Too little too late ?

Joel Hernandez
Insights Newsletter
12 February, 2021

This week, the New Zealand Herald reported that parents have swamped after-school tuition firms.

One tutoring company said their phones “have been ringing non-stop”. This follows the formation of a Royal Society expert panel by the Ministry of Education. The panel's purpose is to address New Zealand’s declining mathematics performance.

Declining maths performance is evident in both the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In the most recent surveys, New Zealand year 9 and year 11 students scored their worst ever scores.

These two trends are alarming for several reasons. 

Parents seeking tuition is a strong signal they have little confidence in schools. This should be concerning to both the Ministry and the public.

External tutoring can help. But those who cannot afford it are at greater risk of getting left behind. This further exacerbates educational and income inequality later in life. Public education should be the great equaliser in a democratic society.

The Initiative applauds the Ministry for appointing an expert panel. But the public should be unhappy that it has taken this long. Our decline in mathematics began in the mid-2000s.

Year 11 students have performed worse in mathematics in each consecutive PISA survey since 2000. In TIMSS, year 5 and year 9 students have performed below the international average since 1999.

Unfortunately, there is more to worry about. New Zealand students' reading and science performance are also on the decline.

We remain above the international average in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). However, New Zealand is now 26th out of 29 OECD countries for reading literacy among year 5 students.

New Zealand’s decline in reading literacy is occurring across both primary and secondary schools. Like our PISA mathematics scores, PISA reading scores have declined steadily since 2000. Science PISA scores have fallen since 2009. As of 2018, we are now barely above the international average for reading and science.

The Ministry of Education has a difficult task to arrest New Zealand’s worrying decline in mathematics. It should not wait for our reading and science literacy to decline to the same extent before they act.

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