Rating well: New Zealand's public schools

New Zealand is doing much better educationally than countries that have tried the “standards” agenda of reform. Yet standards are notoriously difficult to measure” questions like who’s measuring what, against…

New Zealand is doing much better educationally than countries that have tried the “standards” agenda of reform. Yet standards are notoriously difficult to measure” questions like who’s measuring what, against what, and for what purpose? make simplistic judgments difficult. But a few well-regarded measures do put New Zealand high on the international tables.

New Zealand’s world ranking on the PISA survey

(PISA” Programme for International Student Assessment)

Year Reading Maths Science
2000 3 3 6
2003 5 9 7
2006 4 7 4

This worldwide evaluation by the OECD was first performed in 2000. PISA measures the scholastic performance of 15-year-olds, recognising that education is cumulative and that these children will have had eight years of primary as well as early childhood education. New Zealand rates well above the US and UK, both of whom have undertaken extensive “standards”-style reforms of public education in recent decades. The 2009 results are due out before the end of the year.


(TIMSS” Trends In International Math and Science Study, PIRLS” Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.)
New Zealand rates above average in these two international surveys, though not as highly as in the PISA evaluations. TIMSS and PIRLS measure primary school-aged children. According to Emeritus Professor Terry Crooks of Otago University, a specialist in educational assessment, “It appears that New Zealand does a good job of developing thinking skills that suit PISA, but prepares younger children less well for tests focused on curriculum knowledge.”

The UN’s Education Index 2007

1 – New Zealand
20 – United States
30 – United Kingdom

New Zealand ranks first equal (with Australia, Finland and Denmark) out of 176 countries. The index is a composite measure of the adult literacy rate and the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrollment ratio.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.

Basic requirements” primary education and health

5 – New Zealand
13 – Australia
19 – United Kingdom
42 – United States

Business New Zealand is a partner in the compilation of this index. Interestingly, New Zealand is much higher on this˜Primary education and health’ measure than it is on the “Higher education and training” measure where we rate 13th. This latter measure takes into consideration “the importance of vocational and continuous on-the-job training” which is neglected in many economies” for ensuring a constant upgrading of workers’ skills”.

Are our standards slipping?

People have been saying standards in literacy and numeracy are “slipping”” for as long as there’s been public education.
“What the hell are we doing in our schools if reading, writing and maths are not the number one priority?” said ACT MP Donna Awatere-Huata in 1998.

Which is pretty much what you’d expect” but read this, from 1958: “Do the large number who go to universities and technical colleges go to further their studies or to bring their standard up to what it should have been had they not been betrayed in their earlier school years?” and this from 1948, “Employers¦ have long been vocal in their criticism that junior employees come poorly equipped to their tasks, and especially that they lack elementary skills in the three Rs.”

This remarkably familiar rhetoric goes all the way back to the late nineteenth century, says Professor Roger Openshaw, an educational historian at Massey University.

Face Off

His new book Are Our Standards Slipping, written with Associate Professor Margaret Walshaw, traces the argument back its roots, and finds that the idea of falling standards is as much a cultural, social and political phenomena as a debate about education.

Roger Openshaw and Margaret Walshaw. Their book is published by NZCER.

The argument tends to split into two sides” with social conservatives, focusing on schools as factories producing workers, facing off against progressives who see schools as places to educate the whole child as democratic citizens.

The argument tends to peak at times of uncertainty: vociferous debates in the post-World War II era and in the 1970s were closely linked to times of economic and social uncertainty.

“Today the arguments are much the same, but the thing is people always think it’s new,” Roger told EA.
Roger says that even today in the US and UK, where “standards” debates have led to national testing and much greater teacher accountability, critics are still accusing governments that “standards are falling”.

In New Zealand, he says, the argument seems to be settling on the idea of the “hero” teacher; that standards can be improved by identifying and rewarding “great” teachers. The literature around this, however, does not indicate this will work, he says.

