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Talk-ED: Sailing in a new direction or being all at sea


It might have been appropriate that in the week that the Americas Cup is all tied up in international juries, data and rules that New Zealand has hosted the visit of Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director at the OECD and a specialist in evidence and data about student performance and system improvement in education.

Yesterday NZ Herald journalist Nicholas Jones had a full is page spread on his visit and it was a great pleasure to have this rare contribution to knowledge about education to consume with my breakfast.

Jones starts his piece……

“New Zealand’s education system has been treading water and its students will lose out in the global race for the best jobs unless change is embraced, a visiting expert warns.”

The appropriate nautical imagery in the context of a race has appeal in a  coastline hugging nation. And as we are asked to be interested in the Americas Cup even more so. That spring event is governed by some rules, that’s what the arguments seem to be about. Education is also governed by rules and that is what the argument is about!

Schleicher is reported as being in favour of National Standards and that is simply a rule. The arguments are not about evidence or even the light accountability that National Standards imply, it is about the rules. But change is imperative. Jones again….

“His [Schleicher,] reasoning for change  is that while New Zealand has a by good education system, if compared internationally its performance over the past 10 years has plateaued.”

We aren’t going to win the Americas Cup is that is also the case with any element of the effort to produce and sail a world class boat. In a country where we defend pretty well all that we do on the grounds that “we have a world class system” it all starts to look increasing hypocritical in the face of the evidence. If the boat won’t go any faster and the educational system can’t perform any better we will end up in the doldrums.

Spend more money on education! That is the clarion call from many. But Jones / Schleicher assure us that this is not necessary……

“Analysis shows poor kids in Finland, Canada and Shanghai do far better relative to their more privileged peers than poor kids in New Zealand and other countries.”

It is not the syndicate with the most money that necessarily wins the Cup! And yet we hear social class and parenting and markers of social class such as nutrition are unfurled as defences of a system in ways working that toss too many students overboard.

The article nicely lists actions that different groups can take. Parents can daily show interest in “what happened at school today”. This we are told has greater impact than “hours of homework”.

Teachers must deploy its best teachers to the most challenging classrooms.”  This is offered as a way of “prioritising and targeting the quality of teaching.” This it appears is better than to uncritically spray professional development over all the crew. Making the teaching profession a “high status profession”. Note that in Finland the profession was designed to be a high status profession – it doesn’t happen by chance. A ten foot tinny won’t become a high speed hatch simply by tying it up at the wharf and taking the odd fishing trip. Making the career for a teacher “more diverse and challenging for teachers.”

When it comes to schools the warning that has rung out throughout the week was repeated….

75% of students who are reflected in our low equity results are in schools where  there are not apparent issues with manifestly low achievement. This is not solely a low decile school issue but one for all schools. If New Zealand is to lift its achievement it can only do this through lifting its equity outcomes. Equity and equitable outcomes are a responsibility for everyone in the system.

The kinds of commentary inevitably produces a level of unease and even discomfort. But data is data and is of no account if it is ignored. The OECD data is based on over 70 countries  and  28 million students.

Nicholas Jones concludes his excellent article with a wonderful quote from Schleicher: 

I can see the challenges……But in the dark all schools look the same, and all students look the same. Unless you have some light to illuminate the difference, there is very little you can do about it.”

It is as if the Americas Cup is sailed at night – that would be very scary. But it is also scary to carry on in the darkness that the lack of data can impede the progress of students and the improvement of both equity and quality in the education system.


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Pathways-ED: Oh dear me! It's the OECD! And we should be taking notice.

Stuart Middleton
16 February 2012


The importance of educational success to economic growth is now well and truly accepted across many discipline. It was interesting therefore to have my attention drawn last week to a report from the OECD that argues increased investment in “disadvantaged schools and students to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance.”

The proportion of 25-34 years-old who have not completed upper secondary school now averages 20%. New Zealand is listed at 21% but look at the countries that are lower than us: Greece, Italy, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Mexico and Turkey. Do these names ring a bell in recent media coverage about weak economies, threats of depression and civil unrest? WE are running a risk of joining a club the membership of which a greatly not to be sought in economic terms.

The basic argument of the report is simple. The disengaged, the drop-outs, “are most often from poor or immigrant families, or have poorly educated parents. They are also more likely to attend schools with fewer resources, and their parents cannot generally afford private tutoring.” Are the bells still ringing?

The OECD Report suggests five strategies for tackling the issue.

1          Eliminate the repetition of material studies, levels repeated, having a second shot in order to improve results

New Zealand doesn’t do much of this which is estimated to consume as much as 10% of the annual spending on schooling in some countries. Rather, we push students on to the next level regardless and create considerable accumulated failure as a result. We run a lock-step system. If we were able to work genuinely towards individual pathway plans (call them what you will) we could reach higher levels of effectiveness. A start would be clear unequivocal statements about expectation for learning at crucial points

2          Avoid early tracking or streaming where lower tracks  are generally an educational death warrant.

In the general education system we have pretty well done away with tracking (or streaming as we know it) but in order to throw it out, we indiscriminately also threw out the capacity to provide genuinely differentiated programme in the senior secondary school for which we have paid a heavy price and about which I have written on many occasions.

3          Manage school choice to avoid segregation

It is a clear international trend to improve parental choice. But in doing so it is difficult to avoid segregation between school type or characteristics. Just as our worst areas of housing in New Zealand are the direct outcome of planning decisions – those suburbs were generally planned and built quite deliberately. Now we wonder how to transform them.

So too with schools and this is exacerbated by the convenience of the decile labelling system. The report concludes that there needs to be positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged schools and financial incentives for advantaged schools to take their share of the high maintenance students from disadvantaged communities.

4          Allocate funding according to student needs and invest in early age.

No argument here. But how? Well obviously the decile rating system gives us a crude tool to know where disadvantaged students are clustered. If we are serious, we would be directing greatly increased funding in that direction but, here’s the rub, not simply to continue to do what we have always done! And managing the accountability/autonomy equation more effectively would also help.

Perhaps the proportions spent on sectors need addressing. The OECD average spend on see 2.5 times more spent on tertiary education than on the early childhood education system.  (In New Zealand that difference is a whacking 3.8 times in favour of tertiary. We are probably getting the results we can expect from the investments we are making.

5          “Encourage students to complete by improving the quality of secondary-level vocational training courses including work-based training, and making the different secondary pathways equivalent.”

This is heartening since New Zealand is starting to recognise just these actions as critical to turning around the issues of disengagement and dropping out. Youth Guarantee, Trades Academies, Service Academies, Vocational Pathways, Secondary / Tertiary Programmes, Gateway and STAR are all policies and actions that have the potential to impact on those issues. We also have through NCEA the potential to give equivalence between pathways even though there is a possibility of this being put at risk by changes made to NCEA and the promotion of alternative examinations. Strong government leadership is required in this area.

So if New Zealand aspires to climb up from 26th (out of 34 countries) in the OECD disengagement/drop-out stakes it might pay to give attention to reports such as this. I shudder to think of where we would be if we were not a bipolar system that has an extraordinary high level of performance for enough students to balance against the high level of underachievement.

Is there a tipping point in all this? And how far ahead might it be?


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