Yes – we are in an education mess

If these were different political times, in other words, Labour had been the government, the response to the research findings of a government-contracted firm declaring that something is very wrong with the level of education knowledge and skills of so many students going through to university would have been oh so different. The NZ Herald would have thundered about school education going to the dogs and the teacher organisations would have been furiously demanding both beneficial organisational change and more funding be directed to New Zealand classrooms.  But under National, nothing much from the Herald; or from the teacher organisations, bewildered as they are by their prior surrender and commitment to the disastrous cluster policy. But the penny will drop some time for the government; even for the teacher organisations; the difference being that the government will come prepared for that penny dropping moment, but not the bewildered (that is the teacher organisations); the government will have apparent solutions at the ready – solutions that are just the same but more so, with the teacher organisations following helplessly behind, meaning just the same but more so.

And in this posting’s desperate attempt to kindle some fire and purpose in the teacher organisations a somewhat different ending.

Yes – we are in an education mess, but in most areas of school education those involved, especially power-holders, are carrying on as if nothing untoward is happening. The shibboleths persist: those of national standards, NCEA, assessment pervasiveness, top down structure, organisation the key to success, organisation the key to the curriculum, literacy and numeracy, computers as panacea, computer-driven inquiry learning, exclusion of teachers from decision-making, review office knows, quantitatives know, academics automatically deserve respect, STA knows, boards of trustees know, private providers know, teachers don’t know, teacher organisations do know, phonics, teaching to objectives, clusters are for co-operation.

This posting is to alert readers to the reality that the mess is at last being recognised and the subsequent need to be ready, hopefully with the support of teacher organisations, to turn the situation to advantage. The mess will become so obvious that even the government will acknowledge it, but at the moment of doing so certain to have ready its non-alternatives namely the same policies as before but even harsher. As an example: children’s reading is slipping, mainly because of teacher resort, in association with national standards,  to increasing amounts of phonics, so reading will be a big issue – in the government’s non-alternative we will get plans for system-wide imposed structured phonics justified through the so-called evidence-based quantitatives, delivered by private providers, to even more tightly controlled clusters, all policed by an even more indicator-laden review office (and possibly okayed by NZEI as an act of good faith).

Further up the education system, official documents to the ministry show that that it has accepted research demonstrating that many teens getting NCEA were not functionally literate or numerate. (This research was carried out by Maths Technology a Dunedin-based company which, about six years ago, I criticised as another government-aligned setup. Over the years it has proved otherwise, and I apologise.) The research indicating that many students were very poor at reading, writing, and maths (please note, we have no way of knowing, but can only guess at, their very poor ability to think). It said 40 percent of y. 12 students who had met NCEA requirements were not at the level of literacy and numeracy regarded by the OECD as the minimum for life [the full-stop could well be inserted here] in a knowledge economy. The research then said, wryly I suspect, that individuals might be misled into believing they were functionally literate and numerate when they were not, and policy makers might overestimate the literacy and numeracy of school leavers.

The research went on to say that the NCEA requirements were not a reliable indicator of literacy and numeracy and might need to be replaced by a new test. The government, however, behaving as predicted (that is with a harsher non-alternative as described above), responded with the idea of a test in y. 8-9 to ‘try to spot those unlikely to meet the desired standards when they were in y. 8-9.’ In other words, an extension of the failed national standards to secondary – anything other than providing teachers with the opportunity for diversity of viewpoint, sufficient resources (that is more teachers), and trust.

Angela Roberts, PPTA president, with whom, a year or two back, I was in fierce dispute over my alternative to wasting funds on clusters, that of extra staffing in y. 8-9 for an intensive tutor system for literacy and numeracy, said there was no need for a test, just an agreement to decide which of the existing NCEA standards were best for assessing students literacy and numeracy. Who said she didn’t have a sense of humour? She knows along with nearly everybody else that NCEA, in the way it is undertaken and marked, is horse feathers. The solution you propose Angela is the problem: if NCEA wasn’t horse feathers there wouldn’t be the problem. One wonders what, indeed, Groucho would make of it – forget college football.

But this posting is going to a take a twist. I am going to honour those who stood out against national standards. The national standards straitjacket, being forever tightened. 

Were you with them when they fought against national standards? Where are you now?

National standards have been an horrendous failure: many said they would be and they have been – but there are still some who persist in believing in their efficacy.

Think of the children who have gone through schooling and had a lesser education as a result; think of the pervasiveness of national standards and how they have distorted the total structures and purposes of education.

The posting was called ‘Triumphant unanimity in the North’ (2009)

Friday, November 27, was a gorgeous day: the place was Kawakawa School in the Bay of Islands; the occasion a meeting of Tai Tokerau principals (Whangarei to Reinga); the purpose to discuss national standards. Over 80 principals were in attendance; the redoubtable Pat Newman was in the chair; three people from the ministry were there – the Auckland second-in-command whose name I didn’t pick up, Alison Dow, and Mary Chamberlain (a last minute call-in when the intent of the prospective meeting became known); and there was Bruce Hammonds. In the audience, with his attendance much appreciated, was Kelvin Davis, the Far North Labour list mp. 

Pat in black (looking rather like a local mafia chapter leader) in his introductory comments, left no doubt of his point-of-view, but promised to chair the meeting fairly (which he did to the extent of hauling me in when I was expatiating with considerable enthusiasm on how bureaucrats earned brownie points by demonstrating their staunchness in going against the expressed wishes of teachers).

This vibrant meeting, for better or worse, became a turning point.

It reminded me of the time of the Springbok tour. Before the break in, the protestors were despised, after, hated.

Before this meeting, those who spoke out against national standards weren’t rated, after, taken deadly seriously.

As I looked across hall frontage and a little down the hill beside the two ministry cars; Mary Chamberlain was in serious huddle with her ministry colleagues. I knew then the battle was engaged.

The struggle awful, the effect on teachers and children corrupting – the need now obvious: to win the failure of those who won first.

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4 Responses to Yes – we are in an education mess

  1. So further down the rabbit hole. When will the madness end.

  2. Roger Young says:

    I can’t believe that those in charge still refuse to see the difficulties facing education. They still insist on keeping their ears in the sand. Hoping I suppose that the problems will simply go away.
    Working on literacy and numeracy at year 8 and 9 is sticking plaster therapy .
    The cure needs to be worked on at year 1 and before. If not the problems will continue forever. Primary schools must be given the freedom to perform. There has to be no restriction on learning which is what national standards are. They limit learning. And what’s worse they limit learning in the poorer areas the most. Putting too many restrictions on schools limits performance. It’s like putting all the iPads over the students eyes and hoping that the learners can see.

  3. Bruce Hammonds says:

    I remember that meeting well. I know Marry Chamberlain well. We both worked as school advisers in Taranaki before her appointment to the Ministry. It was sad to see her having to defend what she didnt believe in. All those who work for the Ministry have to trade in their integrity and learn to toe the line.

    Too many principals have caved in and now comply to survive.All credit to those who have done their best to hold on to their creative teaching beliefs – it can’t be easy; easier to comply.

    Voices like your own and Bryan Bruce ( his recent TV Documentary was excellent) are most important – and I hope my own Leading and Learning blog also contributes.

  4. Kelvin says:

    Bruce: Your blog is a long-term voice of enlightenment. The most important contribution being to establish the sense of an alternative – which you have done and are doing – there is another way, and a better one.

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