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Another big empty promise

Written By: - Date published: 6:15 am, March 20th, 2010 - 40 comments
Categories: education, same old national - Tags: ,

Education Minister Anne Tolley made quite an extraordinary statement on Wednesday. You can watch it at Red Alert, or see the transcript here. Tolley said:

New Zealand elected a Government that promised to introduce national standards so that every single child could read, write, and do maths when they left school. That is what the country voted for. No matter what the briefings say, no matter what the Opposition may say now, almost one in five children failed. They failed under the previous Government. [My emphasis].

There’s quite a bit here that I want to respond to. Some of it will have to wait for a second post early next week. Here I want to consider the big promise. Every single child to reach acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. That is huge!

If we take the promise at face value then of course we would all love to see National deliver. But they won’t, because it isn’t possible. Primary education doesn’t produce a perfect result in any country. For all the supposed faults of primary education that National have been banging on about incessantly for years*, the facts are that we have a system that produces average results for below average funding. Consider this recent Ministry of Education summary:

State of Education in New Zealand: 2008

The State of Education series is an annual publication. State of Education in New Zealand: 2008 is the third issue in the series, with most of the data relating to the previous year (2007). …

Reading literacy achievement
In 2005/06, the second cycle of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found New Zealand Year 5 students, on average, performed significantly higher than the international PIRLS scale mean. The data also show: .. the performance of many New Zealand Year 5 students was relatively strong compared with their international counterparts in 2005/06. For example, approximately 13 percent of New Zealand students achieved scores 625 or higher (i.e. reached the Advanced International Benchmark). This was the ninth highest proportion internationally and nearly double the international median of seven percent …

Mathematics achievement
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that in 2006, New Zealand Year 5 students performed higher on average than 12 of the 36 participating countries. Furthermore, there was significant improvement in the mean score of New Zealand Year 5 students between 1994 and 2006. The range of scores between the highest and lowest-performing groups of students reduced between 1994 and 2006, largely because of the increase in scores of students in the lowest performing group. …

Science achievement
Between 1994 and 2006, the average science performance of New Zealand Year 5 students remained about the same as measured by TIMSS. In 2006 the mean performance of Year 5 students was significantly higher than 13 of 36 participating countries.

That’s a strong win on literacy. We are in a statistically indistinguishable low/middle group on mathematics and science (“However, by the time these students are 15 years old they will be performing, on average, above the international means for mathematics and science”). Significantly, this is achieved despite — Labour should have done so much better here — poor investment in preschool and primary education. A 2009 OECD report finds, according to this summary, that NZ has “limited spending on children 5 and under (less than half the OECD average)” and “annual student spending is below the OECD average at prim[a]ry, secondary and tertiary level”.

In short, our primary education is producing average or better results with below average funding. It is cost effective. Yes there is room for improvement – significant improvement. But (1) if National were serious about improving primary education then they would use methods that are likely to work (increased funding, improved pay and conditions for teachers, more teacher training and support). They wouldn’t run an ideological bandwagon like standards, which far from helping will probably cause great harm. And (2) primary education can never be perfect. Only a lunatic would promise that it can be.

Sadly then, National’s promise cannot be taken at face value. While Tolley may be daft enough to believe it, of course her handlers do not. This is just another example of National’s highly effective two pronged campaign strategy – run negative issues to associate with Labour, and make big empty promises. Run negative issues like emigration to Australia, red tape hampering business, growth in the public sector, or children failing primary school (the aptly named “New Zealand sucks campaign“). Make big empty promises like tax cuts North of $50, closing the gap with Australia, a cycleway to rescue the economy, or having every child succeed at primary level. National never deliver on their promises. They can’t possibly deliver on this one. It is desperately cynical politics. But they’ll keep doing it as long as it keeps working.

[* National are absolutely full of praise for our education system when it suits them: “If you’re moving to New Zealand with children, you’ll want to know they’re going to get a good education here. And they will. New Zealand’s education system is world-class, modern and responsive. It combines proven, traditional principles of education with innovation, creativity and fresh thinking to produce leaders and citizens equipped for the 21st century. From a child’s first day at school, our government-funded schooling system provides a comprehensive curriculum of academic, sporting and skills-based learning options in a positive environment.” Sounds fantastic doesn’t it!]

40 comments on “Another big empty promise”

  1. tsmithfield 1

    Hi Marty,

    You don’t think that Tolley might have been engaging in a bit of obvious hyperbole rather than intending her statement be taken literally?

