Wellingtonian Editorial: The problem with national standards

Last updated 10:40 27/09/2012

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OPINION: And so, after five years league tables - the hobgoblin of national standards - have appeared.

It's what many in education feared.

Not because, as is usually insultingly implied, schools want to hide their figures, or because their objections are 'political'. Rather it's because the overwhelming evidence is that lining up schools to be judged by only one aspect of their performance, and a dodgy one at that, is not just unhelpful; it's harmful to children.

In 2009, Minister of Education Anne Tolley stressed to worried boards of trustees that the Government understood the dangers of league tables.

"We are well aware," she said, "of what has happened overseas and that league tables do not promote improved student outcomes. This government will not be publishing league tables."

Tolley's replacement, Hekia Parata, has no such worries about league tables, saying this week she was not at all upset by the publication of the data.

What's changed so drastically in the Government's thinking to make league tables acceptable?

It is because, as Parata crowed, the country now 'for the first time' has baseline data of primary school achievement?

In fact, the National Education Monitoring Project, operating out of Otago University, provided a running record of the state of primary school achievement in every subject every four years.

It went much further than identifying how many were achieving and how many were struggling. It produced data about which parts of a subject needed more attention.

The project, envied and lauded by educationalists overseas, quietly faded when national standards were introduced.

New Zealand has a world- class education system.

Despite the criticism that schools here "fail" the country's bottom students, we do better with our lowest achievers than our counterparts overseas. There is a wealth of OECD evidence to show that's the case.

Teachers are constantly bashed for this "failure", but it's well-established that the greatest determinant of student achievement is family background, conveniently ignored in the recent debate over teacher quality and class size.

The Government's habit of minimising the impact of poverty on children's school results is wilful and ignores the lot of the children it insists it's trying to help.

Schools did not need national standards to show them which children weren't achieving and they didn't need national standards to show them the gap between rich and poor.

The standards are an unwelcome distraction and a waste of taxpayer funding that could have gone to providing help to the students who need it.

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The publication of league tables has led to perverse outcomes overseas. Yet the Government is hellbent on following Australia, the United States and Britain, which perform worse than New Zealand in international comparisons.

It ignores the example of a top-performing country such as Finland, which does not use national standards.

Where will national standards and league tables take us?

Make no mistake, they are already making their mark. An experienced Wellington teacher of junior classes recently said sadly that PE was no longer part of the programme for her five-year-olds. Efforts are now skewed towards reading, writing and maths, as the spectre of being judged by national standards, no matter - in the Prime Minister's words - how "ropey", hits home.

- The Wellingtonian

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