Listener: The worst education editorial ever written
By Kelvin Smythe
Listener: The worst education editorial ever written
This posting argues that the worst education editorial ever written appeared in a recent Listener (November 13-19, 2010), and was headed ‘Out of our league’ and sub-headed: ‘Despite National’s promises, New Zealand is still a long way behind Australia’. From the heading and sub-heading what do you think the editorial is about? Wrong. And the reason why you are wrong is the main reason why it is the worst editorial ever written. A subsidiary reason, though, is its technical incompetence.
I accept ‘written’ in this posting’s heading is a redundancy, but writing is also about ring as well as concision. I should also add that ‘worst’ refers to education editorials that should be taken seriously (ruling out the Dominion and the Herald – unless written by Andrew Laxon), and ‘ever’ is an exaggeration too, it really means in recent times.
You see, surprising as it may seem, the editorial is not about New Zealand catching up to Australia in income, but about national standards and demonising teachers.
By pandering to the twitchy denizens of leafy suburbs, the Listener editorialists have got it wrong about national standards and become defensive and unyielding to reason.
I gave up reading the Listener some years ago because the editorial line became smug, white middle-class, and the feature articles in line with this, life style. It did mean sacrificing the excellent review section and Brian Easton, but it also meant I was saved from having to face up to the weekly sense of loss for what we had and what might have been. Yes – I am aware that the Listener kept its readership numbers and the editorials gained an award. That can be accounted for and some respect should be offered to those concerned, but the Listener is, in my view, no longer the mover and shaker it was, nor the editorials as authoritative. Ian Cross may have been right-wing, as the Listener is now, but his editorials always resounded, were always internally logical, and honestly pursued.
The Listener brings a Metro edge to the discussion of education. Metro’s founding editor Warwick Roger was both attracted and repulsed by school education, introducing a brittle, bitter, and cynical tone to the subject. The challenge of primary teachers to the cynical is that primary teachers are so idealistic, so unworldly, so well-meaning, so hard-working, and so successful – that they mount a challenge to that attitude, also to the idea that a group employed by the state can be any of these. Primary school teachers are also a group relatively free to carry out their work (though this freedom is rapidly reducing), which cuts across the Metro view of the world that those employed by the state need to be tightly controlled, while those not, need not to be. How useful to have primary teachers as pegs to hang that cynicism on. How useful to appeal to that generational ritual of mindlessly criticising education. What a cheap way to gain popularity, mainly amongst those now well removed from regular contact with schools.
The editor Pamela Stirling won the 2010 Qantas editorial writer award (indeed, a fellowship to Cambridge) which raises the question about who has been writing the education editorials in recent times. My feeling is that up to now, except for the November editorial, Stirling has been writing them: I think I can recognise her brand of sealed-off certainty, also a technical competence about them lacking in the November one. There is a certain smart-assness to the November editorial, with the writer seeming to savour a wit not apparent to the reader. This points, of course, to Joanne Black.
[I am going to assume throughout this posting that the editorialist is either Stirling or Black, though, as indicated, I plump for Black.]
First a primer in national standards.
The most significant issue in national standards is not about the national standards themselves but the effect of national standards on the curriculum as a whole. There is some debate about whether national standards help below average children in literacy and numeracy, but no debate at all about the narrowing effect national standards have had on the curriculum wherever they have been introduced. Anne Tolley, the bureaucracies, academics, teacher organisations, teachers and principals are all in agreement on this.
But this is where it gets more complicated. Tolley, the bureaucracies, and some academics say they can avoid the road well travelled (as designated by John Hattie) and bring in a form of national standards that doesn’t have this narrowing effect; most academics, and all teacher organisations, and an overwhelming number of teachers and principals say they can’t, and haven’t. And, anyway they say, why take the risk given that there is little evidence that national standards have had much success in improving the literacy and numeracy of below average children, for which they were intended.
