Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bali Haque.The failure of Education Reforms in New Zealand - with an emphasis on secondary schools. NCEA/ NZC and National Standards.

In a recent article in the Sunday Times magazine a recently resigned secondary teacher wrote  , 'teaching is not a cushy job- it's grueling. I had to do so many assessments with the students there was barely time to teach them anything....the NCEA is well intentioned- full of second chances - but the people who dreamed it up didn't consider how perpetual assessment and marking would impact on teaching...... It puts teachers, students and parents on common ground - by bewildering them all.

With this in mind it was interesting to read Bali Haque's book 'Changing Our Secondary Schools'. Bali has been a secondary principal, President of the Secondary Principal's Association and
deputy chief executive responsible for the NCEA.

His book is a critique of two decades of education reform in New Zealand and a call for future action.   (See book review)

The book is based on the premise that our secondary schools are already good but 'have the capacity to be great. An earlier book, 'Our Secondary Schools Don't Work Anymore', by David Hood,  who has a similar background to Bali, is not so positive. Guy Claxton's book 'What is the Point of School' is also relevant. It would seem that good is not good enough!
Looking towards the future

Bali's book  covers the Tomorrow's Schools Reforms , the National Certificate of Educational Achievement ( NCEA) , the revised New Zealand Curriculum ( 2007) and  the National Standards. 'None of these reforms', Bali writes, 'has been as successful as one might have hoped', and adds, 'mistakes have been made again, again , and again.'

The equity gap the real problem!
NZ scores well on international tests, he writes, but scores have fallen because of the 'gap between students from poorer , lower socioeconomic status homes' and that this equity gap 'presents any current or future  New Zealand government with its most serious and persistent .....problem'.

 The situation is made worse by the fact that many Maori families are in this category. 'Maori students perform poorly...largely because of their Socio Economic Status (SES) not their ethnicity' he writes and continues. 'we live in divided communities and our schools reflect theses divisions.'

Culture Counts!
This division provides well off students with cultural habits and dispositions inherited from their families that are critically important to school success. This is obviously not true for all students but there are those ( Pierre Bourdieu ) who believe that schools make the situation worse. There are Maori educationalists who believe that schools do not reflect  a Maori worldview.

Bali asks the question do schooling and teaching matter and answers 'it depends'?

 New Zealand has in recent decades become one of the most unequal Western societies and that this can only be overcome by political action not by blaming schools.

 Focusing only on schooling and teaching to address disparities is 'unhelpful and misleading'. There is more an opportunity than an achievement gap. Research (Marzano) in Bali's book states 80% of student achievement is determined by student background, the school 6.65 and the teacher 13.34.

Teaching as an art.

'Teaching,'Bali writes, ' is essentially more of an art than a science' and what works depends on the relationships between the teacher and the learner.

  Bali  believes that  power of a quality teacher depends on what he calls 'a state of mind' ; the individual teachers 'personal dispositions, attitudes  and assumptions'. This he says is reflected in the New Zealand Curriculum ( Teaching as Inquiry) which asks teachers to constantly ask questions about the effectiveness of what they are doing and be willing to change what isn't working. Such teachers believe all students can learn achieve provided the right conditions and help.

It is encouraging teachers to develop this mindset that provides the greatest opportunity to help all students achieve but real success
1 in 5 have very little
will only be fully realized by improving the socio- economic background of students. Blaming the one in five students currently failing on teaching is 'plainly nonsense' Bali writes.

Now back to the reforms.
Yeah Right!

Tomorrow's Schools.

Introduced in 1989  it was supposed to be all about devolving responsibility to 'self managing' schools to realize greater flexibility and innovation but in reality passed poor performance on to individual school many schools ( low decile schools) did not have the capability or resources.
Rather than having a school system, schools were placed  in a market place unfairly competing with each other. This was a business model that favoured the well placed and discouraged collaboration.

There has been no evidence of system wide gains in achievement or new approaches to learning or greater equality. Lower decile schools are all too often  marginalized and ghettoised and, Bali writes,  'awful for the cohesiveness and social and economic well being of New Zealand as a whole'. 'Tomorrow's Schools continues to harm many of the students  it was designed to support.

NCEA - National Certificate of  Educational Achievement

The NCEA chapter focuses on secondary education and the change from simple pass /fail exams to the provision of all students with opportunities  to succeed. 'For most teachers and parents the changes were astonishing and revolutionary'.  The aim was to unify vocational and academic pathways by shifting to standard based assessment allowing students to demonstrate learning achievements on units passed.  Students were   assigned their own personal Record of Achievement (POR). Such a dramatic change had not been attempted anywhere else in the world. The assessment requirements, Bali writes, were 'light years away from what was mainstream practice for most teachers at the time'. And there is the confusion between vocational and academic units.
Stressed students

It has been a rocky road to success  but after a troubled birth it has become reasonably successful but there are still issues due to a 'poor reform process'. Assessment now drives teaching. 'The trouble was the new standards based NCEA system', writes Bali , 'required a  fundamentally different approach to learning' which is yet to be seen widely. Until things change students and teachers remain stressed trying to implement current all but impossiblee requirements.

The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum

The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. provided schools with a  broad enabling framework to work within  allowing plenty of flexibility for schools. It's 1993 predecessor was a technocratic and assessment  nightmare. The  intention of the 2007 curriculum was to move beyond subject content towards a greater emphasis on good teaching practice.

Bali makes the point that primary schools were encouraged by the 'front end of the curriculum' which defined the vision, principles, competencies and values. For most secondary school its implementation was complicated by the requirements of  the NCEA. Bali recommends that the 'wash-back effects of the NCEA qualification into the junior school prevented effective implementation of the new curriculum. Schools instead used the junior years ( year 9 and 10) to prepare for the 'realities of the NCEA'.

