Government fails national standards in honesty

We all expect politicians to bend the truth as they spin their policies to the public but Prime Minister John Key and Education Minister Anne Tolley went a step further last week when they defended the policy of national standards. They told some porkies.

Emeritus Professor of Education from Massey University Ivan Snook has drawn attention to a government release which he politely described as containing “four major errors, and a serious dishonesty”.

It’s worth recording the Professor’s points because the media, which has been strongly supportive of national standards, has reported the government at its word rather than the reality. Professor Snook says:

“The (government) statement claims that the ERO report (2009) found that (1) “two thirds of school leaders were not properly managing assessment.” It did not: it found that “some” leaders “trusted their junior school teachers or leaders who knew the students well.” This is perfectly reasonable. (2) “30% of teachers were not doing a good job of teaching reading and writing.” It did not: it found that 10% of teachers were less than adequate. (3) “Many principals aren’t adequately sharing their school’s achievement information with their communities.” It did not: it found that they reported to the school community about their own school but did not always give comparative data from other schools: why should they if the point is to inform parents as to how their children are performing? (4) ERO gave 30% of teachers a “pretty damning” verdict on their performance. It did not: it found that 90% of teachers were performing adequately or better. (5) “The ERO report found in 2007 that more than half of schools were not using assessment data well.” It did. BUT the 2009 report found that two-thirds are now using it well and mentions this as an enormous improvement (without any national standards!)”

While misuse of statistics and reports is nothing new it’s a dereliction of public duty that the media have not held the government to account for this misinformation – which Education Minister Anne Tolley repeated on TVNZ’s Q & A programme on Sunday morning.

The public and parents in particular are the losers in this important debate.

For the first time since the election John Key is not charming his way through a difficult problem. He ploughed into a direct attack on teachers and principals last week as he picked up the pieces from widespread concern from principals, teachers and educational professionals that the national standards policy has dangerous pitfalls.

Instead of emphasising the supposed aim of improving student achievement, the gloves came off. John Key assailed the teacher unions saying they were defending poor teachers and did not want to face public accountability for themselves or their schools. It was back to what National does well – teacher bashing – and in this case the blatant misuse of an ERO report to promote unpopular policy.

We are in a battle for the hearts and minds of parents who are largely confused about the policy. A New Zealand Herald readers’ poll backed the idea of national standards but most said they knew very little about what it was and the effects it would have on their kids.

The group which has been largely invisible in the debate are educational academics and this is a serious lacking. These are the people with no axe to grind but who know the most about what works and what doesn’t in assessing children. They also have widespread knowledge of successful and unsuccessful assessment policies from around the world. Almost to a person they are strongly opposed to the government plans for national standards. They say that not only will the objective of raising educational achievement not be realised but that the collateral damage to children and schools makes it unacceptable.

There is no disagreement that every parent has a right to know how their child is progressing and how they compare to other children of the same age. This information also needs to be presented plainly and honestly to parents. In reality this is what most schools are doing well and ERO can bring others up to the mark.

Schools already know which students are struggling. These kids don’t deserve being labelled failures at the age of five. Instead they need resources so practical help can give them their best chance at education. As national standards become more important for schools with the publication of league tables the focus of teachers will shift to “teaching to the tests” with other areas of the curriculum neglected. Schools will more resemble sausage factories than inspiring beacons of educational achievement.

This unfortunate impact of similar policies overseas is being ignored by the government which is pursuing another agenda altogether. John Key and Anne Tolley want to create a “market” in schooling where parents can move their children between private and state schools and where the quality of education will depend on how much a parent can afford to top up what the government provides. Then we will see the gaps widen even further as the children of the poor pay more heavily for the selfishness of others.

Shortly to arrive in our letterboxes, at a taxpayer cost of $200,000, will be a government leaflet promoting national standards. It’s appropriate John Key has put the National Party logo on every page because this is an ideological political programme, not a policy to improve our kids’ education.



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