I despair sometimes and yesterday was one of those days.
The latest PISA results were released and it wasn’t good news for New Zealand – our 15 year olds had slipped back and our performance poorer than in the previous PISA round in 2009. In addition to that we have been overtaken by a bunch of countries whose performance is on the rise. A combination of these two factors sees our international rating heading downwards.
Well that is how it is.
What I despair over is the response of the various sectors and the low quality of debate around it.
First, it was the grossest stupidity that we have seen for quite some time for various spokespeople to attempt to blame the current Minister of Education, Hon Hekia Parata, for the PISA decline.
The students in the PISA cohort have been in our education system for ten years before undertaking the assessment. The decline in the results didn’t happen in the last 2 years but are the result of a declining trajectory of performance over all of those ten years. This is a very powerful argument for achievement tracking through systems such as National Standards and if not those particular ones then some better ones but the sector seems not able to suggest anything.
There has been evidence that we were slipping back in various system assessments made over the past ten years.
Finally, while the results over time are presented as a linear decline (or rise) the picture is actually more complex than this. Each result is an assessment of a ten year period of schooling for the cohort in each assessment. While the assessment itself is a slice in time, the result is actually a long time in the making. Early Childhood provision, basic skill teaching in the first ten years of schooling, the articulation between primary and secondary schooling are all factors in that result. It is a system issue!
Secondly, it was at worst duplicitous and at best only ignorant to suggest that this came as a great surprise. The media shock horror coverage of the issue simply is evidence of the babble that passes for public debate of educational issues.
Commentators have been warning of the direction the system was headed for some time. Regular readers of this blog and my earlier columns in Education Review will recall that I have frequently written about the demographic pressures on the system, about the indicators that were not promising and about the increasing disengagement from education – all of which have contributed to this result. I have frequently drawn attention to the ugliness of a system in which achievement results cut were mapped over equity outcomes.
Andreas Schleicher, in commenting on the New Zealand results, spoke of the pressure on our performance of our bipolar success in achievement and failure in equity. His comment “Coping with the socio-economic factors is the new normal.” reflects comments made by many and rejected by most over recent times. Sector spokespeople have been aggressive in denying that there was any issue basking instead in the glory of our “world class education system” that today seems a little less world class than we would not only like it to be but also need it to be.
Thirdly, we like to think that this is an assessment of the 15 year old cohort overall when in fact it is not. It is actually an assessment of the 15 year old cohort in schools. We know that 21% of 16 year olds are no longer in school but I don’t know just how many 15 year olds are not in school. But let’s be charitable, and indeed there is some justification in being so, and noting that the curve of numbers disengaging from schooling is exponential, claim that about 10% of 15 year olds are no longer in school. That’s just a guess (a benevolent guess). The point I am making is that if all of the 15 year olds were in school our results may even have been lower.
Disengagement from schooling remains a bigger challenge than the PISA results on their own. Our system will not be meeting its claimed objectives until it retains all students in school and gets better system performance in such measures as PISA. Those of us who work with disengaged students know that at the point of disengagement they typically have poor basic skills and, more importantly, have lost hope in education as a pathway to a rewarding future.
The PISA results are a diagnosis. The underlying factors that produce them need to be the real target of our discussion and action. Having said that, the PISA results, the continuing ignoring of the demographics responsibilities that the education system faces and our disgraceful disengagement (the US would call it drop-out) rate all constitute what many have been calling a ‘wake-up call’.
But it is only a wakeup call for those who have been asleep. It is time for leaders of teacher unions and education peak bodies to start showing some acquaintance with reality. We have known this was coming down the track. We know what to do. The mantra of “trust us, we know what we are doing” just doesn’t cut it with the community any longer. Nor do the attacks on the Minister reflect any credit on us as a profession.