Hard News by Russell Brown


Standards Matter

It's a quirk of the modern media world that we increasingly get our information from people who don't know anything. It's the age of the vox pop; of the harvesting of feelings rather than thoughts. And no local organisation has been more assiduous lately in separating information and knowledge than the New Zealand Herald.

It's barely a year since David Haywood's cracking proposal for "Herald readers to post their opinion on Einstein's famous equation," E=MC2. It was so … satirical.

And yet last week, the Herald asked Your Views correspondents: What do you think is responsible for a rise in the number of autistic children?

Whatever answer the editors thought they'd get, it presumably wasn't the first one:

Poor research and interpretation by journalists with limited fact-finding skills driven by editors and owners whose view of the bottom line overwhelms their ability to make well considered ethical and logical judgements.

Nor the second:

Why is this even up for debate? Its no mystery. So lets ask the largely scientifically illiterate public about it.

Or, further down the page:

Asking for opinions on what people think has contributed to the rise in Autistic children is a bit like asking, "whats attributed to the increased numbers of left handers"? If the answer was known, it simply wouldn't be occurring. Speculation, uninformed guess work and idea plucking contributes zip to such daunting and real issues. I suggest leaving these types of matters to those of the scientific and medical fraternity, qualified to offer rational opinions.

Indeed, responses seem to divide exclusively between "I personally feel the higher incidence of autism is due to chemicals in food and our reliance on pharmaceuticals," and " Every one knows it's the fluoride and heavy metals they chuck in at the water treatment plant," on the one hand, and variations on "Why are you asking us, you clowns?" on the other.

But the primacy of feelings over thoughts has been no better celebrated than in Saturday's lead story, National standards policy: How parents mark it, which began with the following summary, in bold type:

Like it: 73 per cent
Hate it: 14 per cent

"Hate" and "like," are, of course, feelings words, and feelings should always be presented as binary extremes. It's better that way, trust us.

But 88% of the self-selected Herald readers surveyed by Nielsen on the forthcoming national education standards were decent enough to admit that they didn't fully understand what they were commenting on. Given that the idea of standards is, in part, to provide clarity to parents, the fact that they apparently do not understand the system should arguably be the real lead in the story. (It's worth noting that for years "parents don't understand the system" was wielded as a cudgel against NCEA.)

And there was more:

A majority of readers - 56.3 per cent - believed the system would create "league tables" that parents would use to choose their children's primary school, and 47.9 per cent thought that would be a good thing.

We can fairly say that at least 56.3% of Herald readers surveyed do not have a clue what they’re on about. Nowhere in the government information about standards does it say that the system will "create league tables". Indeed, the people tasked with making it work are desperate that it not do so.

One of the key people in the development of our standards system, Chief Research Analyst Ian Schagen (a veteran of the troubled British system), explained why in How our system can learn from England's flawed thinking, a guest comment piece in the Herald in December:

There is wide agreement in New Zealand that such an approach is flawed. League tables based only on student achievement tell virtually nothing about how well schools are doing. The schools that come out top are those with the best intake, not those providing the best education.

Schagen was more forthright in the draft paper on which his Herald column was based, which was distributed internally in the ministry last year. In that, he said this:

I suppose it would be impossible to prevent the media publishing league tables in order to sell papers, but it is important that the government and Ministry has no truck with them. The Minister needs to have a severe word with anyone publishing league tables and tell them firmly that they are harming New Zealand education. As soon as the assessment judgements underpinning the use of National Standards become high-stakes for schools, we are going to compromise the real value of formative assessment for improving teaching and learning for individual students.

My emphasis. And yet, it appears to be exactly that which we are sleepwalking towards.

I am not reflexively anti-standards. I appreciate that there are many Ministry of Education staff who are, in real good faith, seeking to make this work. I can see the genuine merit of having good data on student development. I understand the philosophy behind The Authentic Standards Movement and its 'Evil Twin', a paper published on the Ministry of Education's own website. I get that they believe they can get the benefits of a standards system without the many documented drawbacks.

I'm just not very confident.

Professor John Hattie (well interviewed in the Weekend Herald's Review section, which remains a centre of excellence for the Herald brand) -- the researcher who brought the standards idea to National but now says the system is so flawed it should be scrapped -- seems to believe league tables are a fait accompli and is belatedly trying to get up a reporting system that compares like with like.

And already, the justifications are coming in: it's a "transparency" issue, according to the editorial in this week's Listener.

No, actually, it's a fit-for-purpose issue. I struggle to believe that anyone who has actually read the published information on national standards could believe it was a good idea to compile the results into competitive tables.

There is – for very good reasons – no central test. The key reporting, the Overall Teacher Judgement, is done by classroom teachers.

It takes little imagination to suppose that some pressure, implicit at least, might go on teachers if the very future of their school is at stake. And with any hint of that, the value of the standards process diminishes, and standards become, at worst, a dangerous waste of money.

Perhaps the most feckless commentary in the Herald comes from John Roughan, who – wheels spinning on an old grudge -- claims that standards will be a cure to the problems of "bad teachers", because the bad will be banished. The NZEI's only possible interest in opposing the prospective standards, he implies, is to protect bad teachers from dismissal.

I wish he could point me to the part of the system that does that, because I'm damned if I can see it. The Ministry of Education cannot indulge in a Roughanesque holy war with its frontline staff, because that would be – what's the word I'm searching for? -- insane.

Yes, part of the pitch for standards is that they'll assist in teacher development. But the blowhards who reflexively engage in teacher-bashing over standards seem unaware that assessment is yet another new duty that teachers are being asked to undertake alongside their core role of actually teaching.

It's seems to me that the NZEI would be remiss if it was not, on behalf its teacher members, raising this new commitment as an issue. It is also reasonable to ask exactly what benefit standards will provide over existing assessment systems, at what cost. Whether the fulfillment of this particular political promise is in fact the best use of limited resources. And why the system is being rushed in without a trial.

The ministry has done its best to answer questions, and to some extent can't be blamed if journalists can't read its material. But it seems to me that the ministry simply doesn't know what to say to parents of special-needs children, who risk being further marginalised by this new system. All it does is direct their attention to existing support, which, you should know, is already inadequate.

The Herald readers' panel, it seems, would like to know these things too:

But almost half - 48.4 per cent - of those surveyed were concerned that national standards would lead to schools focusing on publicly reportable subjects, to the detriment of the wider curriculum.

It's a good question. And editorialists and opinion writers would serve their readers well if they were to genuinely consider such questions, and not to load standards with irrational political expectations. Because it is precisely such expectations that stand to send the whole thing down the hole.

PS: Darel Hall has a new article on the Education Directions website that makes many of the same points from a professional perspective. He does know what he's talking about. You should read it.

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