The future of education: The end of National Standards is no panacea

The outcome of the election has delighted many in education, who are celebrating the end of National Standards and, perhaps, Communities of Learning. The celebrations are ongoing. My response is a little more measured. Many look back to the "golden days" of teaching before National Standards to a time when we were left much more to our own devices in schools. While I took full advantage of the opportunities that were available at that time, I don't remember them as golden days. New Zealand had a huge tail of underachievement - largely Pasifika and Maori students. There was massive white flight as a result of greater parental choice and schools were (largely) neither culturally responsive, nor particularly inclusive. Deficit thinking was pervasive. Student engagement was declining. Similar to today, there were some great teachers who effectively met the needs of their students and there were some who were unable to do so as effectively. Hattie (2009) identified greater variation in achievement results between classrooms in the same school than between schools.

Given this situation, I completely understand that the National Government felt the need to bring in something like National Standards to ensure greater accountability and to eliminate the unevenness of performance that characterised the schooling sector and that so severely impacted the achievement of Maori and Pasifika students, in particular. The situation was/is intolerable. Let me be clear. I am not defending National Standards. The policy has many risks and flaws and there is no doubt that it was poorly, probably, even disastrously, implemented. League tables ARE educationally unhelpful and unfair. However, I am for accountability; and, I think that as a profession, it is time for us to stop blustering and blaming and take a good hard look at ourselves. We need to think about what we have contributed to the educational context we now find ourselves in. If we don’t, we will have missed an opportunity.

My view is (and I could be naïve) that the Government may not have felt the need to bring in National Standards, if, as a profession, we had taken responsibility for improving outcomes for students ourselves. To be clear, I am not talking about apportioning blame because the issue of where blame lies is such a complex matter - it seldom lies in just one or two places – and a search for it is seldom fruitful. However, no matter where we think blame lies, we can still take responsibility for the situation that now exists and do something about it. I have been told that the health sector improved significantly when it took responsibility for the fact that it was killing a planeload of people a year. It wasn’t the health workers’ fault that they hadn’t been aware of the actions they were taking that contributed to unnecessary deaths. But once they knew and took responsibility for the outcome, they were empowered to change.

I see a lot of finger pointing and blame in social media by people in our profession, and yet, I believe that things will really only change when we, as the teaching profession, take responsibility for educational outcomes – without worrying about where blame resides. Sure, we are constrained to an extent by the policy environment we work in. However, whatever the policy environment, the reality is that highly effective teachers and highly effective schools have always managed to be highly effective. In a policy environment that left them pretty much to their own devices, they created their own “measurements” or strategies to ensure that they were covering the whole curriculum and meeting the needs of their students and ensuring continual progress. In the recent, more regulated, policy environment, highly effective teachers have made sure that the curriculum has not become narrowed for their students and that the focus is on learning and individual progress. No matter what the policy environment, highly effective teachers have always wanted to know the impact of their teaching and learning programmes on their students and they have always taken it to heart when they feel they have "failed" a student. Rather than blame the student or their family or their socio-economic or racial background or the policy environment, highly effective teachers and schools take responsibility for outcomes.

The problem is that not all teachers in our schools are highly effective. What is required, for the sake of our children, is a workforce full of highly effective teachers. If this became the situation, then there would be no need for governments to introduce such regulatory policies, and, if they did, highly effective teaching would continue regardless. Repeating the metaphor used by Peter Hopkirk, Chairman of NZEI’s Principals’ Council, highly effective teachers and highly effective schools are able to “make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear” when system change is imposed. That is what they do.

I embrace the government’s policy of forming a 30-year education plan. I have long advocated for a nationwide conversation to reach shared agreement about the purpose for education and what a sustainable future for education in New Zealand would look like. In his Principal to Principal bulletin, Hopwood wrote, “If we can get real engagement between educators, parents and whānau and the government, then together we could re-design the system over time to make it genuinely collaborative and actually able to meet the needs of learners.” There is nothing I would like more. But, actually, when I think about it, what really has stopped us, as a profession, from doing this already? We are the ones running the schools and teaching students every day. We could have developed shared agreement as a profession about a way forward and we could have ensured as a profession that we were actually meeting the needs of students. We didn’t need to narrow the curriculum. We could have focused more on progress than achievement and still met our legal obligations with regards to National Standards. We could have innovated – rather than giving so much power to a policy we didn’t agree with in the schools that we run. I think we have been so busy fighting that we forgot to do what professions do – self-regulate and take responsibility. If we have allowed the curriculum to be narrowed and we have stopped focusing on teaching and learning, that is our shame.

That said, I do think the policy environment has been damaging for our profession. I wonder what damage has resulted from a couple of decades of user pays, competition and managerialism – a  policy approach, I might add, that was started by a Labour government and continued under National. I wonder what has been the cost of the need for “bums on seats” in terms of the teacher capability coming into the profession. There is a risk that the current external accountability policy environment has propped up an already breaking education system (while at the same time dismantling it further and adding to its brokenness - huge teacher workloads is one such example), and once removed, who knows what will happen. We should not be naïve about the risks as we move forward. Removing National Standards is no panacea for the ills of our schooling system. It will not automatically ensure more time spent teaching. We had problems before National Standards and we will have problems after.

It is time for education to take a good hard look at itself (at ourselves). As a profession, we need to carry out a risk analysis - see what our strengths and weaknesses are now, before deciding on a way forward. We need to determine what we have lost and what we have gained over the past decade or few and what is needed to ensure every teacher is a highly effective teacher. Teacher workloads absolutely have to be eased, but we also need to take the time to consult and plan out a sustainable future for education and this cannot be done in a rush. Rather than simply celebrating the education policies of a new government and wait for government to act, we need to show ourselves to be a profession – a self-regulating body of highly effective practitioners who take responsibility.

If I had any say at all, I would caution the government and the teaching profession to take a measured approach. As the saying goes, Rome wasn't built in a day. We need to check the state of our foundations – are they strong enough or are they crumbling? We are privileged to be at the juncture of epochs. The modernist (industrial) era lasted over three centuries beginning with the enlightenment. The new era we are creating may last as long or even longer. It is important that we are thoughtful and intelligent about the future we create because it may impact for generations to come.