In early 2010 the primary sector braced for the introduction of National Standards. The reforms were National’s flagship education policy going into the 2008 election – putting it more than mildly, their announcement and ratification attracted plenty of controversy and condemnation.

Should the National party find itself moving down the hall later this year, Labour education spokesperson Chris Hipkins says they’ll start by getting rid of the emblematic four-point judgment scale, an aspect of National Standards that arguably has most angered critics.

Back in the last decade, the language championing National Standards seemed in step with the rhetoric of National’s 2008 campaign, as Labour fell on their own sword in the form of totemic leader Helen Clark. The National brand was positioned as an end to complacency and the return of accountability.

The mandate returning National to power after 12 years gave new Minister of Education Anne Tolley the confidence to push through changes to the Education Act that made National Standards compulsory, despite knowing as she must have that the response would be fierce. Petitions, protests, and resistance manifestos duly followed.

One of the more macro objections to National Standards has been the view that the policy is ideologically driven, an attempt to ‘convincingly suggest’ to teachers that staff rooms should look more to the boardroom. The fact that schools are required to publish National Standards data in annual reporting does nothing to mute the accusation that a National Standards data set is in effect a school’s share price, designed to stimulate among schools that prime mover mechanism of the right, market competition.

Hekia Parata is succinct in her response. The Honourable Minister has heard it all before.

“The OECD is emphatic that having explicit national standards are a characteristic of high-performing education systems. New Zealand’s Best Evidence Synthesis is equally clear that while quality teaching and leadership make the biggest difference in school to student success in learning; out of school it is the strength of parent and whānau engagement in their child’s learning, and the expectations their community hold of and for them.

“Our National Standards reflect and respond to all of these. In other words they are an evidence-based public policy response – not some ideological imposition. It is the reaction by critics that meets that test.”

The OECD may be emphatic, but the introduction of National Standards hasn’t managed to arrest New Zealand’s slide down that biggest league table of them all, PISA, the OECD’s own now-ubiquitous yardstick.

Martin Thrupp is Head of the Te Whiringa School of Educational Leadership and Policy, and Research Professor at the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, both based at Waikato University. Thrupp’s latest book The search for better educational standards – a cautionary tale isn’t far from release. The book is a summary of his research into the impact of National Standards – and his long-term opposition to the principles they advance – research that includes the Research Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) project, commissioned by the NZEI and last published in 2013.

I say to Thrupp that it’s hard to argue with the 2010 stated rationale behind National Standards: clear and uniform expectations that identify students at risk of underachievement; a vehicle for better whānau communication; a catalyst for teacher collaboration; a dataset that paints a clear picture at both school and system level.

“Well, there were lots of claims made at that time, including that we were going to avoid all the problems that had been experienced internationally with high-stakes assessment. The problem is that teaching to National Standards can drive teacher behaviour,” says Thrupp.

Jan Tinetti is principal of Tauranga’s decile 1B Merivale School, and has previously taught at decile 7 and 9 schools. She blames National Standards pressure for at least a condensation of their curriculum, and says parents aren’t necessarily happy about the focus on numeracy and literacy.

“I think [a narrowing curriculum] is certainly the case in lower decile schools. I’ve got children who come to school that will be two to three years below oral language levels – certainly they don’t know things that you’d expect a lot of children to know: colours, numbers and things like that.

“There’s the expectation that we need to get these kids to a certain level by the end of their first year in school – and I really hate saying this, because it goes everything that I believe in, but yes, what we’re able to teach and focus on has narrowed quite considerably. We’re still trying hard to deliver on all the curriculum areas, but we’re struggling under National Standards expectations.

“We’re honest about that reality with our parents. They don’t like it, they try to encourage us to have a good curriculum mix, and there’s a real tension there at times.

“We have a high proportion of Māori students at our school, about 75 per cent of our children, and 15 per cent from a Pasifika background. Our parents want us to make kapa haka available to everyone, for example. Well, that’s incredibly hard for us to fit in. We manage it, but there’s that constant tension that’s there all the time.”

Labour might say this is self-evidently bad. National might say that in lower decile schools it’s a good outcome if underachieving kids are accelerated, or put another way, taught intensively.

Minister Parata rejects the entire premise of a curriculum strangled by National Standards, saying that there is nothing inherent in their philosophy or detail precluding a rich curriculum.

“National Standards do not narrow the curriculum, introduce high stakes testing, label children, ignore the rate or style of children’s learning, take a one-size-fits-all approach or interfere with rich, deep conversations with parents and whānau.”

There isn’t time to ask the Minister whether she is implying that a school with curriculum issues needs to look at time management.

Ms Parata reiterates one of the key positions of her Ministry: that schools are free to deliver the curriculum however they see fit – but that contributing to the overall picture means more hours.

“National Standards do require a deeper understanding of the curriculum, of progression through it, more systematic collaboration with other teachers, and better, more frequent reporting to parents. And that does require more work.”

Yet, as Thrupp points out, in 2012 the OECD agreed with a 2007 ERO report in which they had argued that National Standards risk over-focusing schools and teachers on numeracy and literacy, at the expense of curriculum richness.

Arguably, the most persistent objection to National Standards is that the four-point judgement scale is an unacceptably crude mechanism, suited only to the simplistic interpretation of simplistic data. Thrupp says the government’s argument that parents have a right to know how well their school is performing rings hollow.

“I would then ask, ‘why choose such a crude system?’ Although there’s an extraordinary amount of work being done by teachers to produce OTJs, why do we have something as crude as a four-point scale to sum up that work?”

Labour’s education spokesperson Chris Hipkins has promised to get rid of the four-point overall judgement, although he doesn’t say whether that means he’ll do away with judgements themselves, or just their compulsory reporting and publication. He says that, beyond the crudity of the scale itself, the data that’s produced when all those judgements are crunched is being asked to work too hard.

“They’re trying to do too many different things using one fairly blunt measure. The Government would say that National Standards is the tool which teachers can use to measure student progress – which clearly they don’t; it’s the tool that schools use to report to parents on how their kids are progressing; it’s the tool that can be used to assess how teachers are going in their classroom… for the purpose of performance appraisal; it’s the tool that the Government and communities can use to measure one school versus another, and it’s the tool that the Government can use to measure the effectiveness of the whole system.

“I think the reality is that all those different jobs require a different type of measurement.”

Thrupp and Hipkins both argue that one of the problems the Government promoted National Standards as the solution to had in fact been solved before 2007: the identification of students at risk of underachievement. Given that the proportion of that underachievement hasn’t moved appreciably, both say that the layering of a simplistic data capture mechanism on top of the assessment tools we were already using is redundant.

“National Standards doesn’t provide us with any better data,” says Hipkins.

“We didn’t need National Standards to [highlight the long tail of underachievement]. We already knew there was a long tail, we already knew the characteristics of the kids who fell within that profile, and we already had some pretty good evidence of the types of support that made a difference to those kids who fell within that category.”

Minister Parata says that National Standards detractors have missed the point. It’s a framework, not just an assessment.

“National Standards, together with the Learner Progression Framework and NCEA now provide a whole of pathway assessment framework for all students from years 0/1–13. With better data we are able to see or question learning progress year on year and to better target resources to grow that learning. With the formation of Communities of Learning | Kahui Ako we have an operational vehicle to support personalised pathways of learning for every Kiwi kid.”

Election year is time to put up or shut up policy-wise, and so those opposed need to come up with a convincing alternative. Hipkins says that Labour believes a pragmatic approach will prevail – it will still be reform, not review, he hastens to add – if they’re steering, but there’s no point rolling back the bits of National Standards that have led to positive consequences.

“Well, we’re not going to collect up all the documents and burn them! One things that schools have said about National Standards that I think is really positive, is that it’s focused staffroom discussion on student progression. Of course, that laser focus on progression has if anything frustrated them more, because it’s focused the discussion in the right place, but they’re finding that the standards themselves are constraining them in their efforts.

“But I think that’s been positive, and we want to capture that: the notion that over the last decade, we’ve become much more focused on student progression. I don’t want to take away from that.

“For the system, I think a NEMP-style approach is better; for the school I think that parents should be measuring a school more on their overall performance than their National Standards data. A school’s performance, I think, is much better reflected in an ERO report.”

NEMP (National Educational Monitoring Project) was based at Otago University between 1995 and 2010 and was the premiere measure of primary education system performance in New Zealand. The project took a random sampling approach and investigated all curriculum areas, rather than just literacy and numeracy.

One of the effects of National Standards has been the transfer of responsibility for measuring the health of primary education from experts – as the left call them, or out of touch bureaucrats as the right normally renders it – to teachers. Whether teachers should be asked to accept this responsibility, whether doing so provides good data, and whether the collection of that data has an acceptable cost, is central to the argument for and against National Standards.

Thrupp says he believes that we need to stop pretending that making teachers work harder and offer themselves for public scrutiny is a substitute for expertise, and that experts create their own climate of excellence, which becomes a standard of accountability that teachers will be more positively motivated to attain.

“My view is that we’re much better off investing in the creation of teaching experts,” he says. “By that I mean improving teacher education and professional development. I’m talking about building a community in which there’s a certain amount of internal accountability because you’re accountable to your colleagues, because the standard of teaching is really high. I think that’s a far more effective model.”


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