School report

LAST WEEKEND, IN a bid to compress a wet Sunday, I drove my two young boys out to the seaside suburb where I'd lived a decade earlier. At the fish and chip shop a familiar face greeted us from behind the counter; his smile as wide as ever, his English as faltering.

‘How are your boys?’ I asked. ‘Must be at college now.’ I remembered them just starting primary school, already working the cash register, or off to the side, bent over their homework.

The proud father shook his head. ‘Otago.’

I had seen this look on his face once before. Some years ago I had been the judge at a writing competition, a sort of literary theatresports, and his eldest son had been competing. The father had sat at the back of the room alone, surely understanding little of it, just happy to watch his son moving effortlessly through the rituals of a foreign culture.

‘Medicine?’ I asked.

The father shook his head, and tapped his front teeth with his finger. Dentistry.

Such is the power of education. The immigrant child, brought up in a home where very little English is spoken, the family working long hours for meagre rewards, the son heading off each day to a school where everything is foreign, and coming out the other end as a dentist. Or a lawyer, or an artist, or an actor or the owner of a trucking company. When education works, it delivers opportunity. In social policy, there are precious few silver bullets. A well-resourced, inclusive education system might just be one of them.

Yet, talk to any teacher, and the counter-examples flow. The fifteen-year-old, for whom truancy is a well-established habit, whose flashes of charm and enthusiasm are swamped by long stretches of surliness and disengagement. Despite ten years in one of the world’s leading education systems, he (and more often than not, it is a he) struggles to read; a fact he expends great time and energy hiding from the world. He senses his teachers expect little of him and would rather he wasn’t there. He will leave early, bereft of qualifications, low in confidence and easily sold on the proposition that the world is against him. If the dentist-to-be is our success story, this boy, and thousands like him, is the face of our failure.

Between these two extremes sit the great bulk of the student population. Those who are developed by the experience, but not transformed. They acquire the basic skills they need to function in the modern world, and along the way, hopefully, find the chance to develop their curiosity and their passion. Their days are held together with the things we remember from our own school years: the sport, the musicals, the film making, friendships, camps, dances and social intrigues. Most of the time they are happy enough to be at school and then, when the time comes, they are happy enough to leave.

The challenge of the modern education system is simply expressed. How to serve the dentist and save the delinquent, and do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the quality of the experience for the other three quarters? For most of our students, we are doing a remarkable job. A world-beating job, in fact, and far too little is made of this. For a significant minority of our students, we are doing something even more important. We are providing the means by which they can break the constraints of circumstance, and that too must be celebrated.

But the rest, we fail. Disproportionately Māori and Pasifika, disproportionately the victims of poverty, disproportionately male and disproportionately the children of parents with low levels of formal education, these students are, academically speaking, untouched by the system. They leave without work habits, drive or qualifications, and for the rest of their lives, they pay the price. So will their children, their communities and, by extension, all of us.

Somehow, the same schools and teachers that year in, year out produce success in a hundred flavours, also produce the most abject failure. Something is going wrong. What exactly that something is, and what we might be able to do to reverse it, is no easy question. If it were, we wouldn’t have the problem, and nor would any of the other countries that battle it. It turns out that across the developed world, educating most students is a fairly straightforward task, while educating a small portion of them is exceptionally difficult. Difficult here, difficult in the US, difficult in the UK, difficult in France, difficult pretty much anywhere you care to look.

THE MOST EXTENSIVE snapshot we have of student attainment is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): surveying more than seventy countries which between them account for 85 per cent of the world’s GDP. The latest data available at time of writing is from the 2009 survey, although the 2012 survey is due soon. In the accompanying report on inequality, which focuses on the reading ability of fifteen-year-olds, New Zealand stands out for all the wrong reasons.

Three particular statistics demand explanation. In the gap between top and bottom New Zealand is very close to being the country with the highest overall spread of grades (France, Belgium and Israel have similar profiles). To be fair, this is in part due to how very well our top students do. Only students in Shanghai, China, outperform them, and that’s the population of a single city compared to our much broader social profile. So our teaching of the very able is not just good, it’s outstanding. Still, that’s the not the whole story, and the ability gap between our top and bottom students cannot be dismissed.