An important recognition is that all other countries that have national standards use national testing, but the government, in its attempt to avoid the road well travelled has rejected national testing and come up with a hugely complicated process – a process so complicated that it is now widely recognised in schools as incapable of moderation and producing reliable results, therefore of producing national standards.
The key point about national standards is that you don’t have national standards until you have high stakes’ testing – whether national (as everywhere else) or classroom based (as proposed in New Zealand) – and effective national moderation; when you have them you have national standards, when you don’t, you don’t. If New Zealand has national standards (we are only playing at national standards at the moment, and for the foreseeable future) that means there will be in place high stakes’ testing and effective national moderation, which means we will have the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred everywhere else national standards have been introduced. High stakes’ testing (which requires effective national moderation) means a narrowing of the curriculum; the two go together.
This, I believe, is a reasonably objective account of the national standards’ situation. Yet editors write about national standards without reference to the complexities involved and their highly problematic outcomes.
I suggest three readings for editors, whether Listener or other, John Hattie’s Whirlpool article, which was his last flick of the whip, before he capitulated and scuttled to Australia; my response to it on networkonnet; and the monumental study of national standards by Robin Alexander, the Cambridge Primary Review: I suggest the brief overview of the results, Introducing the Cambridge Primary Review.
Hattie, in his Whirlpool article, details how national standards have had a withering effect on the wider curriculum everywhere they have been tried – the road well travelled – then tries and farcically fails to establish an alternative road.
Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review charms with its reasonableness and humanity. On page 30 of the brief overview, Alexander said ‘submissions and research evidence are agreed … that national tests and tables are narrowing the curriculum, limiting children’s learning and failing to provide sufficiently broad and reliable information about individual children, schools or the primary sector as a whole.’ He recommends some ‘summative pupil assessment at the end of primary, but uncoup(ling) assessment for accountability from assessment for learning’ and a system for reporting ‘on children’s achievement in all areas of their learning with minimum disruption’. What he is recommending here, is where most New Zealand schools already are in their assessment programmes: school-set standards based on standardised tests, well-established tests, and teacher judgement, overseen by internal processes for school moderation – and supplementing this a non-disruptive programme of national testing and sampling supervised by the government. Perhaps, Stirling on her visit to Cambridge might make Alexander’s acquaintance.
National standards lead to a narrowed, formalistic curriculum; a curriculum that has literacy and numeracy as proxies for the curriculum; close bureaucratic, political, and quantitative academic control of what occurs in education; and education being organised for ease of measurement.
An education system without national standards leaves open the possibility of an enriched and wider curriculum; variety in education and shared control; and an education for children of deep emotional engagement based on knowing (and from that deep emotional engagement coming such learning features as divergent and imaginative thinking, problem solving, relating learning to real life, and sincerity of observation and expression). [For a fuller explanation of all this go to www.networkonnet.co.nz then to Latest and click to: ‘Curriculum manifesto: This I know – Here I stand’]
If the Listener wants New Zealand to go to a narrowed curriculum, that is an argument to be made, but first it would need to explain why it does, and given the laughably constructed premise to the editorial, explain why having national standards and a narrowed curriculum, would help reduce the economic and financial gap with Australia. That explanation will be all the harder to sustain given the New Zealand education system already outperforms the Australian one for 20% cheaper. As well, in what promises to be an explanation of considerable interest: the argument for more private schools as a response to state schools rejecting national standards is a strange one because private schools don’t do national standards.
I’m predicting that we’ll never get to national standards, yes, that’s right, never get there, we’ll just end up with bureaucratic ones, entrenched in schools by that motley crew, the education review office – though we will still end up with a narrowed curriculum.
So let us look at the Heath Robinson contraption that has been constructed to avoid the road well travelled.
