Patrice Dougan is the Herald's education reporter.

Must do better: Poorly performing schools failing to improve

Thousands of children are spending most or all their years of education in a poorly performing school, a new report has found.

A third of New Zealand's underperforming schools are persistent low achievers, some of which have been that way for up to 10 years, says a report put out this morning by think-tank New Zealand Initiative.

The report, Signal Loss: What we know about school performance - the first of three reports on the issue - paints a damning picture of Government interventions failing to turn schools around and failing to properly assess student achievement.

Many schools were failing to meet Education Review Office (ERO) quality measures, the report said. It also warned that "some schools, despite intervention, perform poorly for as long as, and in some cases, longer than, the entire school career of their students - with possibly serious implications for the students in them and the state of our nation".

Around 70 per cent (1765) of all schools were performing well, as of June last year, based on the report's analysis of ERO data, and 20 per cent (475) demonstrated consistent high-quality performance.

However, of the 786 schools reviewed by ERO in the 2014-2015 year, 33 out of 103 already poorly performing schools had not improved enough to move up a category, despite interventions.

In a separate stocktake of school performance last year, ERO classified almost 8 per cent of state schools as poor performers - that equated to 35,500 students in 58 secondary and 127 primary schools.

There was "evidence of chronic poor performance by schools despite having had external intervention and an external evaluater telling them they were underperforming", the report said.

It found:

• More than one third (65 out of 185 schools) of poor performers had failed to meet expectations for at least two consecutive reviews.

• A smaller number (20 out of 65 schools) had performed poorly for at least three consecutive reviews (an average of eight to nine years), and a few had been in the bottom tier for more than 10 years.

This was "a clear sign that neither formal nor informal interventions have worked for these schools".

The report said: "The history of school non-improvement suggests New Zealand needs to seriously reconsider alternatives to identifying and managing failing schools, before failure becomes persistent."

The report concluded that the opportunities of thousands of students were being undermined. Photo / iStock
The report concluded that the opportunities of thousands of students were being undermined. Photo / iStock

The report slammed Government monitoring of interventions, saying neither the ERO nor the Ministry of Education were properly assessing which interventions worked, in which situations and why.

"Persistent underperformance in some schools may indicate that current methods are ineffective," it said, describing the lack of Government analysis as "a major limitation in efforts to mitigate school underperformance".

It wasn't for a lack of data either - the report said Government held "rich data sets" on schools and their students, and agencies were "missing a prime opportunity to learn what works and what does not".

The report concluded that the opportunities of thousands of students were being undermined.

"The Government needs innovative solutions to address this history of non-improvement. Knowing which are the weakest schools in the country is not enough."

Iona Holsted, chief review officer at the ERO, said the agency had seen "some success" by working alongside schools that were struggling.

"We know what makes a difference," she said, but acknowledged that "while most schools are performing well, most isn't good enough".

"That's why we have changed our approach from asking about general performance to asking how primary schools are making sure that every single student is achieving at the level they need to - what do they know about their kids and what are they doing to make a difference.

"We want to know how schools are using data and what they know about their students."

Lisa Rodgers, deputy secretary of early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education, accepted the report's conclusion that "more needs to be done to help poorly performing schools as well as Maori, Pasifika and students from low socio-economic backgrounds".

"We are working on multiple initiatives to address these problems," she said, pointing to schemes such as Investing in Educational Success and the Education Review Act.

Labour's education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, said the Government had to step in where schools are failing.

"To not do so is to write off the educational chances of a whole cohort of students, and that's not right," Mr Hipkins said.

Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty said it was unfair to draw the conclusion that underperforming schools were "terrible" when inequality in New Zealand was rife.

ERO classified almost 8 per cent of state schools as poor performers - that equated to 35,500 students in 58 secondary and 127 primary schools. Photo / iStock
ERO classified almost 8 per cent of state schools as poor performers - that equated to 35,500 students in 58 secondary and 127 primary schools. Photo / iStock

Think-tank blames system for unequal performance

New Zealand pupils are "languishing" in basic reading, maths and science compared to their international counterparts, amid a "systemic failure" in identifying good and bad performance in schools.

Both student and teacher performance are not being adequately measured or assessed, the think-tank New Zealand Initiative says in a new report released today.

Measures of student achievement fail to take into consideration the amount of progress a student has made, or whether they are reaching their full potential, the report into school performance said.

It also questioned how students can be improving in domestic tests, while falling down the ranks in international exams.

"There are clear warning signs of poor performance in New Zealand's compulsory school system," the report said. "The system works well for the majority of students, but not so well for many others, particularly Maori and Pasifika students.

"New Zealand's languishing position in international tests is cause for concern, particularly compared to the improving domestic performance. Worse still is the increasing over-representation of low achievers in international tests."

The report criticised how achievement was assessed in New Zealand schools, describing "arbitrary" goalposts used to define whether children are meeting expectations or not, but failing to take a pupil's starting point or risk factors into consideration.

There was "evidence of systemic failure in identifying excellent performance and dealing with under-performance", the report said.

"If the starting points of students are not taken into consideration when judging performance, then students and teachers face an uphill battle they cannot win."

ERO's quality assessment was "hindered by current indicators of academic achievement".

Lisa Rodgers, deputy secretary, early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education, said international tests like Pisa and Timss were "survey-based, point-in-time snapshots", and the Government preferred to use National Standards and NCEA to measure the progress of students.

"International studies and domestic data show that we need to do more work on maths and science achievement. We agree, which is why we have a strong focus in these areas."

- NZ Herald

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