Category Archives: national standards

Learning from the PISA results

I attended a meeting of the Minister's Forum today where we had further discussion around what we can learn from the latest PISA results, and implications for future policy and professional decision making in the NZ education sector. 

We began the day by viewing a webcast from Andreas Schleicher, the international 'architect' of the PISA process (see video above). A key point he makes is that global comparisons such as PISA allow us to see what's possible in education – a useful perspective I feel as we begin to see the media frenzy begin. 

An old colleague of mine, and member of the forum, John Langley, chaired the meeting, and spoke about five different reactions he predicted we'll see emerge over the next weeks/months:

  1. "She'll be right" – those who continue on with business as usual, ignoring what the data is showing us, and hoping that in the fullness of time it will all blow over and somehow rectify itself.
  2. Puglaistic – where people initially retreat away into their respective corners to prepare themselves before coming out fighting with anyone who opposes their ideas or thinks differently. Includes those who choose to use the circumstances for personal or political advantage. 
  3. King Hit – the often seen, knee-jerk reaction where people of influence select a seemingly obvious solution and pursue it with vigor in the (often misguided) belief that it will be the solution.
  4. Shotgun – where a range of strategies are selected and applied in a 'shoot and hope' approach, scattering them in the hope that some might hit the mark and 'solve something'.
  5. Mr Spock – in memory of the famed Star Trek character who always approached a problem by collecting data, analysing it and using it to identify the most appropriate course of action. 

As with most lists like this, it's the last one that provides the preferred solution. In this case I agree – the collection and analysis of data is essential because we cannot assume that any group of people will share a common set of understandings about anything unless they're provided with the opportunity to make their thinking explict, or to share in the construction of shared knowledge. Only then can the community identify and pursue the 'next steps' to be taken.

And so it is with PISA – we need to add this data to our pool of information from which we can explore and construct together the strategies that will take us forward – for the sake of our future generations. 

Standards for teachers

While I've been at the CoSN conference this week there has been a lot of discussion about the Common Core in the US and other standards-based approaches being adopted in various countries around the world (incudiing NZ). The focus of these initiatives is on defining a set of standards which represent the goals and assessment targets for students at various stages in their learning journey.

The promoters of such initiatives argue that standards-based instruction allows teachers, students and parents to be on the same page, providing explicit and shared understandings of expectations at different levels and how these are assessed. 

Detractors point out how standards become quickly viewed as a 'minimum competence' requirement, and can end up limiting innovation, creativity and the aspirational aspects of a good education. 

Truth is that good teachers and schools have been using standards forever in one way, shape or form, the arguments appear to be over national applicability, the quality and relevance of the standards, and the reliability and validity of the methods of measurement. 

The focus on using standards to assess student achievement raises the inevitable of standards for teachers. NZ has these in place for graduating and practicing teachers, as does the US. The idea of requiring practicing teachers to maintain a level of professional knowedge and action seems reasonable, particularly in light of some of the findings reported in my previous blog post that highlighted the reported mis-match between teachers’ own use of digital tools and their concerns about and perceptions of student use for instance. After all, we have the same expectation of other professions (you wouldn't be inclined to go to a dentist or doctor who hadn't unpgraded their knowledge and practice since graduation for instance).

The video at the top of this post provides an overview of the Australian professional standards, comprising of seven standards that outline what teachers should know and be able to do. For me the clip presents an aspirational view of what we expect of those working in the profession – of individuals who will be successful in leading, mentoring and engaging those in their care. I like the emphasis on creating a career path as an objective, and also the emphasis on cultural literacy, something I believe will become increasingly important in our system. 

For me the reflection on these matters as I wait for a plane to fly back to NZ, thinking about the professional conversations I've had while out of the country, lead me to thinking about how important the alignment is between what we expect of our students and those teaching them. Whether we accept the notion of standards or not, one cannot avoid acknowledging the fact that if there is a mis-match between what teachers say and do, or between espoused theory and theory in action, our students are not being well served and expectations of them achieving the aspirations we have for them are unlikely to be achieved. 

Prepared for life?

Here at the CoSN conference in San Diego there is much talk about the Common Core standards that are being implemented in the US, and how a strict adherence to meeting these can and is stifling creativity and flexibility in educaiton. The same debate is going on in NZ over the implementation of national standards. My own view is that national standards can be helpful to our education system, if the main purpose is to provide general guidelines about what students should know and be able to do as they progress through school. Their purpose should be to act as an aspiration defining what schools are expected to do, not not as a demand for compliance by teachers. Sadly, the latter perspective currently dominates in practice.

