Wednesday, December 5, 2012

National standards continue to threaten New Zealand’s education system

By: Hannah Cook
Produced and edited by: Molly Nocheck

It was over two years ago that New Zealand’s National Party implemented National Standards in the nation’s primary education system. The policy, seemingly out of nowhere, blatantly sidelined New Zealand’s schools and their popular, unbiased curriculum. It led to the deterioration of the population’s morale; students, parents, faculty and teachers struggled with the idea that children were going to be labeled and placed within the hindering walls of an abstract title.

The battle between The Ministry of Education’s national standards and the education system exhausts and frustrates critiques to this day. Political ideology has outweighed educational ideology, manifesting a general sense of uneasiness in New Zealand. And although the side of the education system has waived its white flag--allowing National Standards into its schools because it is the law now--its anti-attitude still glimmers in the unceasing concern for the children and the future of the nation as a whole.

New Zealand’s National Standards policy is unique. Having noticed the faulty trends of standardized testing in other countries like the U.S., the government and Ministry aimed to come up with a plan to avoid testing all together. While the intentions were good, the result has become a confusing mess of inconsistent teacher judgment and a complete disregard of all the factors that affect learning.

“Without a national test, what we get is teachers making judgments by pulling together evidence, sure, but how they actually assess that evidence and what they make of it is highly individualistic and idiosyncratic,” says Michael Johnston, a professor at Victoria University and a member of the New Zealand Assessment Academy.

Essentially, the current National Standards system creates useless data, according the Johnston and other opposers. The disparity among teachers and schools is too great to come up with a set standard. The Ministry doesn’t see it that way though. Instead, it deflates the value put on teachers.

“We have gone from a situation of a fairly high degree of trust and valuing of teachers in schools and the education system to a situation of suspicions and political and media focus,” said Terry Crooks, a member of the New Zealand Assessment Academy.

Gavin Beere, a principal at Hillpark School in Auckland, agrees, “There’s a message that our teachers are lazy, that they’re incompetent.”

The National Standards, focusing solely on numeracy and literacy, also detriments the broad spectrum of learning a child should have. According to Phil Harding, a principal at Paparoa Street School in Christchurch, the fear is that teachers, as they are being pressured to produce positive results for their students in such a narrowed group of courses, will lose site of the visions founded in the original curriculum of 2007—a curriculum that had the support of all people involved in the education system.

Children of Paparoa Street School.
Credit: Academic Fair Use
But the inconsistency doesn’t stop at the teachers. The students also face a wide range of influences that may make or break them in this National Standards system, the most significant being socioeconomic issues, particularly seen within the Maori peoples of the Pacific Island.

“We’ve got children turning up having not eaten, having seen their mothers beaten half to death the night before. Drugs are very prevalent,” says Dellis Hunt, a concerned mother of two and a previous member of Parents Against Labeling (PAL). “There’s a lot more to it than what they’re looking at.” The treatment of Hunt’s 13-year-old daughter at school due to her status of being “below the standards” is what got Hunt involved in PAL and other lobbying against National Standards. “It was awful. My little girl was treated differently within a year of starting school ... I actually chose not to get the reports. I didn’t want them. I didn’t see the value in them and I felt they would damage my daughter by labeling her as not being achieving,” she says.

Those issues of inconsistency have yet to cease. Meanwhile other problems continue to rise. Most recently, it is the publication of league tables, revealing to the public eye nearly every single school’s 2011 National Standards results. “I don’t think it was very helpful,” Johnston says. “It just sets up a whole lot of false comparisons between schools of different kinds.”

In the eyes of those who oppose the National Standards, the next step for New Zealand’s education system is to alter them so that they simply make more sense. Johnston and Crooks, who are both working to reassess the standards, believe that focusing on progress rather than status is more effective at producing actually usable data.

“Setting a National Standard and saying ‘this is an appropriate target for all kids in this year of schooling.’--it’s ridiculous,” Crooks says, “the best thing you can do for children is to assess where they actually are and set a target for how much you can progress them over the next year or three years or five years.”

Photo credit: Academic Fair Use
The system would not only bolster student morale, but it will also place less accountability on the unreliably varying characteristics of teachers. Johnston and his colleagues have been granted $5 million to rework the system, which should be ready by next year. “As far as I know there’s no other system like it in the world, so if it works we should be in a good position to introduce to other countries and see if they like the idea as well,” Johnston says. “But we’ll make it work here first.”

In the meantime, New Zealand’s education system continues to lock horns with National Standards and The Ministry. The people are losing faith and trust in their government, and the children are most at stake. Along with many others, Beere can’t help but feel a little hopeless. “I would say morale has never been lower in my career than it is now.”

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