    Comparing stats with a basket (case) of other countries is not really an argument if all we are doing is pointing out that we are less mediocre than some other countries in respect to literacy, numeracy etc. I am not qualified to comment on whether national standards are a good thing or a bad thing. However, what I can say from my personal experience when marking undergraduate papers during my post grad years several years ago, is that the standard of literacy I observed in the papers I was marking was very bad, especially from people who are supposed to be our brightest hopes for the future.

    Rather than comparing us with a basket of other countries in the same quagmire, what would be interesting would be for you to do a comparison with literacy/numeracy between now and say the 60’s,70’s to see whether our standards in this respect have advanced or degenerated compared to earlier generations.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.1

      You don’t think that Tolley might have been engaging in a bit of obvious hyperbole rather than intending her statement be taken literally?

      No, I believe that she, just like you, has NFI what she’s talking about.

  2. RedLogix 2

    New Zealand elected a Government that promised to introduce national standards so that every single child could read, write, and do maths when they left school.

    Looks like a fairly concrete and measureable promise to me ts.

    Still that’s a line we’ll have to tuck away for future use; anytime a govt says one thing and does the opposite we can just put it down to a spot of “obvious hyperbole”.

  3. tsmithfield 3

    RL “we can just put it down to a spot of “obvious hyperbole’.”

    Yeh. In the same way that I’ve told my kids a million times not to exaggerate.

  4. Name 4

    A result close to it is probably possible to achieve if that’s all you do. If a class full of children of varying capabilities and enthusiasm is reduced to the level of the slowest and least enthusiastic who become the target, focus and ‘measure of success’ you can turn out children who can at least read, write and have basic numeracy. But that’s all, and the capabilities of the quickest and brightest will have been wasted, their enthusiasm withered by boredom and lack of challenge.

    It’s a return to Dickensian schooling, aimed only at producing competent ‘hands’ to man the factories we no longer have.

    • Draco T Bastard 4.1

      That’s it exactly and what you’d expect from a conservative government – a return to the failed past.

    • Descendant Of Smith 4.2

      “But that’s all, and the capabilities of the quickest and brightest will have been wasted, their enthusiasm withered by boredom and lack of challenge.”

      Couldn’t agree more. Part of the deal at NPBHS when Merv Wellington gave us the new gym was that classes were no longer streamed and students were all mixed up. This was imposed on myself in the sixth form where the pace of the class slowed to the pace of the slowest and we were rarely challenged.

      The saving grace was that in classes such as physics there was generally only the brighter ones there and we were still challenged. In some other classes we rarely went e.g. Economics.

      Part of me understands what was trying to be attempted in the sense of a view of treating all students equally and not having some some set up as elite. It’s the failure to differentiate between equal and equitable that is the problem. At the end of the day it wasn’t my fault I was good at Maths and English and Science.

      On the other hand I have great admiration for those students who were not good at these subjects but who could draw, and engineer, and build things cause all those things I’m pretty crap at.

  5. RedLogix 5

    I know their behviour in the House can be discouraging at times, but when it came to policy thinking here was I imagining that we could hold Ministers of the Crown to slightly higher standards than your kids ts.

  6. jcuknz 6

    I think it is an excellent target to aim for and without a target how can we progress? But I remember that the schools don’t want tests to show that not all are equal and results may hurt the loosers, whereas others believe tests are a spur to greater effort when handled properly. Applied to the children and their teachers. The problem is the media who simply don’t have the time/room for the full details. So we should prohibit media involvement in school results ….. now that is a slippery slope!

    • RedLogix 6.1

      But I remember that the schools don’t want tests to show that not all are equal and results may hurt the loosers, whereas others believe tests are a spur to greater effort when handled properly.

      The ‘winner takes all’ competitive model works effectively when considering how evolutionary forces allow species to adapt to changes in the environment.

      But humans have firmly planted one foot beyond competition; we are a ‘post-Darwinian’ species whose rational capacity allows us to co-operate as well as compete. The fabulously complex social structures that our unique capacity for co-operation allows us to develop, has made humans the number one dominant species on earth…strongly suggesting that co-operation is the more powerful model.

      It’s also the best model for educating our youg.

      • Bill 6.1.1

        “The ‘winner takes all’ competitive model works effectively when considering how evolutionary forces allow species to adapt to changes in the environment.”

        Yikes! (symbiotic and other such relationships not withstanding)

        Considering how we are viewing evolution from within a culture that puts so much store by competition, it might simply be that we have a skewed view of evolution….and much besides.