The new curriculum provided motivation to develop integrated units around common themes rather than compartmentalized and separate subjects so, while it was  satisfactory to provide broad learning objectives in the junior years and in primary schools, it was extremely problematic for teaching in the senior school. 'As well the emphasis on competencies at the front end of the curriculum provided another headache for secondary schools'. How to measure or report on these competencies was problematic and as a result, in many secondary schools, the 'key'  competencies have been sidelined.
Integrated inquiry studies

So has the 2007 NZC achieved its objectives? With regard to secondary school limited progress has been made in encouraging better teaching, particularly in years 9 and 10 but  'the requirements of the NCEA has probably outweighed the requirements of the curriculum particularly at the senior school.' This is not helped by subject specialists protecting their territories making the integration of knowledge and focus a on competencies difficult and, as a result,  'teachers have tended to continue with their current practice'.
 NZC -Opportunities for integrated inquiry studies.

'So, as far as secondary schools are concerned, the NZC has not been as successful as might have been'. Schools have not addressed the fundamental changes required. For all that 'the NZC is viewed positively by a very large number of teachers, including secondary teachers'. Secondary schools need far more help to implement the 'front end' of the curriculum.

National Standards.

Although  supposedly written to support the NZC  Bali writes, 'it seems clear that the new
literacy and numeracy standards are not a good fit with the philosophy of the NZC'. 

Assessment against these standards will lead to 'teaching to the tests'  and the 'narrowing of the curriculum' and the 'demise of a rich holistic and broad curriculum' as it has been demonstrated in countries that have tried to implement similar reforms.  Moderation of standards is a problem yet to be solved - National Tests and League Tables lie over the horizon.

The Minister's aim of preparing all students for level 2 NCEA according to Bali is 'nonsense'. As 80% of students already achieve Level 2 'one wonders why it is necessary for all students to be subjected to a massive accountability regime. Surely a more targeted approach would have been  more sensible?' Bali also recommend the doing away of NCEA Level One to encourage more integrated teaching in years 9 and10.

The introduction of National Standards to 'fix the system' can be seen as a means to reduce the influence of teachers and principals in schools. Imposing such a reform, so strongly opposed by practitioners, makes its success problematic at best and is , according to Bali ' unlikely to succeed because of the contradictions inherent in its development.'

The Ministry and its implementation of the reforms comes into severe criticism by Bali.  'The end result', he writes, 'is the gradual erosion of initiative, creative thinking and risk taking'. 
Education becoming risk adverse.

The Ministry  has failed in working with schools and teachers as partners in reform. This is ironic as Bali comments, prior to Tomorrow's Schools, teachers were involved in curriculum and professional development, worked collaboratively,  and were assisted by respected advisory teachers and school inspectors. Now support is provided through contested contracts open to all comers creating confusion and overload.

Teachers and Principals.

With reference to teachers Bali believes ,'there is an urgent need for some teachers to stop thinking as victims, which appears to be their current default position, and start thinking about creative solutions.'

Although he appreciates 'many secondary school principals are overwhelmed by their jobs many have  failed to ensure appropriate attention is paid to core functions of instructional leadership' and, worse still,  many 'principals behave badly in a competitive environment' and 'take the view that their primary purpose is to maximize the reputation of their school'. I might add this applies equally to primary schools.

Bali concludes his book  with some 'future pathways'.

The first for the government to face up to the impact of socio-economic effects o learning - this is a far bigger factor than whatever a teacher or school can achieve. The current mantra that it is the teachers that make the difference is misplaced. The socio- economic gap is the big issue of the future.

We have to find new tools to measure school effectiveness.

We have become transfixed with comparative data which all too often leads 'naming and shaming that hurts both educators and learning'. Encouraging the best teaching approaches, and identifying positive teacher 'mindsets', are focuses he suggests, as is the use of a sampling process to assess learning.  This approach,  used in Finland, appeals to Bali where the  government runs national sample assessments to keep track of the whole system.Teachers might remember the  Otago University NEMP sampling approach?

As far as providing teacher professional support  the focus needs to assisting 'changing the p
ractice of teachers in the classroom'. The  paying of super principals and teachers to work with other schools  The Investment in School Success scheme ( IES) does not get much approval from Bali. The money, he believes, would be better spent rewarding excellent teachers in schools.

Whatever policies  to be implemented need to be well planned, implemented, and supported. Teachers need to be well trained,  well paid and trusted as they are in Finland.

Bali controversially recommends that to  implement the NZC in years 9 and 10, and to reduce the 'wash-back effect of the NCEA', that intermediate schools be closed down and junior colleges  established for students from years 7 to 10.
Modern Learning Environments need an integrated philosophy

 Such schools need to be 'independent of the constraints of the NCEA or external qualifications. They would be built around an integrated approach to knowledge and competencies, based on learning areas/subjects that would reflect the philosophy of the current curriculum'.
New schools need new pedagogy

Bali believes it is too late to do away with Tomorrows's Schools,   nor is it necessary to return to the top down centralized system of old, instead believes in the establishment of a stronger supportive regional structure for the Ministry.

I have not made an attempt to present all of Bali's ideas. You will need to read his book for yourselves. One thing he says is clear,   'Governments must not be allowed to place all the fixing at the feet of long suffering teachers'.

'No reform', he concludes,' will be successful without a reasonable level  of teacher buy in. It is important  that teachers be encouraged and challenged to see the possibilities ... and to engage in
Schools to develop  talents  
constructive problem solving, even if this means a period of tension and disagreement.The key message to our teachers should be that they are hugely valued and critically important , and will be treated as such by government.

Well worth the read.

Time for some out of the box thinking

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