Friday, October 8, 2021

Roger Partridge: Well-educated workforce key to prosperity

"For every economist, there exists an equal and opposite economist." Or so satirists of the economics profession claim. The truth is most economists agree on most of economics. And even though they disagree on some things, all economists agree that human capital is critical for productivity. A country's prosperity depends on the skills, knowledge, and experience of its workforce.

Sadly, the stock of human capital in New Zealand is in long term decline. Or at least it is if you measure it by the educational achievement of successive generations of school leavers.

A growing proportion of children leave school unable to read an instruction manual or do basic maths. Over the past 20 years, New Zealand's education system has slipped from being the envy of the world to barely mediocre.

The Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study compares the literacy skills of Year 5 school children. In the latest study, New Zealand students placed last among all English-speaking countries. We were 24th out of all 26 participating OECD countries.

The international evidence shows a similar decline in mathematics. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study compares maths knowledge in Year 9 students. The most recent study in 2018/19 shows New Zealand students' maths knowledge in Year 9 has fallen below all other English-speaking countries.

The drop isn't because children from other countries have overtaken our students. The decline in ranking mirrors a decline in student attainment. By 2018, Kiwi children were 1.5 years' worth of schooling behind their peers just eighteen years earlier.

The results of a recent survey conducted by the Tertiary Education Commission are even more alarming. The Commission studied 800 Year 12 students, all of whom had successfully achieved NCEA Level 2. Forty percent failed to meet an international benchmark for functional literacy. Forty-two percent failed it for numeracy.

The New Zealand education system is also now one of the most unequal in the world. The gap between the educational "haves" and "have nots" eclipses all our English-speaking OECD peers.

And all this, despite government spending per child increasing in real terms by more than 30 per cent since 2001.

These trends are worrying enough. But the rise of automation, artificial intelligence, and pressures from developing economies compound the problem. Poorly educated school leavers will find it harder and harder to find jobs.

The country is fortunate that Kiwi students participate in international studies of student achievement. Our education system is so corrupt that data from our national assessment, NCEA, suggests education outcomes are improving rather than falling.

If NCEA data paints a picture of constant improvement, while almost all other measures disclose a decline, New Zealand has a fundamental problem with education assessment.

Two reports from New Zealand Initiative research fellow, Briar Lipson, identify the failings at the heart of NCEA. The first report, Spoiled by Choice. How NCEA hampers education, and what it needs to succeed, identifies a core part of the problem is NCEA's extreme flexibility. Students are presented with over 7,000 subject matter choices. Literacy and numeracy requirements are modest. These modest requirements aside, all subjects – from mathematics to meat processing – are valued equally.

This means well-advised or motivated students can still achieve a broad and valuable education under NCEA. However, for less fortunate students NCEA offers a plethora of safer options. The cost of NCEA's flexibility is huge inequality in student achievement. And of widening – and now alarming – levels of functional illiteracy and innumeracy.

Lipson's second report, New Zealand's Great Education Illusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world leading school system, was published last year. Relying on evidence from empirical studies and cognitive science, the report argues that the solution to New Zealand's education woes is to strengthen the role of knowledge in the New Zealand Curriculum.

Education reforms in England provide support for Lipson’s recommendations. Over the last decade, England undertook a dramatic overhaul of that country's national curriculum. The outcome has been remarkable. English students have shown dramatic increases in their scores in international assessments.

If New Zealand is to solve its poor educational outcomes, the evidence suggests similar reforms are needed here.

Education reform will benefit the economy. But the real winners will be the Kiwi school children the education system is currently failing.

Roger Partridge is chairman and a co-founder of The New Zealand Initiative - see HERE - and is a senior member of its research team.


Terry Morrissey said...

