PISA backs teacher (over student)-led learning

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
6 December, 2019

Confirmation came this week that New Zealand’s once world-leading school system continues its steady decline.

Ever since the OECD began testing the educational performance of 15-year olds in the early 2000s, New Zealand students have performed progressively worse in all three assessed areas of reading, maths and science. We also learned this week that our children encounter more bullying, more noise and disorder in classrooms, truant more often and feel less sense of belonging.

And yet, the most concerning aspect of this week’s news has not been the results – disappointing though they are. Rather, it has been the abysmal quantity and quality of coverage, comment and critical thinking the results have managed to create.

In most countries, a prolonged slide such as we’ve seen, which has left average 15-year-olds performing anywhere between two thirds and well over a year behind their counterparts less than two decades previously, would spark serious soul-searching, analysis and debate.

Instead, in New Zealand, the results have variously been dismissed as mere confirmation that national standards were a failure (even though they could only have affected 2015 and 2018 results); because poverty causes underachievement (despite Estonia’s meteoric rise); and on the basis they are a “very white, middle-classed values-based test” (even though the idea that reading, maths and science are not appropriate or valuable for Maori children is about as racist as any statement gets).

At the Initiative, we focus on evidence of what elevates academic outcomes for all. Helpfully, in the lead-up to the data-release this week Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s education programme, published a blog encouraging readers to do the same.

Schleicher’s blog was inspired by a visit to the remarkable Michaela Community School in London. Michaela is run by the Kiwi-born headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, whom the Initiative brought to New Zealand last year.

It opens by reminding readers that PISA consistently finds teacher-led approaches (like Katharine’s) to be more predictive of success than student-led approaches (like New Zealand’s). He then systematically slays all the common objections.

Later, Schleicher describes Michaela’s structured disciplinary climate, which leaves students feeling happy, ambitious and confident. In his words “Coming from very different ethnic and social backgrounds, they shared an identity about learning and they were very proud of their school.”

A blog can be a small thing, but New Zealand’s impoverished debate has exposed a vacuum. We must hope Schleicher’s musings and evidence-based message will finally be welcomed in.

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