During my brief time here in San Diego I have had the privilege of visiting two local schools, High Tech High and The Met School. Both of these schools place a high priority on preparing students for life, and have stong links with community and business as a part of their curriculum. At the Met, for instance, students spend two days per week in their 'internships' working in local businesses to apply and further develop the things they are learning in school in an authentic context. Both schools still meet their requirements for assessing students against the national standards, but each works with a more aspirational focus for their students rather than being driven by the compliance agenda. 

The video at the top of this post provides a cynical illustration of what can happen if we allow our education system to be driven by the standards agenda, rather than using a standards framework as a guide to what students should knoe and be able to do as they progress through school. 

Government priorities for 2011

Yesterday’s Statement to Parliament by Prime Minister John Key provides an insight into what we can expect as priorities in education in 2011 – high on the list are ECE and National Standards.


Early Childhood

We value early childhood education (ECE) because we know it helps prepare children for future learning and assists parents to participate in the workforce.

However, we are concerned that New Zealand won’t be able to afford record ECE funding increases into the future. Furthermore, we are concerned that in recent years these increases have not achieved the results we would expect, particularly in terms of better participation by vulnerable children.

Last year we appointed an ECE taskforce to review the value gained for our investment in early childhood education. That group will make its report and recommendations later this year. The Government looks forward to considering its advice about how we can build better results from our early childhood education investment, particularly for the children who are missing out on ECE altogether.

National Standards
While many of New Zealand’s schools and teachers perform brilliantly, too many children are leaving school without the literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed.

The Government’s National Standards policy is designed to help schools measure and compare the literacy and numeracy skills of our children against national benchmarks, to identify those who are falling behind, and to keep parents informed about their children’s progress.

This is the second year of our three-year National Standards implementation plan.

This year our National Standards plan will focus on supporting schools to ensure National Standards work effectively to raise student achievement. We will be offering targeted professional development to teachers to ensure this, as well as funding a new team of Student Achievement Experts to work alongside schools to get the most out of National Standards.

It’s of interest to me to understand the political agendas that drive such statements. For instance, there’s a clear message about increased system efficiency, with statements like “We are building increased effectiveness from our investment in schools…” and “In 2011 the Government will build improvements to the results New Zealanders get from the education system.” These are statements to do with efficiency and return on investment which are laudable goals I imagine, especially in times of economic austerity. The rationale for ECE and NatStats as priorities are couched in terms of the eventual return on investment to the NZ economy. What’s missing at this high level is any reference to the purpose of education that reflects a more holistic view of what education is about – creating a future living environment that is ‘safe’ and where ‘happiness’ levels are high, for instance. Or where creativity is expressed and innovation is encouraged – not only for economic gain, but, perhaps for quality of life and sustainability for future generations etc.

It’s an age old concern I guess – at one end of a continuum we have those who are philosophically disposed to seeing education as a problem to be fixed (and quickly), with teachers as a part of the problem and curriculum needing to be packaged up and delivered in standardised ways because teachers of course can’t be trusted to develop it for themselves. At the other end are those who believe in education as having greater societal value, regarding teachers as trusted professionals who are able to develop curriculum that is contextually relevant etc. Of course, there are positions that are taken all the way along these continuums – which adds health and balance to the debates we have.

Sadly, in the digital age, we see increasing evidence of binary thinking – with political solutions tending to vacillate between the two extremes, rather than finding some sort of balance in it all. I believe in the need for constructive engagement that recognises the difference in philosphical position, and the socio-economic context within which we operate. Sadness is, we tend instead to see only a guarded positionalism which forces people to one extreme or the other. Thank goodness Thinking is now one of our identified key competencies in the NZ Curriculum – perhaps our next generation will do a better job?

Just for fun – but perhaps illustrating the point of how differences in ideologies can cause problems in engaging effectively in debate on essential issues, I was intrigued by this recording of English Education Secretary, Michael Gove, in fiery debate with caller over the proposed introduction of an English Baccalaureate.

Planning and assessment….

Sometimes it’s necessary to simply laugh out loud and be reminded of how silly a lot of our educational jargon and phraseology sounds to other people. The video above did that for me – providing a refreshing break from an otherwise intense afternoon of report writing.

