Principals challenge Ministry of Education over student failure

By John Gerritsen for RNZ

Primary and intermediate school principals have accused the Education Ministry of a lack of leadership in tackling New Zealand children's declining performance.

The Principals Federation says achievement in maths and science in particular should be ringing alarm bells and schools need more direction on what they should be teaching and the best ways to teach it.

In a letter to the Secretary for Education Iona Holsted, the federation's president Perry Rush said New Zealand's falling scores had not provoked an urgent response and the lack of "thought leadership" was a serious weakness.

Holsted responded with a letter that said the ministry was already working on the problems the federation raised and schools already had the ability, and the funding for teacher training, to change how they teach.

However, she said the balance of power between schools and central agencies like the ministry was up for debate.

The federation's letter followed a string of poor results in a variety of tests. Last year, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study reported falling scores for New Zealand 9 and 13-year-olds, with the older children's results being their worst ever.

In 2019, New Zealand recorded its lowest scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of reading, maths and science among 15-year-olds.

Rush told RNZ his letter was prompted by those results and by New Zealand's own National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement which showed most children were achieving at the curriculum level expected of them in Year 4, but by Year 8 many were not, especially in science and maths.

"We're seeing declining rates of achievement," he said.

"The national monitoring of student achievement shows a very low level of achievement for our Year 8 students. We have 45 percent of Year 8 students in mathematics achieving at or above expectations in curriculum and only 20 percent in science. Now, those statistics should ring alarm bells," he said.

The school curriculum was deliberately generic with the intention that schools could adapt it to reflect the interests and needs of their local community, Rush said.

"There is a question about whether we have gone too far, whether localisation is damaging the ability of that curriculum to be nationally coherent."

The ministry should make clearer what was expected at each level of the curriculum and it should also review the requirements of level four of the curriculum, he said.

"We need more clarity when it comes to the knowledge that teachers and principals use when they're engaged in teaching and learning, so that's about what is in the curriculum.

"When it comes to something like the teaching of mathematics, yes, we need a conversation with our ministry around the appropriate approaches because there's growing concern about the Numeracy Project, about the efficacy of that teaching approach.

Perry Rush
Perry Rush Photo credit: Supplied to RNZ

"That approach has been in place for 20 years and there's been no movement away from the encouragement to continue to implement that even though we have many, many, many schools in our country dropping it."

Rush's letter said many principals missed the former system of centrally-funded advisory services that provided courses for teachers.

That had been replaced by a free-market in which schools decided for themselves what training to purchase for their teachers and which organisations would provide that training.

"If we are to make positive progress on achievement challenges and grow effective professional practice in a coordinated manner, we need nationally coordinated and coherent professional development (PLD) to limit the damage of the market-driven professional learning model that is currently in place," he wrote.

Rush also said principals had noticed that new teachers were avoiding taking older age groups in primary schools because they were worried they could not teach the required maths.

In her letter responding to the federation, Holsted said a maths strategic plan was a priority for the ministry this year and it was also working on a plan for literacy.

"The persistent inequities characteristic of our education system are concerning, as is the pattern of decline becoming evident in international studies. I am pleased that this is now high on the agenda for the New Zealand's Principals' Federation," she wrote.

She said the federation's concern about the extent of localised decision-making was echoed in the ministry's advice to Education Minister Chris Hipkins last year.

"We need to get the right balance of tight (at the centre) and loose (devolved) decision rights to engage education professionals, provide voice for ākonga/learners, whānau, families, communities and employers, and maintain high expectations across the system."

She said the ministry expected schools would use the money they received each year for professional development on training that was aligned with the curriculum and in the past four years the ministry had given $40 million to schools where maths training was a priority.

"This significant investment was not sufficient alone to change the achievement trajectory and suggests that our strategic action plan for mathematics needs to take a fresh look across the whole 'mathematics ecosystem' rather than just at PLD."

Holsted said the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) found most principals believed their teachers taught maths well, even though only 45 percent of Year 8 students were performing at the expected curriculum level.

"NMSSA shows that learners aren't getting enough mathematics teaching time, and that they aren't getting a good balance in their "maths diet" because teachers are not confident teaching what they don't know.

"I trust that leaders are looking at these findings and thinking about what that means for how they structure the curriculum in their schools, and for the support their teachers might need to be confident teachers of mathematics."

Holsted said the levels of achievement expected of Year 8 students were already under review and the ministry had commissioned the Royal Society to report on what children should be expected to know in maths at different stages of their schooling.