NZ National Standards and Special Needs (with a particular focus on Autism)

Education Building

Image by my_new_wintercoat via Flickr

One of the hot topics in education over the past few years, is that of National Standards; introduced into New Zealand schools as of 2010. Or, at least, it was meant to be introduced in 2010; many schools continue to refuse to implement it, even though they are required to do so by law.

There are many reasons for the non-compliance by these schools. One oft-repeated concern, is that the “one-size-fits-all” approach of National Standards, is detrimental and distorting of the learning of special needs students. Autistic children are held up as a classic example of the different learning styles and achievements that will not (or can not) be acknowledged by National Standards. (Select Committee report March 23rd 2011, “Briefing on Autism and National Standards.”)

There is concern that austistic children – in being compared to their same-age peers – will be identified and labeled as “failures” since they don’t meet the standards; standards that are made with “normal” children in mind, rather than with consideration of how well the child has improved over time and taking into account the specific challenges they face.

However, such concerns have been down-played: with others pointing out that National Standards don’t mean a child is labeled a failure (“The undesirable labeling of students is not an issue introduced by the standards. Teachers are professionals and as such know the importance of using appropriate language that motivates students“); and that the existence and use of National Standards is focused on the child’s own improvement from earlier points in time, rather than a more simplistic comparison to their same-age peers.

The fact that National Standards can identify how a child is performing compared to the expected norm for their age-group, is said to actually be beneficial to special needs children: That National Standards will identify the students who need extra assistance, and allow better targeting of such assistance. Furthermore, for those special needs students who are at the more extreme end of need – children such as my son who receive ORS funding – meeting and measuring National Standards will be simply an aspect of the individualised IEP, and the statistics of such children can be given separately in school reports, thereby acknowledging that in would be inappropriate to throw them in and compare them with every other student.

This separate consideration of the most extreme special needs students, does not placate all concerns; indeed, it raises further concerns. Specifically that it evidences an approach against inclusive education practices (involving special needs students in mainstream education rather than segregated off, particularly into special needs schools). I’ve even come across some parents sharing intense fears that their children will be placed in those unspeakable educational institutions known as special needs schools, where they will pick up bad habits from other needy children and not be academically challenged. (This piece and the comments especially, are an example of such views).

Such views are of course, misinformed, out-dated and frankly offensive. Special needs schools in modern New Zealand are not dumping grounds; they are challenging places of learning tightly tailored to individual needs and abilities. They are hard to get into, because the level of funding required to run the high ratios of teacher to student, and the specialists and specialist equipment, is a barrier to open-entry. Only those with the highest needs, and the attached government high levels of funding, can get access. I was lucky to have that option. The idea that children there all pick up each others bad habits, is an old idea with very little actual foundation, in fact our children can and often do pick up far worse habits in mainstream schools (see my post on this and related claims, here).

I must also address the horror and shame such parents feel at the prospect of their children being around other high needs students in these schools. In the same breath that they say “my child deserves an inclusive education” they shun and shame other children who (by their own philosophy) deserve the same inclusiveness. The only difference is they think their own child is a special example of a special needs child; leave everyone else’s difficult children in that institution over there.

Quite aside from such confused claims about how bad special needs schools are, National Standards have not been – and could not be – proposed as grounds for deciding who attends or doesn’t attend a special needs school. These sorts of opinion pieces – and I have come across a few – who use the National Standards issue as a forum through which to paint special needs schools as a fearful consequence of low achievement, are distorting and deflecting the more meaningful debate that needs to occur.

So if we can put aside such fears about what National Standards will mean for failing students in regards to placement at special needs schools, I can move onto other issues.

The next issue is the idea that National Standards makes autistic children (or more generally, special needs children) look like they’re performing poorly academically. This is, unfortunately, often a simple truth; special needs children – including autistic children – do frequently perform poorly in academics as they are currently taught at mainstream schools. If all that National Standards is doing, is pointing out this truth, it is surely misplaced anger to blame National Standards for bringing our attention to it. (In deed, I think it may be taken as an indictment on mainstream schools to a certain extent, that some children with strong intellects perform poorly because their special needs are not being recognised or accommodated in the mainstream environment.)

If one was to take the further step and say “these performance results therefore also imply that our children aren’t trying” – ie, that the child is not ultimately being compared to their former achievements and their achievements are not put in context of their abilities and challenges – then yes this would be particularly concerning, because such a conclusion would imprecise and often inaccurate.

But whether National Standards is actually doing such a thing, is less clear. Its primary function is to supply standards; expectations for what a normal child at that stage in their education should be able to achieve. If those standards are inaccurate, or impossible (which is surely over-stating the case), then that is a broader question about the standards, quite apart (I suggest) from the more specific question of how they can and might impact on special needs students qua special needs students.

The fact that autistic (and many other) children perform poorly in academic areas compared to their peers, is just one facet of the child, but the facet that is particularly relevant in a school context. And that is, afterall, the context under consideration. These are not “personality standards” or “sports standards” even. They only measure what they purport to measure (reading, writing and maths). Much of the worry and outrage at National Standards appears to be due to concerns about them being taken to mean more than they actually do. Education about what National Standards measure (and don’t measure), alongside other feedback about a student’s strengths and weaknesses observed in a classroom situation, would hopefully help balance this out.

The suggestion that the correct standards need to be applied to the correct students – standards adjusted to reflect the child’s challenges, “autistic standards” if you will – is superficially attractive. But considering the incredible broadness across the autistic spectrum – from the very high functioning who leave their neurotypical peers in the dust, to the very low functioning who can’t toilet themselves and are even a danger to themselves – you’d then have to have a sub-standard within that autism standard. And so on, and so on. This suggestion, is rather an attack on having “standards” at all; a preference instead for a highly individualised approach. Which I think, in itself, is admirable and quite attractive. But an individualised approach is not the contradictory of having National Standards. It can be had along-side; with there still a meaningful role to be played by having a reference point such as that represented by National Standards.

In this post, I have dealt with concerns about how National Standards might affect special needs students, focusing on autistic students. I have only incidentally addressed the broader concerns about the very idea of National Standards. Though I do not think that National Standards are quite the monster-under-the-bed that many people suggest it is in regards to special needs students, I think there are quite legitimate independent issues, particularly with how this specific version of National Standards has been introduced; in what many see as an un-necessarily rushed manner, without appropriate consultation, and with much confusion over the administrative and operational specifics.

There are also general concerns about the inadequacy of National Standards to deal with the low achievements levels that they were introduced to address. And that the money spent introducing and implementing the National Standards would have been better directed at the students who have already been identified as needing of the extra help. There are too claims that the National Standards add nothing other than a layer of bureaucracy; that standards as such were already in place, just not as explicitly and universally as they are now (and that they were perhaps better before anyway).

Though I have not gone into the specifics of these issues, in as far as autistic students are students at all, they are necessarily affected by such wider concerns. To reach a firm conclusion on whether National Standards are in the interests of our children – autistic or otherwise – I’d have to speak to these wider issues, which is outside the focus of the current post (perhaps something for a future post).

It will be interesting to see how the various parties fighting for a piece of the 2011 election pie, present and address such concerns.

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4 Responses to NZ National Standards and Special Needs (with a particular focus on Autism)

  1. Aspergirl Maybe says:

    I know standards have become a big buzzword in the US (at least in my state), and one good side of it seems to be that parents have some measure of what typical kids are supposed to be learning and mastering at a certain grade level. It helps to hold educators accountable for writing goals that are actually moving towards those standards where they may have been able to slide by without doing much to actually educate the children rather than simply contain them.

    • That is a strong part of the rhetoric here too, and I agree that is a valuable and worthwhile goal. I think there is a fair bit of cross-over between the idea of national standards in the US and NZ but I haven’t looked into it really, I might just do that. Thanks for your comment Aspergirl Maybe.

  2. Stephanie says:

    The thing that bothers me about national standards can be found right there in the language, standardisation. It implies that education should be this one-size fits all model whereby students pass through the system making exactly the same progress at the same age. In my experience that just isn’t the case, students learn at different rates. What’s more what goes hand and hand with standards is a real narrowing of the curriculum. I can already see that with my teaching course, I’ve been given a lot of instruction on reading and maths but everything else has been shoehorned into two papers. It’s an absolute travesty because we are taking away the reasons why students would want to read, write and do maths without doing science, arts etc.and having those rich experiences to write about or see the application for maths. We should be wanting our system to become more individualised and more diversified. Standards don’t do that.

    I also think and Aspergirl Maybe hit the nail on the head to other drawback in that it leads to a confrontational relationship between parents and teachers. I’ll have accountability in the classroom but I think it needs go hand and hand with a relationship based on mutual trust which is focused on continuous improvement rather than blame and acrimony.

    • Aspergirl Maybe says:

      Oh, that’s a good point about how little time is left for things besides reading and math. That has been a big concern for me regarding my son, and I have seriously contemplated pulling him out and cyber schooling just for that reason.

      On the other issue, I can see how it can become confrontational. For me, having more knowledge and something to measure against reduces my anxiety and makes me easier to work with on the IEP team (I think!). The teachers were telling me he was fine academically based on his grade level, but it wasn’t until they could explain that to me in a clear-cut way that I was able to relax and focus on more pressing issues for him.

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