In a recent speech, Pita Sharples raised the challenge of Maori under-achievement in schools, suggesting open entry for Maori students to universities as one solution.
In response, many people have described this as "institutionalised racism" that tells Maori "they have to be given things without the background work because they are too stupid to earn them as he did".
Dr Sharples is right to point out that at present, compulsory schooling is not working for many Maori students. While 66 per cent of Asian and 44 per cent of European students leave school with University Entrance and/or Level 3 NCEA, only 20 per cent of Pacific and 18 per cent of Maori students currently gain these qualifications.
This is a major problem, not just for Maori and Pacific people, but for all New Zealanders. While New Zealand has a relatively youthful population, an increasing proportion of these young people are from Maori, Pacific and/or low-income families.
Unless these students can succeed in higher education, gaining the skills required to drive an internationally competitive economy, the country is unlikely to prosper.
Recognising this, the Crown has supported the Starpath Project headed by Associate Professor Liz McKinley, which aims to identify when and where Maori, Pacific and low-income students begin to fail, and initiatives that make a positive difference.
Starpath has made some interesting discoveries.
First, while the education system in New Zealand is charged with ensuring that all students fulfil their potential, in fact the management of educational data has more to do with the distribution of resources rather than with tracking the long-term success or failure of students.
As a result, schools are often unaware when bright students begin to fail; or when groups of students (say, Maori boys) begin to follow pathways that lead to failure and early exit.
Second, while the education system invests a great deal of time and money in initiatives aimed at enhancing student achievement, it is largely working blind. Without the long-term tracking of students, it is impossible to know whether initiatives are aimed at real problems, and whether or not they are making a positive difference. This is a poor investment strategy, leading to many uncoordinated, short-term initiatives (80 in one school that Starpath studied) and a failure to identify those approaches that really work, so that they can be adopted across the education system.
Third, while Starpath researchers have found high levels of satisfaction with NCEA, they also found that NCEA is so complex that students and their parents often don't understand the consequences of the decisions they are making.
Schools also play a powerful role in mediating these choices, determining which subjects are available and how they are timetabled, whether achievement or unit standards are offered, and which students are selected for different versions of core subjects.
As a result, while most Maori, Pacific and low-income students aspire to gain university entrance (78 per cent in one study), it is too easy for them to find themselves on NCEA pathways that foreclose this option.
It doesn't have to be this way, however. In one Starpath school, the long-term tracking of students along with academic counselling and goal-setting significantly raised the levels of NCEA achievement. When Maori and Pacific students took achievement standards from the approved list, their success rates rose and they were more likely to stay at school.
In another study, when University Entrance was decided on a grade point average weighted for the level of achievement (rather than the quantity and combination of credits, as at present), more Maori students than at present were admitted to university.
No doubt, Dr Sharples' frustration with facts of this kind led him to suggest that Maori students should be given open entry to universities.
Under the current system, however, many of these students (given their experience in compulsory schooling) would be likely to fail, gaining a debt and a bad experience for no reward.
Some kind of screening is needed. Dr Sharples' other suggestion, that such students should have open access to pre-entry university courses, is excellent - although the Government would have to fully fund these programmes. This would give a second chance to many bright students whom the education system has hitherto failed.
Above all, the compulsory education system needs re-engineering. Information systems in schools should be tracking the educational journeys of students, identifying the strengths and potentials of individual students (so that they and their parents get optimal advice), and patterns of success and failure across the student body (so that initiatives are accurately targeted).
Those initiatives that don't have a positive impact on student outcomes should be dropped, while those that are highly successful should be adopted across the education system.
Dr Sharples' suggestions deserve thoughtful, informed responses, not prejudicial knee-jerk reactions. On the topic of educational opportunities for our children, let's have an intelligent debate.
* Distinguished Professor Dame Anne Salmond is a Starpath Project Sponsor, University of Auckland.