Teaching higher standards
Fri 5 Feb 2010 by David Grimmond in Skills

With great temerity I would like to discuss the national standards introduced into primary and intermediate schools this week.  There has been criticism from a number of quarters that the introduction of the standards will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and the labelling of children as failures.  On the other side there are arguments that greater information is required for parents who wish to know more about the performance of their children.  As a parent of two intermediate-aged children, I would readily accept additional information about their performance, but where an objective assessment system can make a real difference is providing a basis for improving the standard of teaching in New Zealand.  As Amanda Ripley notes:

"Parents have always worried about where to send their children to school; but the school statistically speaking, does not matter as much as which adult stands in front of their children.  Teacher quality tends to vary more within schools – even supposedly good schools – than among schools.  But we have never identified excellent teachers in any reliable, objective way.  Instead, we tend to ascribe their gifts to some mystical quality that we can recognize and revere – but not replicate.  The great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson." (source)

International evidence suggests that this is an issue that New Zealanders should be particularly concerned about.  The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) generally indicates that the New Zealand school system is highly successful.  Fifteen-year-olds in New Zealand rank eleventh out of 57 countries for competency in mathematics, seventh in science, and fifth in reading.  However, there also appears to be a wide range in these results across New Zealand, particularly within schools.  For example, New Zealand ranks as the country with the most variation in science competency scores within schools, even after controlling for socio-economic factors (see graph).  Other research would indicate that this variation relates to teacher performance.  The standard of teaching in New Zealand is, on average, very good and there are a number of exceptional teachers teaching here.  Unfortunately, we also appear to have too many ineffective teachers.

Which brings us back to the potential role of national standards in improving the standard of teaching.  Objective measures of student performance can provide a method for assessing teacher performance; in particular teachers' ability to generate progress in student results.  Being able to identify effective teachers means that one also has a chance of identifying the factors that contribute to teaching effectiveness.

Teach for America, a non-profit organisation that recruits college graduates to spend two years in low-income schools, has been using student test-score progress data since 2002 to identify great teachers and then analyse what these teachers do differently or better that improves student performance.  They observed, among other things, that better performing teachers tend to:

  • Set big goals for their students
  • Work relentlessly and maintain focus on achieving these goals
  • Plan exhaustively, working back from the desired outcome
  • Constantly re-evaluate what they are doing in order to be more effective
  • Actively involve students and their families in the learning process
  • Frequently check that all students understand what has been said and what is expected.

Such factors are possibly universally applicable, but not necessarily.  Also there may be teaching attributes and techniques that are peculiarly effective in New Zealand schools. A common assessment standard could provide an important basis for identifying these factors for New Zealand primary and intermediate school teachers.

A more contentious use of standards would be to provide an objective assessment of teacher performance, which could potentially be used in a reward system.  It is perhaps fear of this potential use that has generated some of the negative reaction to the standards by teacher groups.  To be fair this will also be coupled with the legitimate concern that there is often a natural tendency for targets to encourage a narrow focus on the metrics. But this fear also needs to be balanced against the high risk of complacency in teaching jobs where penalties for poor performance are rare and personal satisfaction is the prime reward for being an effective teacher.

Some recent research from Israel indicates that teachers can respond very positively to monetary incentives, so long as the incentive system is well designed, with student results improving not just due to increased teacher effort but also due to encouraging changes in teaching methods and increased responsiveness to students.  Of particular interest, the study found no evidence that the improvements had come from "teaching to the test" or manipulation of test scores, instead it seems that students were genuinely learning more.1


1 Lavy V (2009) "Performance Pay and Teachers Effort, Productivity, and Grading Ethics"American Economic Review, December,pp1979-2011

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