School is back. Like the start of every school year, there are questions about how good our education system is at preparing our children for future success.
Based on recently released data from objective achievement tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment, New Zealand's public education system is failing our children.
Consistent feedback from employers is that many school leavers lack basic skills in writing, mathematics, and the use of software like excel. They also say many school leavers lack basic soft skills such as punctuality, customer service, having a good attitude and working well with others.
We also have one of the most unequal education systems in the developed world. A recent report from Unicef ranked New Zealand 33 out of 38 mainly OECD countries because of wide gaps in reading comprehension among 15-year-olds, and second to last for the wide gaps in reading comprehension in our primary schools.
Although we have children who do well in our system, we also have many who perform poorly. In 2019, only 39 per cent of all school leavers from low decile schools (deciles 1 and 2) obtained at least NCEA Level 3, compared with 75 per cent of all school leavers from high decile schools (deciles 9 and 10).
Two factors above all explain this variation. First, where you go to school matters more in our nation than every other developed nation studied, except for Israel. Second, parental background factors such as occupation and educational attainment matters.
These are not new problems to New Zealand. We have known for some time of our declining education system and the growing "tail" of underachievement, especially among Maori and Pacifica children. And yet the trends continue unabated.
The problem with left-wing and right-wing ideologies when it comes to education is that they are seldom informed by evidence on what makes a difference to learning outcomes.
What we need are relatively low-cost, evidence-based solutions to improve educational outcomes.
Here are three ways we could do this.
First, improve the design and delivery of our education curriculum.
We need to expose children to science, technology, and mathematics (Stem) earlier, and make sure all schools can offer effective Stem programmes at primary and secondary levels. Recent reports showing that 73 per cent of primary schools do not have an effective science programme should raise serious alarm bells to parents across the country.
We need to attract new teachers to the profession with training in Stem subjects, through accelerator schemes such as Teach First NZ, and boost training for existing teachers so they feel more comfortable engaging in Stem subject areas.
Curriculum outcomes need to be more clearly defined at each year level. The ministry and schools should work more closely with employers to understand their desired outcomes to best prepare our rangatahi for the future of work.
Second, look to improve our zoning system.
School zoning entrenches the idea that where one grows up matters. Zoning also undermines equality of opportunity since houses in suburbs with great schools tend to be far more expensive than in suburbs with poorer performing schools.
We must look for ways to further improve equal opportunity in our zoning system, for example by mandating that all high decile schools have special programmes to attract children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Under current law schools can set up these programmes with ministry approval but it is not clear many have, apart from Auckland Grammar School's InZone programme.
We should also encourage the best schools to operate satellite campuses in out-of-zone areas to expand their reach. Our recent thrust into online learning makes this an even more attractive prospect than ever before.
Third, encourage a culture of evidence-based policy design in education.
This must start with national assessments to measure student performance within and across all schools.
Schools, parents, and the sector need better oversight on low performing students. Boards and ministry reporting needs to focus not only on average results (for a school or classroom) but also results for the bottom quartile of achievers.
Collecting data on children's backgrounds and their performance can provide insights on what works best for disadvantaged children to tailor interventions to their needs at the school or system level.
Many of our schools have excellent leadership and successful initiatives to improve achievement, especially for disadvantaged children. The challenge is to identify those people and initiatives and scale them up to make a meaningful difference to achievement rates across the country.
Only then will we turn around our failing education system and unleash our human potential as a nation.
• Dan Bidois is managing director of Bidois Strategy Group, a high-school dropout and Harvard Graduate, and a former National MP.