OPINION: The big drop in student achievement in the past three years, shown in yesterday's OECD Pisa results, is a direct result of a failure of this Government's education, economic and social policies and the persistent poverty too many of our children live in.
The report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that New Zealand has had one of the fastest- growing rates of socio-economic inequity and a corresponding decrease in student performance.
On an equity-performance graph, we have moved into the bottom quarter - both equity and performance have deteriorated.
Inequity doesn't just hit those students already struggling. It affects achievement outcomes for pupils right across the spectrum. This points to why there's been a drop in the number of higher- achieving students as well as those at the bottom.
Countries that have a higher level of equity also have better achievement by all students.
Eighteen per cent of children now live in poverty and the student achievement gap reflects the impact on students' learning.
What is happening in our schools and across our society means that fewer children are reaching their potential.
The results are a clear wake-up call to the Government. Education needs to stop being a political football and this Government needs to work with teachers and schools to reach a broad agreement about finding real and long term solutions.
The OECD report is useful in pointing to "in school" factors where New Zealand could improve.
It says an emphasis on teacher quality, including better professional development and raising the status of the profession, is at the heart of excellent education systems.
Other strong predictors of performance are quality early childhood education and equity across the school system, including the equitable allocation of resources and the channelling of additional resources to disadvantaged schools.
FOR five years the Government has been obsessed with collecting unnecessary and irrelevant data when it should have been focused on what really makes a difference for students: their home life and the quality of teaching.
Instead of putting more focus on lifting teachers' professional practice, the National Government scrapped professional development for all areas of the curriculum - except a narrow focus on implementation of National Standards in reading, writing and maths.
The New Zealand Educational Institute agrees with the OECD's strong conclusion that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.
Countries that have significantly improved their performance over the past 10 years have established policies to improve the quality of their teaching staff by improving professional standards, increasing salaries to make the profession more attractive for new entrants and offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service training programmes.
However, instead of working with teachers and schools to lift teaching practice, the Government has been hell-bent on dismantling our public education system with the introduction of more competition, charter schools and an attempt to increase class sizes.
The OECD results also clearly show that arguments for enhancing the private sector (for example, charter schools and increased funding to private schools) at the expense of public education, and for increasing competition between schools, are fallacious.
All the findings are saying the same thing: it is absolutely clear that no country's education system can be successful unless children and their families get a fair deal and there is a confident, high quality teaching profession.
We need the Government to work with teachers and schools to restore our education system to its previous top-performing level instead of following policies that have resulted in one of the fastest levels of decline in the OECD.
Judith Nowotarski is the national president of NZEI Te Riu Roa.