Indicators: a tumbling, fractious, tautologous, pretentious assembly – and The point

I know it is a bit of a litany by now, but I was trained as primary teacher – was a teacher, deputy-principal, and principal for ten years, then a social studies teachers college lecturer for six years, and 15 years later at 51, as a senior inspector, with the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools, I left the formal education system to devote the rest of my professional life to protecting  the holistic curriculum and providing a voice for classroom teachers who I knew, of all groups, would be the most disenfranchised.

 I have never forgotten my beginnings: I remained a teacher, felt a teacher, thought as a teacher. 

And the point, you might ask.

  1. The ministry of educationHave their say about updating the Education Act 1989’

I want to avoid the point for the moment and turn to the ministry of education document inviting people to ‘Have their say about updating the Education Act 1989’. There are two crucial statements in that document:

  • ‘One of the biggest changes suggested is to make it clear in our law that children and young people, and raising their achievement, comes first.’

Translated, that means the government will decide what is best for children, the main point being to marginalise teachers. The space left from teachers not being there, filled by government-aligned academics.

  • ‘Matters that are not part of this consultation include: changes that would increase government spending on education.’ 

Translated, that means the government in knowing what is best for children has already spent the money available for any proposals, and they have been mainly organisational, leaving only further organisational change on which for  people to have their say. For teachers who care, school education is an alien, broken, and confused environment – it is as though another country. Is that the point? yes and no, not unequivocally.

  1. Education review office ‘School Evaluation Indicators’ 

I move now to the education review office ‘School Evaluation Indicators’ recently published by the education review office and put together by a group of government-aligned  academics.

The indicators are disgraceful at many levels: were the academics who wrote the school evaluation indicators for the education review office bereft of their humanity for the occasion? if once were teachers did they think back on the suitability in purpose and expression of those indicators? did they consider the usefulness of such jargon-laden, coldly-abstract, humanly-distant indicators? did they consider the effect on teachers of that tumbling, fractured, tautologous, pretentious assembly? did they think of their responsibility in the interests of children to be clear, incisive, and practical? were they aware that such lists – lists beyond sense, practicality, and applicability – provide the education review office with a readymade means to trip up schools (on the whim, personality, and mood of the reviewer, or because the reviewer wants to stamp out individuality or independence) in a way that is unfair but beyond countering?

The lists go on and on in turgid, overlapping, relentlessness: a parody of themselves, a wound on the English language, and an exploitation of teachers and children. You have failed as academics to use your knowledge to present the central tasks of teaching in a transparent and classroom-practical way. Your attention was not to teachers and children; it was to your patronage.  I don’t believe the origins of the lists lay within the group of academics, but in other lists that in being transposed were complicated further rather than clarified.

Much of my professional life has been spent making working on lists, lists always considerably reduced from their starting point, expressed in accessible language, useful and enhancing for teachers – a distilling of the essence of a curriculum area or school function. I felt it was my responsibility as a person who worked with teachers to do nothing less.

Is that your point? yes and no.

A typical indicator from the education review office document: Evaluation, inquiry and knowledge building for improvement and indication – Policies, systems and processes and teaching practices embed evaluation, inquiry and knowledge building activities into the way the organisation plans for, and takes action to, accomplish its vision, values, goals and priorities.’ Another from the same section: ‘Leaders and teachers are data literate: posing focused questions; using relevant data; clarifying purpose(s); recognising sound and unsound evidence; developing knowledge about statistical and measurement concepts; making interpretation paramount; and having evidence-informed conversations.’

I would like the reader to think of the demands of being a teacher and a requirement like this (amidst hundreds more in the document and hundreds more in other documents) being imposed on them. (I would also like to add that in respect to ‘sound and unsound evidence’, a researcher’s evidence regularly referred to in the lists and who has worked in association with a number of those who compiled the lists, has had his research exposed as a sham.)

The list of ‘Principles for selection of indicators’ says the indicators must be ‘observable or measurable’. The education review office might have made this a demand, but members of the group to allow themselves to be organised by it, have betrayed their humanity and teachers. What is the evidence for just such a decision? The ‘observable or measurable’ dictum is an ideological instrument to allow education review officers to move around demanding measurable data to the terrible disadvantage of teachers and children.

As well, given the power imbalances in the way the education review office works, its bullying  hierarchical structure, the narrowness of its curriculum perspective, I find the association of Maori concepts in this education review office document disturbing. To me, the translation of those concepts (manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, ako) into educational outcomes disorders them and draws attention away from the nauseating nature of the indicators in the rest of the document. Are the Maori concepts, those avowedly spiritual concepts, subject to the same requirement to be ‘observable or measurable’ Mere?

The writer of what follows is my people, I have never betrayed them only wept for them –the unequivocal point is contained in the writing. The question now is: will you weep?

The point

I have now been unemployed for a month. For 30 years I have taught at a local primary school and always been involved with our school community.  Uppermost in my mind is the idea that each child has their own special potential – and that my job is to help them discover and grow this – whether it is music, rugby, science, carving, as well as all the other more formal parts of the curriculum. I am a person who provides a rich environment but waits for the moment.

This year at school, we received professional learning support from a big company. Two women came and talked to us about modern learning environments. They invited comment and I shared with them that we had many students who were the third generation who’d had trouble reading. I was trying to show them the bigger picture of our community and to talk about how we might be able to involve families in our literacy and learning programmes.

The two women were very challenging. They kept saying to me, ‘You have to examine the data.’ But what they really meant was looking only at the maths and reading tests. Our room is full of data – photos, paintings, weaving, tukutuku stories, sporting, music, speech awards, as well as the data they were referring to. The women were obviously not happy with me. We will be reporting you to others, they said.

