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A coalition of the unwilling, by Prof. Martin Thrupp

Speech to World Educators’ Day Rally, Garden Place, Hamilton, Saturday 29 October 2016 

Prof Martin ThruppKia ora koutou, thank you for being here this morning.

Today we celebrate and thank teachers, and we thank those who provide leadership and those who provide support at every level of our education system.

And we also thank all of you who help and support our educators here in Aotearoa as spouses and partners, family and friends, parents and children.

I think it can be a good job being a teacher or working in education, it can be satisfying and you can often make a difference. But working in education is rarely straightforward and it is very busy and sometimes exhausting.  

Teachers and schools get blamed for a lot, and most of it is unfair. I have written quite a few books and articles about this problem, it’s what I call the ‘politics of blame’.

I heard Mike Hosking say on TV during the week that the regions including the Waikato are surging ahead, we are ‘on fire at the moment…doing brillantly’ he said. Well that’s one view of it.

But actually this is also a region where many people are struggling. I’ve become involved in Poverty Action Waikato, they put out a report recently and it’s such a shocking read.

And I know that if it wasn’t for the very good caring and teaching work being done in the sector then many children and young people and their whanau would struggle even more.

Did you know that the latest round of PISA test results organised by the OECD will come out on 6th December? That’s the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It’s when the education systems of 72 countries and regional economies within large countries get ranked against each other.

I don’t know where New Zealand will come in the rankings this time. But I do know that if we do well the Government will happily take the credit! If we don’t do well then you teachers will get the blame!

Last time we did badly and Hekia Parata was asked if she would resign. And now she is going to resign. Maybe she knows something about the PISA results coming out in December that the rest of us don’t yet.

The Minister, Hurricane Hekia, that was what the Herald called her, she does have a forceful manner and she can also be very charming. But mostly I think she is on a hiding to nothing because this Government doesn’t want to put more money into public education than it absolutely has to.

The budget this year had overall education spending forecast to stay about the same through to 2020, that means it is falling as a share of GDP and on a per student basis.

Actually, this Government doesn’t want to put more spending into any social or public spending than it really has to which is mainly to meet its promises around superannuation. It’s why poor people in this country are no longer falling through the cracks, they are falling through gaping holes.

A lot of us are here because of concerns about education funding. The problems are complicated because it’s a mixture of under-funding and of spending good money on policies and interventions that are not helping.

But I think the NZEI and PPTA are right to think that the global budget idea is a case of ‘secret plans and clever tricks’. Because once you move away from national scales for pay and the operations grant, the Government can put an even stronger cap on educational spending.

It can wash its hands of class sizes, the casualisation of the workforce and the real needs within the system in terms of operational funding.

Then there is the social investment approach to funding. It is very much about trying an intervention, measuring it, and discarding it quite quickly if it doesn’t work in order to try something else.

Unfortunately education interventions rarely make so much difference or so quickly and there is a great likelihood of useful programmes being thrown away before they have really had a chance to work.

The social investment approach also puts great weight on the significance of specific indicators like having a parent in prison, it’s less about the general context of deprivation or poverty.

But while Hekia Parata says that socio-economic factors are often overstated in education I think they are more usually understated. It’s that politics of blame again.

What I’m most worried about in education is that we will look back on these Key Government years as the period where privatisation of our public education system really took off.

The period when public education was run down.

The period when public education got dismantled.

The period when we let down not just our generation but generations to come.

I can see a hollowing out of educational processes happening all over the sector whether we talk about professional learning and development, professional resources, educational research, teacher education, curriculum coverage, special education or support for leadership.

In fact where New Zealand education is not in decline it is often because educators are working against the grain of policy rather than being supported by it.

But I also believe that when people look back on this period in our nation’s history, teachers will come out of it quite well. This week I was looking again at the campaign against National Standards, it would have to be one of the most impressive campaigns against any education policy to be found internationally in recent years.

And you might say it didn’t work but it many ways it did work, it raised questions about the National Standards and stopped them from being used to do some of the political work that was hoped for.

But it’s still a challenge we all have, recognising the neo-liberal framing up of our outlook and not losing our capacity to think and to care.  If you get a chance go to Finland, I’ve just been there and it’s a real eye-opener about how things could be different – and better.

But even Finland has some global neo-liberal pressures coming on it through that OECD. Last year Helsinki, the capital of Finland, hosted the OECD’s first Global Education Industry Summit.

The aim was to establish a dialogue between ministers of education and the global education industry. And really it is about privatisation, about public education being opened up to the private sector more and more.

Hekia Parata went to that conference last year and she went to the second summit in Israel this year. And when Hekia did her speech in Israel she talked about building a coalition of the willing back here in New Zealand.

You can see where I am going with this.

When it comes to the privatisation of education, I want New Zealand educators to form a coalition of the unwilling. I want you to be unenthusiastic, hesitant, dragging of your feet and generally difficult. I want you to show only token interest and to be the last cab off the rank and not the first one.

Because it was Helen Kelly’s big farewell ceremony in Wellington yesterday and we are not all going to be as brave and as strong and as outspoken as Helen was. But what we can do is join together, PPTA, NZEI and our many friends and supporters who care about public education and form a coalition of the unwilling.

Martin Thrupp 

Teachers need to be thanked more than criticised

by Martin Thrupp

This week I went with my son to his parent-teacher interviews. As a Year 13 student, one of the oldest at the school now, he didn’t really want me there anymore. But I insisted because it wasn’t all about him.

thank you teachersI was mainly there to thank the teachers at his state secondary school and I sought out the principal and thanked that person too. This school has taught two of my children, very different sorts of kids, and done it well. Sincerely thanking the teachers was the least I could do.

I hear the frustrations of Anela Pritchard, the Year 10 student who wrote a hard-hitting speech about teachers and then posted it on Facebook. But many of her points can be related back to the policy environment that teachers are having to grapple with.

Teachers are certainly ‘paid to teach’ and like many professionals they have mortgages to pay. But this doesn’t really capture their motives or commitments. In fact getting an education is not at all like buying groceries. There’s a relationship that has to be invested in by all concerned. Nor are the gains made always immediately obvious.

Many recent criticisms of teachers and schools seem intended to undermine the education system. They are often related to the privatisation agenda that has become obvious under this Government.

Look at the way Minister of Education Hekia Parata chose to launch a recent report criticising the teaching of school mathematics. It was published by the right-wing think-tank ‘The New Zealand Initiative’. On the other hand she quickly dismissed my research on the National Standards on the grounds it had been funded by the NZEI. Any contradiction here Minister?

There have also been complaints that the NZEI and PPTA have hijacked the Government’s ‘Investing in Educational Success’ reform. This implies that teachers are being misled by their unions. But the distinction doesn’t hold up. Most teachers are union members and those I meet at union events tend to be much like the people I meet in schools wherever I go.

Although it would be nice to think that the public would defend their teachers, many don’t have the time or inclination to dig deeper than the rhetoric of policy. It can be easy to criticise teachers – we have all had some – but teachers can’t be expected to address all of society’s problems.

There is a very real risk that too much public criticism will end up killing off the goodwill and commitment within the system and of those thinking of going teaching. If teacher supply becomes a problem we will soon see the sting go out of the comments!

Without the mainly good work being done daily in our public education system, many more New Zealand children and families would face educational and social difficulties. There are always improvements that can be made but we will achieve much more with honey than with vinegar.

I thought the teachers at my son’s school looked tired. This winter term has been a long one. I hope all teachers and their students have a good holiday.

~ Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato

The Gulf in New Zealand Education Today, by Bevan Morgan

Make no mistake about it – education is absolutely one of the most important tools for rescuing lifestyles that are drowning in the oceans of poverty crashing over the country.

