Sunday, November 1, 2009

National Standards

Jo, our house-sitter assisted me outside this morning and I spent an hour sitting in the sunshine on the deck. The garden and lawn are beginning to shape up to that fecund November brilliance of growth and bloom. The roses are budding up splendidly and a few late camellia flowers still add colour. The two cyclamen that Helen transplanted are valiantly making a late run.

Helen, our girl gardener is a lovely girl, curious, intelligent and sensitive, a credit to her parents, school and community. She is at first year NCEA levels. I asked her recently how her school work was going. She was loving Chinese and German (interesting combination) but was finding History hard going – ‘so much swot’. I learnt she was studying the causes of World war 11.

She asked about my memories. I spoke of VE and VJ Days and mentioned Hiroshima and Ngasaki. She’d heard of neither. The way history is taught means there are islands of knowledge in a raging sea of ignorance. It concerns me, a reflection not on Helen or her teachers but the system.

I have the same concern about National Standards. Once they are set teachers will teach to get children to reach the standards regardless of their educational needs. I know and accept the importance of the ‘three r’s’. Schools should stress literacy and numeracy. My understanding is that most try to very hard. But they struggle against societal and in some instances family pressures. They do not work in isolation.

The development of league tables will be inevitable. People in the community will be tempted to make simplistic judgements about the merits of different schools without knowledge of the actual value addition. Some children with the best of intentions and superb teaching will unfortunately find benchmarks unachievable. Their self-esteem will be at risk. .

I accept the situation is complex. I have long had a hunch that maybe we need more rigour in cohort progression – not to hold children back so much as to ensure that their learning in that year has been satisfactory.

Some schools have not helped the cause by their reporting. Educational jargon does not help parents while a comment like ‘Johnny’s making good progress’ is not satisfactory. Schools must communicate better than this. But Johnny, working with a group of classmates, doing a project on, say, dolphins might be learning more literacy and numeracy skills as that task proceeds, rather than rote learning ways of passing a test.

We need more science in our schools not less and it is short-sighted to downplay the importance of physical education and the arts. Young people have many educational needs. Stress the importance of literacy and numeracy by all means but this should not be at the expense of the overall learning development

Today’s news reports that Ministry of Education commissioned research by NZCER has found that one-third of parents have concerns about the implementation of the new standards. Add to that continued doubts from principals and teachers. Admittedly the parents quoted in the report were self-selected. I think the Minister is correct when she says parents want standards. But more than fine tuning is required.

If those concerned are not careful we could develop a system whereby children grow up knowing how to pass numeracy and literacy tests but uncreative with poor physical coordination and little knowledge of health, electricity, democracy, justice and other essential components of modern civilization

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