The education they deserve

Joel Hernandez
Insights Newsletter
4 March, 2021

In the last twelve months, there have been a growing number of stories about New Zealand’s educational decline. Stories of falling mathematics performance and illiterate teenagers in the media make for grim reading.  

Arresting this trend requires a better understanding of the problem and its potential causes. In the Initiative’s latest report, Educational Performance and Funding in New Zealand, Dr David Law and I show that the status quo is not serving our children as well as it should.

Major international education surveys, PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA all show declining performance in reading, mathematics, and science in both primary and secondary school students.

For instance, between 2000 and 2018 our ranking in maths deteriorated significantly, from 4 out of 41 to 27 out of 78 participating countries in PISA. In the latest PIRLS survey in 2016, New Zealand only ranked 26th out of 29 OECD observations. In the latest TIMSS survey in 2019, New Zealand secondary school students ranked 19th out of 20 OECD observations for maths and 17 out of 20 for science.

Surprisingly, however, at the same time as our relative and absolute educational performance has fallen, New Zealand’s relative rate of growth in per-pupil spending on both primary and secondary students has increased substantially.

The rate of growth was such that per-pupil spending on primary students increased from 76.9% to 93.9% of the OECD average between 2006 and 2017. For secondary students, spending increased from 75.5% to 105.4% of the OECD average over the same period.

In real terms, the Ministry of Education increased per pupil spending by over $1,700 for primary school students and over $2,200 for secondary school students during this period – an increase of 12.4% and 11.9%, respectively.

With all of that said, OECD evidence suggests that the positive relationship between spending and educational performance one might expect is not universal. New Zealand does not appear to be an outlier in this case.

For countries that cumulatively spent over US $50,000 on the education of 6-15-year-olds, a group to which New Zealand belongs, higher levels of spending do little to lift educational performance. In fact, spending explains only 1% of the variation in educational outcomes.

Only in poorer countries such as Colombia, Thailand, and Peru, that spend cumulatively less than US $50,000 per pupil, tend to show a positive relationship between education spending and performance.

Not only does it appear that our additional investment in education has not borne fruit in terms of greater achievement, but it also seems as though we should not necessarily expect that it will in the future.

Fortunately, there are other promising avenues to explore that may explain New Zealand’s educational decline and how we might fix it.

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