Second, when individual results are plotted against socio-economic background, New Zealand has the steepest gradient of all the countries surveyed (narrowly pipping France for this dubious honour). This means that our education system is particularly poor at overcoming economic disadvantage or, in reverse, social disadvantage in New Zealand is particularly good at resisting education’s attempt to mitigate it. Either way, the educational price a student pays for being poor is greater in New Zealand than in any other surveyed nation. If one of the noblest goals of an education system is to break the cycle of intergenerational deprivation, then not only is New Zealand failing, but failing spectacularly.

Third, and most intriguingly, the survey asked students whether they were read to in the home as children. And again, New Zealand is an outlier. Not being read to made a more marked impact on academic aptitude for New Zealand fifteen-year-olds than their peers in any other country. This appears to reinforce the previous statistic. For the child who starts off a step behind, be it in terms of material wealth or exposure to books in the home, the chances of catching up are slimmer in New Zealand than in any other surveyed country.

Taken in isolation, these three figures probably overstate the case for the prosecution. If we focus on the proportion of students who fall below what the PISA survey considers the minimum literacy level for fifteen-year-olds, New Zealand doesn’t look so bad. The OECD average is 25 per cent for boys and 13 per cent for girls respectively. New Zealand’s numbers are 21 per cent and 8 per cent. By this measure, our ability to educate bottom end students is above average. In fact, only a handful of countries do significantly better with their real strugglers.

The PISA survey considers the percentage of what it terms ‘resilient’ students, those classified as coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, but nevertheless doing well academically. Escaping, if you like, their educational fate. And here, despite poverty having a greater overall effect in New Zealand, resilience levels are slightly better than average. This is a statistic that demands explanation. Although relative poverty has a significant effect on educational achievement, a great number of those from poorer backgrounds do very well.

Finally, New Zealand is notable for having much of its variance in achievement occurring within, rather than between, schools. In other words, it is not that there is a large split between schools with a lot of top achieving students, and schools with a lot of strugglers. Rather, a great many of our strugglers are working within the same institutions, and with the same teachers, as their world-beating peers.

As the principal of Wellington College, Roger Moses, recently noted, it’s hard to believe that the same teachers who function so well when teaching the best students, turn into instructional also-rans when confronted with less able or motivated students.

A study of Pasifika achievement in primary, secondary and tertiary sectors sought to identify the characteristics of those teachers noted for their success with Pasifika students. The final list of attributes will come as no surprise to those familiar with general teacher effectiveness research. Pasifika students do best when there are strong positive relationships between teacher and student, when they sense the teacher cares for them, when the teacher is enthusiastic, and passionate about their subject. Which is to say these students, whose overall achievement profile is significantly below the national average, do best when exposed to exactly the same sort of teaching that works with every type of student. Good teaching is good teaching, and that too needs to be borne in mind when considering the nature of our failure.

WHAT STORY SHOULD we tell, then? Why, in such a high-performing education system, do roughly 15 per cent of students fail to reach the minimum standard? Part of the answer might lie with those very few countries that manage to do better with their bottom end students. Consider the list of over-achievers: South Korea, Finland and two Chinese cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Canada, although not quite in the elite group, significantly outperforms New Zealand. So, what do they have that we don’t? It is very hard to look past remarkably homogenous populations. Which is to say the language in which the instruction occurs is also the first language in the students’ home, the cultural mores of the institutions are comfortable and familiar, most of the students were born in the country in which they’re being educated, and perhaps most crucially, there is no easily identified cultural group dominating the bottom end numbers. The New Zealand situation is rather different.

