I was there (undercover) - NS Trainers Conference Feb 9-11, 2010
By Kelvin Smythe
I was there (undercover) - NS Trainers Conference Feb 9-11, 2010 - Click here.
I was there (undercover) – NS National Trainers Conference Feb 9-11, 2010
One of the most difficult parts was at the very beginning. I thought dyeing my hair was a simple matter, but it is an illusion that you can turn your hair from grey to black, just like that, or at all. The final effect was a mousy colour that, when photographed (with the group who agreed to allow me to surreptitiously join them for the conference), came out reddish.
I decided to dress in the blandest way I could, making use of a pullover for the first time (bought by my wife) that could well have been an antique prop from ‘Gliding On’. Would I be uncovered by Mary Chamberlain as a trainee imposter and ordered to leave? Would life serve up another embarrassment?
My mind was soon distracted from these philosophical meanderings by the two big billboards on the stage, one emblazoned with ‘achieve’, the other with ‘participation’. The accompanying pictures showed a child displaying a sense of wonder at some vegetation, and another constructing a 3-D technology construction. Any sense of irony was entirely absent. The brazenness of displaying science and technology pictures could only have been exceeded by displaying arts or social studies’ ones.
Then Mary Chamberlain floated into view. Would she be anecdotal with that slightly deranged-aunt exterior distracting from the reality of a tough cookie interior? Would she be deep and meaningful or her usual breath of hot air?
‘We have the best minds assembled at this conference.’ It sounds like hot air.
‘But I must warn you against communicating any negative messages about the occasion.’ Perish the thought.
‘It would be sad to have challenges and issues aired about such an occasion.’ My lips are sealed, pen stilled.
‘Don’t worry about league tables’, she assured us, ‘I have a solution.’ The ministry’s air hostess for the flight of the national standards: she knows what to do.
‘As for concerns about too much testing and the subsequent labelling of children, if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen.’ She’s right you know.
‘National standards were the best thing to happen to education in 20 years’, she assured us. (If true, what does that say about Tomorrow’s Schools?) Mary Chamberlain has once again skilfully avoided slipping from explanation (proper for a bureaucrat) to propagandising (which isn’t).
‘What I really wanted to talk to you about is connectivity and schools working together.’
With that we took our cue and disconnected.
As we waited for the next song and dance act (Anne Tolley we believed), those around me muttered that they were only given their module packs the previous Friday and that was to be the only training they were to have before they faced the doubting multitudes.
Tolley stumped forward. She began to speak. Her tone and body language communicating that sense of grievance she has developed. A take it or leave it, I don’t give a damn (but no dear). I suppose from her point-of-view she does have an iota of a justification. Over national standards she no doubt feels she made compromises to teachers by promising no national testing and by leaving room for OTJ, in other words, standardised testing would not completely dominate. Then the ministry had to scrub around for something for the standards to be based on; the curriculum levels were resorted to – but that was a bad call. The curriculum levels with their legions of associated achievement objectives were and are entirely unsuitable as standards, broad performance bands, yes; national standards, no. Now we are heading back to the standardised tests which will result in national standards becoming a dispersed form of national testing. The minister, with some justification, though, feels her initial efforts at compromise have gone unrecognised.
‘This is the most exciting year for twenty years.’ she harrumphed.
‘And we can look overseas for some inspiration’.
‘Avis Glaze will be a great help. Her experiences in Ontario will be a source of valuable experience.’ Lavish praise was bestowed on the lady.
‘If anyone has any ideas on how the public release of data might be managed, I would welcome your contribution.’ Nice does not become her. (Anyway, she should have a chat with Mary.)
‘Two-thirds of principals are not tracking achievement, and three-quarters don’t set high enough standards.’ The review office toxin spreads through the body education. In tracking achievement it was 90% in the review report three years ago then, in the most recent report, compiled to support the campaign for national standards, much the same figures were used but different labels applied – now Tolley’s gross interpretation of the figures has resulted in a further degradation.
‘Achievement was not related to either poverty or privilege.’ Thank-you Hattie for filling the minister’s head up with such nonsense.
‘Achievement’ in the context is a weasel word. Does it simply mean children in both groups can make progress? That is inarguable. Does it mean children from both groups, as a group, can perform equally well? If so, then the use of the word ‘privilege’ makes the statement close to oxymoronic because ‘privilege’ means advantage enjoyed by a group of people: advantage which must show up in education performance.
‘I know with certainty that differences and gaps in teacher effectiveness were within schools not across them.’ Hattie and the review office again.
