A breakthrough teaching approach is "spectacularly" boosting the reading and writing skills of some of the country's most at-risk children.
The new approach sounds simple: teachers gather data to track each child's progress, then fine-tune their teaching to suit. And it is showing remarkable results.
The programme has been rolled out at 14 decile-one schools in South Auckland and 34 schools on the West Coast of the South Island in studies run by the Auckland- based Woolf Fisher Research Centre.
On the West Coast, Maori children are now performing as well as others - a hugely significant result after years of concern about Maori students' achievement.
Four out of 10 West Coast children are now reading and writing well ahead of their peers across the country. On average, each child improved on usual expectations by an extra six months.
In the first South Auckland study, involving seven schools, each child's reading leapt ahead by an entire year. The technique also pushed far more children into the average or above categories - 40% made these top slots before the study started, and in three years that jumped to 70%. Maori children again did particularly well. The second group of seven different schools showed similar results.
Tone Kolose, principal of Wymondley Rd Primary School in Otara, South Auckland, says the hard work of his teachers, using the new approach, has given the school a huge boost. Although some initially baulked at the idea of more paperwork, he says everything is now running like clockwork, and "success is breeding success".
"The kids come first. We can't change what happens at home but for the six hours that we have them at school, we can sure make a difference there."
Nine-year-old Wymondley student Leonardo Wright says he feels his reading and writing have improved - and he enjoys it. "I like reading scientific books [about] the Earth, the ocean."
Dr Stuart McNaughton, director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre, says the children's literacy has improved "spectacularly" and calls the targeted teaching approach a "substantial breakthrough". He says on a personal level it is very satisfying to know so many children have gained a life skill.
"It does give us hope that there are ways in which we can build more effective schools, so that all children can achieve at the level that they should," he says.
McNaughton says the teaching approach can also be used to improve other areas in education, such as numeracy. But many schools do not yet have the resources to manage the targeted teaching.
Throughout the studies the trust has been in close contact with the Ministry of Education, which provided funding. "Clearly they are very impressed with what we're doing, and continue to support our work in a variety of ways."
The results were published last month in the international educational journal Reading Research Quarterly, and are already feeding into teacher-training courses at the University of Auckland.
- Sunday Star Times