Look at what we have: national standards that are bland nothings; a hospital pass to the curriculum levels which were never designed for national standards; a miss-out pass over the achievement objectives to the progressions which were never designed for national standards, have no formal status, are open to manifold interpretation, and are progressions for god’s sake, don’t they know what that word means? while national standards are about something fixed; then another hospital pass to standardised tests which are already in full-blown use, though only PAT is reliable; then a hopelessly hopeful pass to other assessment tools (at last count seven of them) which were never designed for national standards and can never serve the purpose; then a million dollar pass to OTJ (Overall Teacher Judgement) which we already have and serves school standards well, but is hopeless for high stakes’ assessment, and will never stand its ground against standardised tests; finally we have backroom ‘technicians’, and their back-mapping – saying, give us the ball, it’s ours anyway – we’ll decide where the goal line is.
This Heath Robinson contraption can never lead to national standards, as they are incapable of effective national moderation, though we will have years of the education propaganda office charting a glorious journey to such a destination, and some schools saying they are using them – they are, however, custom built for arriving at the bureaucratic black-holes so beloved of the review office, sticky finger politicians, and editorialists more intent on punishing teachers than rewarding children.
Congratulations to all.
Let us now look at the narrative of the worst education editorial ever written. Let us see why it is far worse than the lugubrious, backwoodsman-type effort by most editors on education who-know-what-they-like given they had once gone to school. This is a dishonest editorial, in which the editorialist knows what she is doing – that is, using statistics akin to lying, illogic akin to lying, and shallowness akin to lying. This is a mean-spirited editorial aimed at teachers but with children suffering collateral damage. The editorialist knew what she was doing, did it from intent, and gained satisfaction from doing it.
Well, the editorial starts off with the heading and sub-heading noted above. Then for four paragraphs rabbits on about how unlikely it is that New Zealand will catch up to Australia economically by 2025. In the fifth paragraph the editorialist makes her move: she acknowledges that Brash Taskforce has come up with the to be expected right-wing prescription which is unlikely to be acted on by the Key government. Nevertheless, the editorialist sort of comes to the Brash rescue (for her idiosyncratic purposes, as we will see), by saying ‘ … it’s worth examining exactly where … Brash and his team believe the growth points might be.’
The editorialist, and this is crucial to the argument being made in this posting, refers to ‘growth points’ but, other than schooling, no other growth points are subsequently referred to. She’s sighted her hare of choice and is after it hell-for-leather.
The editorialist then provides statistics to show that in Australia the government provides 50% of per-pupil cost and that 35% of all children attend private schools. In New Zealand the per-pupil provision is 30% and attendance is 4%. The Netherland is also plucked out of the OECD table and statistics provided showing both sets of figures considerably higher than even Australia’s. The writer closes her argument with perverse obliquity: ‘It is perhaps worth mentioning that the Netherlands and Australia sit next to each other on the OECD’s per capita income ladder, respectively 16 and 17 places higher than New Zealand.’
‘It is perhaps worth mentioning …’ is a typical touch by the writer who, knowing what she is saying is outrageous, is suggestive about certain ideas, then suddenly goes vague. Why on earth were the figures provided if it wasn’t to suggest there was some credibility as a causal link to why our per capita incomes are below Australia’s? (I assume that the writer in lazy fashion is simply repeating the figures and assertions from the Brash report.) There is, of course, no causal link, there can’t be, because New Zealand school education is better performing and considerably cheaper than Australia school education. Mind you, taking the causal link seriously is to give the editorial argument a credibility it is a million miles from deserving.
The editorialist after lifting the figures and argument from the Brash report – the argument that there is a causal link – with breathtaking audacity, goes vague (as described), saying: ‘That does not, of course, mean there is a causal link.’ What does the ‘of course’ signify? This is weasel territory, and dishonest writing. Why didn’t the editorialist ask some hard questions, for instance: As an economic argument, how does privatising schools in New Zealand match up with Australia’s mineral wealth, access to capital for business development, or the Netherland’s centrally historically position as an entrepot for trade? But, once again even referring to such matters serves to give the editorial argument a credibility it doesn’t deserve.
The rest of the editorial (exactly half) turns on there being a causal link between privatising schools and economic development: a causal link that the editorial writer doesn’t have the courage to say she believes in, but wants to put it out there, sort of, so she can pour bile on New Zealand’s teachers.
