National Standards, Charter Schools, and a Pint on the Future

December 5, 2011 – 12:03 pm

tl;dr: Charter schools aren’t a panacea, they don’t appear to be compatible with the emphasis on National Standards, and this seems like the top of a slippery slope which will result in us all being as stupid as Americans.


New Zealand introduced “National Standards” last year. In the past, the curriculum talked about competencies and learning areas in general terms and defined stages through which children would pass. It didn’t say “at this age, children should be able to do X”. That was the gap that National Standards filled. The debate has been around timing (too fast) and how those standard age-based skills were arrived at (not soundly).

It’s important to note that National Standards is not standardised assessment. That is, it’s not the same test taken by every child once a year to determine what the child can do. Instead, teachers use their professional judgement to assess the child however they want, and work together to ensure that all children are assessed in roughly the same way. This process of working together to ensure that a kid in Paihia and a kid in Dunedin are being assessed on the same grounds is called “moderation”.

Failing Schools

I’ve believed for the last year that National Standards would be used to identify “failing” schools and those schools will then be punished instead of supported. Schools are required to report on performance against National Standards, and these reports can (and will) be gathered and sorted into “league tables”. Those at the bottom of the league tables (those with the most kids not reading at or above age expectation) will be labelled “failing” and given fewer funds to motivate the staff and board (and perhaps parents) to change for the better.

On the surface, this sounds reasonable. Kids should know stuff, and schools should be pushed hard to improve if they’re not doing right by their kids. The question is whether this is an accurate measure of “not doing right by their kids”, and whether this push will cause the schools to improve.

If you ask people what they want their kids to be when they leave school, they talk about: confident, healthy, knowledgeable, independent learners, financially literate, curious, creative, global in outlook, aware of their history, comfortable moving between the cultures in the community, fluent public speakers, and so on. All this is covered in the New Zealand Curriculum’s key competencies: thinking, using language, managing self, relating to others, participating and contributing. National Standards only looks at one and a half aspects (“thinking” and “using language”, both important but very narrowly interpreted) and completely omit the others.

So you’ve got two failure modes here: you can have capable confident curious kids who don’t know stuff they should, and kids who can recite the Kings of England but who can’t think independently to save themselves. Both exist and both are problems to be solved. Ranking on National Standards won’t identify the Kings of England problem, and if we want the independent creative financially-literate entrepreneurs who will lift NZ out of its economic malaise, we won’t get them if the grammar schools continue to churn out graduating classes full of children skilled in regurgitation and not digestion.

I think National Standards will successfully identify children who don’t know the stuff they should by their age. What’s needed to turn that around? Sometimes teaching is the problem. But research has repeatedly shown (see John Hattie’s “Visible Learning”) that most of a child’s progress in the year is a result of what they knew at the start of the year and what happens at home. A minority of the possible improvement in kids’ knowledge is a result of what happens at school.

Fixing Failure

So it’s entirely possible that we’ll end up identifying schools in poor areas as having children who don’t progress as rapidly as children in rich areas. This is hardly an earth-shattering conclusion. The question is: what will we do to make change?

A great school can change its environment. Pt England primary school has raised literacy in its entire community. Great schools like this are rare. How can we make more?

The Government today announced the introduction of charter schools, the first such intervention. The upside is pretty good: if a public school isn’t doing well and hasn’t improved over years, then let private or charitable groups to start a new one in competition, with latitude on employment and curriculum that public schools don’t current enjoy. Then parents have choice, can vote with their feet, and the worse school will be starved of pupils and die.

That’s the upside. I’d love to think that we’ll get more Russell and Dorothy Burts starting charter schools that have the effect of a Point England school. That’d be fantastic.

Failing Fixes

The problem is that while there is massive effort to identify and contain the failures of public schools, I don’t see the same thought being put into the downsides of charter schools. That is, if a charter school fails, how will we know and what will we do about it? “Charter schools will be accountable to school sponsors and subject to external review” seems rather vague.

What failure modes might there be? A charter school might not meet national standards. It might omit sex education or teach a bizarre version of it such as abstinence. It might include religious education, so a pupil is forced to be indoctrinated into a different religion in order to get a decent education. It might omit “relating to others” and “participating and contributing” in favour of creating kids who can recite the Kings of England and regurgitate an essay on the use of symbolism in Hamlet.

What’s really frustrating is that we already have a mechanism for assessing and improving schools: the Education Review Office. ERO just finished visiting our school, and dinged us on some things we weren’t doing well. They offered us assistance to improve, and we will. ERO even have the power to depose the board and principal and install a commissioner to run the school and reform the governance and administration (they did that a decade ago for our school, and it worked). Schools have tremendous freedom to meet their communities’ needs (Albany Senior High with its Googlish 20% time, and Auckland Grammar School with its British prep school aspirations are both NZ public schools). What exactly was wrong with that system that requires charter schools?

How is the solution to “this school is failing National Standards” to create a school with “more freedom to set the curriculum” and the ability to hire untrained teachers?

Failure to Fix

This disconnect between National Standards and charter schools is what frustrates me. You’ve got National Standards used as evidence of a problem, and charter schools as a cure that won’t necessarily fix the problem.

It’s hard not to see this as working backwards from a system the politicians want to see in place (charter and private schools), and National Standards with the language of “failing schools” used to justify the installation of that system.

Underneath is the belief that business can and will do everything better than government. This is, however, far from universally accepted (“everything”, really?) and far from necessarily applicable to education. Businesses have their failure modes too (cf Telecom, Enron, News of the World, and any number of finance companies) and should be guarded against as vigorously as public school failures are.

Forced Failure

What I ultimately fear, yet predict, is the introduction of what in America is referred to (without irony!) as “No Child Left Behind”. The process: test often, rank according to test results, those at the bottom of the test results are “failing” and therefore deserve to be punished, so withhold funds, and eventually starve them in favour of semi- or fully-private schools. Americans don’t compare well academically to Kiwis and it seems unwise to import this model (see, for example, OECD’s PISA scores where our kids do better in school but don’t stay in school as long).

How would we get there? We’ve got National Standards with no standardised testing. After a year or two it’ll be possible to say “moderation is blurring the numbers, there’s too much uncertainty and room for fudging, we need the clarity of standardised assessment” and in will come annual national tests. At that point we’re doing what one 19th century reformer called “continually pulling up the plants to see the condition of the roots, the consequence of which is that all good natural growth was stopped.”

I’ll wager a pint of Guinness that within 5 years we’re punishing “failing” schools and talking about, if not living, standardised assessment instead of moderation.

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