What the media refuse to acknowledge about the scandal that is NCEA

With internal NCEA, virtually any child who manages to turn up with some regularity and display a modicum of interest will get through. The education system and secondary schools are gaining recognition on the degree of gall they are willing to show in getting children through internal NCEA.

The National government policy is improving education despite children learning less. It is a case of education defying learning gravity, something even Newton wouldn’t have envisaged.

I really couldn’t care much except it’s also obscuring the decline in the quality of primary school education.

I’ll leave it to universities to care about what ends up on their doorstep.

This year, of course, there was a drop in UE passes because more core subjects were mandatory and fewer internal passes were available. But don’t worry, as I predicted, UE passes lifted in the few weeks before the university term began as schools set up some quickies before the university year began – it won’t be long before gravity is being defied again.

The reason why the media, especially the newspapers, refuse to acknowledge the scandal, is their hang-up with hero principals and the idea that in education, the socio-economic status of children is of little account. At base, they don’t want real money being spent on real learning.

I happen to think that secondary school teachers within the limits and burdens being placed on them are pretty good. As an inspector and in other capacities I have been impressed by some aspects of their classroom teaching. I liked, in particular, the readiness of secondary teachers to actually do some thought-provoking teaching rather than being suckered into the anaemic role of facilitator as is occurring in so many primary schools. But secondary teachers are being wickedly hamstrung by the system, resulting in a large number of students being seriously ill-served and secondary teachers’ better teaching characteristics being undermined and distorted. But the PPTA instead of concentrating on correcting this, has been inveigled into supporting the crazy IES system which Bali Haque, former head of the qualifications authority, and no friend of secondary teachers, defined in his recent book as having only one purpose – putting the bureaucratic screws on teachers . But this posting is to go beyond secondary teaching, encompassing primary as well.

I would like to point out in anticipating the usual kickback from secondary teachers that I have taught NCEA (English) and found the experience positive and satisfying – but while NCEA was useful for helping children in their learning, in the sense of being able to start from where they were, it was hopeless for validly sorting children for grading and pass purposes. For internal NCEA grading, pressure from the system to pass students has become an invitation to rort. The NCEA unsuitability for sorting children for grading and pass purposes has been exploited by the National government to corrupt the secondary education system. That corruption has been dramatically exposed as a by-product of changes to university entrance and a consequent plummeting of entrance passes.

This fall in the number of students passing UE from 71 per cent in 2013 to 58 per cent in 2014 is a symptom of the corruption referred to, but revealed by chance. Ten years ago 64 per cent of students passed. This fall in numbers comes following the introduction of moving university entrance requirements from level 2 to 3. Universities were the driving force in the change on the back of 22 per cent of Maori and Pasifika students and 11 per cent of European students dropping out in their first year.  Hekia Parata said that the change in the university entrance requirements was well signalled from three years back (there is in this pronouncement a sense of hoping against hope, possibly taken in by her own propaganda of ‘progress’ in the education system) but the result is devastating to the government’s claim that its neoliberal education system is improving education.

Why then did the government change secondary qualifications in a way that exposes the corruption of the secondary education system? Why did it acquiesce to the universities plea to do something about the large numbers of near illiterate students graduating to universities? First, but less important were the embarrassing moves by universities to move to set up their own form of entrance examination; second, and more important, the government was keen to see more students go to cheaper and more manipulable polytechs. The government, it is suggested, was caught between two competing strands from the same ideology:  propagandising ‘improvement’ in public education on the basis of corrupt figures; and encouraging students into cheaper polytechs.

