Monday, 7 September 2015

Utopian Boondoggle, Part I

A Disaster Created By Ideologues Masquerading as Experts

We have read through a paper produced by one of the dominant teacher unions in New Zealand.  It is entitled The NCEA: Can It Be Saved?  The short answer offered is, yes it can survive, provided all the union demands about the scheme are met.

The opinion of this blog is that NCEA will not survive and the evidence for its eventual demise is evident in the union's paper.  We believe the NCEA (the National Certificate of Educational Achievement) will eventually end up being labelled as "an unfortunate experiment".  Its present travails, however, were always predictable.  It was a utopian scheme right from its conception, meaning it was always doomed to failure as all utopian schemes are.  It is one more demonstration of the incompetence of the state when it meddles in things way beyond its lawful brief, on the profound grounds that "it seemed a good idea at the time". 

The utopian nature of the scheme can be seen in its objective--which was to ensure that no pupil passed through New Zealand schools without being educated and qualified in something.  It was a "no child left behind" approach.  Such things sound good to gullible ears on the hustings.  NCEA in New Zealand was an attempt by the government and government schools to make a utopian ideal a reality.  The goal was that every pupil would graduate from our nation's schools with a recognised academic credit in something.  That, we were told, would be immeasurably better than having some children fail.  The NCEA paper puts it this way:
. . . students could have access to a wide range of learning, contexualised for them, and recognised through a secondary school qualification.  [The NCEA: Can It Be Saved, p.3.]
Cut through the verbiage and the bottom line was this: NCEA would provide an academic certificate for tiddlywinks, if that was all that some kids could do.
  That's what was implied by a "wide range of learning" that was "contextualised for them".  The school would become relevant by teaching subjects which interested the kids and which they could study.  Take tiddlywinks.  The "subject" would be analysed by academic experts (its origins, history, variants, applications, uses, techniques of playing, etc. etc), with the various aspects of the analysis broken out into "unit standards", which pupils would be taught, and which they could pass, securing a certificate of educational achievement in tiddlywinks.  This was the objective and goal of the utopian system: the pupil would graduate from our government schools with a certificate of achievement.  The pupil would have been successful.  The state education system would have been successful.  Every pupil could leave school self-affirmed with their heads held high, shoulders straight and chests out.  Everybody would win.  No child (or teacher, or school) would have been left behind.  We were told that if any pupil left government schools without a certificate of achievement in something, the education system itself would be an indictable failure.

Utopia has been with us now for 13 years (NCEA commenced in 2002 in government high schools).  Things should be going swimmingly.  Over a decade to bed in.  Teething problems all surpassed.  Parents on board.  International recognition achieved.  Unfortunately not.  Predictably not.  Now even one of its biggest cheerleaders--the national secondary school teacher union, the PPTA--is questioning whether NCEA can survive.  Here is its list of present gripes:
The PPTA's continued support for the NCEA requires the following:

a. Abolition of percentage achievement targets because they are dangerously inconsistent with the principles of standards-based assessment;

b. Decisive action by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority ("NZQA") to address issues of levelling and credit parity between standards across the Framework;

c. Significant reduction in moderation requirements, both for internally assessed standards and for practice assessments for externally assessed standards;

d.  No further changes to NCEA structure and and processes unless they are guaranteed to reduce student and teacher workload;

e. Active engagement by the Ministry and NZQA, in consultation with PPTA (the union), to seek actual reductions in the current workload of students and teachers;

f.  Extended resourcing to enable the provision of a wide range of learning pathways for all students who wish to remain at school full-time to the end of Year 13.

g.  Reduction of the dominance of universities over the curriculum of the senior school.  (Ibid., p.16)
If you read between the lines you can see where the problems lie.  Utopia is a difficult parsnip to butter.

Take the first PPTA goal: "Abolition of percentage achievement targets because they are dangerously inconsistent with the principles of standards-based assessment."   What's at issue here?