        What do you reckon competition would do in a wide open savannah where you and I are the first item on the lunch menu for most carnivores? I’m up for integrating with those chappies over there who are exploring cooperative ways to stay off the menus. Nice knowing you.

        Or what if you imagine standing in 1800 and having the present day described to you as brought about through a worship of competition. Is the description adding up to a utopia or a dystopia?

        So why have school children worship at the alter of competition, praying for a success as defined by others? (And just to say, I see nothing wrong in competing per se. It has it’s place, but when it’s central to ‘everything’ then it’s become something immensely stupid.)

        What’s the chance of some intelligent shit? How about the Summerhill model? Founded in 1921 still ahead of its time

        Nah, can’t allow those pesky kids the space to sick their heads up over the parapet of ‘normalcy’ and realise there’s a whole world of infinite possibility out there. They might leave the compound ffs!

        • RedLogix 6.1.1.1

          Bill,

          Maybe I was just being too brief or you totally misread me.

          • Bill 6.1.1.1.1

            I only disagree with the statement I cut and pasted.

            The rest I agree with. ( maybe not the terminology)

            But why come to what you say from a contradictory premise?…You argue for cooperation to be built on top of a supposedly more basic and successful evolutionary ‘winner takes all’ competitive view…I’m arguing that the competition as primal driver view or whatever is highly questionable and probably completely wrong.

            • RedLogix 6.1.1.1.1.1

              But why come to what you say from a contradictory premise?

              In the interests of friendly co-operation, I’ll take that point on board. It’s probably a habit of mine that I’ve never thought about.

              You argue for cooperation to be built on top of a supposedly more basic and successful evolutionary ‘winner takes all’ competitive view

              Yes, that was probably what I had in mind. I guess this discussion speaks to the heart of our dual human nature, a strange melding of heritage mammalian/reptiliam instincts and our uniquely developed capacity to reason with abstract concepts.

              At any given moment we have the choice to which aspect of our nature we listen to, the instinctive or the rational… but no matter how frequently we choose one over the other, I would imagine that in this life while we are still attached to these physical bodies, both natures must co-exist…however uneasily.

              But we rather digress….

              • Bill

                Aye. So digression aside…although I don’t think it was irrelevant…there is the question of Summerhill and other similar educational environments which do not force kids on bended knee before the alter of competition to pray for success.

                It’s rhetorical, but why are states that provide education not looking at these highly democratic educational models since we do, after all or at least so they say, live in democracies?

                Here’s a quote from the link I provided above which cuts, I believe to a certain heart of the matter.

                “Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, more examinations and more qualifications. It seems to be a modern trend that assessment and qualification define education.”

                “If society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a violation of human rights. But for most of the world’s children this is the normal expectation from parents, school and the society in which we live.”

                http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/pages/index.html

                Further to this point was the idea that kids sjhould get ‘credits’ towards qualifications for cultural activities or whatever. I mean, what the fuck ever happened to extra curricular activities being valuable on their own merit….

  7. Ms X 7

    What’s next? “And all New Zealanders will live happily ever after”?

  8. Cnr Joe 8

    un-frikken-believable. I just read the link to the immigration site re: education

    “If you’re moving to New Zealand with children, you’ll want to know they’re going to get a good education here. And they will.

    New Zealand’s education system is world-class, modern and responsive. It combines proven, traditional principles of education with innovation, creativity and fresh thinking to produce leaders and citizens equipped for the 21st century.

    From a child’s first day at school, our government-funded schooling system provides a comprehensive curriculum of academic, sporting and skills-based learning options in a positive environment.”

    Make Tolley read this! in fact I shall email it to her

  9. randal 9

    I vulnable tooo.
    have trubble with multivlication at skul MYSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    can the beroccasee do anfing?

  10. Mike 10

    No, it cannut be anfing? Life with it! They will lye period!

    [lprent: You realize that lye is sodium hydroxide. I’m puzzled how you think that chemistry fits into the national standards debate – it is a bit advanced for the wee kiddies. Possibly in national waste debate? ]

  11. Descendant Of Smith 11

    Reading great – and let’s support that by supporting programmes such as Books In Homes and by building libraries in poor communities so children have access to these – particularly those that are bright. Maybe we could innovative and ensure they get access to a free newspaper everyday. Maybe we could have night classes at the schools for parents to learn to read as well so they can help their children. What about some classes to teach some teachers how to spell. I did have an anal tendency to send my kids marked essays back with corrections on them where the teachers had not corrected their spelling. Maybe we could put our best literacy teachers in those communities where there is a problem rather than have them in the so called best schools.