The authors also note the way the standards debate plays to the politics of fear, and Roger told EA that parents do need to be reassured, especially in the current recession.

The book highlights the conflict between the National-led government’s policies on competition and collaboration, and concludes, rather chillingly, “The concept of externally mandated standards, later perhaps to be backed by some form of merit pay for˜successful’ teachers, may well ultimately work against the cherished goal [higher standards=””][/higher] ever being achieved.”

What is needed, the authors say, is “greater clarity regarding exactly what the central task of the primary school, in particular, is.”

“Standards” fuel creativity decline

“Standards” imposed by politicians on public schools may be one reason student why achievement levels are failing to rise in the UK and US.

In the US, long-running tests of creative thinking (the Torrance tests) have identified a significant decline since 1990, particularly among school-aged children. The main reasons being put up for this are that American kids are spending too much time on TV and the internet, and that standardized testing limits learning. Link here.

In the UK, the head of the Independent Schools Council, representing fee-paying schools, says, “Not being taught to a particular exam but teaching around the exam makes our pupils better at doing exams.”

In France, a group of academics from the country’s elite institutes recently hosted a “festival of errors” to encourage children to learn through making mistakes. French scientist Louis Pasteur made his big breakthrough in developing a cholera vaccine by erring with chickens, but today’s French school system “puts far more emphasis on having the right answer than the thought process by which a pupil might explore the question being asked,” according to a report in the Guardian newspaper.

In New Zealand, private schools are exempt from the government’s National Standards policy, while Maori medium schools have been given extra time to develop standards that fit with the Māori curriculum.

But while many are delighted with the Maori standards, others say it is only a matter of time before they are conflated to measurements, tests and league tables.

The Maori standards will also not apply to the more than 80 percent of Maori children who attend mainstream schools. “For Maori kids in mainstream settings, the standards give no recognition of the Maori world view or Mori knowledge or Maori ways of learning. Once again Maori knowledge is excluded,” says Northland principal Keri Milne-Ihimaera.

Things can go really, really well’

Development of National Standards for schools with Maori immersion programmes is going well. You could even say, in all truth, “Really, really well.”

Cath Rau, an educator and Maori literacy specialist, has been working with a small group of writers on the development of Nga Whanaketanga over the last 18 months, and says they will fit well with the Maori curriculum, Te Marautanga.

Cath Rau, an educator and Maori literacy specialist

Cath Rau, an educator and Maori literacy specialist

One advantage has been that the writers know each other well, and “we have had our arguments already about philosophies and visions”.

Their vision for Nga Whanaketanga has settled on “illuminating Maori achievement,” says Cath, who had to take French and German at high school because Maori was not available until she reached university. Once found, her passion for te reo Maori, and other indigenous languages, has remained strong.

“I was very very fortunate that when I first left teaching and branched out into Maori literacy, I was able to work closely with Marie Clay (the founder of new zealand’s internationally recognised reading recovery programme”. For 15 years Cath has been involved in Kia Ata Mai Educational Trust, a foundation whose prime objectives are to support the development of Maori medium programmes.

She says that the education system often focuses on underachievement, “which can almost lower expectations”.


After developing Nga Whanaketanga, 13 facilitators from around the country (teachers and resource teachers of Maori) were consulted on how they might work with teachers. “We received absolutely fantastic feedback from our facilitators to define and revise and improve the standards.”

Data from the performance of some 1000 students was then used to “inform where the standards had been set.” Cath says that standards or benchmarks are an arbitrary measure, and that you don’t have to set them so that 50 percent or more of students are failing. Once the student data was analysed, she found that about 75 percent of students were at or above the standards.

“Some 25 percent of students may be struggling to meet them, and we think that’s a reasonable percentage of students who should get our attention.”

The standards are expected to be sent to schools before the end of the year.

Cath and the team are also working with the facilitators on how best to report the standards to parents, using the work they’ve already done to develop reporting examples that might include tables and graphs.”We can really celebrate that we’re in a position to say what Nga Whanaketanga should be ourselves.”