Children in New Zealand left rudderless by failing education system

Dr Michael Johnston
30 January, 2023

New Zealand’s education system is in a state of deep malaise.

For more than two decades, the literacy and numeracy achievement of our young people has been declining. The downward trend is clear, in both our national monitoring data and international tests like PISA.

We have an appalling truancy problem. Some of this is attributable to disruption during the pandemic, but disengagement from education had been increasing well before COVID struck.

New Zealand also has some of the largest educational disparities between demographic groups in the OECD. For years, the Ministry of Education has rightly been concerned about the lower achievement of Māori and Pasifika than of other ethnic groups in our education system. The solutions they have developed focus on cultural responsiveness, counteracting purported ‘systemic racism’ and ‘decolonising’ the curriculum.

Yet there’s no sound research to show that anything other than afflictions associated with poverty are to blame for our ethnic gaps in educational attainment. The Ministry’s approach to this problem is much more ideological than it is based on evidence.

Unsurprisingly, children living in poverty tend to do less well in education than those from more affluent backgrounds. And far too many Māori and Pasifika live in poverty. The Ministry would do well to focus much more on that than they do.

Importantly, I am not claiming that we must eliminate poverty to reduce educational gaps. My argument runs the other way: A knowledge-rich curriculum in conjunction with effective teaching would especially benefit young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It would allow them to transcend their disadvantage by vastly improving their life prospects. Unfortunately, in the absence of these things, instead of being a circuit breaker on inter-generational poverty, our education system all too often perpetuates it.

One disparity that seems to concern the Ministry not at all is that between male and female students. Boys are falling more and more behind girls in literacy, especially writing. They gain every level of NCEA and University Entrance at poorer rates than girls. Nearly two thirds of university degrees now go to women. But what do we hear from the Ministry on this issue? Crickets.

Sitting behind all these problems is an incoherent curriculum that give little guidance to teachers. Worse, it values vague ‘competencies’ more than it does disciplinary learning. Yet it is the latter that best set young people up to take advantage of life’s opportunities.

The approaches to teaching promoted by the Ministry and in teacher training are part of the problem too. Ineffective methods of teaching literacy and numeracy, and the idea that children can lead their own learning, have left too many children rudderless and disengaged. This is especially so for those on the wrong end of the demographic disparities.

In 2023, education in New Zealand stands at a crossroads. If we don’t take a turn towards a much more effective system, and soon, we risk embedding mediocrity and inequality so deeply that they become permanent fixtures. Already we are training teachers who have never themselves experienced high-quality education.

Unfortunately, there’s little prospect of positive change under the present government. For the last five years our new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has been Minister of Education.

Not all the problems, by any means, are his fault. Successive Minsters from both sides of politics have fiddled while literacy and numeracy have been burning. The current curriculum was introduced in 2007, under the Clark government. Likewise, the failed ‘child-led’ approach to teaching has been in place for many years.

But neither has Hipkins done much to address these problems.

Like his predecessors, he has largely ignored the literacy and numeracy catastrophe. Instead of giving us a new curriculum based on sound disciplinary knowledge, Hipkins has championed a new ‘histories’ curriculum that seems designed to sow ethnic division. He has initiated a curriculum ‘refresh’ that seeks to imbue science with Māori mythology. He has made no move to reform teacher training to focus approaches to teaching based on scientific evidence.

Perhaps worst of all, Hipkins has allowed the Ministry of Education to grow like a mushroom. More money spent on bureaucrats means less spent on schools and teachers. Furthermore, the Ministry is more a part of the problem than it is an architect of sound solutions.

A change of government at this year’s election, then, seems to offer the best hope. Erica Stanford, National’s spokesperson on education, has spoken in favour of introducing structured literacy. While National’s education policy is yet to be released, this is an encouraging sign. It shows that she takes evidence seriously.

If Stanford becomes Minister of Education in 2023, where should she start? There is so much to do.

My advice to her would be to focus on two pressure points. These are the curriculum and the teacher registration criteria.

A new curriculum should be firmly centered on literacy and numeracy at primary level, and disciplines like science, history, mathematics and economics at secondary level. It should include detailed progressions in each subject, to guide teachers in building children’s knowledge, skill and understanding solidly. There is room for other things, of course, but these key areas of knowledge should be at the core of every child’s education.

But a great curriculum is no use unless we have teachers capable of implementing it. That’s where the registration criteria come in. The teacher registration criteria must be met by every new teacher before they are given authority to teach. At present, bizarrely, they include almost no reference to effective teaching approaches.

The criteria should be reformed to require that every new teacher demonstrates understanding of the science of learning and its application in the classroom. A flow on effect would be a much greater focus on this key knowledge by teacher training providers.

Returning New Zealand’s education system to the world-leading status it enjoyed in the mid-20th century will not be easy. It will take immense political will and courage. I’m hoping that 2023 will bring us a Minister of Education who has what it takes to turn things around.

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