the NAGS, but the national curriculum makes no mention of national standards for the obvious reason, they were then only a twinkle in the eyes of Bill English, John Key, and John Hattie.
The process needs a proper legal basis because the process will be subject to the scrutiny of the review office which has legal rights in schools, and will try to bring in all kinds of interpretations to right the sinking ship.
To find the legal basis for the process you need to go to the national standards themselves in which they state, for instance, that ‘after three years at school, students will create texts in order to meet the writing demands of the New Zealand curriculum as they work towards level 2.’ The ministry publications in which the national standards appear are not given legal basis in the NAGS (and correctly so).
In the case of the national standards’ statements for the first three years of reading, there is no mention at all in the national curriculum to the Ready to Read colour wheel. National standards have a legal basis in the NAGS, but the process which the ministry has outlined as being official may not have a legal basis, and if it does, it is most unsatisfactory in any sense, legal or practical.
As far as the sharp parts of national standards are concerned (from a teacher’s point-of-view) what do the NAGS have to say?
There is only one: national standards must be used as the measure to determine the ‘the numbers and proportions of students at, above, below or well below the standards’ and this should be in the ‘board’s annual report’.
This part of the NAG is the key to the government agenda to identify ‘bad’ schools and teachers, allow league tables, and get teachers ‘to pull up their socks’.
What does it say about reporting to parents? Surely, that is a sharp part?
No it’s a pussycat. Schools, on the basis of what’s in the NAG, will probably have to change nothing.
NAG 2A says schools should ‘report to students and their parents on the student’s progress and achievement in relation to National Standards. Reporting to parents in plain language in writing must be at least twice a year.’
What do you think of this statement?
It says that principals and teachers must report ‘to students and their parents on the student’s progress and achievement in relation to National Standards.’ In the second sentence it goes on to say that ‘reporting to parents’ must be ‘in plain language’ and at least twice a year’. It is not clear how the first sentence relates to the second. According to the first sentence, parents and students must receive a report on student performance in relation to national standards, but it is not clear how that should be done for students. (Remember, we can be referring to students as young as five.) What form should the reporting to students take? Or are they somehow included in the reporting to parents in plain language? This is symptomatic of the confused and strange way national standards have been introduced.
Is there any reference to Plunket graphs, providing advice to parents on how they could help at home, or children being categorised in some way?
But haven’t these been much touted by the minister and government?
Is that the end of the matter, then?
No, just the beginning; the nasty bits will be brought in by regulation.
What else is in the national standards’ NAG?
This brings us to the crux of why national standards are a morass. The NAGS are a repetitive mess as a whole; the specific national standards’ part of the NAGS, though, is quite straightforward, with the bite being in the requirement to allocate children into learning categories (which is the essence of national standards). But that was to be expected, and is not the crux of why national standards won’t work, though an important part of it.
The NAGS, in a deceptively bland way, begin a process which directs attention to the national standards (the shaded bits) which are also deceptively bland, and not really national standards. The NAG references to the national standards, and the national standards themselves, should be seen as signposts to an education confusion of considerable proportions. The NAGS and the national standards lead us to the national curriculum levels which lead us to a profusion of jargon-laden, redundant education objectives which purport to be part of curriculum level progressions but are simply fantastical notions in the minds of curriculum developers.
I am by no means a Johnny-come-lately in criticising these atomised education objectives and the claims for them to be part of learning progressions. I’ve been fiercely criticising these for years through Developmental Network Magazine and networkonnet. And now we have come to this.
Some schools may say they are already using these education objectives as the basis for say, indicators, for evaluating and reporting, that they have reworked them in association with other publications, and don’t anticipate any difficulties in transferring their practices across to national standards. But there is a world of difference between school-based indicators and national standards. And that world of difference comes from national standards’ requirement for moderation on an inter-school basis, the requirement to categorise children, the high stakes’ contexts that will ensue, the degree of bureaucratic and academic interference involved, and having to relate information gained about children’s learning to national curriculum levels rather than year levels.
In the second and final part of this series, the broken connections and tangle to do with the statements of national standards, the curriculum levels, the year levels, the curriculum achievement objectives, and the NAGS.