French economist Thomas Pikketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been praised as the most important economics book of the decade, writes that ‘historically the main mechanism to reduce inequality has been the diffusion of knowledge, skills and education. This is the most powerful force to reduce inequality between countries…this can also work within countries if we have sufficiently inclusive educational and social institutions which allow large segments of the population to access the right skills and the right jobs’. Simply put, education and upskilling works.

“In 2015 New Zealand the relevant questions that need to be asked are not about whether or not education is inherently unequal based on socioeconomic background but rather; how severe this inequality is, and how badly this trend is accelerating?”

However there is of course a proviso to this. Education can only be this catalyst for change if there is equality of accessibility and quality. Without this accessibility the education system is just a tool in cementing class social structures and systems (think of education in Victorian England for example). In New Zealand the notion that educational access should be equal across the financial spectrum has traditionally been an idea that has been put in the ‘well fucking duh’ basket, and has been about as controversial an idea as separating the drinking water from the sewerage system. Astonishingly though this has changed. In 2015 New Zealand the relevant questions that need to be asked are not about whether or not education is inherently unequal based on socioeconomic background but rather; how severe this inequality is, and how badly this trend is accelerating?

There are reams of data that demonstrate how dramatically economic inequality has taken a sledgehammer to education here. A working paper released by the Children’s Commissioner in July 2013 found that 89% of school leavers from schools rated decile 9 and 10 (10 is the wealthiest, 1 is the least wealthy category) achieved NCEA Level 2 or above. Comparatively the figure was an astonishing 32% lower in decile 1 and 2 schools. There was also the absurd example of 2169 students in decile 8, 9, and 10 schools receiving additional assistance with NCEA exams while there was only an inexplicable 73 students receiving equal assistance in decile 1 and 2 schools.

The OECD readings are particularly grim to look at. A 2009 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study examining reading, mathematics, and science stated ‘countries exhibiting the widest distribution of performance in reading are the OECD countries Israel, Belgium, Austria, and New Zealand – all of which have a gap of at least 15 points between their top quarter and bottom quarter of students wider than the average gap. The difference in performance between the top and bottom quarters in these countries is in the order of, or more than, two full proficiency levels’.

When PISA brought out a new report in 2012 examining the educational ability of 15 year-olds internationally, the slide had continued for New Zealand. This examination of the mathematics performance of 15 year-olds as inequality increases makes for some particularly depressing viewing:

Bevan

It is easy for people to see how well New Zealand does educationally as a whole and ignore the growing problem of inequality within the sector. But as well as New Zealand does, just taking that fact in isolation ignores the remarkable tumble the sector has taken. It is well known for example that in the 1970s New Zealand was ranked first in the world for reading, whereas today we are down somewhere in the 20s. Taking the fact that we have reasonable education in isolation also ignores just how much effect inequality is having on this performance and in education’s ability to allow those at the bottom of our socio-economic well to successfully climb out.

HOW LIFE INSIDE THE CLASSROOM IS EFFECTED BY INEQUALITY

In New Zealand, schools are funded according to their decile – a crude system that divides the schools of the country into tenth percentiles based around samples of income in the surrounding community. In theory the lower the decile the school is, the more funding it should get. The decile system though is tainted by its association to neo-liberal policy, and the accompanying neo-liberal perspective that sees no social ill that can’t be fixed by tweaking a formula in Excel. Therefore, while this system is admirable in intentions, it is depressingly predictable in its lack of efficacy when it comes to the more complex nuances of funding. If every school had the same number of students from the same percentage of different socio-economic backgrounds, with the exact same learning requirements then using the decile as the sole funding yardstick might actually work. But this isn’t reality sadly. Schools vary wildly, but the decile system implies that the socioeconomic situation of the community surrounding the school has no further impact on the financial operations of the school, other than as a classification tool. Thus the funding is well off where it needs to be and schools are becoming ever more reliant on donations and contributions that are understandably harder to accrue in lower socio-economic regions.

As far back as 2003 this was painfully obvious. In that year an annual conference paper from the Post Primary Teacher’s Association (PPTA) found that secondary schools were becoming increasingly dependent on locally raised funds to meet their funding shortfalls which had the following consequences:

A trend of rising parental expenditure on education and considerable differences between schools based on the communities they serve;

• “User pays” reinforcing institutionalised inequity between well-off schools and those which were struggling;

School leaders assuming financial/managerial roles rather than educational leadership;

Some schools simply accepting the inevitability of a budget deficit, regarding it as one way of letting the government know there is insufficient money.

To give you an idea of just how different community contributions are you just need to examine the numbers. In 2012 decile 1 schools were able to get an average donation of $53.00 from anywhere between 30 and 100 students. For decile 2 students the figures were better – $92.00 on average from between 50 and 120 students. But these pale in comparison to what the higher decile schools could collect. Decile 9 schools were able to get an average of $379.00 from between 125 and 740 students while decile 10 schools were able to harvest $423.00 from between 250 and an astonishing 900 pupils. In essence the schools that have the pupils that probably need the least financial help from the community get well and truly the most, while the students that could benefit hugely from this extra generosity tend to be located in the poorest regions of the country, where social conditions are so bad at present, that just looking after your own family is troubling enough.

Additionally today’s educational costs have risen dramatically as we understand more about how to utilise non-teaching staff within the environment, particularly in administration, compliance, social work, and medical assistance. And that is not even bringing up the fact that technology, while no doubt being an invaluable tool for the sector, has brought up the cost of operating a classroom significantly.

But funding is only one issue when it comes to inequality. Cathy Wylie, a chief researcher at the New Zealand Centre for Educational Research has incredible insight about how the inequality of status in schools is crippling the ability of those in the lower deciles to improve. In the 2013 book Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, Wylie points out that because New Zealand has a policy emphasis on parental choice, coupled with stand-alone, self-managing schools that compete for students ‘many low decile schools are smaller than they were and less able to attract their community’s higher performing students who migrate to higher decile schools’.

And inequality is not just erecting hurdles that block retention of students – because of inequality lower decile schools also face enormous obstacles to recruit and retain an experienced faculty. Wylie demonstrates that even in 2012, during the economic downturn 20% of decile 1-2 secondary school principals had difficulty finding suitable teachers, while comparatively only 3% of the decile 9-10 secondary schools did. Compounding this issue further though is the fact that teaching in lower decile schools has become brutally hard due to the nature of the schools being under resourced, and the litany of issues caused by poverty. Inevitably this leads to a higher burnout rate amongst these already over-burdened teachers who often have to implement social development programmes (that are admittedly well-meaning and often effective), without any administrative support– to the point where lower decile teachers rank 31.8 on a scale measuring indicators of work related burnout compared to 24.2 for their upper decile colleagues.

HOW OUTSIDE INEQUALITY COMPOUNDS THE ISSUE IN THE CLASSROOM

Hekia Parata, the current National Party hack that has been awarded the poisoned chalice that is the education portfolio, goes to great lengths to actively alienate school faculty by placing the blame for New Zealand’s slide in education quality squarely at their feet. By misusing OECD data, Parata has repeatedly made the idiotic claim that socio-economic background accounts for only 18% of student achievement. Martin Thrupp, a professor of Education at the University of Waikato (and one of the most respected and influential voices on education in New Zealand) has slammed this notion, pointing out that if you take into consideration neighbourhood and school socio-economic factors the figure skyrockets to 78%. In other words, Hekia only considers what is literally inside a family’s four walls as being an indicator of their socio-economic standing. Which for want of a better term, is fucking stupid.