For reasons referred to above, internal NCEA passes are a huge and universal rort in secondary education. There are some schools especially established to pass children internally up to level 2; many of these to serve Maori. As serious as these schools are to the ‘integrity’ of NCEA, they are just a blip compared to what is going on in all secondary schools public and private. Internal NCEA, as mentioned, is excellent for student-centred learning but hopelessly vulnerable to an education system – based on narrowly-based standards – that signals that students should be passed by fair means or foul (but for goodness sake don’t let yourself be caught out being involved in the latter).  (The same kind of pressure for high national standards results has similar effects in primary.) Bolstering this invidious practice is the diversion of students judged border-line to fringe NCEA units. There is, of course, a generous element of stereotyping against Maori, Pasifika, and boys in the process.

When many of the students get to NCEA level 3, they find the work either too difficult, or can’t be bothered (having been turned off learning), or have not chosen NCEA units that lead to level 3.  By retaining internal NCEA, we are betraying generations of students. We should do away with internal NCEA; also insist on students take core subjects for longer.  To help students meet the resulting increase in learning challenge more teachers should be available to provide a close and intimate tutoring system.

Bu the betrayal begins far before secondary, it begins at primary. It is a whole of education problem that starts at primary school. If I had to choose two concepts to highlight the problem, I would suggest boys, and after that, national standards. The gross failures in education affect girls too, but comparatively more plug on (but why should they, why should they not be freed to accelerate?)

School is driving many boys nuts. At primary school, as classroom work becomes more trivial or formal there seems to be proportionate increase in outside classroom activities, which serves to settle boys somewhat.  As well, being younger they are more trusting. But I can see their future in education as though displayed on a roadside advertising sign. At primary school, mathematics might have interested boys but is a fragmented mess. Decades ago, when teachers were allowed to display initiative, they would have knocked the curriculum into some shape including picking up pointers from innovative schools. The mathematics curriculum amongst other things is wrongly based and needs rewriting but, in the current context, to what purpose? under Tomorrow’s Schools there has never been and never will be a successful whole of system curriculum change. (See Primary School Diaries Part Three.)

Schools are now incorrigibly bureaucratic: the way to proceed is decided by education bureaucrats reading from their little red book, not left for teachers to develop from core principles. Reading in primary schools has been reduced to a skill not an activity as part of children’s lives. At middle school, if a class is given a sustained silent reading time, two out of three girls are reading a book but, except for say, two boys, the rest of the boys will be looking at picture books. So-called enquiry learning has boys busy but only mildly engaged. In writing, instead of writing about things that interest them, that tug at their emotions, play to their ego, they are being taught – and you will see the bitter humour in this – how to write university essays. (The response is usually a few desultory, scrappy lines.)

For over twenty years now I have been writing in declarative mode that the system is failing all children, children of high ability (oh dear! The lost tribe of education), girls (why should they have to call on so much patience?), and then there are the boys, Maori and Pasifika.  Oh dear! The obsession with narrow skills wielded like a herding prod for boys, Maori, and Pasifika, but also applied god help us to all children (thus fulfilling the conservative education fantasy of the 3Rs for all.) And for boys, Maori, and Pasifika, the obsession with the 3Rs is a near guarantee of a second class education akin to a contemporary form of gardening duties. So many teachers and parents have interpreted the truism that children need the 3Rs to get ahead, as meaning that is all that children need to get ahead. God dammit! children need much more than that and from the beginning. Early childhood teachers with their brilliant academic guides and protectors are doing fine – and then children go to primary, and especially if adjudged behind in the 3Rs, very likely fated never to be challenged in their primary career by a contextually significant open-ended question or activity. The real failure payoff in all this is when they go to the upper realms of NCEA. (And by the way did you read one of New Zealand’s most boring academics – a most fiercely contested label  – Stuart McNaughton, say, by implication, that early childhood education needed to be more formal?) How many times do I have to say that teaching the basic skills is not contrary to flexible thinking but comprehensively supportive of it? Basic skills and flexible thinking are not mutually exclusive, absolutely the contrary, they are vital for learning that is affectively and cognitively engaging. Hammering children with the 3Rs, teaching to children the immediate of national standards, coldly careless to their future, is the ultimate in the exploitation of children by adults and, in its way, a kind of corruption, too. Flexible thinking is not an optional extra; it is a fundamental to the practice of engaged and persisting learning. Yes – children are failing at secondary in the basics but that is largely because the use of those skills so prized by bureaucrats has not become connected with children’s emotions and everyday lives.