The writer sneakily moves to support the idea of a causal link by saying that ‘… New Zealand’s state school system remains a point of pride. That is a nation that rightly values equal opportunity for all.’ In other words, the only possible reason for supporting the state system is because of issues around equality not performance. But her central argument, with all its occasional vagueness, is for more children at private schools, so how compatible is that with her statement that the ‘nation … rightly values equal opportunity for all.’ Clearly she is willing to give that point of rightness away for more children at private schools and their supposed causal link to the economic disparity between Australia and New Zealand.
Now the editorialist moves to national standards, her real point of interest all along. What sophistry; what a tortuous journey from the GNP and OECD to national standards, but at last she feels able to unburden herself on the matter:
‘But if ever parental choice was a relevant topic, it became so this week in the light of the astonishing call by more than 220 primary schools to refuse to implement National Standards … The majority of primary schools have taken the route of trying to be constructive. It is unacceptable, however, that the remaining 10% have instead embarked on political grand-standing that, if continued, will deny parents the information on their children’s progress that will be available in the other 90% of schools.’
Nearly all primary schools are proceeding with national standards, but nearly all schools oppose national standards because the system devised for national standards does not work, does not provide any additional information for teachers, does not provide parents with useful information on children’s progress, is harmful to all children, and has the effect of reducing imagination and creativity in the curriculum. The only way national standards can ‘work’ is to have national testing (as occurs everywhere else that has national standards), but that has been ruled out here because their futility and destructiveness is recognised by everyone in New Zealand including Tolley and Hattie.
The principals, board members, and teachers who have refused the next bureaucratic step of setting targets for national standards are heroes. To have taken such a stand against such tremendous pressure will see them honoured in education history. In the case of principals and teachers their situation is complex: first, while they are not public servants [Joanne/ Pamela don’t seem to understand that], they are, of course, bound by regulations to do certain things, but they are also bound, by professional ethics, not to do anything that harms children – and it is on that basis that they have a moral right, indeed duty, to respond to the higher imperative.
Two important sources have contributed to the decisions of the 220: first, the schools having gone along with the New Zealand national standards’ process, have found it ludicrous, harmful, and useless; second, they have picked up on two central points about national standards as they have occurred elsewhere – the improvement in literacy and numeracy (in the narrow conceptions that are tested) has not been established, while the harm to imagination and creativity in the curriculum has.
Then comes the demonising of teachers. If the editorialist is correct in what I am going to interpret her as saying, what does this say about the morality and integrity of teachers, and what hope for education? As well, how does this lack of morality and integrity match up with our actual knowledge of teachers, of parents’ actual experience of teachers, even the editorialist’s experience of teachers? What does it say about the New Zealand mothers, daughters, nieces, and wives who make up the great bulk of teachers? But, of course, first stereotype them before demonising them.
Ponder the quote concerned: the implication for teachers is clear, but what does she mean? The editorialist writes: ‘It is tempting to conclude the reason some teachers support standards in secondary schools under NCEA but not in primary schools under National Standards is that in primary schools it makes teachers more accountable, whereas in secondary schools it can have the opposite effect.’
I point out to the judges of the Qantas awards, to whom I’m going to submit the editorial concerned as the worst of the year, the weaselly qualifiers: ‘It is tempting’, ‘some teachers’, ‘it can have’. But what on earth does she mean? I can’t make sense of it. However, I do get the implication that teachers are hell bent and self-servingly determined not to be accountable.
Alexander, once again, is the voice of reason. On page 9 he writes we must ‘Move forward from debating whether schools and teachers should be accountable (they should) and concentrate on how.’ [Alexander’s italics.]
