Parent power can save our schools

Dr Michael Johnston
14 March, 2023

Last week, documents came to light under the Official Information Act, showing that the Ministry of Education has been putting pressure on NZQA to make new literacy and numeracy requirements for NCEA easier to attain.

It's not hard to see why Ministry officials are worried. In trials last year, just one third of candidates demonstrated a basic standard of adult proficiency in writing. Two thirds met the reading standard, and just over half, the numeracy standard.

These are appalling results.

As of 2024, students will have to meet these requirements to achieve any level of NCEA.  If this policy is implemented as scheduled, achievements rates for qualifications will plummet.

Some of the Ministry's requests of NZQA seem reasonable. For example, it wants students to be able to complete the assessments on paper instead of computer. If that is possible logistically, there's no good reason not to allow it.

But other requests risk lowering the standard. The Ministry wants NZQA to reduce the sophistication of vocabulary required in the literacy tests. Still others amount to reducing their reliability. The Ministry wants to reduce the number of questions students have to answer.

NZQA, to their credit, have pushed back. They've defended their processes for setting the assessments and disagreed that they're too difficult.

In another recent Newsroom column, Professor Gavin Brown of Auckland University pointed out other data indicating that the poor results in the trials probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

The fact is, the Ministry itself has known for years that we have a real problem with literacy and numeracy.

In 2013, I co-authored a report commissioned by the Tertiary Education Commission. We showed that students typically make little progress in literacy between Years 8 and 11. And the National Standards data at the time showed large proportions of Year 8 students falling short of curriculum expectations in reading, writing and mathematics.

Ten years later, the Ministry has done nothing to improve the situation and New Zealand continues to slide backwards in international tests like PISA.

The Ministry, it seems, would rather prop up the data by making these assessments easier, than take the action required to fix the underlying problem. That would mean abandoning the misguided teaching ideology that has underpinned two decades of falling literacy and numeracy attainment. It would mean overhauling the way teachers are trained to teach these key skills. But the Ministry seems to prefer dumbing down the tests to taking the action required to improve learning.

This scandal is just the latest in a litany of incidents in which the Ministry has been exposed. Mismanagement, ideological thinking and downright incompetence seem to be hallmarks of their stewardship of our schooling system.

In a report for the New Zealand Initiative last year, I investigated the evidence regarding Modern Learning Environments. These are the large, open plan classrooms that have proliferated in our schools at the Ministry's behest.

One might have thought that such a fantastically expensive initiative would be underpinned by a robust evidence base. Surely the Ministry would prove the superiority of this kind of classroom for fostering students' learning before spending billions on constructing them.

When I asked for their evidence base under the OIA, the Ministry sent me two links. One was to a TEDx talk – by an architect. The other was to an infographic – also by an architect. In other words, the Ministry embarked on a project to rebuild our schools with a radically new design, with no credible evidence that it would improve learning.

The Ministry should be solving the problems afflicting our education system rather than contributing to them. In addition to our very poor literacy and numeracy attainment, those problems include shocking truancy, low teacher morale and a threadbare curriculum.

The malaise in the Ministry of Education is just one instance of wider problems in our public service. The NZ Initiative will make recommendations for public sector reform in a forthcoming report, based on work we’ve been doing over the last decade. But reform will take time.

The Ministry of Education will not improve its stewardship of schooling until that reform takes place. Meanwhile, every year, about 65,000 young New Zealanders leave school, many of them having been woefully under-served.

Schools and their teachers, by-and-large, do the very best they can for their students with the knowledge and resources at their disposal. But few teachers have been equipped with the best methods of teaching literacy. And schools are massively under-resourced to support students with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

We cannot wait for the Ministry to help. We need to find ways around them.

Communities must take more responsibility for supporting the work of their schools. We have mechanisms to do that.

School Boards, which are elected by school communities, can insist that their schools measure the achievement and progress of students, and act on the information. They can put in place locally targeted approaches to ending truancy. They can approve funding for professional development in effective teaching methods.

School Boards are more effective when they have parent communities actively behind them. All parents can support the work of their Boards by asking questions. They can inform themselves and discuss educational issues in their communities. They can contribute to local solutions.

It’s election year. Parents are voters. Yet, in a recent Ipsos poll, New Zealanders ranked education only 10th when asked to rate which of 20 issues facing the country is most important.

There are many pressing issues for voters, including the cost of living, rising crime rates and a crisis in healthcare. It’s easy for slower-burning issues like education to take a back seat to these more immediate concerns. But we can’t afford to keep going the way we are. This year, education must be front-and-centre in election debates.

The Ministry isn’t going to help. It’s time for all New Zealanders to step up and take responsibility for saving our schools.

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