The education system will be better off for the introduction of national standards, writes Howard Fancy.
High ambitions for our education system are essential and all involved should be expected to strive relentlessly for higher achievement by all students.
Lifting system-wide achievement needs aligned, coherent and sustained multi- year approaches. And the research is clear - within the system, teaching effectiveness has, by far, the greatest impact on student achievement.
National standards are part of the growing suite of tools designed to support better teaching and learning. As with any tool their impact on student achievement depends on their application.
Much debate on national standards has centred on making public information on schools' and students' performance against standards. Underlying this debate are two different models of how to best achieve improvements in learning.
An accountability focus emphasises information release. By enabling comparisons of student achievement, parents are better informed and schools are motivated to do better. A risk is that schools become defensive and less open about their performance. Standards become high stakes and schools increasingly 'teach to the test' and reduce their focus on other areas of learning. An emphasis on developing better professional practice would see national standards primarily used as a diagnostic resource to increase the effectiveness of teaching.
This emphasis enables schools to maintain a broad view of achievement including strong foundations in literacy and numeracy. A risk is whether schools would give sufficient urgency to raising the achievement of all students.
Both are legitimate policy choices. Both raise issues for policy implementation. So looking ahead, what matters?
The considerable increase in the range and availability of student achievement information over the past 15 years has raised new questions and challenged old understandings. It has increased public debate about the interpretation of data. This has been challenging to both policymakers and teachers. It can both confuse and empower parents and the public.
Our system is much better off in having this information. It will increasingly allow identification of strengths that can be built from, and weaknesses that need to be addressed. A commitment to using achievement data in ways that increase student achievement through improved policy and practice will be required. It is this commitment that should be at the heart of system accountability.
A system-wide "accountability for improvement" would require teachers, schools and policy makers to be accountable for how they act on the information generated by national standards and other information in order to raise achievement.
At a school level this might see a stronger focus on student progression where successive cohorts of students do better than previous cohorts. So if 70 per cent of a school's students met a standard this year, a key question centres on what that school is doing to increase the proportion of its students meeting the standard next year.
For policymakers, it would require policy to be more evidence-informed, better evaluated, less fragmented and better aligned with those areas that will most improve teaching effectiveness.
An approach focused on improvement will increase accountability for results. But even then, to get the greatest lifts in student achievement shared accountabilities will be needed between the many parties within the education system, for developing solutions and applying more effective combined effort.
Howard Fancy was the Secretary for Education from 1996 to 2006.
- The Press
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