Pisa results: Michael Johnston on why New Zealand’s education system is failing

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
6 December, 2023

Every three years since 2000 - except during the Covid-19 pandemic - the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) has assessed the reading skill of 15-year-olds from an ever-increasing range of countries. From 2003, mathematics was assessed as well. Science was added in 2006. The latest results released at 11pm last night are for assessments run in 2022.

New Zealand has participated from the start. And from the start, our results have been successively poorer in all three areas almost every time. The only exceptions were a tiny improvement in science – and no change in reading – between 2006 and 2009.

Our 2022 results in reading and science are down by five and four points respectively from 2018. These falls are small and not statistically significant. But similar small falls have accumulated over time. In the 2022 results, our reading results stand 28 points lower than in 2000. In science, they are 26 points lower than in 2006. These falls each represent nearly one full year of schooling. So, in reading and science, our 15-year-olds in 2023 performed about as well as 14-year-olds would have in the first year of testing.

Mathematics is a lot worse. Our 2022 results for maths are down a whopping 15 points since 2018. That is equivalent to about six months of schooling lost in just four years. Since testing began in 2003, we have fallen by 44 points – equivalent to about one-and-a-half years of schooling.

We are not alone in experiencing falls in PISA. OECD averages are down in all three subjects too. But over time, we have slipped both relative to our own previous results and against the OECD averages.

We started well ahead of the pack in all three subjects.  We remain ahead in reading and science, but not by nearly as much as we were. Relative to the OECD average, we have fallen by the equivalent of about a third of a year of schooling in reading and by about half a year in science since testing began. In mathematics, we started more than two-thirds of a year of schooling ahead of the OECD average, but now we sit only just above it.

In fact, our 2022 results may have over-estimated how well our 15-year-olds did in the tests. In October, the Ministry of Education reported that participation in the testing round was lower than in the past. Participation was higher in high-decile schools than in low-decile schools. That skewed the sample towards students likely to perform relatively well. Ministry analysts reported that our performance may have been overestimated by as much as ten points – about a third of a year of schooling. Fortunately, the actual overestimate is likely to be somewhat less alarming than that.

Why have our educational standards declined so badly over the last couple of decades?

For at least that long we have used ineffective methods of teaching literacy in our primary schools. Despite experts like Massey University’s Professor James Chapman trying to persuade the Ministry to use an approach based on the best scientific evidence, it has doubled down on failed methods. Other international reading data corroborate the PISA findings. And our own national monitoring data show that much higher proportions of children are behind curriculum expectations in Year 8 than in Year 4.

It is a similar story in mathematics. The numeracy project, introduced in the early 2000s, emphasised the learning of ‘strategies’ over basic mathematical knowledge. Again, this is counter to evidence showing that basic number facts, like times tables, need to be learned cold to support further learning. But again, the Ministry has failed to follow the evidence. Meanwhile Singapore has adopted a science-informed approach to teaching mathematics and is enjoying spectacular success.

In 2007, the Ministry published the current New Zealand Curriculum. It is woefully short on detail in core subjects like science. NCEA has not helped science either. Its fragmented approach to assessment has led, all too often, to a similarly fragmented approach to teaching. Key connections between concepts assessed by different achievement standards are frequently not made.

It might be argued that because we are still above the OECD average in all three subjects (albeit only slightly in science) there’s nothing to worry about. But that average has been falling too. In part, that is because other developed economies have adopted the same misguided approaches to teaching and curriculum. The Aussies, for example, have tracked similarly to us, for similar reasons. That other countries are also declining is no excuse for New Zealand. And our educational inequality – the gap between the highest and lowest performers in PISA – has historically been amongst the worst amongst participating nations.

Some countries have bucked the downward trend. About ten years ago, England adopted an evidence-based approach to teaching literacy, and a detailed, knowledge-rich curriculum. Their 2018 PISA scores in mathematics and reading ticked up relative to 2015. That gives us an indication of what we need to do to halt our educational decline.

There are hopeful signals from the incoming government. The new Minister of Education, Erica Stanford, has promised to train all primary teachers in structured literacy, an approach supported by evidence and advocated by experts like Professor Chapman. She has promised to introduce a new curriculum with clear expectations for the knowledge students are to be taught at each year level. These changes cannot come too soon.

Some in the education establishment will resist the changes. That is because they are in the grip of the same educational ideology that has led to our present malaise. But how we teach our young people should be determined by evidence, not by ideology or politics. No matter how New Zealanders voted in the recent election, and whatever other disagreements they may have with the new government, the new Minister deserves our support as she endeavours to turn around our twenty-year educational decline.

In the very first PISA round, Germans received a rude surprise. They had thought their education system to be outstanding, but PISA showed it to be mediocre. The effect was so profound that a new term, ‘PISA-shock’, entered the German lexicon. Those unwelcome PISA results set off a massive wave of school reform.

New Zealand has had no similar moment. Instead, we’ve been like the proverbial frog, slowly boiling alive. We can’t go on like this. The time for reform is now.

To read the full article on The NZ Herald website, click here.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates