National Standards; a train wreck in the making.

It is unfortunate that the National Standards debate has shifted out of the professional arena where it should rightly be. The fact that the Minister has no professional understanding has meant she will not engage at all with education academics, who are united in their condemnation of the Standards. Her insistence that any opposition is union and industrially based has no foundation, but if constantly repeated, begins to stick in the public mind.

There is no argument about the importance of having standards, both teachers and parents should expect and demand high standards in the education of our children. It is the form that the standards take, the implementation and the lack of evidence and research behind them that cause concern. It is interesting that in surveying the views of parents last year the New Zealand Herald found that while 73% liked the Standards only 11% fully understood them and a later survey found that as understanding grew, support for the standards dropped.

Despite being called standards the reality is that these standards are not standards at all. The Minister of Education and her Ministry have described them as “aspirational” and “signposts to learning” and at some age levels up to 70% of children will not achieve them. These standards do not have a basis in sound research and are badly out of alignment with the curriculum teachers are expected to teach and the common tests and assessments that teachers generally use. The Education Institute has repeatedly asked for a trial and the flaws to be addressed but the Minister has refused to do this, instead she has demanded that all schools and children should suffer through a three year “bedding down” period. The Minister refuses to act on the advice of her “independent” advisors, refuses to engage with our most respected educationalists (or answer their questions) and ignores the many letters of concern from schools and their boards.

Parents want “honest and accurate’’ reporting, and this is perfectly reasonable, but the reality is that the majority of schools provided this already and many parent communities have complained when their schools switched to the reporting templates for National Standards as recommended on the Ministry’s web site. There was real concern and confusion when children previously (and accurately) described as working above average were assessed as not achieving the standard for their age, it was distressing for parents and demoralizing for the children.

The concern that focussing on "Reading, Writing and Mathematics" would narrow the curriculum has proven correct. Despite the fact that science and technology are key areas for innovation and developing industry these are now second class curricula and all supporting advisors have been sacked. Recent research on science achievement in schools has shown a decline in understanding. New Zealand's recently introduced curriculum had been lauded internationally for its focus on children's needs and recognition of individual communities, National Standards hijacked the implementation and destroyed the passion and innovation being developed in schools. New Zealand is constantly ranked amongst the top five education systems in the world and it seems ludicrous to drastically change what we do because of a fabricated crisis. 

The Minister of Education initially claimed that the Standards were introduced to assist those children who struggle to learn and are well below average levels of  attainment, the infamous 20% failure rate (the 80% who are successful are conveniently ignored). We all know that it is not assessments that make children learn it is good teaching and targeted resourcing and unfortunately to fund these flawed standards we have lost many of our curriculum advisors and support systems. This Government is prepared to pay $90,000 a year to keep someone in prison yet the money now being made available to assist each struggling child is a miserly $60 a year and two hours per school of professional advice.  

The Minister claims that most schools are working with the standards and this is quite different from saying most schools support the standards, it is a legal requirement to work with the standards and many schools reluctantly do so. More telling statistics reveal that the requirement to report National Standards based targets to the Ministry by January had only seen 5% of schools do so, around 300 school boards now refuse to engage with the Standards and a recent conference of 750 principals unanimously supported a vote of no confidence in the Standards. 

Trevor Mallard revealed a worrying reality, last year, when he asked Minister Tolley to explain a rather obtuse and jargon filled standard in plain english. The Minister carefully explained that she wasn't required to understand the Standards, just to implement and resource them. If the Minister doesn't understand the Standards and she is the one driving them, against all good advice, then we have a train wreck in the making!


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