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Dr. Kevin Donnelly

How Effective Is NZ’s Education System?

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How effective is New Zealand’s education system? Based on the performance of 15 year old students in the OECD’s 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, where students are ranked near the top out of 30 countries, some argue that there is cause for celebration.

Unfortunately, on a closer examination, any cause for congratulations is somewhat premature. The first thing to be said about PISA is that there is increasing evidence that the OECD’s sponsored test is flawed, especially when compared to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests; involving a series of mathematics and science tests since the mid 90s involving years 4, 8 and 12.

Not only does PISA fail to measure how effective the school curriculum is, as its designers say it measures so-called real-world skills and not what is taught in the classroom but, there are also concerns that its methodology is unsound in terms of sampling and how results are arrived at.

Based on the TIMSS results, it is clear that New Zealand students are nowhere near the top of the table. In the 1995 test, New Zealand middle primary students were ranked below 10 other countries in science and mathematics. At year 8, New Zealand students performed below 14 countries.

The 1999 results placed students in a worse position with year 8 New Zealand students ranked 20th in mathematics and 19th in Science. The 2003 results are equally disturbing, with year 8 students ranked 21st in mathematics and 14th in science.

Notwithstanding some margin of error in how the TIMSS results are arrived at, it is clear that New Zealand students in mathematics and science are consistently outperformed by students in countries like Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Talk to tertiary academics, employers and parents and the consensus is that standards have fallen with many students leaving school unable to write a grammatically correct, lucid essay, complete basic algorithms without a calculator or demonstrate a broad knowledge of New Zealand’s history, social institutions and culture.

There is an alternative approach to strengthening New Zealand’s education system. As noted in a recent Australian budget paper, based on research undertaken by two European academics Ludger Woessman and Eric A Hanusheck, the best way to raise standards is to free schools from provider capture by giving them the freedom and autonomy to compete and best respond to the demands of the market place.

The Australian budget paper states: “Finally, public reporting of student and school performance, along with greater school autonomy and demand side pressures from parents to enhance school performance is likely to have significant positive impacts on student performance”.

The argument is not new. Some years ago, the late Milton Friedman put the case for making schools more responsive to the demands of parents by introducing school vouchers – a situation where the money follows the child to whatever school is chosen.

US research carried out by Caroline Hoxby suggests that market-driven initiatives like vouchers and charter schools – where schools have the autonomy to best reflect the needs and expectations of local communities – improve educational outcomes, especially amongst disadvantaged students.

In a number of papers written over the last 3 to 4 years, while at the University of Munich, Ludger Woessmann and Thomas Fuchs identify the characteristics of stronger performing education systems as measured by the results in international tests like TIMSS.

Systems that achieve the best results have schools that are autonomous, there is a robust non-government school sector that leads to competition, centralised examinations provide public accountability and an incentive to do well and teacher unions exert minimal influence over schools.

Even after accounting for home environment and students’ socio-economic background, Woessmann and Fuchs conclude that non-government schools, when compared to government schools, achieve better results.

It should also be noted, based on research by the OECD, Woesmann and Fuchs and a recent McKinsey Company Report, How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top, that there is very little, if any, relationship between increased investment in education and higher standards and improved outcomes.

Such is the force of the school choice movement, represented by vouchers and charter schools, that non-government (private schools) have established themselves as the preferred alternative in many under-developed countries.

As the UK based academic James Tooley has demonstrated, non-government schools are better able to meet the needs of underprivileged children as there is an incentive to perform and such schools are freed from the often deadening control of head office and antiquated employment awards and conditions.

European countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark are also adopting innovations related to school choice and, unlike New Zealand, teacher unions and political groups once opposed to the idea, have now come on-board.

For some years, New Zealand led the world in freeing up schools as a result of the Picot Report and the White Paper, Tomorrow’s Schools but, as argued by Mark Harrison in Education Matters: Government, Markets and New Zealand Schools, many of the reforms either did not go far enough or have been wound back.

After reviewing and analysing New Zealand education, since the publication of the Picot Report, Harrison concludes, “Despite the worldwide trend away from central planning and government owning the means of production, the education sector in New Zealand remains predominantly government owned, funded and controlled, and the serious weaknesses identified by the Picot Taskforce persist”.

It’s ironic, that in a nation of rugged, independently minded individuals committed to competition and coming first in sports and challenging physical endeavours that many appear prepared to accept second place when it comes to schools and education.