At the 2006 census, 24 per cent of the under-18 population identified as Māori, 12 per cent as Pasifika, and 10 per cent Asian. Although this will double-count some, close to half of our students do not identify as being solely European, in an education system founded on European traditions and values. It’s a proportion that’s growing. Pasifika and Māori students dominate the educational tail. National Standards data for 2012 shows Pasifika students trail badly in reading, writing and maths. Only 57 per cent of Pasifika students met the standard for writing, for example, against a national average of 70 per cent. Māori, at 60 per cent, are also significantly behind. At the other end of school experience, 87 per cent of Asian school leavers have Level 2 or better, compared with 80 per cent of Pākehā, 65 per cent of Pasifika, and 55 per cent of Māori (note the switch between Māori and Pasifika results here). Hekia Parata, the Minister of Education, has targeted our Level Two achievement rate, aiming to raise the proportion of eighteen-year-olds with this qualification by a quarter to 85 per cent. It’s a laudable aim, and as the Minister has said, this will largely come about by changing the achievement profiles of Māori and Pasifika students. So, it seems that our reading of the international data needs to be slightly modified. Although socio-economic inequality is a significant driver of educational inequality in New Zealand, the effect is particularly pernicious for Māori and Pasifika students.

Part of this might be to do with the way poverty manifests itself. While children’s developmental paths are remarkably robust and a great deal of middle-class angst over home environment (how much television is too much, when should music lessons begin, what is the right age for an iPad?) is nothing more than recreational anxiety, there is an obvious limit. At a certain level of neglect, violence, drug exposure and domestic chaos, long-term damage to intellectual capacity occurs.

There is a point at which material poverty translates into a poverty of spirit: families and indeed communities come apart at the seams, and children simply aren’t provided with the minimum requirements of safe developmental environment. In such cases, while education can do a certain amount to address the deficits, it’s an extremely expensive and labour-intensive process, and nobody should be surprised when we fail. In this regard, it might be that part of our educational tail is a function of the kind of poverty we’ve allowed to become embedded. Some support for this view can be found in the fact that other indications of child safety, be they levels of preventable disease, abuse or youth suicide, all show New Zealand doing poorly by international standards. It could well be that schools are failing the most vulnerable students for exactly the same reason that hospitals or justice systems are apparently failing them. Which is to say part of the solution to underachievement will lie forever beyond the reach of the school. What that solution might look like is beyond the scope of this essay, but it seems worth noting that the benefit cuts of the mid-1990s, which at the time felt brutal, have never been restored, and that the Working For Families scheme, which provided some protection for the children of the working poor, has never been extended to the children of beneficiaries. As a society, we seem oddly comfortable directing punishment at the most vulnerable, and it’s hard to believe history will judge us kindly for it.

IT’S A MISTAKE however, to conclude there is nothing schools can do about underachievement. While the allure of the Once Were Warriors cliché is great, it’s not the case that all our underachievement can be laid at the doorstep of the broken. Although the broken homes narrative simultaneously serves the needs of the talkback right (close the borders, sterilise the ferals) and the dinner party left (we can’t expect them to achieve, poor things) it leaves far too much unexamined. Over the years I’ve taught many students who have struggled to acquire academic skills, and only a small portion of them have fit the profile of the damaged child. In my experience, most of our failing students are capable of learning. They’re curious, they can think through problems, very often possess strong social and verbal skills, and their families care for them deeply. Poverty is part of the equation, to be sure, but only part. And given that education provides a means of breaking the poverty cycle, it’s important not to let schools off the hook entirely.

One area that’s certainly worth looking at more closely is literacy. Most children, if left to their own devices, will learn to speak and listen just by being exposed to the language. This is an incredible thing to witness, as any parent knows. Children quickly cope with grammatical structures so complex that even the experts struggle to explain them, and they do it in whatever language, or languages, happen to be on offer in their environment. They’re language geniuses, each and every one of them, although by the time they reach secondary school very few of them believe it. They’re more inclined to think they’re not very good at communicating, because in schools the currency of language is not the spoken word, but the written one. And unlike speaking, a facility for reading and writing doesn’t emerge spontaneously.

In evolutionary terms, speaking and listening are innate, while reading and writing are cultural add-ons, skills we’ve developed by co-opting existing capacities. And that means this ability is much more vulnerable to environmental influences. Learned skills like literacy (or golf, or violin) refine with repetition. Some children grow up in homes that are full of books. They are read to from the youngest age, and develop an ear for the peculiar rhythms and conventions of the written word. They have the shapes of letters pointed out to them; subconsciously, the adults around them sound out words, breaking them down into phonetic units. We, the middle-class parents, almost without thinking, train our children to succeed in the written world. And so they get ahead, just as the child who’s surrounded by music, dance or song appears to have a natural aptitude.