Throughout the national standards debate there has been an authoritarian strain to the criticism of teachers, and to the processes followed by the government. For instance, from the rushing through of the legislation without a select committee (the government knew its plans wouldn’t bear scrutiny); to the monstrous statistical and strategically crucial lie in the preface to the legislation; to Tolley’s claim that national standards were needed to identify children with learning difficulties (preposterous); to the Herald demand that teachers ‘learn to obey’; to Tolley’s refusal for so long to publish the results of the survey on parental attitudes to national standards; to impugning the motives of teachers by saying that their opposition to national standards was because they wanted to avoid accountability (the question has never been accountability but carrying it out in a way that does not harm the education of children); to the way the education review office has been set to produce tactical propaganda; to the bullying of schools by the ministry; to the setting up of government research and advisory committees with the Orwellian label of ‘independent’ attached.
This comment on the authoritarian strain is prompted by the editorialist saying boards of trustees who refuse to implement national standards should resign, because they knew it was government policy so ‘it’s puzzling why they put themselves forward for office in recent elections’. Members of boards of trustees put themselves forward for office not to support government policy willy-nilly, in chain-of-command style, but to further the education of children in their school. Clearly, a number of board of trustee members have come to the realisation, as teachers and principals have, that national standards harm children, and found themselves facing the same ethical and moral challenges.
This raises the matter that lies at the heart of increased government and bureaucratic control of education in all western countries. Governments and bureaucracies have moved to dismantle the partnerships they once had with teachers (a partnership more pronounced in New Zealand than elsewhere) to a ‘we know – you must obey’ relationship. The main reason for this dismantling is to put governments in position to use schools as scapegoats for symptoms of economic failure with the additional incentive of increasing government power (always seductive to politicians and bureaucrats), and using education as a means to inculcate the young into the neo-liberal philosophy (mainly through structuring education on factory and market choice lines). The crucial step for bringing the scapegoating into play is the dismissal or downgrading of the effect of poverty as an influence on education (the ideology for this being provided by quantitative academics like Hattie).
In setting up unrealistic expectations of what schools can achieve irrespective of the nature of their populations, schools are being set up for failure: and when this occurs, governments and politicians then declare they know, they know (the ideology for this knowing being provided by quantitative academics like Hattie); that knowing provides the rationale for increased government and bureaucratic control of schools; and that increased control leads to a narrowed curriculum and reduced opportunity for teacher initiative; and that increased government and bureaucratic control leads to increased mechanistic and market practices in schools, resulting in the heightening of even more failure in schools and more scapegoating (remember how Tomorrow’s Schools was going to be the ultimate panacea?).
The central point is that with education’s huge complexity and value-laden social context no one knows: no one knows! That is why to work in the interests of children, the education system needs to embrace variety, tolerance, and genuine partnership.
The editorialist descends further into the trivial, the bizarre, and the shallow.
Take the false analogies and weak thinking in her next paragraph. She asks why should we allow teachers and boards of trustees to refuse to implement government policy when we wouldn’t find it acceptable for police officers ‘who privately believe in the decriminalisation of marijuana to refuse to prosecute growers and dealers of the drug’; for doctors and nurses to decide who they ‘will treat as patients’; for airport security officers to decide ‘to waive security for innocent-looking passengers’?
The answer to the editorialist’s question is one that goes back to Greek tragedy, the struggle for justice, and crises of conscience that are the stuff of history and literature. This is not the place to go into such matters but the moral context for opposing national standards ought to be given some recognition by the thoughtful commentator. Then there is the value-laden nature of education already mentioned. Associated with this are the obvious differences between the complex and highly personal nature of teaching, loco parentis and all that, and policing and border surveillance. (As it happens, there is more discretion in policing and border surveillance than the editorial writer suggests.) And in the case of doctors and nurses, which has a caring element similar to teaching, though not with the young exclusively or as continuously and comprehensively, it would be interesting to change the editorialist’s example slightly. What if the government ordered doctors and nurses to undertake treatment that they knew would harm patients? Would the editorial writer be critical of them in refusing to follow government direction?
Shallowness, thy name is that editorialist.
