When bad news is delivered, there is always a temptation to shoot the messenger. Thankfully, that, by and large, has not been the case with this country's sharp drop in international education rankings in an OECD survey that assesses the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old pupils in mathematics, reading and science in 65 countries. In maths, New Zealand dropped from 13th three years ago to 23rd, while in science the fall was from seventh to 18th. In reading, where this country also ranked seventh in 2009, there was a slide to 13th.
To her credit, the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, did not attempt to discredit the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings. She chose instead to depict them as confirmation of the challenge ahead. It fell to think-tank the New Zealand Initiative to underline the rankings' serious implications. This "Pisa shock" should, it said, be a catalyst to change education for the better. The institute pointed to the example provided by Germany, which in little more than a decade had achieved the sort of improvement that must now be sought by this country.
Broadly, the Pisa assessment identifies the lifting of teacher quality as the key to such a turnaround. The best-performing countries, it says, put a special emphasis on teacher selection, training, career incentives, and innovative teaching. When deciding where to invest, they prioritise the quality of teachers over classroom sizes. The last point must have been somewhat ironic to Ms Parata, who last year sought unsuccessfully to sell the concept of slightly bigger class sizes in return for a higher quality of teaching. Indeed, by many yardsticks, she is justified in thinking the changes being made or being contemplated by the Government tally with those highlighted by the best performers in the Pisa assessment.
The importance of excellent teaching comes as no surprise. People have become increasingly aware of this, and are keen to see high-quality teachers acknowledged and rewarded appropriately. Ms Parata has proposed the development of a new teacher appraisal system, a requirement for all trainee teachers to have a postgraduate qualification and, potentially, performance pay. The latest Pisa rankings confirm all would be welcome. It can be no coincidence that in world-leading Shanghai, performance-related pay for teachers is normal.
It occurs especially in deprived areas. Indeed, another of the lessons of the Pisa tables is that those at the top put much effort into getting the best-qualified teachers into these schools. The relevance of that to this country is emphasised by the ranking of pupils at the bottom end of the scale. Almost 23 per cent of all New Zealand pupils performed at level 1 or below in the mathematics rankings. Ms Parata points to Government initiatives to raise the achievement of Maori, Pasifika and special-needs pupils. The Pisa assessment confirms this must be an area of special attention.
Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea dominated the top five Pisa positions. It is, therefore, highly appropriate that New Zealand officials have been to Asia to identify the key points of the successful programmes there.
But implementing their findings on what works will require political will. The teacher unions will resist any change to a national bargaining system that rewards experience rather than excellence. They will continue to insist that New Zealand's drop in the international rankings is a result of a lack of investment in schools.
It is nothing of the sort. New Zealand, alongside Britain, an even bigger laggard, has a high rate of education investment by OECD standards. But both will continue to struggle until teaching excellence is recognised and rewarded.