How Good is our Schooling?

<>Presentation at Launch of Ethnicity, Gender, Socioeconomic Status and Educational Achievement: An Exploration, <>9 July, 2013. The full report is at





Keywords: Education; Maori


While there is much grumbling about our education system, the evidence suggests it is doing very well. Every three years the OECD surveys a sample of 15 year old students. The exercise, known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), looks at three dimensions: reading, mathematics and science knowledge. That is not everything we want from our young – decency would rank high on my list – but they are easier to measure, and they are important.


Our educational specialists celebrate the results. In a sentence, on these measures, and subject to caveats, New Zealand students up to the age of 15 experience a world class education system. Better than ‘world class’ actually. The superiority of the New Zealand education system is demonstrated by an average 15 year old New Zealander being about a year ahead of the average OECD student. That’s right, our system is more effective than most of the OECD including some of those colonials look up to – such as the American and British ones. Measured properly our system is of higher productivity.


First caveat, the achievement may not simply be the schools’ (including early childhood education). What happens in the home is also important, as are wider social institutions such as the media. But the schools do matter and, in any case, the informal education system is partly a consequence of what schools did for earlier generations.


A second caveat is that we do not know how well the education system functions for post-15-year-olds, as there are no comparable international measures.


Some of our social groups do not do as well as average (but let’s avoid the fallacy of the politician who complained that half our children are below average). Among those are the Maori. However, Maori students tend to come from a more deprived background; it is well established, throughout the OECD, that students from lower socioeconomic status households do not do as well educationally, illustrating the powerful way that the informal education system affects achievement.


But suppose Maori students had the same social class background as the population as a whole; how well would they do? The answer is that their educational achievement would be about a year behind our population as a whole. That is they  only do about as well as what American and British students achieve.


Not good enough you say? I agree! But let’s stop pretending we know why – that is an empirical question which deserves scientific investigation, not jumping to (often racist) conclusions. If you think that the Maori achievement is not good enough then you need to be equally critical of the American and British education systems.


Caveat: the students classified themselves whether they were Maori; they could also say they were Pakeha, or Pasifika or Asian or whatever and they could nominate themselves as belonging to more than one ethnic groups. This self-classification may bias outcomes. There are differences between the numbers of Maori boys and girls in the random sample, suggesting that some students of Maori descent with high educational achievement may not classify themselves as ‘Maori’. Social investigators face the reality that because Maori ethnicity is very often a subjective characterisation; we know that individuals may even change their classification depending on the circumstances.


While Maori achievement is more cheerful than it is usually portrayed (it is OECD average even if it is not good enough), the achievement of Pasifika students is well below the OECD average, even when adjusted for their social background. That is definitely not good enough.


Nor should we be complacent about our Pakeha and Asian students. On these measures they have a better than world class education system. But to avoid other countries catching up we have to keep working at improving our education system. But let’s first recognise its success, and stop introducing untested and outlandish changes based on anecdote, and often derived from education systems which are failing compared to ours.


This column summarises my just released report “Ethnicity, Gender, Socioeconomic Status and Educational Achievement: an Exploration”. The research was funded by the PPTA.