Claiming New Zealand's education system is not world class because some students are struggling is simplifying the problem, a Western Bay principal says.
"I'm sure that every system achieving well in the world can point to groups that are under-achieving," president of the Western Bay of Plenty Principals' Association Robert Hyndman said.
"One of the only ones that doesn't have that is Finland, which is a monocultural group."
Secretary for education Lesley Longstone has drawn criticism after saying New Zealand cannot claim to have a world class education system until achievement levels for students across the board are raised.
"The system is still under-performing for Maori and Pasifika learners and learners from communities with significant social and economic challenges," she wrote in the ministry's annual report.
"While our education system continues to under-perform for these learners, we are not entitled to call ourselves world class."
Just last week, Education Minister Hekia Parata boasted that our education system was among the best in the world, in reference to World Teachers' Day.
Mr Hyndman, who is principal of Brookfield School, said Ms Longstone's comments reflected a wider issue.
"Maori and Pacific Island [students] are under-achieving compared with other groups."
However, links to socio-economic circumstances in these under-achieving groups should not be ignored, he said.
"Those groups have been identified because they can be, in terms of ethnicity. [But] you've got to dig into the data a lot deeper.
"Obviously her opinion is that you can't be a world class system unless you have no groups doing less well than others.
"It's probably not shared by others in the education sector," he said
Ms Longstone's statement has riled sector groups.
"It's unduly harsh ... New Zealand does have a world class education system," Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh said.
Ms Longstone's comments ignored the real issue that many learners were struggling with, he said.
The release of national standards data showed under-achievement was greater at low decile schools in lower socio-economic areas.
"It's not the education system but poverty which is the cause of the under-achievement."
Mr Walsh also warned that Ms Longstone's statement could devalue the reputation of New Zealand schools overseas, making it difficult to recruit international students.
The report is the latest cause of friction between teachers and state education officials.
Proposed Canterbury school mergers, problems with the new teachers' payroll system, publication of national standards data and Ms Parata's comments about the poor pronunciation of Maori and Pasifika names in schools have all been sore points for teachers in recent weeks.
Educational Institute president Ian Leckie said teachers had taken offence at the latest comments.
"It's unbecoming of someone leading New Zealand's education system to actually be downgrading its own effectiveness and the success of all the work that thousands and thousands of teachers and support staff do out there."
According to OECD data, New Zealand is fourth in the world in reading and rates highly for maths and science, he said. "There are areas that we do need to focus on."
Ms Longstone said yesterday her comments referred to the entire education system, not to teacher performance.