Bill Courtney on National Standards

Bill Courtney is a critic of National Standards, a former Chair of Khandallah School, and asked if he could do a guest post to “balance the debate”. Naturally I agreed. Here is his guest blog post:

National Standards: The Inconvenient Truth

The primary purpose of this blog is to provide an alternative view on the National Standards policy, its supporting system and the implementation process to balance some of the strongly anti-schools and anti-teachers comments made in various other postings.

As a disclosure of my “political” interests, I voted for Peter Dunne / electorate MP and National / Party Vote at the 2008 election.  Since then, I have been closely involved in the NS in many ways.  In particular, I attended the first NS Forum, in November 2009, at which I met the four leading academics, John Hattie, Terry Crooks, Martin Thrupp and Lester Flockton.  (These four then wrote their open letter to the Minister of Education, immediately following the Forum.)  This year, I was the named petitioner on the large 37,000 signature petition, organised by NZEI, and calling for NS to be trialled before full implementation across the whole system.  I also had an opinion piece published by the Dominion Post, in which I called for a David Lange, “cup of tea” so we can get this mess sorted out and I made the same call on the TV7 show Backbenches last week.

The essence of my argument remains very simple: the National Standards system of assessment and reporting is a poor trade-off between risk and return.  There is little real evidence of what “the problem” is and how the system will positively impact on student achievement.  In contrast, there are material risks to any system that creates a “high stakes” environment based around simplistic analysis of assessment data, but especially so, if this data is based on teacher judgment.

The issue with National Standards is not about the lofty, well-intentioned goals, but rather that the method chosen – Standards-based reform – needs careful consideration before full-scale implementation is seriously considered.  But this particular system, as written and developed, is flawed as a base for genuine system-wide reform.

Here’s how the academics saw things:

“The very brief timeframe allowed for the development of the Standards and associated guidelines and requirements has resulted in fundamental flaws.  Minister, in our view the flaws in the new system are so serious that full implementation of the intended National Standards system over the next three years is unlikely to be successful.  It will not achieve intended goals and is likely to lead to dangerous side effects.” (Academics, Nov 2009)

What problem is NS really solving?  Achievement figures are the symptom; but what is the cause?

It is also clear that the system which has now emerged in practice has almost nothing to do with the originally stated objectives outlined by John Key, as far back as his April 2007 speech:

“Most kids will reach the benchmarks easily.  But if you’re missing the benchmarks that will send a loud signal that you’re off-track.”

Sensible, inclusive policy development would have ensured a far sounder approach to developing a system aligned more clearly with the real objectives Mr Key had in mind.  But the system that has now emerged has never been backed by a mandate from the electorate.

“This government is lifting the bar for student achievement, which is why the Standards have been set higher than national averages, and parents should take this into account.”  Anne Tolley press release, 28 June 2010

Given so much talk about how the Standards were “set”, I asked the Ministry under the Official Information Act, for a copy of the briefing papers given to the team who developed the Standards.  After a false start, I was told by Mary Chamberlain that:

“I acknowledge that I may not have made it clear that there are no specific policy documents that were given to the writers of the National Standards.  The co-ordinating writers of the Standards were orally briefed on what was required and worked under standards Ministry of Education contracts…”

So whose National Standards do we really have now?  How well developed and tested were the Standards?  Here is John Hattie’s view:

“The glossy, recently published New Zealand literacy and numeracy standards have no data, no evidence, and no evaluation – they are pronouncements without evidence.  If there is evidence outside committee contemplations, where is it?  Until there is evidence, the standards remain untested and experimental.”

And the writers were only “orally briefed…” and developed these Standards in an incredibly short period of time.  Here is the view of the NZ Council for Educational Research:

“These benchmarks had to be developed very rapidly in 2009, and have not been established through empirical work on actual student trajectories over time.”

There are many criticisms of the Standards in the academic literature which is a better place to discuss these flaws.  On the other hand, there are also academics who promote the positive benefits of Standards-based reform but are staying quiet about how well designed this system is.

