Both recent education ministers haven't made the grade.
Education is too important to become a partisan political football but I fear that is precisely what is happening.
Although the teaching establishment is not faultless in this, the intransigence with which the Government seems determined to pursue various of its initiatives, flawed or not, has much to do with it.
The latest row has erupted over national standards, but still smouldering in the background is the classroom sizes debacle, and the controversial charter schools programme.
Last week the Ministry of Education released a report showing that almost 50 per cent of teachers are marking standards writing assessments incorrectly. Further, it revealed that accuracy for judging writing assessments in 2011 ranged from 3 per cent to 89 per cent and for maths from 18 to 90 per cent.
In certain respects the data thus far accumulated on national standards in writing and maths - which gauges pupils' achievements in relation to certain national benchmarks - is a lottery. Children who have met the standards are evidently routinely found to have failed to do so; and, it stands to reason, vice versa.
Although any system that attempts to standardise, then measure, learning across a varied and variable national community was always going to be a huge undertaking - even with an education sector fully committed to its implementation - the results of this flagship programme have been underwhelming.
Such a result was predictable. For across the levels of policy, politics and personalities, national standards has provided an object lesson in administrative mismanagement, not to say wanton carelessness.
The educational underpinnings of national standards have been controversial from the outset. There is considerable evidence to suggest that, neat and superficially attractive though the idea of measuring and comparing 'learning outcomes" might be, gauging the results is invariably a complex business.
Then there is the philosophical position, promoted by leading academics in the field - and roundly ignored - that such narrowly focused standards were not the best way to improve the education of our long tail of failing children.
And third, there is the empirical evidence from countries where similar schemes have been tried and found wanting; and from others, such as Finland, in which alternative approaches have been found to be much more successful.
Policy in this case has been subjugated to politics and then driven by two abrasive personalities in present Education Minister Hekia Parata and her predecessor, Anne Tolley. Both seem almost deliberately to have set out to cultivate the stereotype of the hectoring school mistress, being both high-han ded and confrontational.
Their style of leadership is reminiscent of the teacher who stands elevated at the front of the class and delivers a one-way lecture, a traditional approach but not necessarily one that is productive or designed to engage or carry the audience along.
This model has long since been abandoned in Finland, which consciously set out to reform its education system three or four decades ago.
As Finnish education analyst Pasi Sahlberg describes it, the country changed its traditional approach 'into a model of a modern publicly financed education system with widespread equity, good quality, large participation - all of this at reasonable cost".
It did so by adopting a philosophy and trajectory quite the opposite of that enshrined in national standards.
It moved away from a centralised standards-heavy regime towards one in which highly trained teachers design and foster a system based 'on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early intervention . . . and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers".
All of this has been implemented against a background of 'systematic and mostly intentional development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society in general, and within its education sector in particular", says Sahlberg.
Finland now almost invariably leads OECD countries in international assessments for 15-year-olds in maths, science and literacy - which would seem to suggest it might have some lessons to offer New Zealand.
Education is the greatest investment that we can make in our future. It is an investment in people, in knowledge, in wisdom, pride, in culture, in unleashing potential and, ultimately, in the ability to face the challenges the modern world throws at us.
That won't be achieved by bickering or hectoring but by showing real leadership. Part of that leadership is about conducting an in-depth, informed and non-partisan national conversation about how we wish to evolve as a society.
And by carefully reassessing the decisive role education can play in that and devising an evolving, holistic, inclusive system to deliver it.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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