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 here.

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.


Rereading this column a couple of years later I remain puzzled why it was rejected. The Editor said that it reflected a conflict of interest. I did not have to mention who funded the research but I am scrupulous about such things. If funded research was a source of a conflict of interest, then little could be published and public commentary would be even more dependent on uninformed opinion than it is.

Even more puzzling is that there were at least two serious conflicts of interest in the Listener hierarchy which, as far as I know, were never addressed.

To compound the calumny the Editor said there was a feature about to come out on the same topic. It didn’t, and when many months later a feature on education came out it did not address this issue.

Possibly what was going on was that I had touched a raw nerve in the politics of education. Perhaps the funding of the research by a teachers’ union made the column unacceptable. I am not an expert on educational politics (nor on the economics of education; once I gave an address ‘Why Economists Don’t Understand Education … but Still Try to Run It’). But I know enough to know that there was subversion in the column (but should not every column have an element of subversion in it?).

The conventional wisdom decried our educational achievement It was never clear to me whether it was just whining, or perhaps settling personal grievances from their or their children’s experiences (which enables us to be well placed to have opinions on education). Undoubtedly all of us have had bad experiences – we tend to forget the successes. It was simply not politically correct to report that New Zealand had one of the most successful pre-tertiary education systems in the world.

There have been at least two ‘remedies’. One, which from my reading of the literature seems plausible, is to improve the quality of the teachers. Perhaps the reference to the PPTA was the red flag to the Editor. Unions stand up for their members and, not incidentally, get in conflict with head teachers and other administrators and politicians. Arguably they slowed the improvement of teacher quality by protecting inept teachers. On the other, hand they may well speed it up by pressing for programs to upgrade quality.

The other remedy, alluded to in the column, is to adopt American solutions uncritically. The American educational system has its problems. It is not at all obvious they are the same as ours – as I pointed out, its average achievement is about a year behind New Zealand’s. When they introduce ‘charter schools’ (or whatever) they are dealing with their own particular issues. Were their charter schools, say, to progress average educational achievements by a year, they would only just catch up to New Zealand.

One factor may be the right wing dislike of a public education system. In my view there is a danger of it being monolithic, but I am moved by the American and other debates that argue for its values and achievement. I can see why neoliberals may be antagonistic to them.

Our tendency to grab others’ solutions without doing any hard thinking about how to adapt them (and where inappropriate reject them) for the particularities of New Zealand is an example of the colonial cringe which besets so much of our conventional wisdom – on the right and the left. It happens in many fields – not just in education. I have thought, on occasions, that my unwillingness to do this has not improved my reputation among those who wield power.

The column was, nevertheless, published elsewhere. News of its rejection caused a minor storm in educational circles. Apparently some teachers did not renew their Listener subscription; others said they would no longer encourage their students to read the Listener.

One venue was the Pundit blog. This was my first post and has had one of the highest hit rates, indicative, I take it, of the literacy of the educational establishment – hardly people one would want to put off reading the Listener.

I should have realised this was a signal my time as Listener economics columnist was coming to an end.