Education reform shows modest results

Back from a refreshing break, and what better way to start than contemplating what things may be of importance in the education world of 2006.

Yesterday’s news of the appointment of Dr Karen Poutasi as Chief Executive of the Qualifications Authority focuses attention on what must surely be one of the “biggies” for the year – accountability within the education sector.

The portfolio changes after last year’s election were another sign of this, with opposition parties breathing down the neck of government with (predictable) demands for proof of return on investment, and calls for “back to basics” approaches.

This morning I read a release from ‘eSchool News” titled Education reform shows modest results which comments on Education Week’s “Quality Counts at 10: A Decade of Standards-Based Education” , reported as being the first in-depth look at how state education reforms have affected student scores on a series of federal tests designed to measure classroom performance from state to state.

The report provides a state-by-state analysis, and a cursory read reveals a bias towards demonstrating that those states that have adopted a standards-based approach have shown greater improvements than those that haven’t – although, as the eSchoolNews commentary highlights, the improvements are modest at best!

I haven’t read the report in detail, but many of the additional commentries that are linked to provide some interesting insights. One of these is titled Making the Connection by Christopher B. Swanson of the Educational Projects in Education Research Centre. (NB registration required to access this PDF)

Swanson provides a useful overview of the methodogy and background to the report, before focusing specifically on a series of policy indicators and the question, “have the states adopted policies that support standards-based education?

A paragraph in his opening page caught my eye:

    We find strong evidence that implementing a solid program of standards-based-education policies has been associated with significant gains in mathematics achievement over the past decade, as measured by NAEP. Positive but less dramatic results are also found for achievement in reading. However, these benefits appear to be limited to certain elements of a standards-based approach??academic-content standards, aligned assessments, and accountability. Results suggest that policies related to improving teacher quality are negatively related to achievement growth, although the reason for this relationship remains unclear.

I couldn’t help but smile at what this says to me (on the surface anyway) viz – that children’s scores are improving, while teaching quality appears to be deteriorating.

Further – no surprises for discovering the subject area that comes out top in the analysis – Maths, followed by reading, presumably with a heavy emphasis on vocab and comprehension-type standards. (How, I wonder, did the creative subjects like music or art fare?)

The key point in Swansons article is an important one for NZ, however – that is, do we have policies in place to support the various strategies and initiatives that we are adopting. This is, perhaps, a question that Dr Poutasi and her team must ask as they set about sorting out the issues that the QA have been struggling with over the past few years.

Another classic case in NZ is the issue of online education. We have a plethora of initiatives at both the schools and tertiary level, many of which have been actively encouraged through the provision of funding from government sources. Many of these are now foundering, some admittedly through lack of careful planning or sound management, but many because they have “hit the policy wall”.

A case in point being the schools video conferencing clusters involving dozens of schools (and some tertiaries) who are using online strategies to provide access to greater subject choice and teacher expertise etc. While the anecdotal and small amount of research evidence available would indicate these initiatives have proven to be successful, the policy environment within which they operate (and the resourcing mechanisms that stem from that) continues to be based on notions of physical attendance at a physical school from which you receive all of your instruction.

NZ should take careful note of what Swanson and others are saying from these overseas experiences and put some serious effort into developing robust policies that are consistent with learning in a “learner-centred, digitally-minded” paradigm.

2 thoughts on “Education reform shows modest results

  1. Thanks Derek,

    What kind of idiots measure learning by numbers anyway? I guess this is just more evidence of the fact that the technology of measurement becoming the technology of assessment which is a shame really.


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