What has happened to the education system to put our young people so far behind others? What was wrong with the methods used in the 1940s,50s and 60s. When I was at school we learned our times table so that we could reel it off without missing a beat. Now if you ask a 12yr old what 9x6 is they will have to get out their bloody i-phone or tablet. Ask them what an adjective is, and you will be done for indecent language. Who in today’s education system can analyse a sentence? I include teachers in that question too. Do they test a child’s ability at mental arithmetic? Do the teachers know what it means? How do children get to secondary school level without literary skills?
When I was at primary school you had to complete written examination twice a year. The first one picked up any gaps in your knowledge and if you didn’t pass the end of year one you didn’t advance to the next class. If you passed the exam, you must be able to read.
If ninety-nine per cent of a class passes an exam that means that the teacher knows what he/she is about and probably the one per cent needs a bit of additional help or is just bloody idle. Often the latter and can be relied upon to be a disruption in class. If, however the pass rate is low and the students have succeeded in previous classes you have a problem with the teacher getting the message across and maybe he/she needs further training, a change in attitude or even employment.
The present idea that a student should not fail is absolute rubbish. If an ammunition technician is thirty percent wrong, he’s very likely dead!
Any teacher found to be trying to have an influence on the ideology of students, be that cultural, political or whatever, they should be invited to advance their preferred agenda elsewhere. That includes any personal bents of any kind. Wokisms.
. Kids just need be shown the way in a manner that gives them a challenge, without excessive pressure, is as enjoyable as school can be, with a certain level of discipline, and shown what the rewards can be.
Subjects should be limited to basics like maths, english, sciences with the usual off-shoots like accountancy, agriculture, wood and metal technology or the equivalent for girls. Any instruction in any language other than english should be at the responsibility and cost of the student and parents. There should not be courses at secondary that teach the likes of meat processing. That’s on-the-job training.
Education is surely not rocket science. For that you have to pay extra.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that as each level fails the next level falls - it is the employer who finally picks up the mess.

Business based on science and maths will become untenable.

You couldnt destroy what we had more effectively.
Well done Ministry of Education.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

There are at least 3 issues here.
One, the need for a primary education system that focuses primarily on the essential life skills of literacy and numeracy. We had that when I was a kid but something has gone badly wrong since then and this needs to be redressed.
Two, the need for a post-primary education system that presents learners with real options commensurate with their abilities and aptitudes. The NCEA does that quite well.
Three, the need for robust assessment mechanisms that mediate the transition from school to higher or further education. This requires external examinations. The NCEA does allow for that through externally-assessed Achievement Standards but for the sake of intra-cohort comparability I would like to see national exams like the old UB returning for students aiming for university admission.

maic said...

The solution to this problem lies in the hands of parents if they take the time and trouble to use it.
1. Demand school choice where the funding follows the child. To my best knowledge only one political party is promoting it.
2. Demand that a school who would like your child as a client sets out its
values, teaching approach and the knowledge and skills being taught to at each class level. In a school choice system school who can't or won't give satisfaction will lose pupils and fail.
3.Look at what proven successful schools both in New Zealand and overseas are accomplishing. In my own teaching days I compared and contrasted the Singapore Primary Curriculum with the train wreck of the one we had to work with - although good teachers did their best to teach what needed to be taught.
Decades ago our education system was a vehicle for preparing the child for worthwhile employment and a place in adult society.
Well the ideology of the left and the indifference of non left politicians have made this less possible.
The sad irony is that the Labour Party, once a champion of effective education for all but especially the children of the less well off, is mainly to blame.
Decades ago Tomorrow's School was launched to the sound of trumpets - perhaps it's the Last Post they should be playing now.
So, parents, take control back from the useless politicians and leftist ideologues. If you don't act now then who else will?

Ted said...

I left school with 'School C', and since then I have spent 50 years expanding and extending both my knowledge and skills from the basics and fundamentals i sweated over at school.
In the workplace, I have had the misfortune of having to industry-train school-leavers with NCEA L2, and even university graduates. With a very few notable exceptions they are all bloody useless. Whether it is because they have moved into an industry to which they are fundamentally poorly suited or some other reason I'm not sure.
One thing I do know is the abysmal level of literacy (being able to use a technical manual for instance), slightly more than basic numeracy and by that I mean addition and subtraction of fractions - yes there are a lot American manuals that still use inches and fraction thereof in the technical world, and even personal discipline. When it is necessary to explain to a university Electrical Engineering graduate the difference between resistance and impedance it makes me wonder what is missing.
The education system is, it seems, quite adept at teaching their charges all about their 'rights' and a whole lot of rather vaguely useful 'skills'. What ever happened to the basics that form the starting point for real learning once leaving the warm cocoon of school ?