Standards debate needs revision

Anna Greenslade (right) considers a petition proffered in Oamaru last month by Fenwick School...
Anna Greenslade (right) considers a petition proffered in Oamaru last month by Fenwick School teacher Oona Scanlan (left) and Pembroke School principal Brent Godfrey, calling for a trial of plans to introduce nationwide national standards into schools. Photo by David Bruce.
The battle lines have been drawn and hostilities commenced. But, for the sake of children and parents, the warring over the introduction - however flawed - of National Standards should stop, says John Langley.

The battle over the introduction of National Standards in our primary schools is likely to come to a head very soon.

None of it will be pretty and, as always with such disagreements in education, the losers will be the children and the parents of New Zealand.

The Minister of Education has been backed into a corner by refusing to have any form of trial to test the standards. Against very sound advice from many quarters, she has persisted with the line, ". . . never mind the boxing, lets just pour the concrete".

All very well, unless the concrete is flawed and the building collapses.

Teachers and principals have backed themselves into the opposite corner by their incessant defensiveness over having the performance of children in their schools publicly exposed.

They are behaving as though they have something to hide which, in most cases, they should not.

Schools that are even half-effective should be able to demonstrate what their pupils are learning in key areas against sound benchmarks.

If they cannot, it begs all kinds of questions about the functioning of our schools and the performance of the Education Review Office in evaluating their performance.

In recent weeks, the fire has been fuelled by two acts.

The first is the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI) bus trucking its way tediously down the country trying to convince the masses that National Standards are some kind of evil and must be rejected at all costs.

This action is little more than an embarrassment to the teaching profession and adds nothing to the intelligence of the debate.

Taking to the balustrades as a substitute for ongoing professional discussion does nothing to endear teachers or their cause to the public at large, most of whom are mystified by their actions.

If teachers and principals want to enhance their credibility they must move past the "trouble at mill" approach that this escapade represents.

More sinister, however, are the actions of some 18 Northland principals and their respective boards of trustees, to refuse to implement the National Standards.

Apparently, they are being joined by some others from Canterbury and Southland.

The teachers and principals are, of course, claiming the moral high ground by posturing that it is ethically irresponsible to impose a set of standards that are not tested.

While they may have a point, let us all be clear - this action is nothing to do with ethical considerations of any kind.

It is a petulant response to an initiative they simply do not like and do not want to undertake.

Whereas the NZEI bus can be ignored as the irrelevance it is, the actions of these schools cannot.

Whether the teachers or principals like it or not, the National Standards policy was a key education plank at the last election and the current Government has a mandate to implement that policy.

At what point did a group of professional public servants, such as teachers and principals, gain the right to effectively undermine government policy and the law? If any of those teachers, principals or boards of trustees believes the requirement to implement the National Standards is either morally or ethically reprehensible they should do what has always been done - resign.

A more constructive and professionally responsible approach would be for all schools to do their utmost to implement the standards effectively, collect agreed data over the course of the first year and then press for any necessary changes to be made. At that point, if such suggested changes were ignored, teachers and principals would have a far greater claim of moral authority than they can claim by the present actions.

Perhaps a better approach might be, let's pour the concrete, watch it carefully, test it for strength and get the boxing in place.

Most of the nation's parents must be wondering what is happening here and why.

Parents want and need to know four things about the progress of their children and young people while at school.

The first is how well their child is doing in key curriculum areas reported in a manner that they can understand.

Secondly, they need a valid and reliable benchmark/standard against which they can judge that progress.

Simply to give a parent an assessment statement without such a benchmark is no more valuable than taking a person's blood pressure and then refusing to tell them whether or not it is normal or a cause for concern.

Thirdly, parents want to know if there are any areas of major concern that they need to be aware of and what they need to do about those concerns.

Finally, they want to know how well adjusted their children are in terms of their relationships with other children and adults in the school and community.

This is not too much to ask.

It is simply patronising of teachers and principals to continue to maintain that reporting against a set of reasonable benchmarks is too hard for the community and media to understand. Such a stance does nothing more than cause suspicion.

So, what to do? The first thing is to change the discourse around this issue. Instead of principals and teacher groups illegally subverting the introduction of National Standards perhaps they could shift the debate in order to address four questions.

What should the National Standards look like and why? How can the standards be introduced into schools in a manner that integrates them positively into the daily operation of teachers and schools? How can we work to inform parent and community groups about the standards and what they mean? Finally, how can we work with the media in order to get a better quality and more comprehensive coverage of the nature of the standards and what they mean?Our children, young people, parents and communities have a right to know about the progress of children.

As educators we have an obligation to deliver on that.

Nothing less will do.

Dr John Langley is CEO of Cognition Education, Auckland. He was previously the inaugural dean of the faculty of education at the University of Auckland.

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