National Standards debate goes pear-shaped

The debate over national standards in education turned pear-shaped last week.

The media waded into the fray with editorials across the country attacking school principals and teachers for their opposition to the publication of so-called league tables which would rank primary schools according to how well their children perform in testing to the government’s national standards.

Valid criticisms of government policy were sidelined in a flurry of self-righteous editorialising.

The Southland Times made the silly suggestion “…the battle here is shaping up to be whether children’s performance data should be kept hidden from parents”. This is the classic case of setting up a straw man to knock it down.

Every parent has the right to good quality information, in plain English, which tells them how their child is doing in all subject areas and how that performance relates to other kids. The information is already available through several national assessment programmes to give to every parent good feedback in a clear, accessible way. There has however been justified criticism that reporting at some schools has been vague and unhelpful. Most schools though have improved their reporting to parents and caregivers in recent years with positive feedback from families and this is to be welcomed.

The Dompost excelled in ignorance with this claim:

“…research project after research project shows that it is teacher expectations and teaching methods that have a greater effect on children than the homes they were born into and the decile rating of the school they attend”

The factors they point to are critical once the student enters the school gate but the best indicator of educational success for a child is still their family circumstances. Numerous attempts have tried to show otherwise but have failed.

Auckland’s New Zealand Herald claimed the high ground for parents with its comments:

“League tables are a perfectly legitimate tool from the parents’ point of view. A good school for their child is one where high standards are maintained and if the pupils come with advantages, so much the better. If some schools have to work harder than others to bring most of their pupils to the desired standards, so be it. Parents want results.”

Of course parents want results but the implication is that schools are patch protecting and keeping information from parents. This is not the case. Opposition to league tables has a strong educational basis. Whenever such tables have been published for primary schools, and they have in parts of Australia and the UK, there has been no improvement in educational achievement of kids but plenty of negatives.

A school’s reputation depends on test results so teachers have narrowed their focus to “teaching to the tests”. This means less time spent on building good learning experiences for kids because how the school is perceived becomes more important than giving kids the best education. Kids are the losers in this victory of style over substance.

Our local experience in New Zealand with secondary school results gives plenty of grounds for concern. Newspapers have for many years published tables to titillate readers with misleading information on how well schools teach.

It was irresponsible reporting based on league tables which saw hagiographic articles written about schools such as Cambridge High School where media praise was lavished on the school for years over its 100% NCEA pass rates. Newspaper editors praised the “inspirational principal” and wondered aloud why all schools couldn’t get the same results. It all turned sour when the school’s manipulative practices were exposed much later.

Avondale College was Auckland’s highest profile example of bad educational practice. Under principal Phil Raffles the school grew an impressive reputation for educational success and basked in the warm glow of media adulation while in reality the learning opportunities for many kids were sacrificed to improve the schools’ placing in league tables.

Bright students from across Auckland were encouraged to enrol and dominated the top stream classes while kids from the local working class community dominated H-block (referred to by other kids as the handicap block) where they were prevented from sitting external exams to prevent them polluting the school’s academic results. The school rocketed in the league tables but educational opportunities for hundreds of local kids were stunted in the process.

At the other end of the spectrum schools in low income communities have been repeatedly slammed by newspapers for their poor results. Public accountability for schools is important but praise and criticism based on superficial misinformation provided lazily by the media is a disservice to schools and parents.

And now the same newspapers, which lionised Cambridge High School and Avondale College while pillorying struggling schools are claiming the right to do the same with our primary schools. They can’t wait to get stuck in.

The simple truth is that the media cannot be trusted with test results for primary schools. They have proven this in the past and last week’s editorials show they have learnt nothing in the meantime.