Saturday, April 27, 2024

Dr Oliver Hartwich: New Zealand's education revolution

In New Zealand, one of the most exciting education reforms in the world is quietly getting underway. Erica Stanford, the country’s new Education Minister, is on a mission to overhaul the education system from top to bottom – and she is leaving no stone unturned.

Stanford, a rising star in Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s cabinet, has hit the ground running since taking office in late 2023. In just a few short months, she has announced a suite of reforms that promise to fundamentally reshape the way New Zealand children are taught.

At the heart of Stanford’s agenda is a return to knowledge-rich curricula and explicit instruction in foundational skills. It is a decisive break from the child-centred, competency-based approach that has dominated New Zealand classrooms for decades.

Under the reforms, primary schools will be required to dedicate an average of one hour each per day to reading, writing and maths. While it is doubtful that the requirement will be rigorously enforced, it sends a strong signal that the Minister is serious about improvement in these crucial skills. Not that an hour for each of these core subjects should be too hard a challenge for schools.

Mobile phones will be banned during school hours to minimise distractions. Schools will be required to assess student progress in core subjects twice per year and to report the results to parents. And the curriculum will be reviewed to specify in detail the knowledge students must master at each year level.

Now, one might say that these policy measures are hardly rocket science. In a way, one could rather describe them as common sense or a “back to basics” approach. But it is precisely that which makes Stanford’s policies so revolutionary. For decades, the education establishment has not focussed sufficiently on the basics, nor even displayed common sense.

Perhaps Stanford’s most consequential change is a requirement for all primary schools to use a “structured literacy” approach to teaching reading. Structured literacy systematically and explicitly teaches children the key components of reading, including phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

The structured literacy mandate marks a seismic shift for New Zealand education. For years, the prevailing approach has been based on “whole language” theory, which assumes children learn to read naturally through exposure to books. Phonics and other foundational skills have often taken a backseat.

The results have been disastrous. New Zealand’s literacy rates have declined steadily over recent decades. On international assessments like PIRLS, the country now ranks well below other advanced nations. A shocking two-thirds of students failed the writing component of a recent pilot assessment for NCEA, the national assessment system.

Stanford is determined to reverse this trend. Her structured literacy push is backed by a mountain of evidence from cognitive science and reading research. Study after study has shown that explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and other key skills is the most effective way to teach reading – especially for students who struggle.

Crucially, Stanford is putting serious resources behind the reforms. Schools will receive extensive training and support to implement structured literacy in the classroom. Teachers will learn the science of reading and how to use direct instruction techniques.

It is a comprehensive, evidence-based approach that has few parallels in the world. If implemented well, it could transform the literacy landscape in New Zealand and provide a model for other countries to follow.

But Stanford’s ambitions extend beyond reading. Across the board, she is working to re-orient New Zealand education towards a knowledge-rich curriculum that specifies the content students must learn in each subject, at each grade level.

The curriculum reforms mark a rejection of the “21st century skills” philosophy that has long dominated New Zealand education. For years, the emphasis has been on generic competencies like “critical thinking” and “problem solving” rather than mastery of subject knowledge. Traditional academic disciplines have often been sidelined in favour of “project-based learning” and “student-led inquiry”.

Stanford argues this approach has badly shortchanged New Zealand children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. On that, she can point to a wealth of research showing that knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, critical thinking, and academic success. Students need a broad base of background knowledge to engage with complex texts and ideas.

By contrast, the skills-focused approach has often left students with significant gaps in their knowledge. Many arrive at university lacking even basic facts about history, science, and literature. Even worse, many lack basic writing skills, having made it through school never having written more than a paragraph at a time. The consequences are particularly acute for disadvantaged students, who are less likely to acquire academic knowledge or literacy at home.

Stanford’s solution is to create a sequenced, content-rich curriculum that builds knowledge systematically over time. The goal is to ensure all students, regardless of background, have access to the key facts, ideas and concepts that underpin each subject.

Of course, there will be resistance from some quarters of the education establishment, particularly those wedded to child-centred, inquiry-based approaches.

But cognitive research backs Stanford’s approach. It has consistently shown that explicit instruction, regular practice, and a strong foundation of background knowledge are essential for learning. Students do not acquire skills like critical thinking in a vacuum; they need a rich base of content knowledge to draw upon.

Stanford also has the strong backing of Prime Minister Luxon. Education reform was a central plank of the National Party’s successful 2023 election campaign. Luxon has staked his government’s credibility on lifting academic achievement and closing equity gaps.

As Stanford presses ahead with her reforms, there will undoubtedly be bumps along the way. But if she succeeds, the impact will be profound, and not just for New Zealand’s students.

New Zealand could provide powerful proof that a knowledge-rich curriculum and explicit instruction work. In a global education landscape still largely dominated by skills-based, constructivist thinking, Stanford’s agenda would offer a compelling counter-narrative.