When they came back next time, they brought another woman with them. She was very aggressive and started by saying exactly the same thing. ‘Now you need to examine the data’ as though it was some kind of mantra. I tried to explain again that that in itself would not be sufficient as many of our children had not had the same opportunities as others and there was a constant need to build their confidence and gain their trust. Then I mentioned the three generation thing again …

This really unleashed something! The new woman poked her finger at me and said very loudly: ‘Three generations!  And what do you think is the common factor here?’ Without waiting for any reply, she continued – with more finger pointing – ‘You!’ Not poverty, not the fact that these families sometimes give their children marijuana as a reward for being ‘good’, not family violence, ill-health, a lack of breakfast and a mum in jail …


My face was burning up and I couldn’t speak. I thought I was going to pass out – it was like being punched in the face. Not able to stay in the room, I ran out and got into my car. I have no idea how I drove home that night. The next day I resigned. I feel as though everything I have ever believed in has been ripped out of me, everything I have ever valued about education gone.

Kelvin, I know that you have asked people to share their stories. The education system is rife with bullying. Thank-you for being there and listening.

That is the point.

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11 Responses to Indicators: a tumbling, fractious, tautologous, pretentious assembly – and The point

  1. Roger Young says:

    Your article and the teacher story makes me sad but it is all too familiar these days.
    Teachers are being sidelined and abused. The data nonsense is epidemic. The academic nitwits have moved from looking at what children are actually doing to looking at data. The data is a heap of adult produced fiction which has little relevance to what is really happening. ERO in their untrained ignorance are demanding to see teacher produced evidence. The important missing link here is that they are not interested nor are they concerned with what children are actually doing.
    We desperately need some people with actual classroom experience in positions of control in education. The decisions being made need to be made by experienced classroom teachers. Keep politicians and academics as far away from decision making, policies and change as is possible.

  2. 111peggyb says:

    This narrative breaks my heart. Why? Because this is my story and the story of so many of my talented colleagues. We have to ask ourselves why is it a ‘visitor,’ invited into our schools able presume to know us, know our children and know our community better than us and our staff, after spending a day at most with us? You are correct when you say we have data all around us in the classroom and in the school. As trained, qualified and experienced teachers we ‘see’ and understand that data.

    However in the first decade and a half of the 21st century our education system is so myopic in focus. Driven by faceless bureaucrats who care little for humanity and much for ‘cost benefit analysis’. Gone are the days of faith in professional judgement and respect for a life time of commitment to colleagues, quality learning and the love of children. Our bureaucrats are so obsessed with assessment and measurement and quantifying children’s achievements that they fail to ‘see’ the child’s achievement unless we have a test mark to confirm progress.

    How do you measure enjoyment, confidence, love, passion, strength, daring, risk taking, personal growth, friendship – the list could on! Teachers know how to measure that – and it’s not by making a child sit a written test and achieve an arbitrary standard.

    My heart bleeds for you and the sense of loss and humiliation your narrative conveys. Kia kah, Kia toa, Kia manawanui.

  3. Phil T says:

    The English language is a wonderful thing and if you take the time to read the words you do come to understand the writer. If the person is wanting to hide behind words it is usually quite evident and many of the initial highlighted sentences show little desire for a clear and shared vision.
    Some years back my daughter got to meet the then PM Helen Clark and when she asked my
    daughter what she did she said she was just started out teaching. Helen said well you are working in the one profession that has the biggest impact on the future of our country.
    After 10 years my daughter has decided to try something else despite getting rave reviews from principals and parents. If she could just teach she would still happily be still teaching but the clip on baggage was just to much. The future of teaching and schools cannot be left to the civil servants as far to much of what they do is trial and error.

  4. stephen dadelus says:

    Your response Kelvin to these draconian ‘indicators’ needed to be written. Schools don’t have the time nor energy to pay much heed to the nonsense stuff which arrives into schools. The danger is that we will get lumbered as you point out when reviewers with their own agendas come to hammer on the door! It might be a worthwhile exercise for you to resurrect your holistic indicators of bygone years. Turning the tide by writing plain english indicators which truly reflect the work and efforts of young children and their primary schoolteachers. Lets go on the offensive!

  5. John Carrodus says:

    Kelvin the Indicators are a sick joke. They give nit-pickers a feast of hundreds of pointless agenda items – from the temperature of classroom doorknobs to how many toilet rolls are stacked in the caretakers cupboard. They are, not surprisingly an insult to teachers and schools who have always used common sense useful data of various types to improve childrens education in a holistic sense. This of course drives bureaucrats insane because they can not get a handle on it. Literally anyone can pop in off the street to do a Gordon Ramsey ram raid, criticise, scream and stamp their feet if they can’t get what they want. But unlike Gordon, many of them do not have the skills and experience to actually know what they are talking about when it comes to running a classroom, department or school.

  6. Ralph Wallace says:

    Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

  7. macninz says:

    Hi Kelvin
    “Uppermost in my mind is the idea that each child has their own special potential – and that my job is to help them discover and grow this – whether it is music, rugby, science, carving, as well as all the other more formal parts of the curriculum. I am a person who provides a rich environment but waits for the moment.”

    Make this person a principal immediately!!!!

  8. Penelope Bond says:

    Hi Kelvin
    Your story makes me weep for the future of schooling in New Zealand. I have two preschool daughters and would just like to say that the values you and the teacher in your story put forward with regards to education are exactly the sort I would hope to find in their future teachers. It is heartbreaking to hear how she has been treated. Wishing you all the very best for your future work

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