Hide and Hattie: the peril of fast law

It’s useful to know who your friends are. Rodney Hide is a devoted friend of this “very, very good government”. He called Nick Smith’s emissions trading bill “atrocious policy” resulting from “atrocious process”.

Then a luminary John Key counted as a friend on education policy joined three others to question his (actually Bill English’s) cornerstone education policy — standards.

Hide was in the same game as Labour and the Greens with his “atrocious policy” analysis. But he was on a different paddock. ACT agrees with a heterogeneous collection of scientists who doubt bits or all of the United Nations’ scientists global warming data and/or think it is natural so we have to live with it.

Hide tried to get National to delay emissions trading a year to avert the “atrocious process”.

Labour and the Greens also condemned the process but actually a year ago they and New Zealand First were doing desperate deals to get Labour’s fast and flawed law across the line.

This time the fast work was with the Maori party, which celebrated the process as the Treaty of Waitangi at work. Iwi — particularly the iwi leadership group — have a privileged channel of communication and negotiation with the “Crown”.

That sets them apart from standard lobby groups. The previous government’s deal on aquaculture is an example.

Expect more Treaty-based deals, especially when the Maori party has votes National needs in the House.

Smith and Key were locked into concessions to the Maori party and the iwi leadership group after they killed talks with Labour on a bipartisan agreement in September. Smith says Labour was dawdling and he had to get a bill in the House if it was to be passed by now. So he grabbed at the Maori party’s support for the bill’s introduction. That limited room for manoeuvre.

Labour disputes Smith’s version. It said this week there were just three unresolved differences and it was ready to compromise. Were they resoluble? We will never know.

One of Key’s special qualities as Prime Minister, his calm amidst controversy, cruised the government through this week. The bill is law.

Likewise, education standards will stay. Key cruised through a contretemps a few weeks back when he launched the standards as one of his government’s crowning first-year achievements. No sooner had he lauded Auckland Professor John Hattie as a personal mentor on education at the launch than Hattie distanced himself from the policy.

Hattie this week joined Waikato and Otago Professors Martin Thrupp and Terry Crooks and a researcher in an open letter to Education Minister Anne Tolley urging a rethink.

Their letter echoed Hide’s bother about substance and process.

The substance matters because, if politicians, bureaucrats and teachers impose ill-judged standards or apply them ineptly, that risks the opposite of what English intended.

English wants kids to read, write and do arithmetic better. Too many leave school near-illiterate and near-innumerate. That is an economic drag, apart from the personal and social waste.

But if teachers teach to rigid standards the risk is that standards and the testing that goes with them become counterproductive. Kids get trapped into failure. The focus is on what teachers teach instead of what kids learn.

“The international record,” the four academics said, “is damning.” Other education experts say this is particularly so of the United States’ “no child left behind” project which actually condemned disadvantaged children to being left behind.

If standards and related assessment are done well, the focus is on what kids learn. The focus then is on getting the teaching right rather than on kids passing/failing. If teachers do the job right, more kids will be more literate and numerate.

An example: are kids tested for what letters they can read or are they tested for ability to read fluently for meaning at a certain level? Which is more likely to be useful in the workforce?

Getting this right, experts say, requires high professionalism in teachers and careful calibration of standards, with multiple measures. That requires much money and professional development. Neither is (yet) on offer.

The professors used words like “damage” and “distort and impoverish”. They worried that judgments of schools and teachers will not be on the value they add but on numbers who pass and fail.

Some principals worry that poorly applied standards could worsen an already strong trend to segregation in suburban primary schools, making it harder to lift the very kids English targeted.

Ministers’ response to Hattie and Co: their concerns are being addressed. Fast, obviously, since the next school year starts in two months.

What is mentor Hattie’s message to Key? Don’t rush. Put much more effort into getting it right before forcing it on the system. Focus on progress against well-thought-through standards, not pass-fail on hastily drafted ones. Test-drive them in pilot schools.

Hide’s and Hattie’s subtext? Fast law is bad law.