Tom Belford is an agitator.

Last issue he asked me to navigate the pit full of alligators that constitutes the current local government debate in Hawke’s Bay. This issue it’s National Standards for primary school pupils, where some of the alligators involved may be pint-sized, but they’re just as snappy.

Too bad that I know less about these standards than most other people, having had no experience teaching in the primary schooling system!

So I decided to do some research – always a sensible starting point, although more boring than a good old-fashioned opinion. It didn’t really get me anywhere, apart from confirming that I knew more than I thought. There are some very interesting similarities between these National Standards and their introduction, and the difficult and fraught birth of NCEA and standards-based assessment for secondary school students – but more of that later.

After fruitless hours spent trawling through internet sites, newspaper archives and the like, I did what I should have done in the first place. I talked to a real live ‘consumer’ of the standards, in this case my niece, who was staying with us for the school holidays. At the age of nine, she has the family all well and truly sussed. She also seemed to have the standards sorted. They go something like this.

National Standards are a way to tell you where you are up to with your reading, your maths, your spelling and stuff, she said, depending on what year level you are in at school. Some of the kids will be below the national standard, some will be on it, and some will
be above it.

What about the kids who are below it? I asked. Do they feel bad?

She doesn’t think so, because the teacher tells everyone that they all have the whole year to improve on where they are, whether they are below, on, or above the standards, and her job is to help them do that. The teacher says the most important thing is to improve on where you are now, rather than worry about the standards.

So do you know where you sit? I asked.

Yes, she said, because the information gets sent to the parents, and her parents showed her the information. But not all the parents do – it’s their choice.

So what do you think about the national standards? I asked her.

They don’t really worry me, she said. I know what I’m good at and what I need to work on anyway. So I just get on with it really!

A girl after my own heart. Not that I’m biased… She just gets on with it.

Standards measure, not fix

The issue that attracts all the media attention with regard to national standards is, of course, the fact that some people in the education profession feel so strongly about the pitfalls of national standards, that they are refusing ‘to get on with it’, and in doing so placing themselves and their schools at risk of biting the hand that feeds them – in this case the government, who pays their staff salaries, funds most of their students’ learning resources and helps bankroll their building projects.

Speaking of the government, I suspect that the National Standards were introduced as a tool to sharpen up the education sector with regard to that dismal tail of underachieving students – some 20% or more – whom the current school system in New Zealand and elsewhere in the OECD appears to be failing.

To be fair, the government had to do something. Despite spending millions of dollars over many years trying to fix this problem, there’s an alarmingly large group of kids who we simply keep ‘losing’ from the system and society altogether – they’re not at school, they’re not in training, and they’re not in work. It’s a national disgrace and a real worry. And there’s no doubt that if we don’t address the issues causing this, then as a country we are in for an even tougher future than a mere recession can conjure up.

But the National Standards aren’t going to fix the problem – they can simply help measure it. They can give parents and teachers and observers of schools some sort of guide as to how well their children are performing educationally, but standards are only a tool for measurement, and depending on how they are used, could be a very damaging tool indeed. And this seems to be at the heart of the critics’ concerns about the standards themselves – that they are an imperfect device anyway (as most standards and their assessments are) and they can damage children and schools in the process.

Very similar concerns were raised about the changes to NCEA and the introduction of standards-based assessment into secondary schools some ten or so years ago.

The proverbial really hit the fan as I became a new Principal.

I remember facing upset parents at meetings as I tried to ‘inform’ them about the changes on behalf of government, responding to letters from concerned parents and members of the community, treading a dangerous path through union concerns, chairing fiery staff meetings with people sitting on both sides of the debate… and above all, trying to make sure that our students’ learning and life at school was not negatively impacted by the furor.

Maybe I was naïve back then, but as a school leader, I believed that leading the change so that it had the least possible negative effect on our school community was my core responsibility.

And I also believed (and had this confirmed repeatedly in my conversations with every child’s parents at the time of enrolment) that in the end, it’s not ‘standards’ and their measurement that are critical to children’s learning – it’s the things that sometimes can’t be measured easily at all. How safe they feel at school. How safe they feel at home. How good their teachers are. How engaged they are in their learning. How good the school is at helping them to identify what they are good at, and what they need to improve on. How fired up they are about the world and life in general.

Above all, it’s about how much aptitude children have for ‘getting on with it’. Because you can’t beat resilience as a predictor of success – both in education and in life. As adults we all know that. And as adults I believe that we have a duty to model resilience for our children.

Assessment tools will come and go. They will be flawed. Successive governments will introduce them and make the same mistakes regarding implementation and communication that we all do when we’re launching new projects and breaking new ground. Some schools will “game” the system to make themselves and their students look better. Other schools will complain. There’s nothing new under the sun.

In the end – it’s pretty simple from where I’m sitting, and I have my niece to thank for clarifying things for me. National Standards are the latest development in the ever-changing world that is education. We can choose to live with them, recognise their weaknesses and risks, work to mitigate those, utilise the good bits if there are any, and simultaneously get on with the real and complex business of educating all of our young people.

Instead of refusing to implement national standards, we could refocus on refusing to leave any young people behind. Refusing to let any young people simply ‘disappear’. Then maybe we wouldn’t need National Standards at all.

Let the snapping begin!

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