OPINION: Shock! Horror! Last week New Zealanders learned that our Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings - assessing the reading, maths and science abilities of our nation's 15-year-olds - were plummeting down the world table faster than the All Whites after a World Cup campaign.
As expected, Labour and National blamed each other. It might be sensible if we all addressed the problem together.
So in the national interest, I have devised 12 steps that might enable us to turn around our PISA rankings - in 20 years or so.
1. Don't panic.
2. Pay our teachers well and on time.
3. Stop the current obsession with testing. Someone trying to diet who checks their weight 10 times a day loses less weight that someone who exercises daily but only weighs themselves weekly. Think of what the best teacher you ever had taught you about life. How much of that could be tested in a written exam? Less than 10 per cent?
4. Address inequality. This is not an abstract concept. It means more kids are cold, poor, sick and hungry today than when you were at school. If you don't think inequality is a factor in educational achievement, spend the night in a cold garage, skip breakfast, have a bag of chippies for lunch then sit a really tough maths test.
5. Elites and ghettos. In one part of town we have decile-10 schools with predominantly rich Pakeha and Asian kids; in another part, decile-1 schools with predominantly poor Maori and Polynesian kids. Is that good for achievement overall?
6. Educating citizens. Countries that spend money on education generally do well economically. But shouldn't we think about education as a way of producing intelligent and compassionate citizens rather than solely seeing it as an economic growth generator?
7. Forget status and focus on learning. If you are at a Christmas barbecue and the conversation turns to which is the best private high-decile school to send your child to, ask a real educational question like 'how do you think I could best teach my eight-year-old to subtract integers?, or 'do you think 12 is too young to start reading Janet Frame?' You will clear the patio immediately.
8. Trust your children. Yes, we all had teachers we didn't like who we later realised were actually good teachers, but one of the best judges of our education system are the consumers - kids. So why do we rarely ask them what they think?
9. How can we have an intelligent debate with all the jargon bandied about? We used to have maths and science advisers until the government axed them. Now they're bringing them back and calling them Student Achievement Function Advisers. If you hear anyone using educational jargon, hit them. Some of the worst jargon includes 'facilitate ('run') 'scaffolding' (OK if used by a house painter),' learnings' ('learning' will always suffice), 'kete' (OK if someone weaves one) 'underachieving tail' (OK if you've got a naughty cat), and 'low socioeconomic' ('poor'). Though I strongly oppose using corporal punishment on children, there are no university studies saying that it is ineffective when used on education bureaucrats.
10. Beware of imitating Asia. It is an amazing place, and their kids do brilliantly in Pisa tests. But their school hours are long and their curriculum rarely rewards creativity. However, we could learn from the strong interest many Asian parents take in their kids' education.
11. Get involved. Teachers can make quite good teachers but parents make better ones. It's not just parents forced to work long hours in low-paid jobs who can neglect kids. When Executive Dad is trapped in a client meeting and Power Mum has to attend a work function, and the nanny has to watch the kid perform in the school play, that's not good education.
12. Don't obsess over technology. Money spent on technology is effective if teachers are good, schools are well run, and pupils are not cold and hungry. Otherwise it's a total waste.
It's also amazing what a good teacher can do with limited technology.
As Ernest Rutherford said about New Zealand, "we don't have the money, so we have to think".
- The Dominion Post