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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Politics With Paul – Scrapping National Standards?

Fundamentally, the aims under-lying National Standards are undeniably sound.

Developing skills in reading, writing and mathematics are essential for a child’s success as they progress beyond Year 8, and in many cases, into tertiary education. Providing teachers, and in particular parents, with an indication of where a child is at, consistent with the subsequent expectations of secondary schools and tertiary institutions, logically allows specific gaps to be filled and problem-areas to be ironed out in each child.

However, in 2009, following passage of the Education (National Standards) Amendment Bill, academics from Auckland, Waikato and Otago Universities wrote an open letter to the Minister of Education entitled ‘Warning about the new National Standards system’. At least one of the authors—Auckland University’s Professor John Hattie—was an initial supporter of the idea. The Prime Minister has said it was Professor Hattie who introduced the idea of a standards-based system to him in the first place.
In the letter, while the intended goals behind the program were resoundingly affirmed, the authors outlined that the “flaws in the new system are so serious that full implementation of the intended National Standards system…is likely to be unsuccessful.”

Those flaws include:
• A lack of focus on progress, and the wrongful assumption that children are ‘failing’ if they do not meet the National Standards. With this is an associated concern that this assumption of ‘failing’ can become self-fulfilling, turning children off education rather than helping them to achieve higher;
• The distortion and impoverishment of “the culture of teaching and learning and assessment within schools”, leading to a limited and far less stimulating primary experience, as evidenced by the international experience of the public reporting of national testing; and
• That the descriptions and examples of the standards are so vague as to be ineffective in many cases.

Of course, this discussion has been thrashed out time and again throughout National’s first term in office, but I raise it here once more in the wake of Labour’s announcement that they would ditch National Standards in all primary schools if elected this year.

In its place, Labour’s Education spokesperson, Sue Moroney has outlined that the Party would institute a new set of assessment tools according to the following five-point plan, which would:

• Determine the curriculum level a child is achieving;
• Show a child’s rate of progress between reports over the course of a year;
• Identify children not achieving within curriculum levels;
• Decide and report the next learning steps; and
• Report information in plain language to parents at least twice a year.

This is a plan that, on the face of it, is essentially aimed at achieving the exact same ends, and appears to address the concerns above.
Of course, what this all comes back to is that National Standards—a good idea at its inception—has been just one victim of National’s prolific use of urgency this term. The National Government pushed through 17 laws in its first two years without allowing public submissions, compared with the four or five in each of the previous Labour Government’s terms.

Arguably, had National Standards been subject to the consultation process that they deserved, the primary sector might have been faced with a policy that addressed the outlined concerns, and would have been welcomed with overwhelming support, rather than being plagued by the overwhelming opposition that has ensued.
It’s great that Moroney has made an attempt to initiate debate over the scheme as people evaluate the Government’s performance. It’s clear, regardless of whether tweedle dum or tweedle dee win this year’s election, that National Standards as it stands is in dire need of review; a review complete with the consultation process it should have been afforded in the first place, and a review resulting in a system—whether continuing under the ‘National Standards’ tag, or some other less tainted moniker—that has the backing of those who have to implement them.


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