The New New Zealand: Rebuilding Better is a major new series from the NZ Herald and NZME that will examine how Aotearoa can rebuild economically and socially. Video / NZ Herald
Some seizures come on suddenly. Natural disasters, wars and pandemics can break out almost overnight. The need to act is then immediate and the responses are often quick and complete.
Other crises unfold over decades before
there is an appropriate answer.
The New Zealand education system is experiencing such a slow-burn disaster.
There is an overused metaphor of the frog not realizing it is in a simmering pot until it is boiled alive. This does not quite reflect what is happening in New Zealand schools. It’s more like a tadpole born in warm water and dying of old age just as the water dries up.
It’s probably the wrong imagery, but you get the drift. Education in New Zealand has been on a long downward slope for decades.
Perhaps the problem with the New Zealand education system is that it was once world class. An outstanding reputation far exceeds its expiration date.
When the OECD started testing education systems around the world in 2000, New Zealand was one of the best performing countries. Our results were above the average of the most developed countries in the world. We came third in math and fourth in reading in a group of 41 countries.
New Zealanders took it for granted that our schools were at or near the top. So when the gradual decline started, it took too long for us to notice.
By the time the latest results from the International Student Assessment Program (Pisa) came out, in 2018, the decline had progressed considerably. In science and reading, New Zealand was only slightly above the OECD average. In math, we are now below. Out of the largest group of 78 participating countries, New Zealand placed only 27th.
Even that, unfortunately, was not alarming enough. The Pisa tests are for grade 11 students, so any deterioration in primary education takes nearly a decade to show up.
New Zealand have seen a steady decline in results in Pisa for two decades and we don’t know how far we have to fall before we hit rock bottom.
Meanwhile, we delude ourselves into pretending that we are still fine. Thanks to the “flexibility” of our NCEA assessment system, more and more students are obtaining a certificate. Today, approximately 80% of our students leave school with NCEA Level 2, up from 60% two decades ago.
However, we know that these NCEA results don’t make sense, and not just because of the simultaneous declines in international tests like Pisa. Our own national analysis of basic literacy and numeracy should have been enough to wake us from complacency.
In 2014, the Higher Education Commission alerted us to shockingly low levels of numeracy and literacy among young New Zealand school leavers. The NCEA has masked these shortcomings because there have never been dedicated tests for literacy and numeracy. Instead, these skills were certified using other NCEA standards requiring students to be able to read, write, and calculate. It was a mistake. The problem is that these assessments do not set any particular standard for these skills.
This year, when the Department of Education finally assessed what was really going on, the results were as predictable as they were depressing. The reading tests were passed by only two-thirds of the participating 15-year-old pupils and the arithmetic tests by just over half. The writing was even worse, with only a third pass.
When an education system “performs” at such atrocious levels, it is justified to speak of a crisis. More than that, it’s a national disgrace.
This is all the more scandalous as the decline in achievements is unequally distributed. To put it bluntly, the poorer your family, the less likely you are to do well in school.
For example, only 2% of students in decile 1 passed the ministry’s new writing test, compared to 62% of students in schools in decile 10. Socio-economic gaps in reading and numeracy are smaller but still substantial.
If a wrecking ball had gone through the education system as it did in the 1990s to yield such results, there would have been an outcry. But because the decline happened slowly, that outcry never happened.
Instead, parents concerned about their children’s education have done their best to compensate for the decline of the education system.
If teachers no longer check spelling and grammar, many parents correct them at home. When cursive writing disappeared from the classroom, some parents taught it as well. Those who can afford it finance private lessons, music lessons and visits to the museum. If you’re really rich, you can send your kids to a private school, teach for a Cambridge Certificate or an International Baccalaureate.
New Zealand parents have noticed that schools aren’t quite what they used to be. But instead of mounting the barricades, those who can do their best to fix the failings of our public education system in private.
Today we have reached a point where most parents can no longer fill the gaps in the education system. Many parents do not have the time or the means to do this. Moreover, young parents may never have experienced for themselves what a good education is.
After decades of decline, New Zealand’s education system has reached a point where the solution can only come through tough and decisive action. Virtually everything in the system calls not just for reform, but for revolution.
We need better teacher training and a better career structure for teachers. We need an in-depth and knowledge-rich curriculum. We need a better evaluation system. We need proper monitoring systems for school performance. We need an overhaul of the education bureaucracy. And we need all of these at once.
If a war had wiped out our entire education system, the task couldn’t be more difficult.
However, it turns out that it was not the war that destroyed our education system, but the failed policies of successive governments.
The challenge for the current generation of politicians is to have the courage to admit how bad our education system has become. And then they have to have the courage to throw out what’s wrong and start over.
To finish with another metaphor of the frog: If you want to empty a pond, you must not ask permission from the frogs.
There are too many of these frogs in our education system. It’s time to ignore them and rebuild the system.
Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand initiative.