National Education Tests, And Michael Jackson

education standards

The current struggle between school principals and Education Minister Anne Tolley over national standards has the hallmarks of a rushed and insuffiently funded process. No one can object to the nominal aim of national standards – which should enable parents to be better informed about their child’s level of achievement in reading, writing and maths, and thus better able to communicate with teachers on how to support further learning.

The reality is that 90% schools already conduct similar or equivalent testing – and it is by no means clear that further standardisation will enhance the learning environment. More funds for schools operational budgets may do that: more testing almost certainly will not. The main risk is that national testing will foster mechanical ways of assessing of children’s learning, as teachers get pressured into ‘teaching to the test’ – thus narrowing what they teach, and fuelling a focus on simplistic measuring rather than on creating a richer, and more child-oriented environment.

The related risk, as the NZEI teachers union has pointed out, is the creation of ‘league tables’ of schools if data from national standards is collated nationally. “League tables don’t help children learn better,” the NZEI insists. “They aren’t “objective” – they don’t necessarily show the effectiveness of the teaching and learning programmes. They are just as likely to reflect the socio-economic status of the school’s intake… Often they are used to promote prejudice about the performance of students and schools in low decile communities.”

As usual with its agenda, the government has the capacity to push this reform through, and the new system is due to be up and running by next year. Politically, it can also probably sell national standards to many parents as being a good, no nonsense approach. Back to basics in modern drag. Yet the process really is more about political spin than about lifting educational achievement. Has for instance, the government simultaneously set aside sufficient funds to enable schools to concentrate on the children that these national tests will identify, and ensure they can catch up ? Of course not. As usual, schools will be expected to do more with what they currently have.


Michael Jackson, R.I.P after a long illness*

I know, sometime over the weekend most of us reached our saturation point on the death of Michael Jackson, so apologies for adding belatedly to the blather. Some people do find it intrinsically absurd that anyone should feel emotion about the death of a celebrity they don’t even know, but that has always seemed to be a pretty poor argument. We feel inspired and dismayed by artists, writers, film-makers, politicians and people whom we know emotionally and intellectually yet not personally. all of the time. Whether any subsequent grief is ‘deserving’ comes down to matters of taste and preference, not of process.

Be it Princess Diana or MJ or Elvis Presley or Bob Marley though, the internal process seems quite similar. The death of a celebrity is the ultimate zoom lens. Death suddenly clarifies the arc of a life, and forces into coherence a range of feelings that we barely sensed before, even as it obliterates all the other options. As in…we either didn’t know, or had forgotten say, the beauty of this 1970 a capella rendition of ‘I’ll Be There.’ And what about that moment near the end of ‘I Want You Back’ when Michael’s 11 year old tenor goes spiralling down the “All I want /All I neeeeeed’ refrain like a skydiver sailing on sheer exuberance, pulling back into the final verse mere inches above the ground…Yep, it may be nearly 14 years since Michael Jackson last had a number one single, but Friday’s news brought the reality of his once sublime talents back again, joltingly, into focus.

Too bad that we’ll never know now whether his comeback tour of 50 concerts in Britain would have been a train wreck or a triumph. As someone else has said, the man denied a childhood has missed out on his old age as well, and the chance it may have given him to come to terms with his life. Sure, that fate befalls millions around the world every day/every week, but that’s partly the point – that all of Jackson’s talent, wealth and fame couldn’t save him from such an outcome. Instead, and without denying his responsibility for the dubious actions in his life, that fate became almost inevitable.

That’s the real point, I think, of the famous exchange in the movie Three Kings, between the Iraqi torturer, and the American prisoner played by Mark Wahlberg. What is the problem with Michael Jackson, the Iraqi asks quietly, insistently. Why did America make him chop up his face? No, we didn’t make him, Wahlberg protests, he did it to himself. Bullshit, the Iraqi maintains. America made blacks hate themselves, made them want to whiten their skin, straighten their hair and chop their face, just as Americans hate the Arabs, here and now. “Michael Jackson is Pop King of sick fucking country…” the Iraqi concludes.

Well, yes – but that’s not quite the entirety of it. Because that viewpoint is to ignore his talent, the hard won discipline that went into fulfilling it, and the global impact of his career. Some of which can be illustrated both positively and negatively, with these two separate but equally weird pageants to Jackson that were shot in 2007, and were enacted again, just last Friday, at the Cebu Correctional Facility in the Philippines. Believe me, the ‘We Are The World’ segment at the end of the Cebu video shot last week is one of the strangest things that you’ll see all year. I mean, ‘We are the world/we are the children’, from a yard full of orange clad Third World prison inmates, as they carry Jackson’s portrait around the yard as if it were a sacred icon…? Make of that what you will.

His global outreach shouldn’t come as such a surprise, really. At the height of his fame in the early to mid 1980s, Michael Jackson marked the highwater point of America’s cultural dominance of the planet. Arguably, it was also the last time that a single performer could hope to dominate an entire popular culture. Hard to imagine that ever happening again, given the fragmented nature of the current pop universe. The monoculture that Thriller epitomised – a staggering 50 million people worldwide, bought that CD – has splintered in its wake.

The fine details can be picked over. How much did the Moonwalk borrow from James Brown’s dance moves ? Compare and contrast. Here is Brown in full flight and here’s a collage of some of Jackson’s own best dance moves. Conclusion : they’re pretty damn similar. Did you happen to prefer the child prodigy captured here or the genius seen here in 1983 dancing his way through ‘Billie Jean’ and ripping up the Motown 25th Anniversary Awards show in the process ? True, not much of comparable worth can be salvaged from the last 25 years of Jackson’s decline and fall. Yet for all of its bombast and desperation – to my mind, the ‘Black and White’ single and its all races, all nations would-be world spanning video was where things really started to curdle – this final phase of Jackson’s career co-existed with the advent of a whole raft of Jackson clones and wannabes, from Justin Timberlake to Usher to Ne-Yo, and dozens more. The man cast a large shadow, even when after he had been reduced to a shell of his former self.

The influence endures. These days, popular music is ruled by r & b divas, male and female, whose crossover has been made possible by the enormity of Jackson’s precedent, which blew down the barriers to black music on MTV. As Ann Powers says, baby boomers have their Sgt Pepper’s and their Pet Sounds, but to many that came along afterwards, Thriller is popular music’s ultimate artistic endeavour.

It took its toll. Looking right back into the early 1970s, any armchair psychologist can easily cite an astonishing number of Jackson songs that contain lyrics about pain, fear, anxiety, violence and persecution. There was blood on his dancefloor, always. Over the coming weeks, the details of Jackson’s final hours will be picked over…and while many have noted the co-incidental death of Farrah Fawcett, my small cautionary comparison would be the recent death of Jay Bennett from Wilco.

In both cases, the trigger event seems to have been the overuse of a pain suppressant – Demerol with Jackson, Fentanyl with Bennett. Clearly, this kind of stuff can be bad, and dangerous, even when being used to suppress pain for ample and valid reasons. Proving himself again at the age of 50 must have been a terrifying prospect for Jackson, given the weight of expectation and the vultures who were already gathering. Don’t want to be defeated / so just beat it, indeed.

Still, you don’t get to amass a $400 million mountain of debt without thinking that you can somehow beat the house, and that the normal rules don’t really apply to you. In all likelihood, the man in the mirror stopped caring quite some time ago, about a whole lot of stuff. Including whether he could still pay the costs to his mind and his body, of continuing to be Michael Jackson.

* Thanks to Carl Wilson for the headline.


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