    We want to improve reading it’s more than about the school.

    • Ianmac 11.1

      Dof S: “I did have an anal tendency to send my kids marked essays back with corrections on them where the teachers had not corrected their spelling.”
      You know the story of … but give them the means to catch their own fish…. how about giving writers the tools to identify errors and self-correct? Ownership – audience defined and not just writing for the teacher. The days of teachers identifying errors with a red pen are gone. My guess is that you yourself have learned to self correct though there are 2 minor errors in your piece. 🙂
      “Maybe we could put our best literacy teachers in those communities where there is a problem rather than have them in the so called best schools.” Too right. Excellent idea. Agreed.

      • Mac1 11.1.1

        Ianmac, you were at the Blenheim Tolley meeting? What was the story of the questioner who made reference to stomach stapling as reported in today’s Dom Post? Was the turn out and the report of the meeting significantly different from the Marlborough Express report?

        • Ianmac 11.1.1.1

          Yes Mac1. I was there. There were about 40 persons. There were clearly a few supporters. My belief in speaking briefly to about 10-12 of others afterwards was that they were not convinced.
          The woman who asked about the stomach stapling was not a heckler. She simply asked, (paraphrased) that if a person such as the Minister felt pressured enough to get surgery to bring her weight down because she did not match the average expected by others, wouldn’t kids who were told that they were failing feel anxious in the same way?
          Anne let the question run but looked angry. Her answer seemed to miss the drift/intention of the question, and didn’t deal with it.
          My question was that “my grandson was not doing well but his parents and teachers were discussing where he was at, and some plans as to what to do about it. How will Nat Testing help Ricky?” She congratulated the school but did not answer the question.
          Finally, I think that Anne Tolley would really like the tail dealt with but I don’t think that Nat Testiong will help at all. Wrong remedy.

      • Descendant Of Smith 11.1.2

        “My guess is that you yourself have learned to self correct though there are 2 minor errors in your piece.”

        That’s much more a reflection of my typing that my punctuation and spelling. I’m also watching the cricket and playing Mass Effect 2 at the same time.

        As a parent I played a part in teaching my children good usage and grammar but had some ability to do so. This ability was in part however clearly as a result of teachers making the effort to make this important and to instill in me a wonder about how language could when used with some degree of competence inspire, move, educate, express ideas clearly and so on.

        I had some good teachers in my time that taught students rather than simply teaching subjects.
        I also had the bad but it’s the good I remember.

        There is also an emerging (although it’s been around for a while) model of working to people’s strengths that is having some success with disadvantaged youth and is starting to be used in management as well in various organisations.

        Trying to fit everyone against the same measure is counter productive to such an approach. I know my eldest son went from top of the class at primary school to near bottom at intermediate and high school in part due to constant harassment and disparagement about his hand writing. No matter that he has a disability that effects his co-ordination ( and no effect on his intelligence ) and that this was well documented in school records and at teacher’s meetings. He was expected to be like everyone else.

  12. jcuknz 12

    Since we are doing relatively better than other countries with reduced funding then it is obvious that further reductions in funding will result in further improvement in results. Less messing around with fanciful subjects and a concentration on the factors that make for useful employer fodder. The three R’s.
    There is a vaste difference between maintaining standards and “winner takes all”. Judging from what I hear when listening to National and Concert Radio, I abhor commercial stations, I think standards are slipping with just the few older staff intelligable. So reduced funding could well help there.

  13. jcuknz 13

    You might like to break away from the interlectualising of this thread to read about something which is really wrong.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-into-the-terrifying-world-of-pakistans-disappeared-1923153.html

  14. Ianmac 14

    The definition of what is average is interesting. (I met an Australian teacher who had been seconded for a year to moderate/mark samples of kids writing from all over. Few could agree with her marking because of the huge range of variables. She gave up exhausted!)
    One way for Anne to achieve the “every child will succeed” is to shift the goalposts. Since the standards are not provable as “right” then shift the standard steadily downwards and you can prove at the next election that statistics show that there are only 2.43% in the tail and not 20%. Yay!
    Needless to say I have been contracted as a consultant to Anne to start the planning and the annual fee of $475,000 is exaggerated. (It is only $473,000.)

    • Paul3 14.1

      There are a lot of interesting things around assessing children’s writing – here are some.