By contrast, Pasifika children spring from a culture where the spoken word, rather than the written word, is king. In terms of reading and writing, they start school well behind the average, and given how much of what happens in education relies upon the written word, that gap has a tendency to reinforce itself. The fundamental mismatch between communication in the home and communication in school, places them at a severe disadvantage.

There are things we can do to break this cycle. One is to attempt to level the playing field through early intervention. From books-in-homes programs, to increasing participation in early childhood education, to throwing far more of the teaching resource into the early reading/writing experience, there are ways of assisting literacy assimilation.

Closely related is the emerging role digital communication plays in literacy development. Here we may be moving towards a more level playing field, in that smartphones, tablets et al don’t come with generations of user traditions, in the way that books do. It’s not impossible that these sorts of devices will become commonplace in homes where books never were. After all, it’s happened with televisions, and it would be interesting to measure whether there’s as big a gap in visual literacy. I suspect there isn’t. As digital interaction becomes the dominant mode of written communication, then, it could be that within a generation one of the mechanisms of exclusion will break down.

The obvious problem with such optimism is affordability. At the moment, information technology is something of a privileged kids’ preserve, and part of the reason is surely financial. If, in our headlong rush to modernise, we neglect to address this, then a tool that has the potential to dramatically reduce inequality could end up having the opposite effect. A policy priority has got to be ensuring equality of access. One low decile school, Point England in Glen Innes, Auckland, has provided a wonderful example of how this might be done, setting up a free Wi-Fi service for those living in the zone. Smart thinking of this type will be hugely influential.

To the extent that literacy is the problem, surely the policy priority is early intervention, which might be paid for by moving money away from the tertiary and secondary sectors, and into pre-school and early primary. Secondary teachers will scream, but you ought to ignore us. Next, you actively encourage the teaching and assessing of a much broader range of communication skills and lastly, you think long and hard about how to ensure the digital age doesn’t become another mechanism for protecting privilege.

LANGUAGE MATTERS, AND so do expectations. The biggest change you notice, in moving from a low to high decile school, is the students’ sense of what is possible. Kids move on to become lawyers, filmmakers, airline pilots and politicians, because nobody ever told them they couldn’t. And they know people who are already doing these things: friends of their parents, older brothers and sisters. In high decile schools, far less work has to be done to motivate students, because they already sense the value of education. They see the way it has opened doors for the people they know, and they want through.

Often, in a low decile school, the opposite is the case. We can tell them they ought to work, because good grades are the passport to a life of choice and opportunity, but if they’re never met a person who, having achieved at school, went on to reap the rewards, it’s an awfully hard sell. This effect is exacerbated when identity is so readily defined by race. To be Pākehā, Asian, Māori or Pasifika is to already belong to a group, and the problem of ‘nobody I know ever became a doctor’ gets the added sting of ‘and nobody I know who looks like me ever became a doctor either.’ Students gravitate naturally towards those areas where success and status seem most assured, and many judge in advance that place is not the classroom. So they develop their alternative social structures, mimicking expertly the rituals of measurement, competition and exclusion we practice in the school. Further support comes from the kinds of positive discrimination programs that get the political right so easily riled, the targeted scholarships, and indeed quotas. Again, we need more of it, and we need it soon.

Even more insidious than low personal expectations, are the low expectations that we in the teaching profession also have of Māori and Pasifika students. Given that nobody goes into the profession wanting to do damage, it may well also be the area where the biggest gains can be made. It’s not the case that the teaching profession is inherently racist, although that incendiary term does get thrown about when somebody’s looking for attention. The problem is much more subtle than that. Probably the biggest impact we make on our students is through the feedback we give them. Education is essentially a process of observing, critiquing and giving hints for future progress. Sitting beneath every such interaction is a calculation of the student’s capability and potential. If you think a student has just handed in their very best work, you’re more likely to focus on the strengths than the flaws. As one teacher recently put it, ours is the task of making an A- seem a failure, and a C+ feel like a badge of honour. We manage student progress by setting goals that are both challenging and achievable.