But it is becoming clearer that implementation – under duress from the government – is being pushed well ahead of system readiness.  The recent survey released by NZCER made this quite clear:

“Originally, schools were to report where their students were performing in relation to the National Standards in 2011. That has been shifted to 2012. The material reported below, while early in the implementation phase, would suggest that date may also be too soon, if the expectation is that all judgements in respect of the Standards will be sound and consistent, both within and between schools.”

One very important point to make is that the positive support from some schools does not negate the concerns of others.  Depending on their perspective, some are indifferent to system-wide concerns, some may not even be aware of them, or some others may be strong supporters of the policy to begin with!  You also have to factor in the good old Kiwi, “She’ll be Right” attitude, which will see many schools just getting on and trying something, even if they don’t feel it will make much difference, or they just can’t be bothered getting into a fight.

However, this wide variation in interpretation and reporting against the Standards gives rise to one of the main problems: the data gathered from the system will be virtually useless for several years.  Bur how this data is used – or misused – remains the single main concern in the education sector.  It is also the main source of difference in perspective between those who are concerned about the system and those that argue strongly in favour of it.  The vocal supporters – mainly on blog sites – argue that the teacher unions are opposing the policy, in principle, because they allege that the unions are merely seeking to protect the interests of poor or mediocre teachers that may be “shown up” by analysis of achievement data.  In contrast, those with concerns site the experience of many overseas systems where the “high stakes” nature of school achievement data causes real problems.

Here is John Hattie’s view:

“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.”

There is substantial evidence overseas that a high stakes focus on data causes many problems in teaching and learning within schools.  It is important to note that this does not necessarily have to be the case, but the track record of such systems avoiding the problems and using data wisely is not good.

The Minister of Education has repeatedly stated that our concerns are not founded because National Standards is not national testing.  But the academics make it quite clear that National Standards could turn out to be even worse than national testing.

In a letter to me, dated 10 March, Mrs Tolley said:

“I am very much aware that aggregated data can potentially be accessed and used in unintended ways and, if used to make simplistic comparisons between schools in the form of league tables, can be misleading and detract from the overarching goal of promoting achievement.  I acknowledge the concerns of the education sector about how data from the standards might be used.  In response, I am working with those groups to determine the most effective ways of protecting the data and ensuring it is used for positive purposes such as school review an system improvement.”

The Prime Minister set out in his Social Issues statement to parliament in February that developing a policy on using the data arising from the National Standards system is a priority item for 2010.  So, where is the policy?

I believe this is the real crux of the problem.  If NZ is implementing something truly unique, how do we know it will work?  If it is truly unique and unproven, why are we rushing the design and implementation?  And, how are we so sure that we can avoid the mistakes of other countries that have tried and failed to implement Standards-based reform?

John Hattie has often said to me, in our correspondence, that two simple questions need to be asked:

“Do you think, for a minute, that any of these overseas countries set out with anything other than the very best of intentions?  If not, then how and where did they go wrong?”

I would gain far more confidence in the Minister of Education of this country if she could reassure me that she is at least aware of these challenges, let alone convince me that she is capable of developing sound policy.

But the shambles of National Standards policy is not an isolated incident for this government.  Recent commentary has included the President of the expressing concern at the Search and Bill.  Jonathan Temm spoke about “…the kneejerk populist reaction because you think it’s worth votes.”

Mark Weldon, CEO of NZX, spoke out at the draft Financial Markets Bill, saying it was: “deeply and fundamentally flawed, poorly designed and dangerous.”  Sound familiar?  I wonder if he will be brushed aside as readily as the education academics were?

And my favourite is the Emissions Trading Scheme.  On the very same day that we presented the NS petition to parliament, we were followed by the march and petition presentation on the ETS!  I see ACT released another press statement this week, urging the government to open its eyes and see that the ETS poses an enormous risk to our standard of living for absolutely no environmental benefit.  Poor risk / return, again?

I may be old fashioned but I was brought up to believe that democracy does not finish on election night.  One of my favourite quotes is from US Supreme Court Justice, Robert H Jackson:

“It is not the function of the government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.”

This government needs serious counselling.  Put the jug on, Mr Key.

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