Now What: Recovering from the Standards Era
When the coalition government was confirmed last week, I joined with many of my teacher colleagues in a frenzy of jubilation and relief as we comprehended the significance of this outcome on the future of NZ education. One campaign promise, in particular – the abolishment of National Standards policy that has plagued schools since its introduction in 2009.
But after the initial elation and resultant hope that those in education experienced upon hearing the appointment of the new Minister, the reality of what this might mean for many teachers is beginning to creep in. There is little debate among educators that the Standards were having a significant and detrimental impact on our students. Furthermore, teachers were faced with the enormous workloads, over-testing and pressures to ‘get kids’ to the standard which, in turn, were sucking the joy out of teaching at all levels. However, at the signing of the coalition, and the confirmation from Minister Hipkins that the standards were to be abolished, so began the rhetoric about what these might be ‘replaced with’.
For those who have taught before the Standards era, there will be the vague recollection of the introduction of the New Zealand School Curriculum Document in 2007. This document signaled an approach to education that reflected international evidence of the need for integrated and holistic opportunities learning opportunities for our students. At its inception, it was lauded as a world-leader, innovative and reflective of the type of ‘21st Century learning’ that our future students were facing.
From this document came tools for teachers to specifically measure the progress of their students in the key areas of literacy and numeracy. The Literacy Learning Progressions, a document that describes specific literacy knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students draw on in order to meet the reading and writing demands of the curriculum; and the Number Framework enabling teachers to clearly establish their students’ current knowledge and mathematical skills, and determine the next point for them in progressing this knowledge and skill base.
With the arrival of the National Standards, so too was the well-orchestrated public perception that up until their arrival, teachers were not actively involved in the assessment and documentation of their students’ learning progress. That they were almost ‘winging it’ when it came to knowing what current skills and knowledge their students had, and were not actively planning for and responding to these in order to progress this knowledge and skill base. These Standards were clearly needed.
The vision, values and other learning areas of the New Zealand School Curriculum subsequently took a back seat. Literacy and numeracy were elevated to being the key focus of learning that teachers needed to focus on in order to demonstrate that they were doing their job, and that they could progress students to a stated benchmark.
The predicted side effects of the arrival of the National Standards also came to pass. Reduction in time spent on learning areas such as the Arts, Health & PE, Sciences and Social Sciences. Reduction in opportunities for students to be creative, innovative and develop problem-solving skills and independent thought. Reduction in time available for those ‘teachable moments’. And teacher well-being impacted negatively, with excellent practitioners leaving the classroom.
So what now? How do we recover from nine years of National Standards policy and the resultant side-effects? There will be a significant portion of the teaching profession that have not known any other system to work within. Their entire career has been governed by this policy. There are also an overwhelming population of teachers that, through no fault of their own, have not been supported to develop their knowledge of the New Zealand School Curriculum document and the way it was intended to be implemented.
The intense focus on literacy and numeracy reporting has had the side effect of a lack of time to measure progress in other curriculum areas. Concernedly, many teachers now worry that they will be faced with ‘more work’ as they are required to assess the other areas of the curriculum. Some of our teachers simply won’t know how to assess areas such as the arts and social sciences. There are many teachers who have invested a significant amount of time and energy into establishing (now well embedded) systems of assessment and reporting, and invested in training of the use of such tools as PaCT.
Many will be wondering ‘what on earth were the last nine years all about’?
If the new government is serious about aligning New Zealand education to successful international models that incorporate integrated and holistic curriculum delivery, soft-skill and executive functioning skill development, coverage of STEM and the Arts and a promotion of creativity and innovation, they need to provide teachers with significant support to do so in the post-Standards era. Not only have sound teaching practices been systematically eroded over the past nine years, but teacher confidences have been stretched to dangerously low levels.
To rebuild these, teachers need to feel valued and supported. The government can communicate the way in which the profession is valued, by providing significant professional learning support for teachers to confidently deliver the New Zealand School Curriculum in the manner in which it was intended.
Furthermore, teachers need support to understand that the Standards don’t need ‘replacing’ with another form of assessment or reporting. Instead, teachers should draw on what we have always done and the tools we have at our disposal to adequately determine the progress of our learners. The Literacy Learning Progressions and the Number Framework can sufficiently provide the data required in order to inform the teacher in their response to their learners.
Finally, teachers need ongoing professional learning support to understand what learning is important for our 21st century learners, and how the learning areas of the curriculum can be integrated in such a way that meets the needs of our students in order to prepare them for a future workforce that will continue to look drastically different from our current one.
The damage caused by the National Standards policy of the previous government will not be easily undone. The side effects have had somewhat of a cancerous impact on our education system, and a careful approach will be needed in order to support teachers through this next transition.
However, the feeling of hope and optimism that has ensued following the confirmation of the coalition government does provide a positive outlook for the redirection we are about to encounter. We have a government espousing a desire for policies that are more aligned to evidence-based practice than we have ever had in recent times. We have a Minister knowledgeable on the needs and wants of the teaching profession, and above all has demonstrated he is connected and is listening to the ‘ground’ – unlike our previous Ministers. Time to put on the kid gloves and go to work!