      Grading the writing against a scale or standard does nothing in itself.
      Grading writing (mostly done at present against exemplars) is really hard and an inexact art. Moderation ends up being a discussion about each moderators perspective and understanding.
      In my experience teachers who do this best don’t consider a single piece of writing but rather all the child’s writing – not by reviewing it all but by building up knowledge of a child’s writing ability as the year progresses.
      Deciding what it is ‘quality writing’ is pretty hard too – think about adults differing attitude to writing (before you say it is the mechanics of writing that are important and should be judged this is only a part of the story).

      The best use of writing samples and exemplars is to use them to guide teaching (seeing where improvements can be made) – to do this teachers need PD – which costs money and takes time.

      • Bill 14.1.1

        “..before you say it is the mechanics of writing that are important and should be judged this is only a part of the story.”

        Nah. I’m right in favour of caps “which suppress curiosity and creativity and leave the recipient placid and docile, incapable of dissent.” but perfectly able to read and write and spell and do sums!

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tripods

        Actually, I’m right in favour of ‘The Tripods’ being a stock standard read in all primary schools (as it was in mine) as a good basic intro to critical reading and critical reasoning

      • Descendant Of Smith 14.1.2

        “Further to this point was the idea that kids should get ‘credits’ towards qualifications for cultural activities or whatever. I mean, what the fuck ever happened to extra curricular activities being valuable on their own merit”

        But this seems inevitable with the private sector’s insistence on schools producing qualified people and their premise that you are not worth anything unless you have qualifications. A bit of paper to your name is totally a sense of your value to society.

        Remember you must only do things that enable you to earn a living. Get qualifications, get qualifications. Preferably get your qualifications off my business even though they aren’t worth jack straw and I simply sit you down in front of a computer or send you a CD so you can self learn.

        Art is not valued unless you can sell your art works, playing rugby / soccer / cricket is not valued unless you can play professionally. Experience and skill have been devalued – qualifications have a perceived value way beyond their real value.

        We seem to want to sort and sift our population based upon their bits of paper.

        I find it quite amusing that my other son gave up a mainstream subject to do a barista course. He has got much more work from that course and his barista certificate than he ever has from getting the 7th form physics prize in the sixth form.

        There’s plenty of people skilled at kapa-haka working in tourism. Should they not have a bit of paper to recognise their skill and the level at which they perform?

        Having placed so much importance on these bits of paper in our workplaces it seems such a logical progression to issue them for all sorts of skill sets.

        • Bill 14.1.2.1

          For the sake of coherence, it’s probably worth pointing out that “further to this point” was a point made way up yonder and in relation to this link contained within this comment

          • Descendant Of Smith 14.1.2.1.1

            Appreciate that but there was no further reply option on the last post so plonking it at the end seemed the next logical option rather than add it on to the reply option on the next post below.

            In hindsight I should have also linked back.

            • Bill 14.1.2.1.1.1

              No need.

              You just go to the last available ‘reply’ on that portion of the thread and your comment will automatically attach itself to the foot of that portion.

              • Descendant Of Smith

                Ta. I thought another post said there was a limit so I just thought that limit had been reached. Much appreciated.

        • Draco T Bastard 14.1.2.2

          I’m somewhat of the opinion that the piece of paper is Bills’ “caps”. It signifies that you’ll do as you’re told to get a possible reward later and the suggestion is that that possible reward is to become a capitalist.

      • Ianmac 14.1.3

        Exactly Paul 🙂 Actually if we were asked to assess say Rob’s writing above on a 10 point scale he would earn umm….. Range 1 to 9.5
        Face features
        Context
        Persausiveness
        Humour
        Spelling
        Credibility
        Structure
        Too hard actually – though I’d give you a 10 Rob.

  15. prism 15

    “New Zealand elected a Government that promised to introduce national standards so that every single child could read, write, and do maths when they left school. That is what the country voted for.”

    This is a statement made regularly by elected politicians. What the voter hoped to get in policy outcomes from their chosen party cannot be known. The voter chooses a party and won’t want all its policies, but in a choice has decided on that party as the best or the least worst, IYKWIM.
    National government electors will be interested in getting good education I am sure, whether national standards will underpin it and supply the greatest outcomes, which would come from raising the lowest levels, is doubtful and all voters should be wary of such blanket policies that are at distance from the politicians control and untargeted, so they can blame others (education sector) if they don’t get the results they wanted.

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  • Speech to Labour Party Congress 2020
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