The stand-off between teachers and politicians over the introduction of national standards in schools is simply a side-show in a much bigger struggle over who controls the country’s education system

The idea of setting and measuring standards in schools is seductively simple, so why is it proving so difficult?

The answer is simple. The argument is not about measuring standards. It is over how they might be used or abused in a far larger struggle for power between school boards of trustees, principals, teachers, their unions, Ministry of Education officials, the governing politicians, and the school parents of New Zealand.

This struggle will peak in the middle of this year—in May, when the government tables the most significant budget of its life, and in June, when the current primary school teachers’ award falls due for renewal.

Finance Minister Bill English laid down the government's gauntlet when he published his half-year fiscal update last December

The forecast indicates that total government spending on education will be limited to $12.47 billion in his next budget—an increase of $113 million on spending expected in the current financial year. Forecasts in the update showed further increases of $125 million in FY2012, $26million in FY2013, and $63 million in FY2013. Sounds big money? Just remember, the forecast increase for the next budget is less than 1%.

Also remember, the NZEI—our primary school teachers and workers union—had already flourished its glove before English dropped his.

NZEI was the first union to challenge the new government’s move to introduce the 90-day, obligation-free trial for new employees, by seeking an exemption for new kindergarten teachers.

It was first to crow about “cracking the ongoing wage freeze in the state sector” when it won a well-merited 8.2% per annum pay increases for the lowest paid school support staff last December.

The NZEI has a wage increase of 4% per annum for primary teachers in the pipeline for delivery at the beginning of July, and is currently preparing to table a new set of claims before the primary teachers’ current collective agreement expires in June.

In short, this is a union that feels it is on a roll—and one any fiscally-tight government is going to want to stop in its tracks. The government and the NZEI are set on a collision course, and both know it.

The national standards issue was made for both of them. The unions know the professional arguments for and against national standards inside out, and upside down. The government knows parents want some standards by which they can measure their child’s progress at school.

The most recent polls indicate that 73% of parents support national standards for reading, writing and maths. That big tick gets the headline. The big qualifier is lost in the body of this story. Less than 12% claim to fully understand the standards policy.

The first question anyone with half a brain will ask is: how were these standard set? You will not find a clear answer on the Ministry of Education’s website. Here’s what it says:

“The standards have been set at a level that most children are expected to achieve, if they are learning to their full potential. Children who are at or above the standards are able to meet the demands of the New Zealand curriculum and are on track to leave school with a worthwhile qualification. If your child is achieving at or above the national stands in reading, writing and mathematics during years 1-8, then they’re on track to finish secondary school with a worthwhile qualification [at least NCEA level or similar].”

That does nothing to explain how the “norms” for the standards were established. What’s worse is that the balance of the Ministry’s information does little to explain how conformity with these “norms” in any particular year, in any particular school, in any particular class by any particular pupil is going to assure the parent/s of that pupil that their child will not become one of the 20% of school-leavers who exit the system without adequate literacy and numeracy skills.

The danger for the government is that when parents do understand what national standards will deliver, support for the policy will wane. The standardless status quo, preferred by the NZEI and other standards’ critics will prevail and 20% of our children will continue to be categorised by the system as losers in life.

In themselves, national standards are no panacea to the problem of an individual child’s under-achievement in a New Zealand school. Even one of the government’s leading advisors on the introduction of national standards has expressed strong reservations about their curative powers.

John Hattie, professor of education at Auckland University, is the expert that John Key called in when he sensed that the implementation of the standards policy was slipping off the rails. Hattie’s most important point is that, on average, New Zealand schools are among the best in the world. Next, there is little variance in the educational outcomes our schools deliver to students with the same ability. Hattie’s basic criticism of the system is succinctly expressed:

“We may have one of the best systems in the world, but we cannot defend a system with one in ten schools deemed failing; one in three students failing the minimum Level 1 numeracy and literacy; every school competing to devise the optimal systems, sometimes too alone. Nor can we defend a system that decides on one policy (national standards in literacy and numeracy) and not get it right.”

“National standards offers the most wonderful opportunities for refreshing and reinvigorating an already top of the world system, but it could be the most disastrous policy formulated if it turns our attention to narrowing, testing, league tables and diverting attention to between-school rather than within-school differences.”

The grammar may not be perfect, but the point is clear.

National standards are worth nothing if they are simply used to “name, blame and shame” schools, teachers, or pupils who don’t hit the “norm”.

They need to be about identifying pupils and teachers within schools who need help. Real improvements can only be achieved if information produced by standards-based assessments lead to the right resources being applied to the right places at the right time to ensure that the education system no longer fails 1 in 5 who enter the school gates.

National standards are simply one of the means to an end—not an end in themselves.

Comments (1)

by danniel on December 22, 2012

I actually think these achievement standards should be changed from time to time. Kids today are getting smarter and smarter on early ages, it's only natural to build a system that meets their capabilities. As i am working amy way to a new degree I am convinced even without a study that these facts are true.

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