My favourite bit is where the ‘bureaucrat’ says… “You can’t know what you are teaching if you didn’t assess students’ strengths and weaknesses for your differentiation when you collaboratively plan standards of teaching pedagogy.

The sad thing is I kept hearing the echoes of things I’ve heard on political broadcasts, school assemblies, parent evenings and staff development days etc. as I watched…

First National Standards Report published

One of the speakers at the ELF conference I’ve been attending today was Minister of Education, Anne Tolley. She spoke to the gathered leaders about the National Party’s rationale for introducing national standards, and alluded to the content of the first report on NS released  today.
National Standards: School Sample Monitoring and Evaluation Project has been produced by Maths Technology Ltd, and provides the first insights into what is happening with the implementation process in NZ schools. I’ve yet to read it fully, but here’s a quick glimpse of the key findings:

Results from the principal survey indicate that:

  • The majority of principals understand the broad purposes of National Standards.
  • Approximately half the principals understand the differing ways that reading and writing, and mathematics relate to the New Zealand curriculum.
  • While principals understand the purpose of OTJs, they are less clear about how to effectively make and moderate the summative assessment judgments required. Results suggest there may be some confusion among principals about the differences between norm-based and standards-based assessment.
  • Most principals believe information from National Standards will add value to the processes schools use for reporting to families, students and Boards, making informed decisions about how to improve student achievement, and identifying teachers’ professional development needs. While how much value principals believe National Standards will add to each of these processes varies, only a small proportion of principals believe information from National Standards will be very valuable.
  • Principals are very concerned about the possible unintended consequences of National Standards: league tables, the demotivation of students who are consistently below Standard, national testing, and the narrowing of the curriculum. Principals are also concerned over the haste of National Standards implementation and the quality of the training offered.
  • Principals do not feel well supported in their role to lead the implementation of National Standards in their schools, although in general they feel reasonably confident in this role.

Analysis of reporting formats indicates that:

  • Most schools reported National Standards achievement information to parents, families and whānau in mid-year reports.
  • There was substantial variation between schools in the ways they had used National Standards to describe student achievement and the ways in which they had presented this information in school reports.
  • There was considerable variation in the language the schools used to describe student achievement against the Standards. Many different terms were used to describe each level of achievement, and, in many instances, the same term was used by different schools to describe different levels of achievement.

Creativity vs. stress

Interesting read this morning to follow my last post – an article from Newsweek titled “the Creativity Crisis“. It begins with the assertion that for the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining. This conclusion has been drawn after analysing the lifetime achievements of a group of 400 children who were a part of a study involving a series of creativity tasks designed by E. Paul Torrance back in the 1950s. The research found that those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tests of creative thinking grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers.

The Newsweek article cites a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. And yet it is declining (apparently), both in society as a whole, and in our schools in particular. The authors identify two of the possible reasons for the decline…

  1. the impact of television and the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities
  2. the lack of creativity development in our schools, there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.

While it’s easy to blame the school system for all manner of social failings, this is one that I feel we do need to consider more seriously. In her writing about The Neuroscience of Joyful Education, Judy Willis highlights the importance of novelty in our teaching, stress-free classrooms, and pleasurable associations linked with learning as essential pre-cursors to joyful learning and the development of creativity. She goes on to suggest that when planning for the ideal emotional atmosphere we should be mindful of the following;

  • Make it relevant – when stress in the classroom is getting high, it is often because a lesson is overly abstract or seems irrelevant to students.
  • Give them a break – students can reduce stress by enjoying hobbies, time with friends, exercise, or music.
  • Create positive associations – by avoiding stressful practices like calling on students who have not raised their hands, teachers can dampen the stress association.
  • Prioritize information – helping students learn how to prioritize and therefore reduce the amount of information they need to deal with is a valuable stress-buster.
  • Allow independent discovery learning – students are more likely to remember and understand what they learn if they find it compelling or have a part in figuring it out for themselves.

Others, including Richard Millwood who has written about ‘delight’ in learning, emphasise similar conditions for learning – minimising stress and allowing for more risk-taking, learning from mistakes, discovery and so forth.

This is unlikely to be the case in classrooms (or our school system as whole) where the  emphasis is on high stakes assessment, fear of failure, and “getting it right”. I’m not saying that we oughtn’t be concerned with measuring achievement – but when that becomes the driver of what we are doing the likely result is that the conditions identified for the development of creativity will be less likely to occur.

