The Government's bold overhaul of the teaching system presents a challenge to any opponents. How can you be highly critical of steps to lift schools' performance that have been recommended by the OECD's leading educationalist and are backed by a large body of international research? To do so risks implying that you are unconcerned if New Zealand slides further down the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, the highly influential OECD survey that assesses the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old pupils in mathematics, reading and science. The Government's response to last year's sharp drop follows closely the prescription adopted by countries that have vastly improved their ranking, as New Zealand must now do.
The Prime Minister, in yesterday's annual State of the Nation speech, said the key to achieving this would be the introduction of four new teaching position tiers - executive principals, change principals, expert teachers and lead teachers.
Each will be tasked with improving pupil achievement, and each will be well rewarded financially for their efforts. Executive principals, for example, will be paid an additional $40,000 a year to provide leadership across a community of about 10 schools. Change principals, for their part, will be paid an extra $50,000 to lift achievement in schools that are struggling.
The substantial carrot provided by the latter's additional salary is intentional. Andreas Schleicher, who designed and oversees the Pisa rankings, has found that top-performing countries ensure their most talented school leaders and staff are in the most needy schools. This means all pupils are challenged with high standards and excellent teaching, and education systems can successfully moderate inequalities. The best example of this approach is Shanghai. A decade ago, it had a mediocre Pisa ranking. Last year it was top, a feat attributed to a change in teachers' career paths which dictated that vice-principals gained promotion only if they worked in tough, low-performing schools. New Zealand will rely on a large financial incentive, but there is no reason to think the outcome will not be highly beneficial.
Criticism of the Government initiative is problematic for other reasons. One is the enhancement of teaching as a profession. Teachers have long complained that they are overworked and underpaid. The first complaint may remain, but the rewards for the 6000 highly capable teachers chosen to take lead or expert roles will surely encourage more of the country's best and brightest to enter the profession and remain there. The new system guarantees support, notably from lead teachers, a more collaborative approach within and between schools, and recognition. Importantly, there is now also a career path that allows good teachers to be rewarded financially while remaining in the classroom, rather than having to become non-teaching managers or to leave teaching for jobs that pay more.
Over the past few years, people have become increasingly aware of the importance of excellent teaching and school leadership. The Government has talked of acknowledging this in a number of relatively minor ways, such as the Education Minister's proposed teacher appraisal system. It has, however, steered clear of drastic change, especially in the area of performance-related pay, even though that is standard in many leading education systems. Experience, rather than excellence, has continued to govern teachers' career paths. Now, finally, the Government is ready to recognise and reward the best teachers.
The cost will not be cheap. A sum of $359 million will be allocated over four years with an ongoing cost of more than $150 million annually. But astutely targeted investment is always worthwhile. And teachers will not be the only winners. Ultimately, children, and especially those in poor socio-economic areas, will benefit. So, too, as performance lifts, will the reputation of this country's education system.