#raisingstandards – asking the wrong questions

IMG_2880.PNGA wise educator once told me that learning isn’t about knowing the answer. It’s about being able to ask really good questions.

So here’s a $250 million question.

How has the implementation of National Standards improved learning in New Zealand?

The short answer is not a lot.

The argument given at the time was that schools needed better tools to help them identify struggling students and parents needed greater clarity about their child’s progress.

Instead we’ve ended up with more confusion to the point where the Ministry of Education has had to issue a clarification to address misconceptions about the National standards.

  • Parents don’t actually understand the standards and mistake them for norm-referenced standardised tests.
  • The standards were drawn up with such speed that there wasn’t much time to ensure they were developmentally appropriate before they were rolled out.
  • Mid-year judgements about being ‘at standard’ are actually a projection on the child being at standard at the end of the year.
  • How the standardised assessments teachers routinely use align with National Standards.

The most infuriating part of watching the National Standards from afar is that the data that identifies areas for improvement within the New Zealand system was available. The time and money spent on getting schools to identify children in need of support – which is all National Standards do – could have been spent on improving classroom practice. Instead, the amount of time both in terms of classroom instructional time and teacher preparation time is being spent on assessment.

So instead of asking ‘how can we raise educational standards?’ here are some better questions.

How are teacher/parent concerns about children’s learning addressed? What supports do teachers and schools need to help individual children and groups of children they have identified as under-achieving?

What do schools and teachers need to be doing differently to address the learning needs of low-income students as well as Maori and Pasifika students? What support will they need to be successful?

What school systems have been successful in keeping children engaged in learning? How might we apply the features to the New Zealand context?

How might we get boys engaged in reading and writing for pleasure? What in school and out of school factors might we need to overcome?

What actions are we taking to retain and develop teachers over the course of their careers? How effectively does the school system develop and utilise teacher expertise?

What factors outside of school contribute to educational under-achievement? What actions could other government departments take to reduce barriers to learning?

A cursory glance at the educational headlines suggest the questions are being asked. But the answer can’t just be to raise standards.

Post Script – A quick word on reports 

For the amount of time and effort that goes into school reports, it is disheartening to see that how many parents don’t understand them. This isn’t a New Zealand problem. As an international school teacher I  read report comments from various jurisdictions. Even as a writer of my own school reports, I often struggle to really understand report comments until after the child has been in the class a few weeks.

Part of is the standardized nature of reports. By the time the data has been analysed, judgements moderated, comments written, proofread, approved and finally issued to parents there’s a 4-6 weeks lag time between the observation and the official report.

That’s half a term worth of learning.

Parent evenings are crucial as it’s a time to ask questions about progress and clarify concerns. Instead of teacher time being spent writing reports in isolation from the child and their parents, more face to fact contact and conversation should be happening more frequently.

Right back to report writing for me…

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