Thrupp has made repeated calls for policy makers to acknowledge the role of ‘middle class advantage’ in perverting the equality of accessibility in education. Thrupp is so aware of this ‘middle class advantage’ that he has been happy to highlight the gains his own family have made thanks to it. In a New Zealand Herald column Thrupp asked himself the question of what worked for his daughter (who had just graduated University) and answered ‘I think it has mostly been general middle class advantage. Two professional parents and the language environment that goes with that. Being read to frequently as a small child and access to good early childhood education. Living and holidaying overseas for several years. Attending schools with mainly advantaged peers and whose teachers were able to capitalise on all the advantages those children and young people were bringing to school’. Thrupp is adamant that the question of middle class advantage is crucial to understanding why we have such massive disparities in our education sector, and he argues in another paper entitled Some Inconvenient Truths About Education in Aotearoa/New Zealand that ‘it appears education policy is shaped and bounded by electoral pressures and doing anything to assist children from low-income families and neighbourhoods is regarded as politically risky’.

Extrapolating on the long term effects of this political viewpoint Thrupp then points out that ‘failing to raise middle class advantage in education as an issue, politicians and policymakers imply that it is a natural part of the world order over which they have no control. And so we have a society where most people see putting their child into a high socio-economic school as value free’. What this simply means is that due to a cynical political strategy of avoidance, we have a situation in New Zealand where certain people cannot actually even conceptualise the reality of poverty, and thus simply assume that the inequality we have must be natural. By extension then, there are many middle New Zealanders who simply can’t conceive of the fact that those whose schooling life is conducted in lower decile schools are punished right from the start of their lives.

“Amanda illuminated the idiocy of claiming to want more kids in school, while then shooting down the most cost effective and beneficial method of guaranteeing that children would actually show up”

I recently spoke to a former Primary School teacher named Amanda who worked in decile 1A School and some of what she told me was sickening. The reality of the poverty she dealt with would seem implausible to those that have never conceptualised poverty in New Zealand and the brutality of it is neutered by trying to compress it into a few sentences. Amanda told me about the never ending cycles of violence, hunger, and sickness that she encountered while working. She told me about how she spent at least half of her salary buying things like equipment and food for the classroom, because often the only time the children ate was when they were at school. The homes of many of her students didn’t have luxuries like pens and balls that could be found at school. When I asked her about the recent decision to not fund ‘breakfast in schools’ she brought a perspective to the issue that is sorely lacking from the ministerial hacks that currently occupy our debating chamber. She pointed out that for some of the parents in her school it was too embarrassing to send the kids to school without food, so they wouldn’t send the children at all. Amanda illuminated the idiocy of claiming to want more kids in school, while then shooting down the most cost effective and beneficial method of guaranteeing that children would actually show up.

The government seemed blissfully oblivious to the plight of the ‘wonderful’ children that Amanda adored, and one of the breaking points for her came when the charity KidsCan came into her school, but couldn’t provide enough shoes for everyone. She was forced to choose amongst a whole classroom of children that needed shoes, who would actually get them. The next day as the lucky few who couldn’t believe how fortunate they were to have a pair of shoes came to school excited, the other children were broken-hearted and couldn’t understand why their shoes that were falling apart were considered adequate footwear in the eyes of the staff. Amanda loved these children and spent at least 80 hours a week doing everything she could to protect them and help them. Understandably, recapping this anecdote to me was emotional and tough going for her.

Educationally, the issues only added to the toll. It was not uncommon to encounter students from different cultural backgrounds who not only had no concept of reading, but had no concept of a book or what words were. Rather than being able to simply launch into the basic elements of how to read and write, she found herself in the unenviable task of having to help five year olds conceptualise the very notion of reading. When Thrupp points out that the value of reading in the home is one of those things that middle class families often forget about when they ignore their advantage, it is exactly these kinds of fundamentally abstract issues that he was referring to. Again – this is how schooling in the lower decile communities starts. The schools have the most challenges to face, the most work to do, and the most disadvantaged members of the electorate are underfunded, ignored, and blamed for the very problems that they are trying to fix. These issues don’t simply stop once the students get to High School – they carry on, morphing into further issues that of course occur when you add hormonal changes and puberty into the mix.

Due to a variety of historical systemic factors Maori and Pacific students are well and truly over represented in the lower socio-economic areas of New Zealand and face the consequences of being in this group. Education is one of the most notable of these areas, and one of the most distressing as education should be the main force to counteract this inequality. According to statistics from Victoria University there is only a 50.6% retention rate for Maori students in High School (to age 17) compared to 75.4% for non-Maori, and only half the number of Maori students will achieve NCEA level 2 in comparison to their non-Maori counterparts. This has inevitably helped create a situation where youth unemployment for Maori in New Zealand is at a woeful 22.4%, compared to just over 9% for non-Maori. The cycle of poverty in inequality only gets entrenched and strengthened by these figures.

“We are currently at a crossroads in New Zealand.

Everything that was good about our education system is being rapidly pissed away by ideologues who received the gift of a free world class education when they were younger but don’t think today’s young people deserve the same opportunity.”

We are currently at a crossroads in New Zealand. Everything that was good about our education system is being rapidly pissed away by ideologues who received the gift of a free world class education when they were younger but don’t think today’s young people deserve the same opportunity. We still have a better education than a lot of countries, but it is quickly deteriorating because of the rampant inequality that has been sewn into it through thirty plus years of devotion to an economic religion that is starting to collapse. We can either choose to acknowledge that there is something very wrong with our system, and stop blaming the overworked, overburdened, underpaid, and under-resourced staff that do this work because they love the children they teach – or alternatively we can let the whole thing get to the point where only the rich can get a decent education, and the poor will simply go to school to have their spirits crushed, and to learn how to do menial labour. You might not think that’s your problem right now – but unless you’re currently sitting in the top 10% of earners in this country, it will become your problem very, very soon.

By Bevan Morgan.

Read more from Bevan here.

National Standards results should not be published, by Martin Thrupp

It is disappointing to see Fairfax has published a new round of National Standards data and advocacy on the Stuff website. Last year I wrote urging Fairfax not to continue with publishing the data but it seems they could not resist.

national standardsThe Fairfax approach encourages comparison but National Standards are not nationally moderated. They are affected by far too many sources of variation to use for comparing the performance of schools. Children rated ‘at’ at one school will often be rated ‘below’ or ‘above’ at other schools.

The Ministry of Education is aware of this problem so it has been trialling a national online tool to bring more consistency to the National Standards judgements – the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT).

But PaCT is only due to be introduced next year. So why would Fairfax publish the existing flawed data for all schools in a way that encourages comparison? The rows of figures may be tidy but the emperor has no clothes.

My concern about PaCT is that as it attempts to solve the moderation issue it will bring its own problems in schools and classrooms. It will be a bit like how stoats and ferrets were introduced into New Zealand to control the rabbit population.

Back to National Standards, there are many other good reasons for not giving the results any publicity. The language of the National Standards, especially the ‘below’ and ‘well below’ labels, is crude and stigmatising rather than developmental.

The National Standards approach is not a ‘value-added’ one and it tends to fail children with disadvantages. These include children with various special needs, children with English as a second language, and children from deprived backgrounds.

There are also some toxic effects of the National Standards on the culture of primary schools including curriculum narrowing and a wasteful use of precious teacher time. Ironically, it is often where teachers and schools are doing their best to take the National Standards seriously that they will be most harmful.

All in all the National Standards policy has little to recommend it. There are better alternatives to getting national information about student achievement such as an approach that samples across schools. But at the moment the public is being encouraged by Fairfax to take the National Standards seriously.

Of course some will insist that ‘at the end of the day’ we must have standards in schools. My response is that in education the cry of ‘standards’ is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I want standards, you want standards, the monkeys in the zoo surely want standards!

The point is that the Key Government’s National Standards are not just standards, they are a particular and idiosyncratic assessment system. They are also complete nonsense, at least for the comparative purposes that Fairfax is promoting.

Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato thrupp@waikato.ac.nz

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/ED1411/S00082/national-standards-results-should-not-be-published.htm

 

Some international views of the IES, by Martin Thrupp

Last week I gave a presentation to some Australian and English academics in Sydney (see slides below). I wanted to emphasise the dilemmas faced by the sector and how the opportunity to be ‘in the tent’ and negotiate had heightened rather than reduced those dilemmas. I tried to give a fair representation of the different points of view, along with some of my own framing of course. Here are some of the main responses from the audience (in no particular order):

  • Clustering of schools is often becoming seen by governments as a better way to push neo-liberal reform along than a focus on individual schools (whether clusters, groups or federations e.g. academies in England).
  • Clustering encourages the culture of entrepreneurial superheads that has become so important in leading educational reform in England (Michael Wilshaw as mentioned in one of the slides is a good example).
  • The clustering idea tends to function as an expression of various fears, but what is it affirming?
  • Policy flows between limit points and it is possible to make too much of autonomy or collaboration, that in practice both always have to exist anyway.
  • The IES might be seen by secondary principals as a means of addressing teacher performance issues that are more difficult to get a handle on in secondary schools than in primary schools.
  • Dismay about the NZ primary and secondary sectors becoming so divided in response to policy – some Australian states have had this experience too.
  • Important to recognise that any large-scale reform like this now typically leads to new opportunities for privatisation, contracting out etc.
  • The importance, as always, of national and local contexts and trajectories of reform that mean that governments push on particular bits of policy at different times in different countries, even if the overall direction is similar.

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Professor Martin Thrupp’s expertise is in: Social class and education; the impact of managerialism and performativity in schools; school choice and competition; international policy borrowing; contextualised approaches to educational leadership.

For more information on Professor Thrupp’s work and publications, see here.

 

 

Notes from a visit to Christchurch primary schools four years on, by Professor Martin Thrupp

quake train tracksLast month I was in Christchurch and took the opportunity to visit some primary schools including an intermediate. It happened to be September 4th, four years to the day since the earthquake sequence began.

I spoke mainly to principals and wrote a few notes. They are obviously only impressions from a short visit but I thought they would be useful to share, especially for those of us who don’t live and work in Canterbury.

The first thing to emphasise is that just as ‘The Press’ reported last month that only 10% of the rebuild was so far complete, quake-related problems in schools are by no means over either. Instead they trundle on and on and manifest in different ways over time.

A central problem is that many staff are exhausted after years of dealing with the problems at school as well as their own family and housing problems. As one principal put it, ‘There’s not a lot left in the tank’. It’s been hard for principals to get a proper break too. In the post-quakes scramble for attention and resources they needed to be constantly available at the end of a phone.

I was told that at a recent event for Christchurch schools, the amount and quality of work was down 20% on what schools had submitted in the past. While the pressures have been relentless, those who work in schools don’t complain much. In Christchurch it is unexceptional to have quake-related problems.

On the fourth anniversary of the initial quake, ‘The Press’ reported that babies born that fateful day in Christchurch were thriving. That may be so, but principals reported that many of the children arriving at school over the last few years have presented extra challenges.

Oral language skills have declined, perhaps telling a story of parents being more distracted than usual. Children have also been less independent, suggesting parents being highly protective after the quakes.

With many stresses including anxieties around their children, Christchurch parents have also become more difficult for schools to deal with. Families are less invested in their local schools as many have had to move house permanently or at least temporarily. Parents often can’t afford the school trips and other extras they once could.

There is erratic behaviour and chippy attitudes from some parents that leave schools wondering ‘what was that all about?’ Sometimes parents have gone to the media and had their concerns blown out of proportion or ’spun’ in ways that are not constructive.

It is in the more middle class school settings that these changes are being felt the most. I visited a low socio-economic school on the eastern side of the city where life for families has long been highly uncertain anyway.

For many Christchurch families the way forward in creating social mobility for ones children is not as certain as it once was. Old rules of middle class advantage that had come with living in particular parts of the city are being rewritten. Some schools are closing and others have become unusually oversubscribed as new housing developments have sprung up.

In this situation there is often increasing competition between schools. Zoning and enrolling children from beyond the ‘natural’ catchment of schools has become a concern for many principals. Most are still seeing the ‘bigger picture’ of education in Christchurch but some prefer to mostly focus on what is good for their own particular school.

Adding fuel to the fire is that some schools have been rebuilt with flash new ‘modern learning environments’ while others are going to have to wait years to get the same treatment, or won’t at all.

How do those in Christchurch schools view the Government’s response to the educational problems caused by the earthquakes? As a mixed bag but generally with scepticism.

Putting schools into voluntary clusters was a positive move but one that was overtaken by the ‘reorganisation’ of Christchurch schools. This revealed an appalling lack of consultation and was also a communications fiasco. One principal described ‘watching grown men cry’ as principals realised that they had been gathered together to tell them which of their schools were to be ‘winners’ or ‘losers’ after the quakes.

The Interim Response Fund has worked quite well for getting support with some children with extra needs. But the specialised psychological, speech and language and occupational therapy help that children need is hard to access. The Ministry isn’t seen to have the answers to ‘mainstreaming’ children with special needs yet the McKenzie Special School has been closed.

Some schools have staffing levels guaranteed as their rolls drop off before closure. This is a great arrangement in vulnerable communities. But others don’t have the same deal. It leaves some teachers preoccupied with looking for replacement jobs.

An extraordinary amount of school leadership time has needed to be spent on matters to do with buildings, grounds and services. Prefabs come and go. Classrooms are deemed unserviceable and then suitable. Regular ‘5YA’ funding for upgrading buildings has been discontinued during the rebuild.

I think we should admire the efforts being made in all Christchurch schools and not become overly distracted by the shiny new developments in some of them. The context of earthquake recovery is bringing new opportunities but primary education in Christchurch is unlikely to be out of the woods anytime soon.

The schools still need more support in all sorts of ways.  Extra staffing, more specialist support and more attention to inequities within the educational market that is continuing to evolve in Christchurch would all make a difference.

– Martin Thrupp

Professor Thrupp works at the University of Waikato and has expertise in Social class and education; the impact of managerialism and performativity in schools; school choice and competition; international policy borrowing; contextualised approaches to educational leadership. 

Tony Ryall and the education sector, by Martin Thrupp

Prof Martin ThruppAs Health Minister Tony Ryall signed off on his long political career recently, he said about the health portfolio: “You work with quality people every day who are dedicated to the welfare of New Zealanders. I wake up most mornings, and I turn to my wife and I say ‘ugh. Imagine being Minister of Education’. That is a really tough job.”

The clear implication is that education sector workers are not ‘quality’ and it was an unfortunate comment for a government minister to make. It will have reminded people in the education sector that while the Key Government has been on a charm offensive this year, its longer-term pattern has been dismissal, denigration and blame.

Another reminder of how appalling the Key Government has been in relating to the education sector was Nigel Latta’s latest TV programme. The main thrust of the programme was that our schools and today’s education were good! It was a refreshing change from the Minister of Education’s usual crisis account and the sort of barb that Ryall has delivered.

One of the strengths of Latta’s programme was that he recognised some of the complexity of what teachers are dealing with. He started with how the education system is baffling to most people and illuminated it a little.

Perhaps the complexity of the education sector also partly underlies Ryall’s cheap shot. What constitutes quality is not straightforward here. Education is full of uncertainty and heavily influenced by context. It is sometimes informed by evidence but can rarely be evidence-based. Randomised controlled trial with your Year 10 class anyone?

Education is even more complex than Tony Ryall’s dress sense. It’s an area where there’s a little bit of truth in many point of views. It’s also an area where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Educational problems often demand a cultural rather than a technical response from teachers.

As Professor Richard Pring of Oxford University has put it, ‘teaching as part of an educational practice must include deliberation about the end or values of teaching, as much as it does deliberation about the means or techniques’.