The government became alarmed at the low rates of achievement in government schools under NCEA, and laid down a dictat.  Despite the dream of offering so many subjects to ensure everyone qualified in something, the results were disappointing.  Far too many kids continued to leave school without any substantial qualifications--just the odd "achieved" certificate in a few bizarre subjects.  The government became more demanding.  Each school would now be measured by the rod of whether 85 percent of their pupils passed NCEA level 2 (there are three achievement levels, corresponding to schooling years 11, 12, and 13).  The union, for its part, says this conflicts with the essential intent and design of NCEA--that is, it conflicts with NCEA's utopian ideals.
Numerical achievement targets have no place in standards-based assessment systems.  They create perverse incentives that prevent teachers from looking for the best possible ways for their students to achieve their potential. (Ibid., p.7.  Emphasis, ours.)
Consider what is being said here.  The hopeless ideologues and idealists that pushed for, and achieved, the introduction of "standards based education" in New Zealand, were seeking a school system that offered the best possible ways for students to achieve their respective potential.  In a nutshell, students who could not read and write ought not to be ostracised or cast on the scrap heap.  They should be helped by a facilitating coach (a "teacher") to help them achieve something. And that prompted a rush to the lowest common denominator. 

Whilst we are told the demand for numerical achievement targets completely cuts across the essence and heart of NCEA, we are also told that it makes teachers act perversely:
Such targets put pressure on teachers to ensure that every student in their class gets the maximum number of credits possible, as early in the year as possible, so that they can be sure to achieve the 80 credits needed for their level certificate.  The currency becomes the credits, not the quality and relevance of the learning programme. . . . Such targets also encourage "credit farming" where standards are offered by teachers, not because they are the most valuable to the student, but because they most easily deliver credits.  Students themselves seek out courses which are perceived to deliver the most credits for the least effort, but these may not be the courses that will most benefit them in the medium and long term. (Ibid. p.7)
Teachers and students gaming the system.  Who would have thought?  So economic principles and fundamental self-interest operate in schools as well as in the rest of the world.  How devastating.  How come we did not see that coming.

As an aside, it is amusing to see the union's bi-polar world when it comes to both teachers and students.  On the one hand both are immaculately conceived, without any taint of moral corruption, but on the other, given half a chance they will seek their own advantage more quickly than a rat up a drain pipe.  Ah, well you have to understand that it is not the teachers' fault.  They have just been inappropriately tempted into acting perversely when the government required numerical pass targets.

Consider the following:
It is simply dangerous, in any system which has large amounts of internal assessment, to set targets for achievement.  Teachers must be free to exercise the best possible judgements without pressure to "deliver credits".  Making high stakes assessment judgements for the students they teach, and with whom they are expected to develop close professional relationships, is already a significant tension.  To lay targets on top of that situation is extremely risky to the credibility of the qualification.  (Ibid., p. 7.) 
Teachers must be free.  It's what the union wants in a nutshell.  They can be trusted to do the right thing.  Here we are back again on the immaculate conception side of the ledger.  Teachers are without sin.  Leave them alone.  They know what's best and they will deliver it.  Utopian dreamers, all.

Imagine this sort of fatuous nonsense applied elsewhere in the work place--say the local engineering shop.  The owner rises to address the staff.  "We know that all of you are consummate professionals.  We trust you to do the right thing in this shop.  No supervision.  No performance reviews.  You will be free to exercise the best possible judgements.  I am going to go away for a year and I am confident that all will go swimmingly."  Ah, yes, but the parallel does not hold.  Teachers are, after all, immaculately conceived. They are in a different class.  Original sin has never affected teachers.  That's why you will never hear of a teacher struck off the register for malfeasance or inappropriate behaviour.

Finally, what's this talk about "easy credits" and courses which "most easily deliver credits"?  Here too the vain utopian dreams become exposed.  All subjects are not equal--not of equal significance, difficulty, utility, or worth.  Some subjects are critical and foundational for life and ongoing learning.  Others are not.  The credit based system implies that all subjects are intrinsically equal--that credits in tiddlywinks are implicitly of equal worth to credits in algebra or history.  NCEA cannot escape that fatal misconception.  Some subjects under its inclusive, "no child left behind" approach must appear to be the equal of all other subjects (a credit in algebra, is equal to a credit in hospitality, is equal to a credit in environmental studies), but its failure is made obvious by clever students quickly working out the most easy path to academic achievement--focusing upon the subjects that deliver easy credits--something that the system was never supposed to produce. 

But what is the alternative that the union is advocating?  It wants no numerical targets of achievement or passing or gaining a certain number of achievement credits.  Only then will the system cease to be gamed.  Only then will the perverse incentives disappear.  Only then will be have a "world leading, world class education system".

Only then will we have the useless, confused behemoth of a boondoggle that NCEA was always going to become. Which is pretty much where we are at now.

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