Other countries will be watching New Zealand closely in the years ahead. If Stanford can demonstrate that a knowledge-rich curriculum, coupled with explicit, research-based instructional methods, can lift achievement at scale, it could have far-reaching implications for education policy around the world.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative think tank. This article was first published HERE.


EP said...

Seems promising, but don't we still have hundreds of drones from the Ministry, who need to be ousted?

mudbayripper said...

A very positive assessment of New Zealands education system moving towards a better future.
As optimistic as you are, I see you make no mention of the saturation of class rooms from early education through to university of all things Māori.
As through out New Zealands cultural heritage, Māori should only play a limited roll. The same must apply to educational instruction.
Is Erica Stanford moving to deal with this serious aspect of what our children are taught.
If this issue is not addressed then a first class rating on the world stage will never be achieved.

Anonymous said...

Hopefully this will this get rid of the bizzare idea that all children are gifted academically
and that all children must be sheltered at all costs from competition and ranking.

I am so over stupid children being carefully labelled as 'dyslexic' or 'autistic' or similar as a badge of honour to protect them.

Instead, identify them, be honest, find what they can do, and hopefully they can lead useful lives.

Am I sounding hard? These days, the only way to get a message across.

Anonymous said...

schools already report progress every quarter - i can speak for a decile 1 & a decile 9 public school. the question is whether parents bother even reading the report. most of the challenge in low-decile schools is broken homes and consequent lack of engagement. this allows most teaching staff to get away with song, dance & sport without achieving any measurable outcomes. the intergenerational cycle of nonsense continues :(

Gaynor said...

Thank you, Oliver for this excellent summary of what desperately needs to be done.

What is missing is the disturbing fact that primary teachers have been for too long thoroughly brainwashed into progressive ideology and they also have abysmal ignorance of how to actually teach with, as we of an older age group would recognize as explicit instruction.

As a maths and reading tutor, teaching traditionally for decades I came to recognize this with specifically teaching children to memorize the times tables. Primary teachers were astonished that young children could rote learn off these facts. They didn't even believe it was possible to achieve this simply with constant repetition which cognitive science now reinforces.

Also, I believe it is a mistake, your otherwise admirable, organization,
has, in not involving parents who have not been so thoroughly brainwashed. This involvement was part of NZ's excellent educational tradition. It is true that times are different with both parents needing to spend hours earning a living but unlike teachers they have a more vested interest in their own children's future.

Involving parents means humbly acknowledging even fairly uneducated parents can be good teachers of the basics, given the right material without educabbable and technical terminology. The tyranny of professionalism was part of
Progressive education's subtle strategies in undermining the basics. Parents have been told they are too ignorant to help their child with what are ridiculous abstract concepts deliberately introduced to confound them. The basic sounds of English words became phonemes and basic manipulations jn maths became algorithms which includied a multiple of insane strategies which are just two examples of this obstructive nonsense.

Please remember, it unfortunately was academia that largely destroyed our world class education beginning in about the 1940s. Centuries ago we threw out Latin documents in the professions. Now we need to rid the landscape of psycho- and educa-babble.

Ross said...

I hope she is successful , but given 30% of primary school teachers said in a survey they did not feel confident in teaching basic maths, then there is a massive problem in teacher training that has to be addressed ( not just this issue, many more).

There will obviously have to be HUGE training programs for teachers on the "new" way of teaching reading. Many if not most teachers will have learnt to read with the "whole language theory".

Having said that I totally agree with the approach she is taking and hope critics allow plenty of time for the changes to get established.

Hazel Modisett said...

The govt needs to stay out of education & leave the process up to parents & teachers, instead the entirety of govt has become top heavy & burdensome, with too many unnecessary regulations & WAY too much cost. The ever increasing number of home-schooled kids proves that they & their parents have had enough of being told what to learn & how to learn it...

Aldousk said...

"For years, the prevailing approach has been based on “whole language” theory, which assumes children learn to read naturally through exposure to books."

So a child placed in a roomful of books will, by some magical process, learn to read. It is true that some children would - never underestimate a clever child. I would not have.

Anonymous said...

Hi wish I could get so enthused. Until Holsted & Co. are gone, I see considerable resistance and push back at every turn. And I hope that hour a day is one each on the 3R's as a minimum.
And is she going to rid the system of CRT and the fluid gender discussion nonsense, particularly in our Primary Schools? We so desparately need to get back to the basics and away from woke.

Terry Morrissey said...

Possibly need a good clean out of the Ministry of Education before there is any chance of improvement. That would mean from the Secretary of Education down until you strike some sort of decent base to work from. If the kids are not learning the teachers are obviously not doing what they are paid for so the qualification for teaching is not adequate. Review the basic syllabus for teachers also.

Anonymous said...

