There's lots to celebrate in our schools, and even Maori achievement has more to say for it than often acknowledged, but questions remain

While there is much grumbling about New Zealand's education system, the evidence suggests it's doing very well. Every three years the OECD surveys a sample of 15 year-old students. The exercise, known as PISA: (Program for International Student Assessment) looks at three dimensions: reading, maths and science knowledge. While that's not everything we want from our young– decency would rank high on my list – they are easier to measure and are important.

Our educational specialists celebrate the results. In a sentence, on these measures, and subject to caveats, New Zealand students up to the age of 15 experience a world class education system. Better than ‘world class’ actually. The superiority of the New Zealand education system is demonstrated by an average 15 year-old New Zealander being about a year ahead of the average OECD student.

That’s right, our system is more effective than most of the OECD including some of those colonials look up to – such as the American and British ones. Measured properly our system is of higher productivity.

First caveat, the achievement may not simply be the schools’ (including early childhood education). What happens in the home is also important, as are wider social institutions such as the media. But the schools do matter and, in any case, the informal education system is partly a consequence of what schools did for earlier generations.

A second caveat is that we do not know how well the education system functions for post-15-year-olds, as there are no comparable international measures.

Some of our social groups do not do as well as average (but let’s avoid the fallacy of the politician who complained that half our children are below average). Among those are Maori. However, Maori students tend to come from a more deprived background; it is well established, throughout the OECD, that students from lower socioeconomic status households do not do as well educationally, illustrating the powerful way that the informal education system affects achievement.

But suppose Maori students had the same social class background as the population as a whole; how well would they do? The answer is that their educational achievement would be about a year behind our population as a whole. That is, they only do about as well as what American and British students achieve.

Not good enough you say? I agree! But let’s stop pretending we know why – that is an empirical question which deserves scientific investigation, not jumping to (often racist) conclusions. If you think that the Maori achievement is not good enough then you need to be equally critical of the American and British education systems.

A final caveat: the students classified themselves whether they were Maori; they could also say they were Pakeha, or Pasifika or Asian or whatever and they could nominate themselves as belonging to more than one ethnic groups. This self-classification may bias outcomes.

There are differences between the numbers of Maori boys and girls in the random sample, suggesting that some students of Maori descent with high educational achievement may not classify themselves as ‘Maori’. Social investigators face the reality that because Maori ethnicity is very often a subjective characterisation; we know that individuals may even change their classification depending on the circumstances.
While Maori achievement is more cheerful than it is usually portrayed (it is OECD average, even if that's not good enough), the achievement of Pasifika students is well below the OECD average, even when adjusted for their social background.

That is definitely not good enough.

Nor should we be complacent about our Pakeha and Asian students. On these measures they have a better than world class education system. But to avoid other countries catching up we have to keep working at improving our education system.

Still, let’s first recognise its success, and stop introducing untested and outlandish changes based on anecdote, and often derived from education systems which are failing compared to ours.

This column summarises my just released report “Ethnicity, Gender, Socioeconomic Status and Educational Achievement: an Exploration”. The research was funded by the PPTA.

Comments (3)

by Megan Pledger on September 08, 2014
Megan Pledger

I think PISA has passed it's use-by date.  Countries are just gaming the system to make their countries look good.   And the ways to game the system - focusing more on literacy and numeracy at the expense of the doing subjects like science, PE, music and art,  increasing testing,  focusing on memorization  - are not the good ways to provide a more creative, critical thinking population, the kind of skills needed for a more brain based (rather than muscle based) economy.





by Brian Easton on September 09, 2014
Brian Easton

Megan makes two points.
The first is that the PISA scores are now gamed. True, but it does not distract from that NZ is doing well. (Incidentally the tertiary scoring for the Performance Based Research Fund is an even better example of gaming; rorts include actions that a liberal university would send students down if they did them.)
The second is that PISA measures a narrow range of the educational achievements. (As my opening paragraph says, I’d rank the cultivation of decency high on my list.) Behind this is her, and my, concern summarised in Gilling’s Law ‘how you score the game affects the way it is played).
But much of the skill of a social scientist is using poor quality data to obtain real insights. Not only do the PISA scores give some information about how various groups in the community are doing, but they pose the following question: why are we so obsessed with imitating the education systems of countries that do much worse than ours does?

by Megan Pledger on September 10, 2014
Megan Pledger

Sorry, yea, I kinda went off on a tangent.

I think there is room for optimism for the educational outcomes for Pacific people. Although, in things like PISA they don't score so well,  there is a huge cultural force for them to do well in school which means that there is a high level of persistance at NCEA - Pacific kids are not as likely to get NCEA "on time" but a lot of them hang in there to get the award in the end.  ( I mucked around with the NCEA data before they took it offline.)

As their credentials go up and they increase their participation in middle class jobs it's going to reinforce their view of the importance of education setting up a powerful feed-back loop that can only be for good.

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