Here’s my list of current practices in classrooms that need our urgent attention if we are to see the level of creativity increase again…

  • a narrowing emphasis on certain sorts of academic work – literacy, numeracy, sciences etc., at the expense of the arts,
  • curriculum design that is linear, mechanistic and focused on conformity and standardization
  • the classification of human knowledge into things called ‘subjects’ which are then taught in isolation
  • the breaking up of the learning day into homogenous chunks of time that are then organised into a timetable to determine when certain subjects are learned
  • the existence of ‘homework’ as a concept where separate tasks are assigned to be done ‘at home’ – as distinct from considering the flow of learning that can take place at school and continued at home and vice-versa

Measuring the right things

I’ve just read a fascinating publication from Microsoft titled “Interoperability: Improving Education” which came about as a result of 10 or so educators and ICT practitioners who were brought together by Microsoft for a meeting running alongside the annual NAACE conference held in Blackpool, England, earlier this year. The brief was to talk about the way that schools use pupil data. And the wisdoms that ensued are contained in an new Microsoft discussion document for school leaders and local authorities, “Interoperability: Improving schools” (download the PDF here).

The contents of this paper provide timely insights for NZ educators because it nicely ties together two pieces of work that are currently the focus of the Ministry of Education. First are the discussions about standardised testing, and the measurement of student progress and achievement, and second are the issues of interoperability as they relate to work being done around data interoperbility between LMSs and SMSs in schools, and the whole area of e-portfolios.

From its title, and the fact that it’s published by a technology company, you could be forgiven for thinking that the document is about a technology solution that will end all our woes. This is not the case. Instead, the document contains a summary of thoughts in response to questions such as:

  • are we collecting the right data?
  • what data should we be collecting?
  • who needs, or wishes to see the data?
  • can we easily move data to where it’s wanted or needed?

The context for the discussion is identified in this excerpt from the introduction:

The last five years has been dominated by discussions about common file formats, and competing systems which support data interchange standards. The International Standards community, through its work on file standards, has helped us reach a situation where students and teachers can easily share assignments, examination submissions and documents.

The same cannot be said for simple data interchange – for example, the simple requirement to automate the process of keeping a list of users up to date within a learning platform without a manual intervention. And those solutions which do exist for this appear to need customisation for each data relationship – between different learning platforms for example.

I believe that we are collecting the data within our educational systems that we need to deliver
improvement, but only those data items that are being seen as “part of the system”. We collect a core of formal learning data in our schools Management Information Systems, and through other systems we collect further datapoints – often disconnected from the core learning data – on health, achievement and engagement.

In the 21st Century, we are seeing a huge growth in learning and engagement outside of the formal education system. As we continue to build extensive connected learning communities, we need to find ways to see the holistic story of a truly connected learner, including their learning in school, in the community and individually. We need to move from a top-down data culture (ie we measure what the managers above us want measured) to an individually driven data culture, where the individual has more input to the data that tells their individual story, and where their past learning journey is used to support their future learning journey.

To achieve this we need to think outside of the strict confines of top-down, organisational data collection. We need to ask questions from a different perspective “How can students self-asses their skills and use that to improve their learning?” and “If we asked a student to tell us how they are doing at school, what data would they share with us?”

I am currently enjoying being a part of separate discussions (online and offline) around each of the issues identified above – but perhaps there’s good cause to reflect here and think about how timely it might be to work like this think tank, and engage in some robust discussions that actually  link both parts of the equation?

Perhaps it would allow us to reach similar conclusions as the English did as a basis for moving forward:

The answer, as it emerged in discussion, is that there‟s arguably too much emphasis on one kind of data. The current pattern of top-down accountability, it‟s suggested creates an emphasis on classroom attainment at the expense of skills and competencies. Or, as Sir Mark Grundy puts it,  “We’re measuring the wrong things.”

UK diary – The purpose of league tables

I’ve been in the UK for three weeks now, and am about to board a plane home – wonderful trip, great people, lots of good contacts etc. but feel I’m ready for home now 🙂

I’ve blogged previously about the conversations I’ve had here about standardised testing and league tables as they’ve been used here in England – but it’s taken me until now to fully understand exactly what the purpose of league tables is. All was revealed just a couple of nights ago as I was relaxing after a series of meetings in London, watching episode 4 of the latest series of Torchwood on TV – the spin-off of the popular Dr. Who series.

