Why aren't we celebrating our international success in education, asks Warwick Elley, emeritus professor of education.
In a year when our news was dominated by reports of earthquakes and mine tragedies, collapsed companies, droughts and cricketing disgrace, it was great to learn that our 15-year-olds are still in the top echelons of the OECD in reading, science and maths.
In the latest survey, New Zealand students were ranked fourth out of 34 OECD nations in reading literacy, fourth in scientific literacy and seventh in mathematical literacy.
Why isn't it front page news?
Why don't we celebrate the achievement of our schools in producing so many bright students, with so little per capita expenditure?
At this time, when schools are completing their academic year, and plaudits are being handed out to our top sports teams, business leaders and media stars, we should be congratulating our rank and file teachers for drawing the best out of thousands of children, and showing the world that we still have a great education system.
As in all past OECD surveys, New Zealand students were shown to achieve near the top, surpassed only by countries with ethnically homogenous populations such as Finland, Korea and Japan.
A quick glance at our results in literacy shows that our mainstream Pakeha students had a mean score higher than any other country. We may value our ethnic diversity, but we should also allow for its influence on educational outcomes when evaluating the quality of our education.
This year we showered congratulations on our All Whites, for making it into the top 50 nations in the soccer world.
Our 15 year-olds were fourth in the OECD survey.
This year we celebrated when our Silver Ferns defeated Australia in netball. Our 15-year-olds beat Australia in reading, science and maths. This year we proclaimed our All Blacks as heroes for shutting out South Africa, Australia and each of the UK teams. But so did our 15-year-old students. Did anyone notice?
There is much more to learn from the comparative results of the OECD survey.
While New Zealand students maintained their position near the top, Australian authorities are deploring their "significant decline since 2000" on all the skills measured.
The Ministry of Education in England has called for wholesale reform as their own report shows that, in the survey of all 65 nations that participated in the survey, their students slipped from seventh in 2000 to 25th in reading, eighth to 28th in maths and fourth to 16th in science.
Meanwhile, another country we like to compare ourselves with, the United States, languishes well down the scale, around the average of all OECD countries. So much for former President George W. Bush's hopes for the No Child Left Behind programme.
All three of these countries spend more per capita on education than we do, yet all show lower performance levels.
Perhaps there is a lesson here for our Minister of Education.
Throughout this period, 2000 to 2009, all three of these countries have had in place a system of national (or state) standards in primary schools, with annual compulsory assessments, reports to government and league tables designed to rank their schools.
We too are introducing a system of national standards, compulsory assessments, reports to government and league tables in our primary schools.
How long before we start to drop off the top of the OECD scale? It is no wonder that teachers in all these countries are continually protesting against the obvious drawbacks in this system. It is of note that the significant decline in the Australian figures was caused largely by a drop in the proportion of high achievers.
Is that where we are heading?
It is true that the latest survey still shows a wide dispersion of scores among New Zealand students.
We have more high achievers than other countries, but still too many at the lower end of the scale. However, the proportion of Kiwi students who did not reach Level 2 - the OECD benchmark of being able "to participate effectively and productively in life" - was 14 per cent, not the much-vaunted 20 per cent claimed by the Government.
These under-achievers are readily recognised in this survey. They can be identified by gender, by decile level and by ethnic group, but repeated studies overseas show us that compulsory assessment and league tables do not change them.
The recent Council Educational Research survey revealed that 85 per cent of principals and 86 per cent of teachers believe that National Standards "will not change the patterns of achievement".
The Minister of Education may welcome the positive feedback she is receiving from some parents about clearer reports of their children's achievement levels, but only 5 per cent of principals believe that they will help under-achievers.
The problems lie not so much in schools' efforts, but in such social problems as poverty, dysfunctional families, and home language traditions. In a year of frequent teacher-bashing, we should recognise that we have many dedicated, competent teachers, doing great things for our children's minds, and our future national prosperity.
Merry Christmas New Zealand teachers. Pat yourselves on the back.