As parents and teachers have been less well educated through lowered standards it is only natural that the
next generation will be educated to a lower level. Parents often have filled in gaps left by teachers.
But firstly, the kids need to be in school. A major deterrent to attendance must be the incessant bullying that goes on. To counteract that I think schools should have an anti-bullying programme that permeates all aspects of the day. Any child caught bullying should have to make personal apologies in front of the whole class or assembly. There could be a whole bunch of them lined up, looking sheepish and mumbling sorry. They wouldn't want to do it too much.

Anonymous said...

One hopes that she instructs the Ministry she leads to cancel its contract with the odious, New Zealand Council for Educational Research as soon as possible to eliminate its subversive influence upon school curricula.

Anonymous said...

Cannot succeed without a clean-out of the Ministry.'

Like universities' renovation.

Why do Ministers lack the courage ( or the brains?) to tackle the whole job and the root cause of the problems?

Ms Stanford herself has publicly commented on the importance of " partnership with Iwi"... this will guarantee failure for her plan.

Robert Arthur said...

It should be simple to pick up pre 1960s teacher books as a guide. One defect is that much reading material was very uninspiring. Farmyard stories 70 years past topical followed by the incredibly insipid Janet and John. Teachers acheived nonetheless. A problem today is the greater gulf in backgrounds. Decades ago near all were instilled with colonist derived drive. Near all mums were at home. English was the language. Even wealthy families had few books. Near all parents understood phonics and simple arithmetic methods and could guide at home. Nevertheless going back pre war, when teachers acheived with huge classes, failing served to stream children according to their ability. Teachers effectively taught one class, not a myriad simultaneously, as now with many children consequently disconnected and dispirited. The modern mix is a huge burden. But streaming will acquire race associated characteristics so the WT will insist that all are restrained to the level of recent emergers from the stone age, the level achieved currently.

Greengrass said...

I wish Erica Stanford well. I am a retired ‘Old School’ era teacher/principal, a product of Ardmore Teachers’ College (1966-67 cohort). You know – back when we had education and not edutainment.
Curriculum, no matter how good, is doomed without the supportive elements.

Here are some of basic components required for successful learning:
• A teacher with the professional skills, knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject they teach – Training;
• An interesting, realistic, focused curriculum – developed via Teachers’ Professional bodies, (NZEI & PPTA);
• Intellectual readiness of the students to cope at the level of difficulty - Streaming;
• Effective planning and preparation by the teacher – Teaching Standards/Training;
• Adequate non-contact time in which to do the preparation – Staffing;
• Adequate resources, (texts, teaching aids and materials), for the subject - Budget;
• An environment that is conducive to learning – School infrastructure;
• Order in the classroom – School Behaviour Management Strategy;
• Co-operative liaison with parents /guardians - PTA;
• The tone of the school – the Principal.
No, I did not get this from any official publication. I got it from experience.

Over the years, we have seen education transformed by academics, who have spent more time pursuing academic careers in university, than in the classroom at the chalk-face, learning what works and what doesn’t.
These people end up with the departmental jobs and the power to inflict the damage that has brought about the state of affairs we have today.
I recall being rebuked, “we do not teach times tables by rote anymore, they are children, not parrots”.
A funny thing was, that my parrots progressed in mathematics ahead of a parallel class in the same school.
Another detrimental factor has been the politicization of education and the over-emphasis upon culture.
If you read the article I wrote for NZCPR entitled, “The Tail Wagging The Dog”: you will see what I mean. Need I say more?

The best principals, in the best schools I have taught in, saw their role as providing the conditions where the teachers could do their job without impediment. They did not toss their responsibilities onto the teachers with multi-layered disciplinary ladders. No yellow reports, orange reports, or red reports. Paperwork took up valuable time. The teachers did the teaching, the deans handled minor discipline and the principal handled the serious disciplinary cases. The principal backed up the staff ‘if they were in the right’.
Thanks to David Lange’s introduction of Boards of Trustees, the powers once held by principals have been usurped by the parents, the pupils now manipulate their parents and their parents hold the ‘whip hand’ over the principals. The pupils hold the power.

In both Australia and in New Zealand, ‘Order in the classroom and on the campus’ has become a critical issue not only for the welfare of students and teachers, but also for lessons to proceed without undue interruption.
In Australia, teachers are leaving the profession in droves because of bad student behaviour.
I have experienced cases where the school administration has deemed the ‘rights & needs’ of one disruptive student to take priority over the rights and needs of a whole class. This is ‘WOKE’ thinking.
The Education System needs to eradicate the ‘WOKE’ administrators.
The system needs to listen to feed-back from the grass roots.

Any new curriculum needs to address all the elements and not just subject content and teaching strategies.

Don said...

What has happened to the Daily Register of Attendance? All teachers had to check it each morning and afternoon and absences were strictly monitored.
It was a required duty of teachers to keep it and check it. Truancy was followed up and very difficult for pupils to commit. Perhaps it is just another feature of discipline and enforcement that has been abandoned lest it interfere with the freedom of individual pupils (oops - students) to do as they like.