The better we are at making such judgments, the more effective we are as teachers. Unfortunately, the human mind is an incorrigible pattern maker, and without us even realising, we use all sorts of markers to help us form our expectations. From the way a student dresses, to the eye contact they give us, to what their older brother was like, to, inevitably, skin colour. For most of us, in the past, Māori and Pasifika students failed in our classrooms in greater numbers than their peers. And that makes it tremendously difficult not to adjust our expectations downward when the next brown face walks through the door. The students know it, and so their own lowered expectations are reinforced by the style of feedback and interaction they are given. Talk to them and they will tell you, with a great degree of accuracy, who believes in them and who doesn’t. The habit of underestimating is so ingrained, and so subconscious, the only way to reverse it is through deliberate and repeated practice. Te Kotahitanga is one program that, amongst other things, works to this principle, and it appears to have had significant success. So there’s another place where change could occur, and it’s not massively expensive. But, because it’s about changing habits, in this case the teachers’, it requires constant practice and reinforcement over a long period. Very often, programs like this are embraced enthusiastically at the start, but it’s difficult to maintain the momentum.

There are other things we ought to do in this regard. Although, by international standards, we’re very lucky in that the difference between schools isn’t great, that’s a profile that’s shifting. The increasing obsession with getting one’s children into the right school, and the way the media has played accomplice to our hysteria, hardly helps. We see house price premiums in certain school zones, and the clear effect of white flight as parents seek to protect their children from the reality that ours is a Pacific nation. The imperative must be to maintain high quality public education across the board. Similarly, the current fashion for streaming classes very often has the effect of sorting by race. It has to be worth looking at the mechanisms driving this particular fashion.

FINALLY, ONE LAST fish and chip story. I remember once being interrogated while I waited for a burger. The dentist-to-be’s mother was interested in my financial status. How much did I earn each week? What did I pay in rent? How about petrol, groceries? As I gave my apologetic answers I could see her doing the calculations. Eventually she arrived at the crucial question, ‘So, how much you save each week?’

I shrugged and mumbled ‘not much’, which translated into ‘nothing at all’ in both our languages. She couldn’t hide her surprise, but was polite enough to keep her disdain in check. I imagine she thought ‘stupid, lazy, white man.’ Certainly she struggled to understand how one could care so little for the future. And that’s the thing about education. Ultimately it’s an investment, its rules stacked in favour of those who instinctively value current sacrifice for future reward. For my part, I have always enjoyed playing in the moment, following my interests and curiosities and assuming tomorrow will look after itself. These days it is my lot to watch some of my peers from university, where I studied economics, appearing in photographs in the business section of the newspaper (I flick through it on the way to the sport). They appear far wealthier than me, they wear suits and determined smiles, and no doubt their handshakes are firm. Not once though, have I thought I’d rather be them.

Which is a roundabout way of saying academic success should be seen as a means, not an end. A great many of our best students suffer from anxiety disorders, and are so attuned to external approval that they have lost all sense of what it is they want. We see international league tables and instinctively read the top as good and the bottom as bad. But schools do so very much more than provide academic competency. It’s far more important our children can make friends, care for one another, and find reasons each day to smile. Politicians will tell us that unless our students can keep with the Finns or the Koreans, we’ll lose our economic competitiveness, but, if I may make brief use of my degree, it’s a misleading argument. Competitiveness is a thoroughly misunderstood concept, relying as it does on a false analogy. Productivity is far more a function of capital investment than education. The fool with a truck can shift an awful lot more dirt than the genius with a wheelbarrow.

And so, when next you consider our educational tail, and feel an urge to wonder how it is we can better teach the Māori and Pasifika communities, you might also reflect how we could better learn from them.


The 2012 PISA data released after this essay was written shows a significant drop in overall attainment levels for NZ students, while the inequality issues identified in this essay remain.

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