There was a wild assumption made by many when the National government introduced National Standards in 2010, that they would be the key to closing the achievement gap and improving student learning in core curriculum areas. Wrong. The last seven years has proved that standards don’t educate children, or improve teaching, or indeed reflect the success or failure of schools. As Education Minister Chris Hipkins recently stated “Every major international study… has shown that the reading, writing and maths of New Zealand kids has gone backwards since National Standards was introduced.”

Of course, anybody familiar with the United States education system could have warned us many years ago that National Standards would fail. Back in 1983 when the federal government published a report titled ‘A Nation at Risk’ it warned the nation that student performance was on a downward spiral because standards had been lowered and to rectify the situation schools needed higher standards, and teachers and students needed to work harder.

The school reform efforts that this report instigated saw the introduction of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law which was responsible for the huge rise of standardized testing rates in the US. The assumption continued to be that if we test students in grades three (year four) to eight (year nine) at least once a year then standards throughout the country, including those schools serving predominantly poor and minority students, will improve. It was a disaster.

As the US learned and so too has New Zealand apparently, standards do not improve educational levels of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. As we already know, throughout the developed world – and New Zealand is no exception – it is the kids from lower decile schools who are failing within our education system, and unlike their more affluent peers in decile 10 schools, in many cases their home life has not prepared them effectively for school. As a result, these students are often not ready to learn, so they tend to fall further and further behind. Testing them, or comparing them to National Standards was never going to improve their learning, no matter how often they were tested. The simple truth is that many of these kids aren’t prepared for school and schools aren’t prepared for them.

To illustrate a point, in a 2009 commentary in Education Week, columnist Marion Brady used different dog breeds and their specific abilities as a poignant analogy about performance standards in education. As he was driving through the country roads of Great Britain, he noticed the incredible skills of border collies to round up sheep, and so he found himself thinking about the specific skills of other dog breeds; so if you find yourself lost in a snowstorm you don’t need a border collie to rescue you but instead a St. Bernard; to keep varmints from killing your chickens you would call on the skills of a fox terrier. Brady continues that there are all kinds of things dogs are capable of doing:

Want to sniff luggage for bombs? Chase felons? Stand guard duty? Retrieve downed game birds? Guide the blind? Detect certain diseases? Locate earthquake survivors? Entertain audiences? Play nice with little kids? Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well? With training, dogs can do those jobs well.

So, let’s set performance standards and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no dog behind. Two-hundred-pound mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-the-little-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, standards are standards! No excuses! No giving in to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Hold dogs accountable.

Here’s a question: Why are one-size-fits-all performance standards inappropriate to the point of silliness when applied to dogs, but accepted without question when applied to kids? When authorities mandate one-size-fits-all performance standards for kids, and the standards aren’t met, it’s the kids and teachers, not the standards, that get blamed.

Closing education gaps should be the goal of any education system. My argument is not that standards in themselves are invalid; it would be a ridiculous notion to imply that we shouldn’t strive to reach targets and improve learning.

My general argument against National Standards has always been twofold. First is that there are so many other variables affecting children who are not reaching standards of learning in reading, writing and maths. For many underachievers it is social, emotional, psychological and socio-economic barriers that interfere with learning; for others who happen to display other intelligences outside of the 3Rs such as oral skills, creative thinking, sports, music and artistic abilities, National Standards simply ignored them.

Secondly, standards-based accountability in schools to achieving National Standards ran the risk of schools and the government becoming obsessed with testing to the detriment of other forms of learning. Just ask many teachers around the country and they would claim, and understandably so, that the art of actual teaching suffered due to an obsession with National Standards reporting.

I have come to the conclusion that National Standards never taught kids much at all, if anything and they certainly won’t improve teaching. There are just too many other variables and learning styles as Brady’s analogy so wonderfully highlights. You simply won’t motivate a disillusioned kid to stay in school longer by giving him or her higher standards to obtain and by telling them to work harder when they don’t have the energy or the interest in the first place.

Steve Morris is Director of Morris Consulting Group, and is an expert in the field of human potential. He believes that the key to human performance is creating positive environments where people are engaged and motivated. Steve spent over 20 years in the education field.



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