Government gets an F for education

By Jim Turrell, published on Stuff.

OPINION: My verdict on the Government’s track record in education is that it is an epic fail.

The reasons for this verdict are many and varied, but I will focus on three main areas:

1. Our student achievement data is declining nationally
2. Ideology is overriding evidence
3. Trust has been completely eroded in the sector achievement data

The mad scientist and the frog
The mad scientist chopped off the frog’s legs and told it to jump. When the frog didn’t jump, the mad scientist concluded that the frog was deaf.

This story illustrates how a relationship between two things (a correlation) does not mean that the one thing is the direct cause of the other. Correlation and causality are often, and sometimes deliberately, confused.

It typifies the approach our government continues to take towards a growing body of evidence that suggests their treasury driven education reforms are having a negative impact on student achievement and well being.

The evidence is compelling. The Ministry of Education’s own research highlights the inconsistencies in National Standards data both within and between schools. (It’s a rort!) The RAINS study by the University of Waikato provides an especially damning report on the impact of National Standards and NZ students’ scores on international surveys continue to decline.

In some cases, the rate of that decline is increasing.

Most teachers will articulate their concerns for a narrowing of the curriculum, where science and the arts play a diminishing role and “soft skills”, such as managing self, problem solving and being creative are all but irrelevant.

The government’s response to this troubling data is to double down on “shonky” National Standards with “National Standards Plus”, new “Better Public Services Targets” for literacy and numeracy and a clear directive to the Education Review Office to narrow its focus to schools’ programmes that accelerate the progress of their “priority learners” against National Standards. In other words, further intensification of the very policies we know to be causing harm.

At the same time, per-pupil funding is reducing and new laws are passed without any additional resources for schools to implement them.

The government is now yelling, “jump” more loudly, while chopping more furiously.

Intervention programmes that are driven by high-stakes National Standards data inevitably focus disproportionate resources on the small group of students who are most likely to reach the standard with additional support.

However, this is often to the detriment of those who have already achieved the standard and those who are less likely to with those same levels of additional support. This system is not only incredibly unfair to many students; it also precipitates an overall decline in the achievement of the whole cohort over time.

“Teacher accountability” clearly resonates with voters, and so it should, but National Standards represent a deliberate oversimplification. Education is extraordinarily complex. The extent to which it has become politicised is doing our children an enormous disservice, while snappy sound bites unfairly shape public perceptions.

It is alarming how perception continues to hold sway over evidence. This paradigm is fuelled by politicians (of all persuasions) who appear to repeatedly use data out of context, deliberately confuse correlation with causality and oversimplify complex issues for political gain. As a result, trust within the education sector is almost entirely eroded. We are being increasingly polarised by flagrant politicisation of the things we all care about.

Trump …

Brexit …

It is now nearly impossible to distinguish between a concerned principal and a radicalised political activist.

It is difficult to reconcile our government’s stated aims, with their policy outcomes. Instead, they offer yet more snappy sound bites, like former education minister Parata’s “decile is not destiny”. It is difficult for voters to argue with such rhetoric. (Frogs need to jump!) Except that there is a growing number of policies, based on pure neoliberalism, which go a long way towards ensuring that decile does become destiny. (More legs chopped off.) The outcomes appear to be the very opposite of what is promised.

Accordingly, the issue of trust lingers in the following questions:

– What is the decile review really about?
– What are Communities of Learning really about?
– What is the funding review really about?
– What are charter schools really about?
– What were the changes to the Education Amendment Act really about?
– What are public, private partnerships really about?
– Why are wealthy charter school owners from overseas suddenly appearing on our boards of trustees?

My hope is that the future brings a better balance for our curriculum.

Currently, high-stakes assessment data is leading to “drill and kill” low stakes learning. Then we wonder why achievement levels are dropping. When the balance is restored so that learning is high stakes and the assessment low stakes, learners will thrive.

This requires all-important trust. Trust between the teaching professionals and the politicians and the wider public. We all need to leave our ideologies behind and work together towards goals that are based on quality research and evidence of what works – regardless of who forms our next government on September 23.

Jim Turrell is an experienced primary school principal who lives in Central Southland after emigrating from Wales.