A daunting task ahead

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
8 December, 2023

Two decades ago, a new term – ‘PISA shock’ – entered the German lexicon.

The Germans had prided themselves on a world-class education system. However, the first round of data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that their pride had been misplaced. Public outrage at the poor results of German students set off wholesale reform of school education. 

At that time, New Zealanders had little reason to suspect that their own education system was in trouble. In the first PISA tests, we ranked third in the OECD in reading and mathematics and sixth in science. But the seeds of our educational destruction had already been sown.  

During the 1980s and 1990s, New Zealand moved from structured, teacher-led learning towards an extreme ‘social constructivist’ approach.  

Literacy teaching under social constructivism makes the error of treating reading and writing like oral language. It tries to bypass the essential step of students systematically learning the correspondences between spelling and sound. 

Under the ‘numeracy project’, our teaching of primary school mathematics lost its way. Students are introduced to a confusing range of ‘strategies’ to solve problems. Basic knowledge is deemphasised.  

The downgrading of knowledge continued with the introduction of a new curriculum in 2007. The New Zealand Curriculum emphases ‘competencies’ like ‘managing self’ and ‘relating to others.’ It is very thin on knowledge. 

The latest PISA results, released this week, show a continuation of a long, slow decline. New Zealand has fallen from leading the world to the middle of the pack.  

A Policy Point from the New Zealand Initiative, also released this week, discusses new tests for NCEA literacy and numeracy. If passing these tests becomes compulsory in 2026, as planned, achievement rates for the qualification will plummet. Less than two thirds of candidates in the July 2023 assessments reached a basic adult level in these skills. 

In this ‘darkest hour’ of education in New Zealand, there is light on the horizon. The new Ministers responsible for school education come into office with sound policies. They have promised to reform literacy teaching, introduce a new, knowledge-rich curriculum and re-implement charter schools.  

These measures have all been recommended by The New Zealand Initiative. If successfully implemented, they will help meet the Government’s ambitious target for 80% of Year 8 students to meet curriculum expectations by 2030. 

The forces opposing reform will be formidable. But perpetuating the status quo is not an option. 

Dr Michael Johnston's policy point, Interim measure required for NCEA Literacy and Numeracy, was published on 5 December.

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