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The learning shower from PISA


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.

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Think-Ed: ECE and the performance of 15 year olds

Stuart Middleton
7 February 2011

Hey, wait minute. For a number of years I have extolled the critical importance of early childhood education in terms of educational advancement and achievement. Two years of quality early childhood (i.e. 15 hours a week) would lead to such gains, I argued. This was on the evidence of research in the USA.

There is widespread agreement with this internationally. A Labour MP in Britain is arguing at the moment that early education will improve later school performance.

But, adopting its right of centre position and in order to challenge this MP, The Spectator weekly has recently published a table that, it suggests, shows otherwise. Here is that table:

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths (age 15) (Rank)
100% France 497  (6)
89% Sweden 494  (7)
87% Germany 513  (5)
83% UK 492  (8)
75% Japan 529  (3)
44% Finland 541  (1)
36% US 487  (9)
09% Switzerland 534  (2)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4)


Well, I thought, that is because it is mathematics and there could be many explanations why there is no correlation between access to ECE and later performance in mathematics. The story would be very different, I thought, if we also included Literacy and Science. So I added them to the chart.

% of three-year-olds in nursery school Country PISA Score in Maths at age 15 (Rank in list)  PISA Score in Literacy at age 15 (Rank in list) PISA Score in Science at age 15 (Rank in list)
100% France 497  (6) 496  (9) 498  (8)
89% Sweden 494  (7) 497  (7=) 495  (9)
87% Germany 513  (5) 497  (7=) 520  (4)
83% UK 492  (8) 500  (5=) 514  (6)
75% Japan 529  (3) 520  (2) 539  (2)
44% Finland 541  (1) 536  (1) 554  (1)
36% US 487  (9) 500  (5=) 502  (7)
09% Switzerland 534  (2) 501  (4) 517  (5)
0.01% Netherlands 526  (4) 508  (3) 522  (3)


Just add a further bit of interest I added a line for New Zealand:

95% New Zealand  519  (5) 521  (2) 532  (2)


Of course this might all add up to nothing very much at all as is so usual in the popular media. The Netherlands rates well in this exercise but this conveniently ignores the fact that the system in that country has a “Mother and Child Health Care” programme that is universal and that 99% of all four year olds are voluntarily enrolled in primary schools (the legal school starting age is 5 years)

Then, this type of reporting also ignores that coarse nature of such a statistic as participation. Take New Zealand as an example. We might feel quite proud of our 95% rate but this is not evenly apparent across the system. Historically, Maori and Pacific Islands children have had lower access to early childhood education while the waged white middle classes have had both easy access and high quality provision. This is a fact and a trend that successive governments have always grappled with and it was exacerbated by the removal, for instance, of the targeting of the 20 free hours provision.

So let’s be impressed by Finland – only 44% participation The Spectator tells us but top of each category for achievement among the count rues in this survey (actually they did well in the whole PISA lists!). In Finland school starts at 7 years (but you can start at 6 years). About 75% of young ones in Finland have a significant exposure to day care and there is almost full enrolment in the pre-school classes at ages 6-7.

Reports such as that in The Spectator do not grapple with other issues – the extent to which the ECE curriculum is related to that of primary schools and premised on the fact that ECE should be preparing students for primary school. They don’t focus on the extent to which staff in formal pre-school classes are qualified (Finland has 100% degree qualified many up to Masters level!). They don’t report of the size of the tale of educational disadvantage and failure in the respective countries. Finland has a short tale we have a very long tale.

Stories such as this one in The Spectator start off by being political and never rise above the opportunity to take a few cheap shots. The key issue is to work towards quality early childhood provision for all students and perhaps a clearer distinction between day care and more formal ECE. I suspect that currently a disproportionate slice of the ECE resources are going to those whose focus is day care rather than ECE while those who might benefit from ECE are missing out.

I have long thought that adding ECE to primary schools was a possible and desirable way forward. But even if it were the same old sector division would arm themselves for war and protect their territory. It is not only the secondary / tertiary divisions that stop us being internationally competitive!

There are pockets in the community where access is very low indeed, perhaps as low as 40%. Whatever league tables we produce, this is a statistic that is intolerable in a developed, blessed and, in better times, rich country.

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