‘I’m a mother of two whose gifted children were allowed to coast’, she said as though providing definitive evidence.
In the spirit of Mary Chamberlain’s request for positivity, I did my best to think of some way national standards were going to be good for gifted children, but couldn’t. (Did getting rid of the special ability advisors somehow work to the benefit of gifted children?) Perhaps there would be some enlightenment to come.
‘At a weekend barbeque, there was 100% support for parents being given more information.’
She then outlined the ‘extensive consultation’ that had occurred, but failed to explain why she had held the results back for months. We know why of course.
‘Maths Technology Ltd will be an independent group monitoring the implementation of standards.’ ‘Independent’, that’s good to hear, most reassuring.
‘It is time for every New Zealand child to be at the standard for their age. The reason they are not’, she said, ‘is the fault of schools.’
I’m pleased the minister took the trouble to immediately attribute sole blame to schools or I might have fallen into serious error and started to consider other influences.
‘Yes - national standards will get all children to the standard for their age,’ she declared.
If national standards can do that they are clearly far more than the most exciting education development in the last 20 years, more like 2000.
This is the education equivalent of turning water into wine.
IP children will stand to hosannas and throw away their special tasks; the minds of children with dyslexia will unscramble and brithday will become birthday; children for whom English is a second language will immediately develop a fluency to match their first; children with multiplicity of absences will be regular rosy-apple attendees; children who have attended a multiplicity of schools will develop parents who stay put; marriages threatening to break will become conjoined; children with a variety of nervous and health disorders will have them lifted as though touched by hands; alcohol-drenched households will become the driest of zones; children from violent families will develop parents who look out on the world with Buddhist tranquillity; parents who have never read will subscribe to the Listener and buy the latest C. K. Stead; parents too busy to converse will become Socratic to their brood; children from squalid homes will be uplifted from their conditions; children who come along without lunch will be wondrously provided for as they pass through school portals; and genetic inheritance will be equalised in a miracle of meiosis.
What all this will do to the norming and stanines of the standardised tests is hard to imagine. It will turn the world of school learning on its head.
And all of this for $36 million over three years.
’Tis truly to be wondered at.
Off she goes, was that applause or not? No matter. I’m sure a choir was singing somewhere.
Morning and afternoon tea and lunches were going to be a problem as I would be exposed to a wider group so I determined to slip outside for those occasions.
The next session was making sense of the numeracy standards.
The first thing we had to make sense of was that only 50% of Year 7 and 8 were expected to reach their relevant age-appropriate standard. The rationale we were told was that a few Decile 1 schools somewhere (was it Australia?) had students exceeding the existing standards. That schools can sustainably lift children as a group beyond their socio-economic circumstances is an urban myth. Time and time again, under proper examination, the lie in this has been exposed. But the best minds in the ministry have either not read the voluminous research about this or the best minds have lacked the moral courage to say what needs to be said.
The numeracy facilitators allocated to our table were highly tentative about their role: was it to discuss national standards’ implementation or spread national standards’ propaganda? Whatever, there was confusion in carrying out the first role and lack of conviction in carrying out the second.
The future for OTJ on the basis of what we experienced seems grim. A great play was made about it in the introduction, but judging from our lack of consistency in undertaking some interactive tasks (moderating Nathan’s six pieces of assessment data), the practicability of OTJ in national standards’ assessment is seriously to be doubted.
They tried to reassure us by saying teachers used to do this with the 1 to 5 scale on the Progress Cards. (But that wasn’t under the high stakes’ pressure of national standards.)
And then there will be the task of explaining to parents how their child is above average in standardised tests but below in national standards. The policy has something of the feel of an education Great Leap Forward. No doubt to be propelled forward in its early days by state-sponsored propaganda with the review office providing the scapegoats for any failure that seeps into view.
To structure primary teaching at the behest of downward pressure from another part of education, and in such a peremptory way, is to lift our eyes from the needs of children as they are in front of us, to something distant and abstract, to treat them as stereotypes, as means to an end – a sure way to do a disservice to the younger children. To establish a straight line connection between Year 7 and 8 to the third year of secondary school is also to establish a straight line to Year 1. It will force primary school education to bear the burden of weaknesses in secondary education. One of the main reasons why students at Level 2 NCEA fail in mathematics is because they have been alienated from education in their first two years at secondary school and just don’t care.
There was much lamentation from the managing trainers about the unilateral decision to remove any advisory role not directly concerned with national standards, and bitterness about the way the minister and Mary Chamberlain keep referring to the need for students to be assessed across the whole curriculum.
