Celebrating Educational Achievement

New Zealand Schooling is Already in the Top Half of the OECD

Listener 30 November, 2002

Keywords: Education;

Would you believe that on the available measures New Zealand is already in the top half of the OECD as far as education goes? Nothing in this column says it could not be improved. But by failing to celebrate success we downgrade the nation’s achievement, and leave ourselves open to some quack’s dangerous medicine.

The conclusion that we are doing well comes from an international study in which the 28 OECD countries looked at the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in three key areas of knowledge and skill: reading literacy; mathematical literacy, and scientific literacy. The study is called ‘Programme for international Student Assessment’ or PISA. There is a 142 page Ministry of Education Report PISA 2000: The New Zealand Context (and a 12 page ‘Overview’), so what is written here has to be condensed. But the key facts are that when 15 year olds were surveyed for their knowledge and skills New Zealand came 3rd in reading; 3rd in mathematics; and 6th in science.

There we are, right near the top – just ahead of Australia too.

Now before some readers claim the results are nonsense, let me confirm that international comparisons are always problematic – and contradictory. For instance, an international survey (using slightly different measures) of all adults in eleven countries found our literacy levels were middling.*

One source of scepticism is that critics have absolute standards of what they expect our students to attain. PISA provides a relative measure. It says that while average New Zealand students may not attain some ideal absolute standard, the students in most other countries do even worse. If you despair about the attainment of our students, you would despair even more if you lived just about anywhere else.

Other educational indicators reinforces the impression that our core education system is internationally competitive. Tables in the OECD Education at a Glance usually have New Zealand above the OECD average. Among the exceptions are that on some measures, our teachers are slightly more overworked and underpaid than the OECD average (on others it is the reverse), and our primary and secondary school class sizes are about 10 percent above the average.

On the basis of all these measures, an examiner might grade overall New Zealand primary and secondary education with a high B, and an occasional A for some, but add a stern ‘could do better’. (There is little reported on pre-schooling, the area where New Zealand educationalists take the most pride.)

The place where we really need to do better is among the Maori and Pasifika population (and some Asians). We seem to have one of the bigger bottom tails among the OECD. To put it positively, the Pakeha reading and mathematical achievements are higher than for any single country, and they are behind only two on scientific literacy. To put it negatively, the Maori Boys and Pacific Islanders are below the OECD average. (Maori girls are just above the OECD average.) The government is committed to improving their position. Note there are more Pakeha down there with the Polynesians, so if we are to succeed it cannot be an exclusively Brown strategy.

We should celebrate the educational achievement. It is the result of the nation prioritising core education, a commitments which goes back at least sixty years to Peter Fraser and Clarence Beeby. Their inspiring vision was reinforced by both the subsequent educational leadership and the work of our teachers. Sure, some are duds, but most are not – on international standards anyway. Of course the extraordinary achievement is not good enough, but it is important that we dont grab at quack educational theories which damage our successes (as we did in the 1980s with economic policy). One clue to the charlatanism is it will ignores the successes of our schools.

However, there is a puzzle for an economist. While we seem to have one of the best core education systems in the world, that economy is much lower ranking. In part it is that while a well educated workforce may be a necessary condition for high economic performance, it is by itself not sufficient. Other things are necessary too. More hopefully one might argue the strength of our education system means we have the potential to grow faster.

However my inclination is that while our pre-, primary, and secondary education system are reasonably sound (on international measures), we have a weaker post-secondary system, the issue I turn to in my next column.


1. As published the column added
“Perhaps our schools were not as good when they taught the bulk of us as they are now, perhaps our adults lose the skills more than most because of our failures in the tertiary sector (the subject of the next two columns).”
Warwick Elley kindly wrote to me pointing out that
“The problem was the response rates [of the Adult Literacy Surveys by country] were wildly different. NZ and Australia had relatively good response rates – most other countries had less than 70%- some as low as 36%. The international comparisons were therefore meaningless. There were several other problems with the tasks and cut-off points.”
Mea culpa. Apologies to my readers and my gratitude to Warwick.

2. A UNICEF report published after the column ranked New Zealand 10th most effective education system in the OECD.