A New Zealand academic who understood much about the complexities of education is honoured with an annual lecture. Professor Emeritus Graham Nuthall (1935-2004) was famous for a series of studies in the subtle classroom interactions that influence learning.

My address for the Annual Graham Nuthall Lecture next month will be on National Standards, an area where this Government is allowing its enthusiasm for data and targets to damage teaching and learning in primary and intermediate schools.

Most educators remain concerned about central elements of the National Standards policy. This leads to what I suspect is Ryall’s main problem with the education sector, that it has continued to dispute much of the Key Government’s approach to education.

One response is to ask why there isn’t more outspokenness in the health sector also.
Many of Ryall’s ‘quality people’ have just announced they are going on strike for better pay. And anecdotally there are plenty of problems with health practice being distorted by targets and funding arrangements.

Actually it’s important that teachers and other education sector workers see themselves as playing a genuine part in making education policy. Education policy cannot just be implemented in linear fashion, it gets translated and reinterpreted at every level. Teachers don’t simply comply with policy and neither should they if we want a good education system.

Contestation of education policy serves valuable purposes. It circumvents and undermines bad policy. Tony Ryall might look down his nose at those in the education sector but like those in health, they are very dedicated to the welfare of New Zealanders.

And if they can stop a Government imposing bad policy – legend!
About the Author:  Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato.

 

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/ED1408/S00046/tony-ryall-and-the-education-sector.htm

 

Martin Thrupp talks National Standards and RAINs

What did the RAINs project find about National Standards?

When PISA meets politics – a lesson from New Zealand

by Martin Thrupp,first published in The Conversation

conversation

“PISA shock” is the term that has been coined for the sense of political crisis and knee-jerk policy reaction that typically occurs when a country drops in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s international education rankings.

Almost 100 education experts, including several of us from New Zealand, recently sent an open letter to the OECD’s chief education spokesperson, Andreas Schleicher, pointing out that the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings have become more of a problem than a solution.

In many ways the concern of New Zealand educators is also around the wider influence of the OECD education programme on New Zealand educational politics and policy – perhaps as much “OECD hangover” as “PISA shock”.

New Zealand’s government led by prime minister John Key often draws on the authority of the OECD to endorse its policy direction, using both PISA findings and the related arguments of Schleicher. New Zealand’s minister of education Hekia Parata regularly quotes Schleicher, saying, “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion.”

Data problems

But Schleicher is not close enough to the New Zealand context to correct any misuse of the OECD’s results by the Key government, and this causes problems. One example has involved the impact of poverty on student achievement.

Shortly after the latest PISA results came out in 2013, Parata started to say that New Zealand’s PISA results showed that socio-economic status accounted for only 18% of student achievement. This was surprising, to say the least, when a powerful relationship between social class and student achievement has been a theme of international research in the sociology of education for more than 50 years.

Further investigation revealed that the 18% claim was based only on PISA’s narrow definition of family socio-economic influence. Using PISA’s wider criteria that include neighbourhood and school socio-economic factors, about 78% of New Zealand’s latest results became explained by socio-economic conditions. But it is worth noting that some academics, such as Harvey Goldstein at Bristol, point out that PISA is not a long-term study, and so can’t estimate factors like this.

But downplaying the impact of poverty in order to emphasise the responsibility of teachers to raise achievement has been a regular strategy of the Key government. And when faced with the corrected figure by opposition parties in parliament in January, the prime minister still fell back on the authority of Schleicher to argue for the greater importance of teachers and schools.

Adding insult to injury, Schleicher himself started arguing that “poverty isn’t destiny” and arrived in New Zealand for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in March stressing the power of high expectations in the face of social contexts.

Some of the points Schleicher has been making might be useful if the arguments were employed carefully. Unfortunately, in the national politics of New Zealand – and probably in many other countries – any such subtleties are quickly lost. Instead the OECD/Schleicher arguments become fertile ground for the politics of blaming teachers for the underperformance of students from poor backgrounds.

Political positioning

The OECD hangover in New Zealand goes far beyond PISA. In January, the Key government’s latest school policy proposal called “Investing in Educational Success” was announced. This is intended to introduce a number of new teaching and leadership roles into New Zealand’s schools, providing extra payments for carrying out the required roles as part of a NZ$359m (£184.4m) investment plan.

By February, a four-minute video of Schleicher endorsing the policy had appeared on Parata’s National Party website. This was concerning as although the OECD tries to be non-partisan, here was Schleicher, featuring on a party-political website and endorsing the governing coalition’s announcement of new education spending in an election year.

Watching the highly scripted video clip it also becomes apparent that Schleicher was willing to endorse the new policy without entering into the controversies it would cause in New Zealand.

He leaves out how the policy was announced by the Key government after a cabinet decision, without prior consultation and only subsequent input into the detail rather than the thrust of the policy. Not mentioned are worrying shifts in the power relations between the New Zealand government and teachers and between New Zealand teachers themselves that are likely to be caused by the policy.

Also not mentioned is the involvement and reinforcement of other New Zealand education policies that have been causing concern such as the new National Standards for primary schools, as well as many practical considerations. Instead, Schleicher discusses the policy only in an abstract, non-contextualised way. As the Quality Public Education Coalition pressure group said, his endorsement evokes the “best of all worlds”.

With Schleicher’s endorsement of the policy there can be no claim of misinterpretation by the Key government. It is more that Schleicher is not being careful enough about how the OECD’s support would be used in a local setting.

Our open letter concluded by suggesting the OECD had become the “global arbiter of the means and ends of education around the world”. In New Zealand, the OECD risks becoming known as a stick to beat educators with. Its reputation is unlikely to improve until it starts genuinely listening and acting on local concerns.

by Martin Thrupp, first published in The Conversation

An Invitation to the Quality Public Education Coalition (QPEC): Education Forum, 26th April

QPEC logo no borderYou are invited to attend the Quality Public Education Coalition (QPEC) Education Forum this Saturday.

It will be a great chance to hear the latest experts such as John O’Neill, Martin Thrupp, Warwick Elley, and the chance to discuss your own concerns at the Teacher Forum – and all for FREE.

The Teacher Forum is focusing on Investing in Success (IES) and, to my mind, is not to be missed.  Many well informed people are attending, including Liz Horgan of St Joseph’s, Otahuhu, who will discuss how a group of principals have joined forces to form the CONCERNED NZ PRINCIPALS GROUP because of serious concerns around IES plans.

You can attend any or all of the forum, so do feel free to drop in even if you have only one speaker you really want to hear.  (But truly, you should stay for more than one session – it’s not often you get to hear from all of these people first hand and for free.)

 

WHEN: Saturday 26 April 2014, from 10am.

WHERE: St Columba Centre, 40 Vermont Street, Ponsonby, Auckland

COST:  FREE to all

 

AGENDA

 

10:00 Bill Courtney

Welcome and Overview

 

10:15 John O’Neill

Treasury Business Process Theory and the Assessment of Teacher Quality

The major research paper, “The Assessment of Teacher Quality” was released late last year by the Massey Education Policy Response Group, led by Ivan Snook. EPRG member, John O’Neill, will give an overview of this major paper, containing a wealth of information on many topics relevant to current discussions: the Treasury Business Process policy agenda; assessing teacher effectiveness; Value Added Measurement; and High Stakes Assessment of teachers.

 

10:45 Teacher Forum

“Investing in Educational Success” – the NZ Government initiative.

What are the potential positives and what are the concerns around the NZ Government proposal to create a new set of positions for principals and teachers? QPEC’s initial position was set out in a release issued in January. Martin Thrupp has also released a personal statement and Warwick Elley has had an op-ed published in the NZ Herald.

Liz Horgan of St Joseph’s, Otahuhu, will discuss the CONCERNED NZ PRINCIPALS GROUP’s views.

Representatives from PPTA and NZEI present different perspectives on how these new positions could impact on schools and teachers.