Word spread from the Dunedin contingent that the New Zealand Assessment Academy is Hattie’s base. Well, of course.
NEMP then gave a useful presentation about making judgements about students’ reading. They were, however, to let themselves down later.
Making sense of literacy standards was to be mainly non-sense.
A lot of time was spent justifying the reasons for linking national standards with the literacy progressions. Literacy progressions, that useful guide for teachers, are disappearing into the maw that is national standards. Then the ministry did not seem to understand that Green in Ready to Read, for instance, is a band not a specific level able to be turned into a standard.
A know-it-all from the ministry, no doubt secondary, said we (that is primary) clearly hadn’t got it right.
‘This is a chance to do so.’
‘The reading standard,’ she opined, ‘was a beautiful statement.’
Au contraire, all national standards, are formulaic, bland rubbish, simply there to give a hospital pass to the curriculum levels. The reading standard is a national standard so ipso facto the reading national standards are formulaic, bland rubbish, simply there to give a hospital pass to the reading curriculum levels. Logic can be a beautiful thing but not these national standards.
‘We have not in succumbed to semantic incrementalism in the standard levels,’ she declared. Oh yes, you have.
Various speakers said how hard they had worked on the national standards, how much they had consulted, and how the best educational minds in the country had been involved. The problem is I thought to myself, if something is wrong, no matter how hard you work, how much you consult, how good the educational minds involved, it remains wrong. A dog remains a dog no matter the attendant changes.
National standards are incapable of definition because in successive explanatory refinements there is always required a value judgement that requires further explanation.
A school standard, on the other hand, requires only a working definition because it is part of a school’s continuing professional development and does not play in a high stakes’ environment.
NEMP’s presentation, after a good start, took a turn for the worse. Many of the examples of good assessment were utterly impractical, for instance, their eight-dimensional measurement tool for reading required an extended interview with individual children. An adviser in our group commented that this was a perfect example of the gulf between academic perceptions of reality and teacher reality.
As the new leadership team is put into place, I do fear for the future of NEMP.
The work with PAT started out well. Helped by this assessment tool’s reliability, a good explanation was given on how to interpret data, and identify levels and weaknesses. The problem is that we don’t need national standards to do this.
It was all downhill from there.
A questioner described how national standards’ results had serious implications for schools’ reputations, how could we be sure that there would be consistency of results?
There was only a mumbled response.
The ministry is asking trainers to model an approach called Script Scrutiny. This so-called ‘internationally proven’ method is a dog’s breakfast. PAT is administered in the usual way, then links with the relevant standard, curriculum level and their descriptors are then voted on with the average judgement deciding what is well below, at, and above the standard. This is a good professional development exercise for schools, but a poor tool for national standards. Different schools will have different descriptors and different views of what they mean. It is another no-exit direction for national standards.
A ministry person who looked like a fourth-former and the other ministry person (the one who had said we had clearly not been able to get it right) were speaking.
Critics of national standards, the ‘fourth-former’ said, had the wrong idea. He’d opened heaps of angry letters about national standards, but they were based on the wrong assumptions. There was no elaboration, but I suspect he was referring to the ministry default position of national standards being signposts. Associating signposts with children’s learning is another expression of a cruel trick adults play on children. A fundamental adage for me about teaching is to teach to what is in front of you. Ideas about the future are already part of who you are, so this is not to exclude the future from your deliberations, but the trick is to keep your focus on the children as they are now: their feelings, needs, abilities, and possibilities. Teaching with your eyes on the future is a quick way to close your heart to children as they are. The best way to prepare children for the future is to meet their needs now.
The other ministry person now spoke. When challenged on moderation and portability, she informed us the system had an inbuilt mechanism to keep a check on teacher assessment exuberance: if you over inflate one year, you will get caught out the next.
How professional: the tiger chasing its tail.
Reporting to parents came up.
In my view, the issue of reporting to parents is a national standards’ red herring. Reporting to parents has very little to do with national standards. The only specific reference in the regulations is the general one of reporting on children ‘in relation to national standards’. In effect, the wording and manner in which schools do this is left entirely to them. I make a plea to schools to do this in a manner consistent with their understanding of children’s needs and development. In reporting to parents, to use the well below, below, at, and above mantra, a regulatory requirement exclusively for reporting to the board only, is tantamount to unethical behaviour. And remember, it is still reporting to parents ‘in relation to national standards’ if children are reported against the curriculum levels most relevant to their abilities.