You can see the strains appearing at middle school, but middle schools (as for contributing schools) do a remarkable job keeping children interested outside the classroom, but when boys, Maori, and Pasifika students get to secondary there’s a whole lot of squirming, glazed eyes, and inattention going on, often irrespective of the quality of the teaching. For certain groups of children I could cut the boredom with a knife.  For goodness sake, I am and have been talking generally. I know there are exceptions. The most notable, a secondary school for mainly Pasifika girls. The answer is a close tutorial system, with teachers working intensely with students and of course co-operatively with parents. But you see; the ruthless PPTA executive went for the wandering teacher model, which is proposed as a way for schools working together but really a way for schools to work on each other to, in authoritarian style, adhere to bureaucratic orthodoxy. I see the whole situation, primary and secondary, as not being recognised, never likely to be recognised because so many have been insidiously structured to see what is wrong and wayward as normal and to be expected, as there being no alternative. Careers, expectations, and behaviours have been aligned with the corruption but a corruption that has no name, or moving from Wilde to le Carre, a corruption that is deniable – the dominant characteristic of how New Zealand schools function is deniable corruption.

But because education corruption is ever willing to fill a vacuum, as I write and you read, I can guarantee that some secondary school management somewhere is already manipulating internal NCEA credits – yes over the holiday period leading up to the start of the university term, directing its teachers to get on with some quickie internal credits in mathematics, science, literacy – whatever – to improve last year’s batch of UE results. And as for this year’s UE, rest easy, managements everywhere will be developing plans so cunning secondary classrooms will be alive with weasels.

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2 Responses to What the media refuse to acknowledge about the scandal that is NCEA

  1. Bruce Hammonds says:

    A very interesting posting Kelvin.

    The current emphasis on focusing on achieving ‘atomistic’ NCEA levels negates the development of an integrated, or holistic, cross curricula approach to learning and a more creative approach to secondary learning and teaching.

    The current imposition of National Standards does the same at the primary level.

    Teachers are so busy assessing they cant see the wood for the trees. Or as our friend Elwyn Richardson used to say , ‘ it’s hard to remember you came to drain the swamp when you are up to your backside in alligators!’

    ‘Rorting’ the system, as you say, is all too easy , both with NCEA and National Standards, inevitable with the current emphasis on comparing schools using ‘shonky’ data.

    And I agree with you this hang-up on worshiping the ‘heroic’ principals avoids real issues of the lack of cultural capital that is the base cause of the growing disparity in our school system. ‘Heroic’ principals are naturally recognized by their success in achieving narrow targets. Real lasting success however is only gained when the staff, students and parents are all aligned behind common aspirations. As well the quality ( or fairness) of any success depends on the vision behind the aspirations. It is obvious that the principal plays a leadership role but it the teachers who are the real heroes.

    It is obvious to all, except the ideologically biased towards a market forces approach to learning, that culture counts , it depends on whether students have the appropriate cultural capital or not.

    As for primary schools real in-depth learning in the content areas is hard to find not withstanding all the talk about inquiry learning.

    My observations ( and discussions with teachers) indicate that the day’s programme is dominated by attention to literacy and numeracy ( the so called Three Rs). As someone said , ‘It is as if the evil twins of literacy have gobbled up the entire curriculum’. This is not to say literacy and numeracy are still not important, they obviously are, but they need to be ‘re- framed’ to become integral to an inquiry programme based on ‘rich, real, rigorous and relevant’ studies – the ‘four Rs’!

    The current narrow emphasis on ‘shonky’ NCEA targets and National Standards levels – and the distortion that goes with this emphasis, is subverting the education all our students deserve.

  2. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Bruce – a terrific extension to the posting.

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