Standards – Part One

 National Standards in education are a critical part of the National-led Government’s plan for securing a brighter future for New Zealand. 

New Zealand deserves a future with more highly-skilled citizens, who have better job prospects, greater life choices and, in turn, who live in a society with less dysfunction, unemployment, welfare dependence and crime. 

This policy is a critical step along the pathway to achieving that. I hope you and your family make the most of it. 

John Key
Prime Minister
Leader of the National Party 

I’ll be up front with you.  For quite some time I haven’t known what to make of National Standards.  Yesterday I decided that they have the potential to do great harm to education.  At the moment this is only potential, but I am fairly sure that there is a longer view plan and the National Standards are a first step, or “a critical step along the pathway” as Key says.  

This probably seems a strange, over the top thing to say because everything about the test so far seems perfectly reasonable.  Kids  come into school age five and teachers see how they go reading and comprehending a set story.  They do this  with the kid each year.  Each kid then gets a mark that shows if they are below, on or above the level for their age group nationally.  This mark goes home.  Most of this is not new.  School are required by law to send reports home, and schools do literacy testing already.  

If you were going to manufacture a problem with the old system you would say that it’s silly for schools to use different testing systems.  Even though each testing system is legitimate and properly constructed, each testing system is inevitably going to be different from the next one.  Our school uses Asttle which tests the individual student but also shows how they are placed compared to other students nationally.  So if I want to know how my son Johnny is doing in reading I don’t think it makes much difference to me if the school uses Asttle or the National Standard.  

Which begs the question: who is the new test useful for?  I suppose that a National Standard might prove to be more useful than a set of different tests if you are in the Ministry of Education gathering statistics on literacy, or a parent who has to move their kid from one school to another, or if you are a politician or a parent who wants it to be a tool for comparing schools.  Before we deal with the comparing schools idea, let’s go back to the five year old entering school and taking a literacy test, and let’s ask the parent what they think education is about. 

The five year old entering school 

When I went to school I really struggled to figure out this thing called reading.  I think that for about a year or so I was worryingly backward.  If there had been a test I would have bombed it.  Well, one day I figured reading out, and became an enthusiastic reader, and a decent one.  Until I got to high school.  At high school my brain was seized with the fever of pop music.  I read nothing except the one book a year we had to read in English.  We had a silent reading spell at my school every week and in that spell I pretended to read the same page of the same book for an entire year.  If you want proof that life is unfair, in seventh form I beat all the conscientious girls who worked hard all year and came first in English.  Years later, at the pinnacle of me actually giving a stuff about English, I almost completely blew my MA in Literature. 


Well, what would the National Standard test make of this story?  Even though it’s nice to think – if you are a policy maker – that if you pour on this type of policy you will see some kind of measurable growth, human beings are completely hopeless at performing in this way especially when it comes to learning. 

What is education about? 

Well, it depends what you mean by learning, doesn’t it?  If you think that learning is a gently rising line showing test scores in algebra then you would philosophically line up with National and the National Standard.  So, come on then – what is education? 


It’s supposed to be this. 

Lester Flockton came to our school yesterday and waved the curriculum at us.  I have been teaching for five years and I have always thought, until this year, that the curriculum was the fold out grids at the back of this book that told me I should teach my Year 10 Social Studies students “how people seek and define human rights.”  Mr. Flockton informed me that I should actually staple that bit of the book shut and read the general description of Social Studies on p.30: 

The social sciences learning area is about how societies work and how people can participate as critical, active, informed, and responsible citizens. 

On reflection Mr. Flockton is right.  If I were a parent of a teenager I would like to think that my son or daughter was being taught how to participate in a society that they can critically analyse.  It would be more comforting to me to hear my child get all hot and bothered about the situation in Afghanistan, than to know they could state the date the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed (although they might know that too, because in the rich, soup of lessons about the topic that date might have a lot of meaning to them).  It’s the difference between learning something in a back and forward, messy, overall kind of way, and learning a specific, quantifiable thing that can be measured on a test. 

Introducing a National Standard and talking about accountability moves us away from teaching the curriculum and towards teaching very specific things.  The New Zealand Curriculum is good.  While I might agree with you that too much woolly talk about values is silly if kids can’t read and write, I hope that you would agree with me that turning kids out of school who can only read, write and do maths isn’t a good education system.  The New Zealand Curriculum appreciates what education is, and most of what it is, isn’t measurable for parents except in the conversations they have with their children at the dinner table. 

It's awesome to be anywhere on the standard

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

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