Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Education Standards

Education standards need fences at the top of the cliff rather than ambulances at its base. I’ve written earlier about this topic, see 24 March, 1 November and 19 December last year. I write again today. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be the last time. The Government seems hell-bent on a collision course with primary teachers.

This stouch is trumpeted as about national standards. That’s not the issue. Rather, it is measurement of achievement on those standards. How this done? And having measured them, then what? My understanding is that the teachers do not query the need for standards. But what standards? Who decides? How can they be best achieved? The questions are legion and there, is as usual in education, no quick fix.

Education standards are a great stick to beat any government. (Ruth Richardson was particularly effective while Bruce Beetham used the issue to help unseat Les Gander). But once in power simplistic slogans are not enough.

Neither are simplistic statistics. Sure we have a long tail of educational failure. So do most similar countries. Looking at the statistics through a different set of binoculars gives a different picture. We are amongst the best. OECD figures show that New Zealand fifteen-year-olds rank 11th out of 57 countries in mathematics, 7th in science and 5th in reading. A report card would say ‘could do better’. But the same report card would say ‘there is a fundamental vitality in our system reflecting the professional expertise of our teachers.’

But what about those kids who are not reaching the expected competency. Let’s face it – they are there. It’s easy to diagnose the problem. It’s harder to remedy it. Parents have ambitions and hopes, which may exceed their offspring's capabilities. They often find it hard to accept their child is a slow learner. All the effort in the world might still not lift a number of these young people to the required level.

Others, for a great variety of reasons, personal or societal, do not want to, or find it difficult to learn. The class-room cannot be separated from the community. Learning is hard to force-feed to unwilling recipients. Drills, yes, but that teaches drills. Industry wants initiative, does it not? Then of course, bright kids will fly through. Will they be extended, as I believe they should?

Research from round the world seems to suggest achievement tests do not lift performance as expected. Teachers will, understandably, teach for the best result for their charges. They will teach kids to pass these tests. Good on them. That’s what they are paid to do.

Teachers are asking for trials. It’s a reasonable request. New Zealand has a successful track record in curriculum development. Part of the reason is teacher buy in. They have been involved in the development of the programme. Bugs and problems are solved and sorted out. Exclude such tests and you’re asking for trouble.

I advance my own heresy. Teachers have slowly lost status in our society. Pay rates reflect this. Income affects recruitment and retention. Higher teacher salaries by improving the calibre of the force could be a more effective way to improve the effectiveness of the learning of the youngsters in their charge. It’ll take time. It doesn’t fit the electoral cycle. It will be the responsibility of successive governments.

Teachers in turn will have to accept government demands for greater accountability. This again will need negotiation and the development of a just, effective and efficient system. Tests results alone will never determine good teaching. Value-addition in learning is hard to measure. Parental needs cannot be ignored during those negotiations.

One thing is certain. Mayhem in our schools will not improve learning.

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