Going beyond national standards

Last year I wrote this article, ‘Two Cheers for National Standards’ (Otago Daily Times, 17 July 2009).

I supported the government’s move to introduce standards for literacy and numeracy at primary and intermediate schools, saying:

Such a move is long overdue.  In 1998, the Education Forum, comprising educationists and business sector representatives, published a report Policy Directions for Assessment at the Primary School Level, authored by Professor Alan Smithers, a distinguished British education adviser.

The Forum stated that “it is strongly in favour of national assessment in primary schools.  It fully recognises that accurate information and feedback have a major part to play in improving education performance.”

In effect, the state school system is an enormous government monopoly (which would benefit from competition).   We can’t expect it to perform well without objective performance data.

The article went on to talk about ‘league tables’, judging schools as opposed to students, the flawed outcomes-based curriculum, and the problem of consistent assessment of standards.

I concluded by saying:

Finally, standards are no silver bullet for upgrading education.

Perhaps the most important reform would be moves towards greater parental choice and competition in the system, and greater school autonomy.

Teacher quality (including teacher training, professional development and certification) is also vital, as is how better teachers are rewarded and under-performing teachers dealt with.

But the government’s national standards initiative deserves two cheers.

A recent video from the Cato Institute in Washington helped extend my thinking (the section I’m referring to starts from 5 minutes 30 seconds into the clip).

It was a talk on national education standards by former high school teacher Rep. Rob Bishop (the section I’m referring to starts from about 5 minutes 30 seconds into the clip).

He began by talking about the endless series of education initiatives aimed at dealing with America’s under-performing public schools – the War on Poverty, A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and now the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

As with so many fads and fashions in education, none has worked, or worked well.  As Bishop says, the most common reaction of any public school teacher is to think, “This too shall pass”.

He goes on to emphasise the limitations of standards and testing: “education is a subjective area, it is not an objective area.”  Moreover:

You cannot define a good school, you cannot define a good teacher, you cannot define a good education, but you know when you see it.  And as long as parents are satisfied, that ought to be the concept.

Bishop comes down on the side of parental choice – giving parents the freedom to decide where they want to send their children and rewarding schools and teachers accordingly.

He recounts a familiar objection to school choice raised by a state legislator in Georgia:

He said this idea of empowering parents may work but it won’t work in my district because the parents are too dumb.  I thought, but I did not have the guts to say, ‘they elected you didn’t they?’  I am totally opposed to that premise.  Parents are not too dumb.  Parents do care about their kids.  And even if you accepted the premise that parents are too dumb to make these decisions, the state is a poor replacement for the parent.

As far as I’m concerned those are killer arguments.

Going beyond national standards and introducing school choice – funding schools at the different levels (primary, intermediate, secondary) on the same basis according to enrolments – is the next logical education reform.  Two reports by an Inter-Party Working Group released early this year advocated such a move.

It’s not much use parents learning that their children are not achieving national standards if all they can do about it is complain to the school or stand for the board of trustees.

The real way to empower them is to provide them with the option of ‘exit’ as well as ‘voice’: to send their child to another school.  Isn’t that the option people as consumers have in practically every other area of their life?

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