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Dr Muriel Newman

How Good is our Education System?

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4 June 2007

How Good is our Education System?

Record numbers of New Zealanders tuned in to watch TV One’s Dancing with the Stars last Tuesday as the last two finalists squared off against each other. The widespread interest in that contest, as well as other reality challenge shows and sports in general, demonstrates that the love of competition is indeed alive and well in New Zealand society.

The reason, of course, is that every day in every way each one of us becomes locked into an on-going competitive struggle. Whether it’s getting ready on time, beating the traffic congestion, keeping the garden looking good, or winning a promotion at work, competition is a driving force in our lives. Competition helps us to identify our ambitions, set our goals, and it rewards us with the satisfaction of accomplishment.

That’s why so many New Zealanders became so worried when Labour effectively decided to ban competition in schools in 2002 with the abolition of School Certificate and University Entrance, and the introduction of the National Certificate of Educational Achievement. The NCEA is a student-focussed system which requires schools to set their own curriculum and award internally assessed credits for achievement. It replaced the traditional syllabus-based approach, which used external examinations to benchmark educational standards.

As a result of these changes, not only has there has been a dramatic increase in the load on teachers, but the educational outcome for the student who scrapes through flower arranging, for example is exactly the same as for the student who excels in quantum mechanics.

In an opinion piece “System fatally flawed” in the Christchurch Press, former teacher Peter Joyce explains it this way: “At a school where I taught, senior students were grinding out assessment points in tourism. They astutely figured out that it is easier to draw up an itinerary for a fly-drive holiday in Tahiti than to get to grips with the special theory of relativity. NCEA was supposed to lead to a concern for real education, as opposed to mere assessment. Not surprisingly, the opposite has happened. Many students are on a treadmill of assessment, endlessly crunching numbers and asking, how many grades does this count for?

Peter goes on to say: “The thinking behind NCEA bears a striking resemblance to communism. Both are noble theories promoted by people who really, really care about making the world a better place. Neither will ever work properly unless millions of years of human evolution can be unravelled immediately. Advocates of both dogmas continue to insist, in the face of failure, that their utopian philosophies have a noble essence which will one day be revealed to all. In the meantime, both destroy incentive and promote mediocrity”. http://www.stuff.co.nz/4078663a12935.html

With dissatisfaction over the NCEA increasing amongst students, parents and teachers, and more and more schools opting to introduce alternative external examination systems such as the Cambridge Examinations and the International Baccalaureate, the government has been forced to announce a compromise.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Steve Thomas, a researcher with the Maxim Institute – a public policy think tank that has a particular interest in education issues – explains the changes in an opinion piece; the latest NCEA overhaul does not go far enough:

“This is not to say Mr Maharey’s changes are bad; they are necessary and welcome. However, more work is needed before the NCEA can become the rigorous qualification pupils and parents deserve. Nonetheless, these changes should restore a measure of confidence in the NCEA among pupils and schools sitting the qualification. It is only a shame that they have not come sooner. More significantly, the introduction of a failure grade and an element of competition for pupils through more precise reporting of NCEA grades is an admission from the educrats that, despite their previous claims, the ideology of standards-based assessment can no longer be defended as a basis for an excellent ‘world-class’ qualification”. (To read the article click here )

These changes to the NCEA are not the only recent changes to the education system that are of public concern. The new draft curriculum, released late last year, introduced a second language requirement for students in Forms 1 to 4. While this is not compulsory, one cannot help but wonder if, like the Kiwi Saver scheme which Labour introduced in a voluntary manner ahead of compulsion, the second language will become compulsory and that, because of Labour’s commitment to biculturalism, the second language will be Maori.

The curriculum designers have also included some very contentious value statements in their draft curriculum. Diversity, as in cultures, languages and heritages smacks of multiculturalism, a policy which has contributed to widespread unrest in the UK and Europe. Equity, is defined as social justice, a term straight out of the Labour Party manifesto: We want social justice where everyone can access what they need to reach their potential, not just those who are rich. And care for the environment (the Earth and its interrelated eco-systems) is giving ecological issues a status for which there is no general mandate. (To read the draft curriculum click here)

But there are other worrying developments.

Just last month, the Ministry of Education announced that it intends to allow mathematics students to use “super-calculators” that can solve equations, not only in the classroom but in exams as well. As a former maths teacher, I believe this move exposes the dire situation that mathematics teaching is in. While there are many excellent maths teachers in New Zealand, they are, unfortunately few and far between. But rather than addressing this critical skills shortage in a proper manner, our education masters have decided that the simplest answer is to disguise the problem by allowing children to use advanced technology.

When my own children were at primary school and having difficulty with mathematics, we developed Zenith, a simple number skills game that made learning fun. As a result of playing the game their mathematics skill and confidence levels improved dramatically. Both went on to do maths and science courses at university, an option that is currently being denied to many New Zealand children who do not understand basic mathematical concepts due to poor teaching. (To find out more about Zenith click here)

The reality is that an understanding of mathematics is essential for everyday living, including being able to run a household budget with out getting into debt! It is also vitally important in developing an understanding of economics and how the government’s budgets work. Former Labour Minister Hon Michael Basset, in this week’s Political Opinion expresses it this way: “Tens of thousands of students leave school with no understanding of economic realities. At a time like now when an overheated exchange rate, sliding manufacturing output, and a declining job market bite into people’s lives, greater understanding about which political steps can produce beneficial outcomes, and which are no more than short-term, feel-good measures, would help the country big time. People might even understand that continuing poorly-targeted government spending has actually contributed to today’s problems. Instead of urging ministers to reach for the regulators’ manual, or to increase spending, they’d be more likely to endorse easing off, especially if they knew about the statistics showing that recent huge increases in spending on health, education and welfare have produced little improvement in outcomes, helping instead, to fuel the inflation that worries Dr Bollard who keeps interest rates high”.

Ensuring children get the best education possible is an important responsibility of any government. It is especially important in New Zealand where the government dictates which state school that parents must send their children to, and prevents parents from using their child’s education entitlement funding to send their child to an independent school.

The poll this week asks: Do you agree or disagree with the critics of the NCEA that educational standards in New Zealand are falling. Take part in poll