I won’t spoil the programme for you, but just to share the excerpt from which I gained this profound understanding.

The context: An alien force is threatening to destroy the entire human species unless earth surrenders 10% of all the children on the planet to them.

The dilemma: How to select the 10%

The scene: members of the English cabinet are meeting to discuss the options to resolve this seemingly impossible situation, when one of them comes up with a solution that meets with general approval.

The script (abridged):

MP1 – we need to resolve the following questions, “how will be select the 10%, how will we transport them, and how will we sell it to the voters?”… We just need to decide what criteria we’ll use for selection.

MP2 – it could be random… if the criteria we use is demonstrably fair then we could defend ourselves…

MP3 – so you’re willing to risk your kids to make it look fair?

MP2 – so how else do we choose?

MP4 – we could do it alphabetically

MP3 – oh yes, thanks Mr Yates!

MP5 – could we limit it to just one loss per family? Every second born child…?

MP6 – that would take more time than we have.

MP5 – so, it would have to be one school at a time.

MP2 – (after several seconds of tense music) Look, I’m going to say what everyone else is thinking. If this lottery takes place, my kids aren’t in it.

[much debate and argument ensues, then the final piece from one of the MPs:]

MP2 -… the first responsibility of government is to protect the best interests if this country, right? Then let’s say it. In a national emergency a country must plan for the future, and discriminate between those who are vital to future stability and those who are not. Now that we’ve established that our kids are exempt, the whole principle of random selection is dead in the water. Now look – on the one hand you’ve got the good schools, and I don’t just mean those who are producing graduates. I mean the pupils who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories –  our workforce of the future! We need them. Set against that you have the failing schools, full of the less able, the less socially useful – those destined spent a lifetime on benefits, occupying places on the dole queue- and in the prisons. Should we treat them equally? God knows we’ve tired and we’ve failed, and now the time has come to choose, And if we can’t identify the bottom 10% of this country’s children then what on earth are the league tables for?

Footnote: Sadly, the episode is only available for viewing on the BBC website if you’re resident in the UK, so I’ll have to wait for this series to reach NZ. It’s a pretty ‘black’ series, with an ending that’ll leave you aghast, but the plot with it’s interesting treatment of the perennial ‘world at war with aliens’ theme introduces some interesting new twists.

National Standards

National Standards aim to lift achievement in literacy and numeracy (reading, writing, and mathematics) by being clear about what students should achieve and by when.

This will help students; their teachers and parents, families and whānau better understand what they are aiming for and what they need to do next.

(NZ Ministry of Education)

Whatever your position on national standards it is difficult to disagree with the tenor of the quote at the top of this post – it’s the implementation of processes to meet this aspiration that will cause debate.

I unfortunately missed being able to attend the meeting in CHCH earlier this week when the MoE consultation roadshow came to town to inform local teachers and principals about their plans for introduction national standards. From what I’ve heard in conversations, through the Twitter community and in phone calls and skype sessions I rather wish I’d been able to attend.

Consult: to deliberate together, to ask the advice or opinion of
(source: Merriam-Webster dictionary)

interesting when I Googled the word Consult, and when I went to the dictionary definition, advertised links appeared on both pages for the TeamUp page inviting parents to have their say on national standards. Kudos to whoever it is in the MoE that has strategically positioned these ads in these places – I hope they’re successful in drawing out helpful responses.

Consultation is an oft-used idea whose meaning has unfortunately shifted in many circles to become synonymous with “tell”, “brief”, “explain”. So it was of little surprise I read tonight in the Education Week an article titled Subject-Matter Groups Want Voice in Standards that draws attention to the response of various teacher representative groups from across the US to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

I see many similarities to what we’re currently going through here in NZ – I’m arguing here not for or against national standards, but for a more determined and inclusive approach to the process of consultation to ensure that what we end up doing is informed by the wisdom, experience and thinking of as many people as possible. You can see some of that debate emerging already in the Education Leaders forum.

A comment in the report by Kent Williamson, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, stood out to me. Williamson states his general support for the introduction of national standards, but is emphatic about the need for consultation with the profession. He says;

“… one lesson from that era was that “top-down reform doesn’t work” in drafting standards. Without the involvement of professional organizations, he said, teachers might come to regard the Common Core process with the same level of mistrust with which many view the federal No Child Left Behind Act.”

I agree.