11:15 Martin Thrupp

National Standards and RAINS: where to now?

Martin’s 3-year case study of six individual schools has now concluded. He presents an overview of his findings and gives an update on other developments, including further publication of NS achievement data last year.

 

11:45 Warwick Elley

What Can PISA tell us about NCEA and National Standards?

Warwick has been a concerned critic of standards-based assessment for many years. He has analysed the recent PISA 2012 results and he has a stark warning: “As professionals, teachers are charged to give highest priority to the needs of their students. If we persist with these ill-starred standards-based schemes, we will surely be neglecting those needs. As a nation, too, we are now heavily involved in a race to the bottom.”

 

12:15 Bill Courtney

Charter Schools: What’s The Buzz?

The first five charter schools have now opened. Bill gives a quick update on current issues that have arisen so far, including details of the funding given to each school, which has received a great deal of media attention. Applications for the next round of allocations closed on 11 March.

 

12:45 General Discussion – Other Sectors

 

LUNCH BREAK 1.15-2.00

 

2.00 Dianne Khan

Using Social Media to Disseminate Information & Encourage Involvement

Dianne has joined QPEC during the past year. Dianne publishes her own website, Save Our Schools NZ, and she is also one of the regular contributors to The Daily Blog. Dianne will talk about her website and using social media to stimulate interest in the site.

 

2:30-3.00 QPEC AGM

Please note that the QPEC AGM 2.30-3.00 is members only.

 

QPEC logo landscape larger

Ngā kura māuiui o Aotearoa: The sick New Zealand schools

Installation by Martin Thrupp, Donn Ratana and Viv Aitken
Faculty of Education, University of Waikato, March 2014

Why this installation and why at this time?

This year the Key Government has become unusually upbeat about schools. Festivals of Education are celebrating innovations, collaborations and achievements within the sector. An ‘InspiredbyU’ campaign has been encouraging New Zealanders to write in praise of teachers who have influenced their lives. In January, $359 million of new funding for principals and teacher ‘super roles’ was announced, the so-called ‘Investing in Educational Success’ policy.

This enthusiasm comes after five years of being critical of schools and teachers and often applying damaging policies. It also comes in election year, and just in advance of an ‘International Summit on the Teaching Profession’ where education ministers, heads of teacher unions and teacher leaders from the OECD are gathering in Wellington.

New Zealand’s Education Minister, Hekia Parata, has claimed it is credit to the quality of our education system that this event is being held in New Zealand.

In these circumstances (i.e. in case anyone should get a false impression!) our video highlights how the Key Government’s policies are creating a grave situation for the New Zealand School System.

Sick schools – further information as a pdf

.

Schools concerned about ERO plans to judge them on National Standards results

STOPSerious concerns are being voiced that government’s ever-increasing emphasis on National Standards is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum for students, with reading, writing and mathematics becoming the be-all and end-all, to the detriment of other subject areas.

This concern has grown with the news that ERO (the Education Review Office) will from this year explicitly use schools’ National Standards data and compare it with local and national averages in order to judge schools.  

Principals argue that the move will lead to  schools to “neglect science, the arts and other aspects of children’s development” as they become more concerned with how they fare on league tables than about quality, broad education.

There are concerns that it will lead to a focus on those students who are deemed to be just below the “at” level, with those who are “below”*, “well below”* or “above” standard losing out because they are either already over the “at” hurdle or are deemed to be too far away from it to reach in time for data collection.

There are also very valid concerns that the pressure of such a Big Brother system (especially if paired with performance pay as it has been elsewhere) could lead to either conscious or subconscious inflation of test results, as teachers and schools begin to work in fear.

The Research, Analysis and Insight into National Standards (RAINS) project found that National Standards:

“…are having some favourable impacts in areas that include teacher understanding of curriculum levels, motivation of some teachers and children and some improved targeting of interventions. Nevertheless such gains are overshadowed by damage being done through the intensification of staff workloads, curriculum narrowing and the reinforcement of a two-tier curriculum, the positioning and labelling of children and unproductive new tensions amongst school staff.”

Those concerns are clearly not being taken seriously, and instead a new level of pressure is being layered on.

Of course ERO say there is nothing to worry about, as does Hekia Parata.  But given this government’s repeated bullying of schools, failures to properly consult, and dishonesty about matters pertaining to education, it’s safe to say most teachers and parents will take that assertion with a large pinch of salt.

.

Sources:

(1) http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/237269/schools-nervous-over-ero-review-plans

http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/ED1311/S00199/rains-final-report-national-standards-and-the-damage-done.htm

http://www.education2014.org.nz/wp-uploads/2013/04/RAINS-1st-report.pdf

http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/perspective/9702883/Education-its-not-that-simple

http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/eastern-courier/9760568/Parata-unravels-education-plans

http://assessment.tki.org.nz/Overall-teacher-judgment/Definitions-of-achievement

* (Note, “below standard” and “well below standard” are government’s terms, not mine. I find them incredibly distasteful.)

Hekia Parata, Painted-on Ears, Testing and Learning

la-la-la-not-listeningI sometimes wonder whether Hekia Parata and co walk around with their fingers in their ears saying “lalalalalala” or whether they have mastered the art of switching their ears off at will?

Because truly they just don’t seem to want to listen to or learn a thing.

Take this week’s news…

Political Bagging

The University of Waikato’s Professor of Education, Martin Thrupp, and his team release a calm, well-reasoned report into the effects of National Standards on teaching and learning and offers recommendations on what can be done to improve the situation.

This is not the wild raving spouting of a politician, not even the ranting of an infuriated blogger.  This is a Professor.  Of Education.  He kinda knows what he’s talking about.

Lalalalalala Not Listening

I'm not listening earplugsBut what does Hekia sayabout the report?  She proudly boasts that she hasn’t had time to read it.

Wait, isn’t she the Education Minister?  Isn’t it part of her job to read research and know what’s what? Hey I’m just a mother, and I’ve found the time to read it.  Wouldn’t you think it’d be prudent for an Education Minister to use facts and information, and to critique research properly rather than dismiss things out of hand?

Well your answer there would be in how she chose to describe the research in a Radio New Zealand interview.  She called it “the Thrupp NZEI research”.  That’s no accident.

By brushing aside the University of Waikato and leaving out the title Professor, Parata leads the lay person to believe Thrupp is part of the NZEI and talking from a union point of view rather than that of an expert in education.

Why? Because she is not interested in discussing the points made in the report, rather she wants people to dismiss it out of hand and not face the questions it raises about negative impacts of National Standards.  She has an agenda and no research on earth is going to move her.

How can we improve our education system when this petty game-playing is the focus of the Minister and others?

PISA Rankings

It’s been the same story with the up-coming release of the latest PISA data, in which New Zealand is predicted to slip back in the rankings.  Hekia Parata is immediately out there in cahoots with the Herald using this as a reason to promote PaCT.  I won’t get into the ins and outs of PaCT here, more important is to consider why Parata chose not to address the more pertinent issue of whether NZ’s PISA scores are holding firm.

It’s an important difference.  Are we doing worse or not?

Assuming for now that PISA rankings are a reliable indicator of the state of a nation’s education system, then what would matter is whether our scores on the test are holding steady, improving or declining.  If New Zealand’s scores are holding steady or improving, then dropping down in the ranking means other countries have improved ahead of us in the tests, it does not mean we are getting worse.

At this point it is important to note which countries are thought to have moved ahead of us:  Singapore and Hong Kong.

Both of these countries push a narrow curriculum and have a strong societal push for children to do well in tests.  But  just because you produce a nation of good test takers doesn’t mean you produce students who will contribute to the economy, nor does it mean they will have the ability to adapt should the economic climate or industry focuses change.  It’s a very narrow view of success and not one I’m sure sits comfortably with the Kiwi ethos for life and living.

