This is how I see it…
In 2007 the New Zealand Ministry of Education released the revised New Zealand Curriculum document. I believe this was a game-changer in education. It focused on the inquiry learning model and encouraged creativity, collaboration, participation and more. The Key Competencies were a great new addition where students would also be taught and/or guided to Think, Relate to others, Use language symbols and texts, Manage themselves and Participate and contribute – all important skills for students to learn as they grow up into adulthood and become global citizens that can contribute to society.
In came the National Party and National Standards for Years 1-8. It seemed like this was a National Party initiative, however as far as I’m aware (and hopefully someone will correct me if I’m wrong), the idea of National Standards actually come from Labour but were not quite ready while Labour was still in government. National then came into power and seemed to rush through the legislation. The problem that I see with National Standards (coming from a secondary school teacher, but being on the Board of Trustees at a primary school) is that there is nothing ‘standard’ about them. Even the Minister of Education at the time, Ann Tolley, admitted that they were ‘fuzzy’ standards. Huh?! How can you have a ‘standard’ that is ‘fuzzy’. It is open for interpretation. One of the other really big problems with National Standards is that none of the tests that have been used for quite some time that show at what level students are working at do not match to the standards. It is an average system at best that is being used alongside very good, well researched systems.
So why were National Standards introduced. Well, I would say that is probably for a variety of reasons – possibly including ranking schools/teachers (particularly with one of the latest ideas of performance pay for teachers coming back to the table – more on that later perhaps). The government of course says it’s to help our well-mediaised (no, I don’t think that is a word, but I’m using it) ‘long tail of under-achievement’. It’s well known that in New Zealand, 1 in 5 kids is not achieving. I think that is high, but I haven’t tried to compare it to other countries myself.
One thing National Standards has done is made the focus of education at these levels on literacy (specifically reading and writing) and mathematics. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing, but it has made teachers and schools focus so much on this that I believe schools are not being left in a position to focus on the broad nature of the curriculum and inquiry learning. Even school reports talk about reading, writing and mathematics and then seem to lump everything else into a short statement on ‘topic studies’. I would love to see these ‘topics’ expanded on in reports and maybe having a brief explanation of what the topic is and what sorts of things were covered educationally. These topics in my view could be where the bulk of teaching and learning occurs – including the reading, writing and mathematics. It’s where students can start exploring (or finding) their passions and learning those skills that are mentioned in the curriculum document.
Back to the ‘long tail’… This ‘long tail’ is the reason for the new initiatives of the current National Government. Firstly is performance-based pay. I’m not yet sure how definite this one is, but I would say with NZEI and PPTA (the teachers’ unions) going into negotiations for new collective agreements later this year, that I think it may be difficult to push this through without too much strike action. Performance-based pay has not worked well overseas, so why would it work here? At primary schools, this method of reward would most likely have to relate to National Standards results. The problem here is that even if students are clearly progressing – test results do not always show this. If a teacher has worked hard with students and brought them up from ‘well below’ the standard’ to ‘below’ the standard (which could be a remarkable achievement for some students) then will this teacher be reward with more pay? Or because their students are still below the standard, will they then be regarded as a poor teacher? The same applies in secondary school with NCEA. Some students will always struggle to achieve the standards. Does it mean that the teachers are bad?
Along with this, the government in all it’s wisdom has decided that increasing class sizes, will: 1. Save money; 2. Increase teacher performance; and 3. increase student achievement. I’ve been told there’s a lot of research that shows that larger class sizes does not affect student outcomes. I did a quick search yesterday (I did not search or read in-depth) and I found that there are some articles that say that class size does not have a great affect on student achievement, and there are others that say that smaller classes can help increase student achievement. Anecdotally, I can say that smaller classes increase the time the teacher can spend with individual students and therefore the likelihood of the level of higher achievement increases. It makes sense. Smaller class sizes are also important if we want to focus on the key components of our current curriculum document and encourage creativity and innovation in our students (something that New Zealanders are very proud of in general – Kiwi ingenuity). Interestingly, the Prime Minister himself, sends his kids to a private school because smaller class sizes help increase student achievement – I’m sure that’s not the only reason, but it is one reason. Some private schools are even openly declaring that they have policies for smaller class sizes as they believe this can have an influence on achievement. I don’t think for one moment that smaller classes is the only thing that influences student achievement, but I cannot believe that increasing class sizes will help raise achievement.
The final thing that the government is trying to push through is an introduction to charter schools. This was a post-election promise, essentially with one man, MP John Banks, as part of a political agreement. I’m not sure why this one person has so much say. I won’t admit to knowing much about charter schools, because I don’t. What I do know is that in the US and UK where there are a number of charter schools, there is little evidence that they are helping increase student achievement.
I think the New Zealand government needs to be careful right now as they’re trying to make serious changes to one of the best education systems in the world. Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken.