Critical English Online

A stepped, outcomes-based curriculum

The document English in the New Zealand Curriculum became exclusive legal tender for New Zealand English/literacy teachers in 1995. The development of the new curriculum was not without its controversy. For a perspective from the curriculum developer's point of view, check out "Interview with Margaret Bendall" in English in Aotearoa 21(December, 1993), 12-15 and Margaret Bendall, "Putting outselves on the line: A consideration of some issues facing English Teachers in the context of changes in the curriculum and qualifications" in English in Aotearoa 23 (August, 1994), 14-29. To check out articles in English in Aotearoa dealing with curriculum issues, check out EIA Index.

Widespread reservations about the new curriculum included its use of eight-stepped levels for its achievement objectives and its use of certain terminology. Responses to the Draft: English in the New Zealand Curriculum can be found in Duthie Educational Consultancy. (1994). Responses to the Draft National Curriculum Statement English in the New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Author.

There has been widespread critique of the policy context for the development of the various curriculum statements in New Zealand in the 1990s. See, for example, Delta: policy and practice in Education 48:1 (1996) entitled "Curriculum Reform: The Political Context". This volume contains essays by Warwick Elley: "Curriculum Reform: Forward Or Backwards" and Michael Peters & James Marshall: "The Politics Of Curriculum: Busnocratic Rationality And Enterprise Culture". (Among other things, Elley takes issue with the stepped-level learning outcomes, especially for English. Peters and Marshall suggest that the emphasis on outcomes and skills can be viewed in the context of the commodification of education.)

A good place to start in order to get a historical perspective on the development of English in the New Zealand Curriculum, is Janet Soler and John Smith. (2000). Literacy in New Zealand: Practices, politics and policy since 1900. Auckland: Longman.The book contains a number of critical discussions on a number of curriculum and literacy-related issues. Another account of the development of English in the New Zealand Curriculum, and one that relates it to the wider social context in a deconstructive way, is Graham Stoop's The Management of Knowledge: Text, Context and the New Zealand English Curriculum 1969-1996, submitted for the degree of Ph.D. at the University of Canterbury. This account deserves a wider readership. (It's quite a large pdf file, by the way.)

For a largely sympathetic view of the national English curriculum which relates it to the "personal growth" model of English, see Gavin Brown: "The New Zealand English Curriculum" in English in Aotearoa 353 (September 1998), 64-70. For a less sympathetic view, see Terry Locke (2000). "English in the New Zealand Curriculum: benchmarks and milestones." English in Australia 127-128, 60-70. For a critique of the document from what might be termed a cultural heritage position, see C.K. Stead. "The English Patient" in Metro (April, 1997), 84-90. (Among other things, Stead questions the language used in the document and the concept of visual language.)

Even teachers who have been sympathetic to the new curriculum have found it difficult to unpack it for assessment purposes and have even doubted whether the broad achievement objectives with their fuzzy, illogical boundaries can be used for assessment. See "Assessment Against the Curriculum" (at the Unitec-based English Online site) for a method for actually doing that using the curriculum document as a basis for assessment.

A number of current assessment-related initiatives are serving to "reify" the levels-based achievement objectives to be found in the national English curriculum, despite widespread agreement that the levels embody flawed taxonomies of literacy progression. One of these is the TKI-based assessment website, proclaimed by Minister of Education Trevor Mallard as a "one-stop assessment shop for teachers." For the site's rationale, see Mary Chamberlain, The Development of Exemplars in New Zealand: Background and Rationale. English exemplars are already available on the site.

Another major initiative is the $4,000,000 AsTTle Project, based at the University of Auckland (but in partnership with the Education Testing Centre of the University of New South Wales) and funded by the NZ Ministry of Education. AsTTle refers to Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning – tools for assessing literacy and numeracy in years 5, 6, and 7, in English and in te reo Maori. The developers claim that these tools will enable teachers to track the progress and achievement of both individual students and groups of students against national standards based on the current curriculum. Critics of the project would question its basis in psychometrics, its unquestioned acceptance of the curriculum levels as a starting point and at the construction of literacy implicit in its methodology. They would also fear that the huge sums of money allocated by Government to the project will serve to deter needed revision of the curriculum's levels structure.

For a set of grade-related criteria that are loosely based on the New Zealand curriculum document but which are not tied into its eight-level achievement objectives, check out the Junior Grade-Related Criteria (initially developed at Pakuranga College and further developed at the University of Waikato). If you wonder about the legal implications of not using the actual achievement objectives from English in the New Zealand Curriculum for assessment purposes, check out the full version of the A question of assessment: an ERO comment (English in Aotearoa 34, May, 1998).

The implementation of such a highly centralised curriculum with predetermined structural features imposed without consultation has an inevitable consequences for teacher professionalism and morale. For a view on this, see Terry Locke. (2001). "Questions of professionalism: erosion and reclamation." CHANGE: Transformations in Education 4:2, and also (2001). "Curriculum, assessment and the erosion of professionalism. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies 36, 5-23.

In 2000, the Ministry of Education began its Curriculum Stocktake project, aimed not at rushing into "...revision of the curriculum, but to take stock of the last decade's developments and their implications for teaching and learning, and to consider what they indicate for future curriculum directions." The first meeting of educators with an interest in the Language and Languages essential learning area was held on September 18, 2001. The Curriculum Stocktake included an investigation of teachers' experiences in implementing certain curriculum areas and sought overseas input into the evaluation of the New Zealand Curriculum Framework. The Curriculum Stocktake Report to Minister of Education was published in September 2002. The Executive Summary is worth reading, especially the section on "Recommendations". Of some interest is a statement that the achievement objectives of various curriculum areas should be revised to ensure that they "better reflect the future-focused curriculum themes of social cohesion, citizenship, education for a sustainable future, bicultural and multicultural awareness, enterprise and innovation and critical literacy" [my italics].

You can read an expanded version of the recommendations at a site headed "Curriculum Stocktake Report – Recommendations and Rationale". Of particular interest is the recommendation "Revise the Essential Learning Areas", which appears to indicate an awareness of the problem of progression: "A significant number of the achievement objectives need to be rewritten, as they do not always represent progression of concepts, processes and functions." There is also an emphasis on the needd for more language learning at earlier stages of schooling.

As part of the Curriculum Stocktake's "National School Sampling Study", a report was published in February 2003 (by Clive Mc Gee, Alister Jones, Bronwen Cowie, Mary Hill, Thelma Miller, Ann Harlow and Karen Mackenzie) on Teachers' Experiences in Curriculum Implementation: English, Languages, Science and Social Studies. This is a big document. However, "Chapter 8: Conclusions" addresses English on pp. 339-345. It is certainly hard to get a feeling that the curriculum document has been warmly endorsed. The following is typical: "One of the most common challenges facing teachers who responded to the question about major challenges was that they found the English curriculum statement hard to interpret, not user-friendly and that it had been difficult to separate the different levels within the curriculum" (p. 344).

The New Zealand Curriculum Project was set up as a result of the recommendations of the Curriculum Stocktake Report to Minister of Education. The webpage "About the project" sets out the project agenda and its relationship to the Stocktake recommendations.  English now has an "Essence Statement", which "...encapsulates the fundamental ideas of each learning area. These will be one-page documents that clearly articulate important learning outcomes for students." Calling this one-page document an "essence statement", of course, calls into question the whole question as to whether there is any such thing. 

The major outcome of the NZ Curriculum Project is a current draft curriculum. See The New Zealand Curriculum: Draft for 2006, provides a history of the development of the latest document and a downloadable version of it.