There’s another thing to consider with pushing children to be great test takers, and that is the effect on their health.  

Hong Kong has reported “heavy study loads and pressure from parents to succeed contribute factors to youth suicide, particularly in the run-up to spring and summer exams.”  Singapore has also reported rising suicide rates amongst the young, with one ten year old killing herself because she felt her grades were not good enough.  A visiting academic reported that “Due to rigorous study schedules and pressure to succeed academically, the suicide rate is lofty for high school and college students.”

So is getting the highest test scores all that matters?

What truly matters  is whether New Zealand children are getting a good education that meets their needs for life.  Tests only tell us so much – they are not the be-all and end-all.  And education should not be a political football, it’s not something to use as a way to make money, it’s not there to gain points in an election.  Or it shouldn’t be.

listen to understandListen, Read, Think, Discuss, Learn

We must get over this obsession with merely measuring and reporting test scores.

We have to meaningfully consider and discus expert finding.

We should visit more schools doing brilliantly and research what is happening there that works.

We need  time and resources and good mechanisms to share and promote the best working practices far more widely.

We must adapt teacher training to keep up with best practice and latest pedagogy.

We should work together to further improve the public education system for the benefit of all students.

Shouldn’t we?

Release of Primary School Data Disingenuous, Destructive and Deluded – Martin Thrupp

This paper is written by Martin Thrupp, Professor of Education at the University of Waikato.

On 8th August, something terrible happened in New Zealand. Unfortunately most of us didn’t notice because it was during the Olympics.   On that day the Government revealed its plans for how National Standards achievement data will be released and how it intends to create more consistency between schools in their National Standards judgements and reporting.   There is now a ‘Public Achievement Information Plan’ with numerous steps towards ‘incrementally improving the quality of the data’.

In this paper I describe the impending release of primary school achievement data as disingenuous, destructive and deluded. By disingenuous I am not trying to engage in conspiracy theories but I do point out that the Government can’t wash its hands of media-developed league tables and that print media coverage of the potential for harm is suspiciously thin. I then discuss why the decision to release the national standards data can be expected to be destructive to many schools, communities, families and children, indeed truly devastating for some. Following that, I argue that any notion that National Standards data that will get more meaningful over time because of the various consistency measures the Government is putting into place is deluded, as is the idea that many parents will have a better choice of schools because of the release of the data. Lastly, I suggest the situation is still recoverable if there was the political will to change direction.

Disingenuous 

Is there anything disingenuous about the Government’s treatment of the release of National Standards data?

Absolutely, because back in 2009 then Minister of Education Anne Tolley said repeatedly that the Government would not be creating league tables.  This is likely to be why some schools were prepared to go with the National Standards rather than resisting them as many schools did.  For instance in the RAINS research I am doing, the principal of the school most supportive of National Standards said last year that she wouldn’t have supported them if they were about league tables and performance pay.

Then in June this year the Prime Minister and current Education Minister Hekia Parata signalled their support for league tables.  The current stance is that ‘Public Achievement Information’ is not about creating National Standards league tables and strictly speaking that is true.  But it is not preventing them either, rather it is facilitating the media being able to create league tables by pulling data together from New Zealand’s 2300 primary and intermediate schools and making it all available on the ‘Education Counts’ website.

It is also requiring schools to present their National Standards data in increasing standardised fashion that will make league tables easier to construct. So the branding of this exercise as ‘Public Achievement Information’ is little more than a distraction when the Government is doing all that is needed to make league tables of primary school performance except actually rank the schools.

As for the media, the print media (as a whole, there are some notable exceptions) seems reluctant to engage with the arguments against league tables, perhaps even shutting them down.

  • For instance what should we make of the fact that the Herald has only devoted one sentence (in the item ‘National Standards website a “good compromise” – PM’, August 8) to a public letter against league tables signed by nearly 300 Auckland principals?  This represents roughly 70% of the primary and intermediate principals in the wider Auckland area, was it not more newsworthy than this?
  • Another example is a recent Herald editorial (‘Flawed school data no reason not to publish’, August 10) that started off by pointing out that I had argued that ‘schools will use tricks to portray themselves in the best possible light in National Standards results that will be published next month’.  By leaving out the details of what had been reported in the Herald two days earlier, this carried the implication I could be criticising the schools, which I certainly wasn’t.  (What I have always been saying, and will say again here, is that if you want schools to be honest and authentic then don’t incentivise them to be otherwise by making the data public).
  • And finally what about John Hartevelt from Fairfax Media who has been reporting on the developments around league tables, covering a range of views, but has now put in an OIA requests to all schools for the data, presumably in order that his employer can publish league tables?

In all of this I think we need to recognise that the print media, in particular, stands to gain from the publication of league tables.

Based on overseas experience, it will create an annual spectacle that will sell a lot of newspapers. Perhaps it is this, as much as their general political stance, that explains why newspaper editors seem to prefer to engage in relatively general and abstract arguments about whether or not parents have the right to the information rather than focus on the important issue of harm, of why releasing the data is likely to be destructive.

Destructive

To me the Public Achievement Information plans are the educational equivalent of introducing a nasty disease into every primary and intermediate school in the country.  Actually the disease is already there but relatively contained.  Now it is about to go viral and there is not a school or school community in the country that will be unscathed, although as we will see, some will be afflicted more than others, in fact for some it is likely to be fatal.

I am talking about powering up a culture of performativity within schools.  What this means in this situation is that the new professionalism that can be expected to grow up in the primary sector now will be to get as many children ‘at’ or ‘above’ in the National Standards since these will become the headline statistics in the league tables of school performance that the media will pull together.

“No bad thing” you might say, but note I did not say that the new professionalism will be to “authentically teach the children so well in reading, writing and maths that they can all genuinely achieve ‘at’ or ‘above’ in the National Standards as well as carry on doing all the other things that we expect in a rich and full primary curriculum”.
No, that is difficult, indeed impossible, in most schools so there are quicker and easier methods that schools will be pushed to use to increase the proportions of children ‘at’ and ‘above’.  They can be expected to include:

  • Turning away students who are unlikely to achieve ‘at’ or ‘above’. Children with special needs, English as a second language, troubled backgrounds or a track record of not achieving well will become a liability, indeed a threat, to schools once the data is released. But there are many subtle and not so subtle ways that schools can discourage enrolment of these children without actually breaking any laws. They include the extent to which they make provision for such children, the discussions they have with prospective parents and the ways schools draw up their enrolment zones.
  • Narrowing the curriculum. The National Standards are in reading, writing and maths, not in science, PE, art, drama, social studies, environmental education or the host of other things taught in primary schools. While in theory the National Standards can be taught by way of the broad school curriculum, the pressure towards a narrower, more direct approach will now intensify. Curriculum narrowing is not just a problem for highly creative children or those with particular abilities in other areas. Most children will find school more tedious with a narrowing curriculum and it reduces the range of options available to teachers trying to respond to the interests of children too.
  • Giving a lot more attention to some students than others. This is what is known as ‘educational triage’ after the medical process of making decisions about who is worth saving and who isn’t.  It means we are likely to see intensive work with some students and things like ‘booster classes’ depending on what will make a difference for the school in terms of its published data. But if your child is not in a group that will make a difference for the school – say they are going to be very difficult to move up or they are already ‘above’ – then they are unlikely to get as much attention.
  • Advantageous approaches to assessment.  There are many steps in the process of assessing students where teachers can make decisions that will lead to a more favourable outcome.  For instance an ‘unassisted’ writing sample can range from being truly thrown in the deep end to being rather more supported, depending on the approach that a school takes.  The specific ways in which formal assessment tools are carried out also provides many options for getting a more favourable result.  So of course when teachers are put under pressure to maximise the number of children getting through ‘at’ or ‘above’, they can be predicted to take the path of least resistance.
  • Obvious dishonesty.  We also know from overseas experience that in a very small number of schools, someone on staff will be so desperate to do better that they will just revise the figures up, they will cheat.