A collective sigh of agreement and sadness went around the room when somebody suggested that most of what is in national standards we are already doing.
No-one at our table was able to explain how national standards would be able improve literacy and numeracy.
Then came Avis Glaze, Anne Tolley’s national standards’ poster person. I have researched her. My conclusion is that the more that is learnt about this person, the more she will fall from grace. I viewed her on some My Tube items and concluded she is a practised actor and an intellectual lightweight. The claims she made were largely sophistry. She says that Ontario does not have national testing: that is because it has state testing (run by a private company). She says that Ontario does not have league tables, yet league tables are constructed from the information released. She implies everything is sweetness and light with the testing in Ontario schools, but there is considerable turbulence from teachers who feel in an education straitjacket; she says that the testing has brought success – this has not at all been demonstrated in any consistent way; she makes no mention of the effect of the testing on the rest of the curriculum or what the emphasis on testing communicates to the children about learning. Like Tolley, she looks into the camera and sentimentally puts herself forward as the saviour of the less able children. And, of course, being Jamaican in background, almost communicates a winning argument in itself.
All that I expected of her she was.
She is, how can I say this, unauthentic.
What a phony world of education we are entering.
ERO was next. ERO, in the world of unreality it has constructed for itself, rather fancies itself as highly professional. Yet the reports it produces are laughable.
The speakers from ERO said they were very excited by national standards and that they were right up to speed. They weren’t into ‘baby steps’, we’re into ‘giant ones.’
A large part of the reviewers’ training, they reported, had been role play practising difficult and angry conversations with principals.
I don’t know about phony, could I revise that to crazy?
As well as role playing, another of their giant steps is self review. With its apple-pie connotations it is difficult to criticise something called ‘self review’, but in the way it falls on schools, it is easy to. It is another formulaic, bureaucratic procedure imposition on schools which schools will do to excess because ‘the review office likes it’. When you don’t have a handle on the essences and subtleties of the curriculum, go on about reviewing and assessing it, and that’s what the review office does. Anything but the real thing: when is teaching going to be about teaching and not peripherals?
A little tick for saying they ‘want more time to have conversations about self review and conversations about self review and achievement that are in people’s heads not written down.’ The only problem is that one must ask how helpful such discussions will be with the odd assortment of early childhood, secondary, and half successful primary teachers often thrown together for such occasions? Nevertheless, well done for the nod in the right direction.
The review office speakers said they intended to have a wide curriculum focus encompassing the whole curriculum. Laughable. The review office focuses on that which can be expressed in numbers. If gold were a narrowed education, the review office would be Midas. Anyway, the results the review office will come up with, irrespective of what is being assessed, will be favourable to whatever suits the government. It is a weather vane for whatever direction the government wind is blowing.
The review office said it has had a lot of success settling principals down by reassuring them that what they’re doing now is close to national standards. This is the classic error of confusing standards with national standards.
To leaven their rightwing education ideology the review office loves to include ostensibly liberal education ideas in their message. An example is the regular reference to the need for children to set and understand their learning goals. This apparently liberal idea, under the touch of the review office, becomes a boring, useless, distorting, anti-imaginative, and formulaic practice like WALTS.
Non-compliance, they said, will be called after June. My advice to schools is you can be brave and with the backing of your board say no (we need a number of schools to be in this category) or, when visited or communicated with, just be vague. All schools can, however, with little exposure, take a principled stand on the nature of their reporting to parents.
The final session was a bit of a free for all. The following were the snatches of conversations I jotted:
‘Do you know what you are doing?’ ‘The preparation just hasn’t been up to it.’ ‘They don’t know, so no wonder we don’t.’ ‘We are really going to be asked to sell national standards, not explain them.’ ‘The wiping of the advisory services is a disaster.’ ‘Some principals are welcoming the narrowing of the curriculum.’ ‘We truly need a trial.’ ‘The ministry and minister have got it wrong.’ ‘I’m all at sea with the attempt to bring the standards, existing progressions, assessment tools, curriculum levels, and numeracy stages together.’ ‘Taking the reading recovery tutors away from their work is a big setback for reading.’ ‘When you get ministry people on their own, and in a quiet moment, they share the same concerns as us.’ ‘All the blame for the 20% is laid at the feet of schools.’ ‘The conference was not sharply organised.’ ‘Where were the handouts?’ ‘Why didn’t they tell us about their photocopying policy?’ ‘We need to start national standards again and without the compulsion.’
So the three days were over and I remained undiscovered. There were times when I received quizzical looks but I just looked bland and moved on. I think it was the pullover that got me through.