08 October 2013

You can't fatten a hog by measuring it

by Dr Dianne Scouller

The NZ Herald article Schools face takeover if pupils failing on Tuesday 24 September raises some issues of serious concern. One is the harsh – some might say totalitarian – imposition of authority on organisations which are essentially the lifeblood of their communities. With horror I read that 70 schools are currently under statutory management.

No honest teacher would question the appropriateness of being accountable. However, the manner in which that accountability is measured is open to serious challenge. To honour the spirit of educational reforms over the last 50 to 60 years there has been a steady growth in programmes and pedagogical approaches designed to meet the learning needs of individual children. Assessment techniques which acknowledge the powerful influence of a sound mix of diagnostic, formative and summative assessment procedures all aimed at giving individual children the best possible opportunity to succeed are proving extremely valuable. The New Zealand Curriculum (2007, p.9) states clearly that: “the principles set out…put students at the centre of teaching and learning…” The imposition of a rigid regime demanding statistical evidence of success is effectively undermining the valuable reforms undertaken to date.

With respect to the National Standards, an honest investigation of two international situations, in the USA and in Finland, is crucial. The ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) initiative in the USA has proven to be extremely destructive in direct contrast with its intended outcome. There is considerable evidence of negative consequences such as the dismissal of principals and school closures where annual ‘targets’ are not met (Lloyd Yero, 200/2001). The punitive nature of some aspects of the NCLB law has led to a growing fixation on the avoidance of failure at the expense of progress, with a profoundly negative impact on both teachers and learners.

The threat of high stakes consequences, as outlined in the September 24th article, will inevitably lead in some instances to New Zealand schools fixating on the avoidance of ‘failure’ as in the USA. An over-emphasis on quantitative assessment data inevitably means a diminishing of what really matters; namely rich and challenging teaching and learning environments which will truly ‘fatten the hog’.

The situation in Finland is quite different. In recent years the country’s education system has undergone considerable changes leading to an impressive lift in its OECD rating for educational success. This has led to their situation being lionised without thoroughly investigating the full picture. Indeed there are some very commendable aspects of Finland’s success. For instance, Finland publicly recognises the value of its teachers and trusts their professional judgment, i.e. they are autonomous, trusted and respected professionals. Education authorities insist that curriculum, teaching and learning, rather than testing, must drive classroom practice. They believe that external standardising testing narrows the curriculum and potentially leads to unprofessional and even unethical behaviour and unhealthy competition between schools. Their education policy gives a high priority to personalised learning and creativity with student assessment is embedded in the in the teaching and learning process; academic performance is seen as the responsibility of the school (P. Sahlberg, 2011).

However, Finland is largely mono-cultural, which is vastly different from the NZ environment. Classrooms are run very much as they were in New Zealand in the early 20th century. It is important therefore to ensure that comparisons are undertaken wisely and with focussed attention on the demographics of our schools. It is crucial that we remain true to the intent of The New Zealand Curriculum, (2007, p.9) that our learners “experience a curriculum that engages and challenges them, is forward looking and inclusive, and affirms New Zealand’s unique identity.”

New Zealand Ministry of Education, (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.
Salberg, P. (2011). Lessons from Finland. Education Digest 77 (3), 18-24.

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