A few general points about all this.

I don’t see the scenario I am painting being already in place in schools through the introduction of National Standards.  There are some elements of it because schools have been mindful their data is going to the Ministry of Education and many have been considering the prospect of the data becoming public.  But at the moment school staff still seem prepared to be pretty open about what is going on in their schools.

For instance in the RAINS project we have a school where a lot of children were put ‘above’ in reading but the staff there are happy to admit they believe it’s an artefact of the test that was used and that if they had used another test many fewer would have been ‘above’ and they are making that change.  Another school has lots of kids put at ‘well below’ for writing and the DP there just says that is realistically where those children should be.  But I think all that will change, that we will see more children being put ‘at’ or ‘above’ standard and schools becoming more insistent that the achievement is at those levels.

This is the logic of the situation.

We could say it shouldn’t happen but it will because schools are being incentivised to take these ‘shortcuts’ and play these ‘tricks’.  And as professional cultures shift, it will no longer be a trick or a shortcut; it will just become what you do to try to ensure your school prospers.  Professional identities will change as responding to league tables becomes the ‘bread and butter’ of the job.  Schools and teachers will come to measure their worth and value by their National Standards achievement and the position of their schools in the league tables.  There will be greater anxiety around National Standards performance in classrooms, staffrooms, senior management and board meetings.  A kind of ‘economy’ will develop where the energies and funding in each schools is directed to doing well in the league tables and away from other areas.

These patterns are well supported in the international literature and we can see them in other education sectors here too.  In the tertiary sector, where staff and institutions are responding to various performance indicators, there is a lot of trickiness. For instance I understand the Tertiary Education Union has been getting complaints from staff who are being told what their pass rates need to be while others are having their grades modified by senior managers who are chasing particular targets and performance indicators.

There is also the game of people being hired or ‘moved on’ or given new roles in order to do better in the PBRF, the Performance Based Research Fund.  We can also see some of the same patterns with NCEA.  One issue which has been repeatedly raised in the past is that some schools have offered more ‘easy’ unit standards than others, allowing them to look more successful when they achieve higher pass rates than schools doing more difficult ‘achievement standards’.  Another concern often raised is the problem of ‘credit cleansing’, schools boosting their pass rates by cancelling the NCEA enrolments of students who are unlikely to be successful.  But the difference between NCEA and the situation at primary levels is that NCEA goes across many subject areas and levels and the resulting league tables are complicated.  Whereas at primary the headline statistic of the percentage ‘at’ and ‘above’ standard in just reading, writing and maths will be deceptively straightforward and just the kind of simplistic approach that will make those league tables really take off.

The destructive effects could occur in schools anywhere on the socio-economic spectrum, even in schools that are much sought after by the middle classes, because the fear of falling in the league tables will be everywhere and there is always the problem of a ‘rogue’ year group that will upset the pattern of year-on-year improvement that all schools will want to see.  But it is in low socio-economic schools serving mainly the country’s more vulnerable families that the release of National Standards data will be most devastating.

These schools will be on the back foot because their children typically come in less ready for school and there are continuing issues related to poverty and transience and many also have lots of issues with children with special needs and English Language Learners.

Is this what we want for our children?All this will impact heavily on the published achievement data, as it will be in the form of raw rather than ‘value-added’ figures.

There will be a regional and national comparison and based on present practices with the NCEA the media will probably try to contextualise by decile but that crude comparison will just makes things worse in some ways.  So I’m expecting intensified local hierarchies of high performing ‘star’ schools and others demonized as ‘failing’ with these hierarchies mainly reflecting socio-economic and other contextual differences.  The ‘star’ schools will find it even easier to recruit new staff, whereas a low position on the league tables will tend to further discourage applicants for lower socio-economic schools.  Wider criteria for choosing schools will become increasing ignored.  League tables will also affect teacher expectations. Frustration about ‘underachieving’ children will translate to them even if nothing is said.

Unfortunately there is a lot of evidence that being told you or your school is not up to standard undermines students’ identities as learners because these are constructed through assessment processes.

Wider changes can be expected to occur as well. Numeracy and literacy will come to further dominate teacher education as providers respond to the demands from schools.  This will be another pressure changing what it means to be a teacher. Schools will encourage parents to seek and pay for outside tutoring for their children: we are already seeing some tutoring services being explicitly targeted at children who have been assessed as ‘below National Standards’).  The league tables will inevitably become the focus of target-setting and other policy and political commentary, an easy thing to focus on rather than digging into what is actually happening behind the figures.  And of course the new charter schools will be waiting in the wings wherever existing provision is deemed to be failing.

Deluded

At the moment schools’ approaches to the National Standards are all over the place.  The RAINS research illustrates that this is because they involve different trajectories that reflect school-specific contexts including student intakes and the history of assessment and curriculum development in each school.  The Government clearly knows this variability is a problem too as it is now using the various means at its disposal to try to create more consistency between schools in both judgements and reporting.  So they are introducing and making compulsory the Progress and Consistency Tool, an online platform that will help teachers to line up different kinds of assessment tools and other data and create an OTJ.  They are also tightening up reporting requirements so that everyone provides data in the same format, not in different ways as they did this year.

Now the Minister’s expectation is that through these measures the data “will get better and better and be more useful over time”.  Becoming more ‘meaningful’ is the expression often used.  But of course at the same time the Government is taking these steps, it is creating more incentive for schools to be gaming the system.  So talk of the data becoming meaningful is nonsense, it may well become less meaningful in real terms.  The problem for the Government is that while the PACT tool might remove the benefits to be gained by choosing one assessment tool over another, it won’t be able to be able to control all the variation in assessment processes, the turning away of students, the educational triage and the random instances of obvious cheating.  So long as the incentive is there, every time a loophole is closed with new directives, the people out in schools will find another one.  And if the Government becomes more serious about policing schools’ processes, the costs of trying to ensure compliance will get very high.

Also deluded is any notion that school choices will be improved for most people.  On the one hand the release of data will encourage consumerist behaviour by parents and yet the system will be unable to deliver to most of them because they won’t be able to get their children into the top schools in the league tables.  So there will be many needlessly dissatisfied parents who will have been encouraged to exit their local school whereas had they engaged with it more positively, would probably find it works just fine for their child.  It is also worth recalling that the data is only in reading, writing and maths and is already out of date by the time it gets to parents.  Someone using the data to choose a school is actually interested in a prediction of future achievement but in practice there is little certainty because their child will typically go through with a different student cohort, quite possibly with different teachers or board members, and maybe even a different principal.

The way forward

I have argued that the impending release of primary school achievement data is disingenuous and will prove destructive and deluded.  

When it comes to ‘meaningful’ data, the emperor will have no clothes because of all that will be going on behind the scenes. 

So where to now?

We are told there is no alternative to releasing the data because of the Official Information Act and the Ombudsman’s recent ruling would seem to confirm this.  So this year’s ‘ropey’ data will have to be published although anyone who wants to take it seriously should be laughed off the planet.  But then the problem should be fixed by removing the reporting requirements around the National Standards or, better still, getting rid of National Standards altogether and letting schools just work with the underlying curriculum levels and assessment tools. In my view the situation without repeated public release of the data would still be recoverable.  I’m basing this on the preference to be honest and frank that I see in the RAINS schools.

But the outlook for the culture of New Zealand primary and intermediate schools without shutting down the release of data is bleak.

What the politicians and the general public need to grapple with is the paradox that the more high stakes pressure is placed on teachers, the less authentic their teaching will become and that there is no easy way to get around this problem.

Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato.
In this article, much emphasis and layout is my own. You can see the original article here.

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