Education report card disappoints

LUKE FENWICK
Last updated 09:19 09/12/2013

"Something's seriously wrong with our education system." "Education is in crisis."

These are the sort of comments that have followed the release of results from an international bench-marking test last week.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluates 15-year-old students' skills and knowledge in maths, reading and science. Just over 4000 New Zealand students took part in the 2012 edition. And the results show New Zealand's maths performance slid from 12th in 2009 to 23rd in 2012 (of the 64 countries that took part), while students' reading and ability to do science fell from 7th in both subjects in 2009 to 13th and 18th, respectively. New Zealand sits just above the average overall.

Educationalists, politicians, union representatives, principals and others have attempted to account for this poor performance. We've heard differing perspectives. Commentators have criticised the Government's "under-investment in teachers," the imposition of certain accountability measures that distract staff from the school's core tasks of teaching and learning, "inequality" and "privatisation," as well as an insufficient number of quality teachers in math and science. These reasons have varying degrees of explanatory power, and for that matter rhetorical power-some just sound nice.

But it's rarely the case that there's a single reason for something as complex as the results of an international bench-marking assessment. There are obvious complications in accounting for test results in very different environments with so many different variables.  And PISA has a narrow focus as well, in contrast to the New Zealand Curriculum.

It seems, in general, that the issues with our education system are long-term. In fact, the students who sat the 2012 PISA have been in school roughly between 2001 and 2012, and the report identifies New Zealand's performance in math and science as negatively "accelerating" since 2003 and 2006 respectively (when assessments began). We therefore can't blame the poor results on this Government and some of its policy decisions over the last handful of years.

Nor is inequality the sole problem. New Zealand is one of only two countries that have below-average equity-meaning low socio-economic status is a stronger indicator of poor academic results-and yet still boast above-average results. This is just one of the issues that ought to be addressed.

The authors of the PISA report note that "targeting low-performing and/or disadvantaged students is a policy option for both of these countries," and they urge a combination of different policies as the best chance of raising achievement.

This sounds right. The Government should focus on those things that much research suggests will raise student outcomes: a positive family environment (and education policy is just one lever here), quality classroom teaching and school leadership.

The partnership school initiative, further, is intended to create greater opportunities for children in low socio-economic areas. Hopefully it will do that. This controversial measure aside, there's agreement at least in one respect: we do have a problem, and it's a problem worth discussing. 

- (Live Matches)

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