Nothing wrong with having standards but . . .

National Standards are failing to make the difference that is needed, writes Lester Flockton.

The International Educational Achievement survey of 1970 placed New Zealand's 9-year-olds and 14-year-olds first in reading achievement in comparison with all other participating countries.

We held an enviable position globally. Literacy educators from all over the world were studying our methods and classroom environments, our literacy materials were being exported to other parts of the world, and our approaches to reading and writing instruction were being adopted in many countries.

These were approaches developed by committed teachers - not so-called experts chosen by a Ministry of Education.

Fast forward to New Zealand 1998. Neoliberal policies had settled in, and our national demographic was changing dramatically. The gap in children's home circumstances was widening at a pace, and our literacy profile, while still respectable, was declining.

A worrying percentage of our children were struggling with reading, writing and mathematics, and a high percentage of those children were growing up in disadvantaging communities and households. But take heart. Jenny Shipley, prime minister of the day with her minister of education, Wyatt Creech, announced that: ''By 2005, every child turning 9 will be able to read, write and do maths for success.''

Of course, it never happened. As often happens with politicians' failed promises, they get forgotten. As election time rolls around, they are never mentioned. Instead, they are superseded and overshadowed by new promises.

Fast forward to 2010. Prime Minister John Key championed the rescue of children who struggle with numeracy and literacy when he announced: ''I am concerned to learn that up to one in five of our children leave our schools without the literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed . . . That's why the National-led Government is introducing National Standards in all years 1 to 8 schools.''

So National Standards were made the rule for every school, and for every child from 5 until their completion of primary schooling. No other country starts this testing at such an early point in childhood, and no other country that has implemented national standards programmes of one kind or another has managed to dent its achievement gap. This is despite high concentrations of so-called teacher learning and development around the standards.

After six years of National Standards, with millions of dollars expended on implementation strategies, thousands upon thousands of hours of teacher time diverted to assessing and reporting children's performance on the standards, the creation of a huge bureaucratic data collection and oversight industry, and the imposition of lop-sided curriculum resourcing, what has been achieved?

Well, according to results published by the Ministry of Education, the policy has failed abysmally to achieve the proclaimed purpose of rescuing the so-called one in five children who are failing. Indeed, it is now more than one in five!

But what too often happens when a policy fails to achieve its espoused purposes? The politicians change the narrative in an attempt to convince an unknowing and voting public that the policy is serving their best interests. Hence, we seldom hear about National Standards helping to fix the underachievement problem any more.

Instead, it's all about parents being given ''plain English'' reporting on their children's achievement. And since about 70% of children are achieving the standards, it might be figured that 70% of parents will think they are OK. But what about the 20% to 30% who aren't meeting the standards? It has become crystal clear National Standards are not helping them to succeed.

Most pressingly, we need to be much smarter and more honest in understanding why so many of New Zealand's children struggle with literacy and numeracy.

I would argue there are two main reasons: the design, structure and content of the National Standards themselves, and the large number of children who struggle with learning because of the disadvantaging circumstances in which they live and are being raised.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having standards, but the present system is poorly conceived. It clearly is not working despite what some politicians and their followers would want us to believe.

Dr Lester Flockton is a Dunedin-based education specialist.



National Standards are a measuring system - not an education system.

So to blame them for not making a difference is like putting a new speedo in your car and expecting it to go faster.

Then when nothing changes, blaming the speedo.

How successful teachers, schools and educational methods are, will never be known, unless achievement is measured in a way that is standard across the country.

Otherwise we will never know if a new teaching method or the old one works best.