The latest PISA results are out, and NZ – despite remaining in the 'above the average' group for OECD countries – has nonetheless slipped in this measure of achievement in reading, maths administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment . This is of concern, & there are probably multiple complex causes for our decline. Certainly the previous PISA commentary (2009) recommended that we pay attention to matters of inequality (There's interesting commentary here, & also on the RNZ website.)
This morning's Dominion-Post (I'm in Wellington at the moment, at a teaching symposium) carries a story giving a primary-teaching perspective.There are two key issues here: many primary teachers lack a science or maths background; and primary teachers in general are not well supported to teach these specialist sujects. (The removal of specialist science advisors - something I've commented on previously - did not help things.) This is important, because if students don't gain a good understanding of these subjects – and good experiences of them! – during primary school, then they'll basically be playing catch-up when they arrive in specialist secondary school classrooms. Sir Peter Gluckman's suggestion (in his report Looking ahead: science education in the 21st century) that each primary school have a 'science champion' would help here, but in the medium-to-long term it would probably be even better if intending primary school teachers received much greater exposure to the STEM subjects to begin with.
Should we worry? Yes, but I definitely agree with Fiona Ell, from the University of Auckland, who's quoted in this morning's Herald as saying:
People get very hung up on the ranking … because it's like a Top of the Pops top 10 thing. I don't think they should be ignored … but knee-jerk reactions to rankings are really dangerous in education systems.
So, there are issues that we need to address, and as Fiona's pointed out, there are no quick fixes – we need to deal with them in a considered way that includes as many variables as possible (i.e. not just practices in schools).
One of those issues is highlighted by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's Science Adviser, who's said:
What's worrying is that there seems to have been a decline in the people represented in the top end of the scale and an increase in the number of people at the bottom end of the scale.
And socioeconomic status may well play a part in this. From the Herald story:
New Zealand was one of just two countries in which socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student's performance. Some countries' education systems made up for social disadvantage, but this was not the case in New Zealand.
So any solution addressing the PISA results will of necessity be complex. It's not going to be sufficient to look only at what's going on in schools. Yes, support and professional development for STEM teaching across the compulsory sector will be needed. The quality of teaching is definitely important (for a student's perspective see the Herald article). But without also seriously considering and attempting to deal with the social inequalities in this country, I suspect changes in the educational sector alone will not be enough.