Must try harder: ERO’s report card

December 2012


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Education Review Office’s evaluation report on New Zealand schools was a dose of reality to the sector. With an education system suggested to now be less-than-world-class, what is it going to take to raise student achievement to the levels required? JUD

Ministry of Education chief executive Lesley Longstone struck a nerve with her comments in the Ministry’s annual report, which stated New Zealand’s education system cannot be considered world class while Māori and Pasifika children and children from low socioeconomic areas are continuing to underperform.

New Zealanders take pride in the phrase ‘world-class education system’ so often attributed to our schooling. But Longstone’s comments bring to mind another phrase that has also become familiar in education circles: ‘the long tail of underachievement’. It seems the two can’t co-exist. It appears we must fix the ‘tail’, before we can bask in ‘world-class’ glory once more.

Longstone’s comments reflect the findings of the Education Review Office (ERO) report, Evaluation at a Glance: Priority Learners in New Zealand Schools, released at the end of August. The report outlines three major problems facing schools: a lack of focus on individual students, not providing a rich enough curriculum, and not paying enough attention to students’ progress. It suggests that addressing these issues will enable schools to raise student achievement.

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ERO’s report findings

Issue One: The need to shift the focus to student-centred learning.

Issue Two: The need to knowledgeably implement a responsive and rich curriculum.

Issue Three: The need to use assessment information to know about, and plan for, students’ learning.

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“We believe that good progress needs to be made by schools on all three issues if we are to get some systemic gains in raising the achievement of New Zealand’s lowest performing students,” says Dr Graham Stoop, chief executive of ERO.

Collating the findings of 15 national reports on school practice published by ERO in the past four years, this report is a big deal. ERO describes it as a ‘wake-up call’ for schools. The general message is this: while many schools are exhibiting good practice, between a third and a half of schools are not doing enough to meet the needs of struggling students.

“The Government has a set a target of 85 per cent of 18-year-olds achieving NCEA Level Two or equivalent by 2017. Schools need to urgently start addressing the issues identified in our latest report if this target has any chance of being met,” says Stoop.

“By raising these issues, we want to encourage the start of a bold transformation that we would like to see happen in the education sector, especially for the groups of priority learners.”

The report suggests that schools need to get better at practising what they preach.

“New Zealand prides itself on its child-centred approach to learning, yet ERO’s national evaluations would suggest that practice is not matching the rhetoric,” the report states. “ERO has found that some schools are not positioning students at the centre of learning and teaching. Students have simply been forgotten amongst the daily business of ‘delivering’ education, including meeting the requirements of NCEA.”

In a Radio NZ interview, Stoop said that while ERO has witnessed many examples of good practice, in too many classrooms, they saw “curriculum delivered as though it were an artefact”.

Stoop believes there needs to be more accountability in the system. Teachers should be asking ‘why are my students failing?’ Principals should be challenging teachers about habitual practices.

“I think school leaders need to exercise some leadership here,” Stoops told Radio NZ.

Stoop says most principals he has spoken with agree with ERO’s recommendations. President of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation, Paul Drummond, confirms that the ERO reports’ findings concur with current principals’ thinking. However, Drummond blames the Government’s education reforms that call for standardisation rather than individualised learning, for preventing effective student-centred learning – what ERO believe is lacking from many classrooms.

‘The reforms also bring a sharp focus for a narrow two-subject curriculum, rather than support a rich broad curriculum and national standards introduce a summative form of assessment to be used for school accountability rather than for identifying children’s next learning steps,’ says Drummond.

Stoop acknowledges that it won’t be a straightforward path to meeting ERO’s recommendations.

“Principals on the whole have acknowledged that they do face some challenges in addressing the issues we raised in our report and implementing the changes needed. But they have also made the point that they are up to the challenge,” says Stoop.

But if the challenge is working against Government policies that are at odds with the direction ERO says schools need to take, surely this needs to be addressed?

John Minto, national chairperson of the Quality Public Education Coalition, believes Government policies prevent children from working class families from succeeding as they should.

“The scourge of student failure is linked directly to Government economic and social policies – not the education system.”

The report shows that some of the same issues from four years ago are still coming through today, which could suggest there needs to be more alignment between teaching practices and Government initiatives.

Yet the Ministry of Education is actively working to raise achievement by looking to improve teaching practice, with a focus on priority learners. It has tasked the Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising Achievement, which includes representatives from primary and secondary schools, early learning and tertiary education sectors, unions, business, academics, iwi, and educational experts, to lead this initiative.

Stoop presented the findings of ERO’s report to the forum in July.

One aspect likely to be discussed is improving the ways in which schools share good practice. Stoop suggests that schools that doing well in the areas of individualised learning and student achievement should be uploading their examples of good practice so that schools struggling with these aspects can download them.

In terms of how to practically share good practice, Stoop says that boards of trustees should not be afraid to question school management. He also believes professional bodies and ERO have a role to play in helping schools collaborate and learn from each other.

“ERO has an ongoing interest in these issues and we will continue to monitor them,” says Stoop.

So although our pride in New Zealand’s education system has taken something of a battering, perhaps it was the wake-up call needed. If we are unafraid to acknowledge what is wrong, and to talk about it and how to fix it, then hopefully we are heading in the right direction. Sharing best practice, showing more accountability and strong political leadership are signalled as the path to improvement. It will be interesting to see if ERO’s synthesis of reports in four years’ time gives a better grade.