There is, in the first sentence of the concluding paragraph, a vague reverberation from the editorialist’s demand for published national standards’ results. She begins by saying that ‘We might not like it, but, equally, without an annual measure of gross domestic product per capita, New Zealand would not know where it lies on the OECD table.’
I shouldn’t rise to the bait, I suppose, but I will. This truly ignorant editorial writer does not deserve a break. As it happens, the OECD does produce regular results in literacy and numeracy, and New Zealand does very well, despite New Zealand schools being far worse funded than, say, Australian, and New Zealand doing far better than other school systems with less poverty and a smaller gap between rich and poor. As well, gross domestic product measures all gross domestic product, while literacy and numeracy tests measure just literacy and numeracy, and a narrow version of them, and in focusing on this narrow version of literacy and numeracy, the tests undermine the wider curriculum, including engagement by children, cognitive challenge, and creative and imaginative thinking (if someone was trying to make a causal link to GDP, these qualities, you would think, might be worth some consideration). Also, schools are up to the gunwales with results from standardised tests and other established tests (I can think of seven in regular use), all fully available to boards of trustees, parents, and teachers. As for the system, leaving aside the OECD results, there are other international measures undertaken and, within New Zealand, the National Education Project (NEMP), NZCER, and other contracted research is carried out. Yes – it’s already overdone, already having its dolorous effect.
But now for the dolorous conclusion to this most dolorous of editorials: ‘Presumably’, opines our editorialist, ‘one of the most telling measures would be the number of Kiwis deserting our shores. The good news regarding the OECD table is that although we’re still in the bottom third, we’re again above Spain and Slovenia.’
This dysfunctional editorial has, mercifully come to an end: an editorial in which the only real subject is its own crazy momentum. The editorialist, understandably unable to draw together what she has written, or make sense of it, resorts to a weak smart-ass crack. All very sad, but it may come as a comfort for the editorialist to know that there is an alternative to getting everything brazenly wrong.
The editorialist began by discussing an economic report on why we are so far behind Australia on the OECD ladder, and then picked up on the idea that Australia has more private schools than New Zealand, leading her to conclude that having more private schools in New Zealand was the answer to closing the GNP gap. Somehow national standards are introduced into the argument. Why they have been remains something of a mystery because private schools in New Zealand don’t do national standards, however, the editorialist takes the opportunity let fly at teachers, so that might be it. In the final paragraph the editorialist makes the not inconsiderable jump from 220 schools refusing to implement national standards to the gap in ‘gross domestic product per capita’ between New Zealand and Australia. The editorialist keeps looking for a clincher, pointing out, for instance, that without the OECD table being published we wouldn’t know we were in the economic mire. Is this a clinching argument for national standards? Not likely because the editorialist has overlooked that the OECD does tables for education in which New Zealand punches far above its socio-economic weight. All ends in confusion and farce. The editorialist still couldn’t find what she’d been looking for (that is, a way to get out, with some semblance of dignity, from the miserable enterprise she’d begun): I politely suggest, though, that for closing the per capita gap between New Zealand and Australia she give Miss Smith in Room 1 with her littlies a break.
Primary school education has for a number of decades been ready for release from bureaucracy, especially from the invidious platitudinous, bureaucratic entanglements of the education review office, and the superficial, ideological self-serving superficialities of quantitative academics (for instance, Hattie). Primary school teaching has the organisation, the leaders, and the quality of teachers, to do marvellous things. It is not editors criticising primary education that is of concern, but that editors don’t understand: they don’t understand the complexities of education; they don’t understand that education authorities, left to their own devices, always get it wrong; they don’t understand that there isn’t anyone who knows; they don’t understand that primary school education, like any organisation, thrives on freedom (with protections, of course); they don’t understand that primary schools are chafing against the ties of regimentation. Teachers know editors don’t understand, that they haven’t tried to understand, and that it could be so much better for primary school children if they did.
The editorial concerned, though, is particularly mean-spirited. This posting is a cry from the heart for something better.