Helping kids move up in life is what matters, not ratings on league tables

Once upon a time, at year's-end, you were sent home with a lovely little handwritten report in which the teacher recorded your basic grades, made a few comments on your general demeanour, and perhaps even added a smiley face to acknowledge that you were a child of just 7, say, and liked such touches.

These days, no 7-year-old's report can be understood by a 7-year-old. Nor by his 41-year-old, tertiary-educated mother. Filled with graphs, strange rankings and weird, coloured charts, the document provides a cold, numerical or alphabetical assessment on just three subjects: maths, reading and writing. As a parent, you feel like the class dunce when you have to call a fellow mum to ask: "What the **** does 1P mean, and why is it in a yellow triangle?"

In its sheer indecipherability, it looks remarkably like a marketing report. The Guardian this week explains why. To do so, it outlines the context around the Pisa survey, which studies maths, reading and science competencies in half a million 15-year-olds around the world (and last year showed New Zealand 15-year-olds slipping down the achievement table).

Pisa was developed as a way of showing patterns within data that would help countries shape a better education system. Unfortunately, it is now used much like the accursed league tables that I once put together as a Herald education reporter. Devoid of context (some schools don't allow slow learners to sit certain exams, for example), they mean nothing.


According to Guardian commentator Pasi Sahlberg - a Finnish educator - high-scoring countries aren't necessarily successful. He reckons "successful" education systems not only deliver high scores, but are those where "socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on learning outcomes".

By that measure, says Pasi, Korea, Japan, Canada, Finland and Estonia are the best systems. And New Zealand is one of the worst.

There's a simple reason for that, too: some of the education fixes we have pursued in this country to solve the underachieving "tail" are wrong-headed. They derive from strategies used in countries such as England and the US, where, says Pasi, it is considered "market mechanisms are the best vehicles for whole system improvement". These mechanisms are part of the Global Educational Reform Movement (Germ).

New Zealand is rife with Germ. The symptoms, according to Pasi, include increased competition between schools (school choice, league tables, and parents as education "consumers"); "national standards", used to compare schools and justify performance pay for teachers; devaluing professionalism by fast-tracking qualifications, and "privatising public schools by turning them to privately governed schools through charter schools, free schools and virtual schools".

In countries that have not pursued these strategies, instead working to strengthen the entire public system, paying teachers properly and eschewing the corporatisation of education, the "tail" of underachievement is short. In countries infested by Germ ideas, the opposite is happening.

It all goes to explain why Hekia Parata remains Education Minister (she is a Germ advocate) and why my son's report provides so little useful information (spreadsheets prefer graphs and rankings to smiley faces). And why, if we want better achievement, we should alter our current educational direction.