As the Government runs the rule over the way our children learn, a US expert suggests change may be needed — but it should start at the top. Education reporter Nicholas Jones talks to Benjamin Riley

New Zealand's education system has long been rated among the world's best.

But a fall in international league tables has seen a bout of introspection from those in charge of how exactly we teach the country's 760,000 school students.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has led delegations to countries including Singapore to see if what works there could help lift students' achievement here.

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At the same time, Peter Hughes, the new Secretary for Education and a man with a "fix-it" reputation, has committed to overhauling the way the ministry and employees operate and interact with schools.

The Government also sponsors fellowships that allow "outstanding American professionals" the chance to spend time here and report their thoughts and suggestions.

This year Benjamin Riley has been hosted by the Ministry of Education and visited 22 schools.

As an outsider looking in, he was often mightily impressed.

"The best public schools I visited here rival the quality of some of the most exclusive and selective private schools I've seen in the United States," he wrote in his summary report, released last month.

"At the lower end of the school-decile spectrum in particular, New Zealand has much to be proud of, at least relative to the US."

However, he also felt there was a suspicion of change and self-reflection that came from the top. In Mr Riley's final blog post he attacked the Ministry of Education for fostering a culture of mistrust.

"I press upon the ministry to consider what sort of pedagogy [theory of education] it is collectively practising, and why it is that so many people I met who work there now or have worked there in the past or have to work with the ministry in some other capacity describe the experience as oppressive and miserable."

His report, Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand's Education System, outlines that problem and his other observations about what is happening in our schools.

Mr Riley, who previously worked for a US education not-for-profit that attracted funding from the Gates Foundation, told the Weekend Herald he was aware that his visit offered limited insight.

A matter of trust

New Zealand has a remarkably fragmented education system given its relatively small size, Mr Riley concludes, and the most obvious division is that between primary and secondary schools.

One veteran and talented primary school principal cheerfully admitted to her visitor that she "hadn't a clue" about how the NCEA system worked.

Trust issues within local school groups were also discovered - a deputy principal told Mr Riley that she planned to join a "cluster" of schools led by one with strong maths results.

"Not because she wanted to learn from this school," the report notes. "But to instead confirm her suspicion that it was, in fact, fudging its results."

Mr Riley says the same lack of trust shaped his relationship with the ministry from early on. After writing his first blog post - a glowing report on Wellington Girls' College - he says a ministry official indicated her displeasure.

"That is completely mystifying. It would be one thing if I had started up a blog and was clearly some sort of bomb-thrower," he told the Weekend Herald. "Here I am celebrating the school system, but all the ministry can see is, 'well, we can't control that'."

Mr Riley says many of those within schools told of the same strained relationship, and rebuilding trust should be New Zealand's highest education-policy priority.

He recommends the creation of new "sector stewardships", a voluntary programme that would see ministry employees randomly matched with participating schools, and returning with an issue they could help the school with.

Unless people across the education system genuinely believe they are part of a joint enterprise then attempts at collaboration that makes use of the best available evidence will be derailed, Mr Riley argues.

That which is not working will be allowed to continue, and successes will not spread.

Data puzzles

Under the National Government there has been an increasing focus on student achievement data. The most controversial step was the introduction in 2010 of National Standards - descriptions of what students should be able to do in reading, writing and mathematics as they progress through levels 1 to 8, the primary and intermediate years.

Students are assessed internally by teachers based on their "overall judgment". School staff spoken to by Mr Riley pointed to a lack of or inconsistent moderation of these judgments as a core problem.

"To describe this policy initiative as controversial would be an understatement," Mr Riley wrote.

And yet, despite the strong reactions, he found many school leaders would quietly acknowledge that the standards were helping them lift student achievement.

Mr Riley's conclusion: "The paradox of National Standards is that they are distrusted by educators generally, yet acted upon locally."

Another data "puzzle" flagged by the report is why student achievement varies so much depending on whether they are internally assessed or put under the pressure of an exam.

In February, the Weekend Herald published an analysis of NCEA entries which found the difference in achievement rates between the two types of assessment can be nearly 50 per cent, with the gap differing according to subject, level and school decile.

In many subjects the achievement difference between internal and external assessment lessens in higher decile schools.

Taking the maths with calculus example, at decile 10 schools, 95 per cent of internals were achieved at Level 3 in 2012, compared with 74 per cent of externals. The gap was much bigger at decile one schools (83 per cent to 34 per cent).

Asked about those findings, the Qualifications Authority, which runs a comprehensive and audited moderation regime, told Mr Riley that there were a number of factors that could be at play.

That included the chance to re-submit internals (under precise rules), the type of assessment a particular school was focused on, and the variety of study skills needed for external assessments.

Mr Riley believes those are valid reasons, however more work is needed to understand whether other pressures are at play - including the government's target to have 85 per cent of 18-year-olds achieving NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification in 2017.

"I worry that I see presentations made by senior ministry officials that happily report the arrow going up and we are clicking away towards that 85 per cent target," he says.

"And does that show that students are learning more, or does that show that people are learning how to adapt and manipulate the system ... I just don't know."

Personalised learning

A central assumption of Mr Riley's report is that decisions made in schools should be, when possible, informed by the insights of science.

He is concerned that some schools and educators are pushing forward with "personalised learning" initiatives, despite his opinion that such learning isn't supported by what science tells us about how people acquire knowledge.

Because our brains are designed not for thought but the avoidance of thought - the reason the television can have a greater call than a novel - giving students control of the pace of learning invites them to avoid new and unfamiliar tasks, Mr Riley says.

"They probably need to be pushed, which means we should approach claims about learners self-regulating the pace of their learning with extreme caution."

Speaking to the Weekend Herald, Mr Riley says his two most concerning school visits here were to those that prioritised personalised learning or non-traditional instruction.

Treasury officials who accompanied him to one school where students were using iPads were impressed.

"[But] if you don't understand pedagogy, what you don't see is in fact all the kid was doing was doodling on an iPad, he might as well have a sheet of paper."

Ministry view

Asked about the critical blog post, Katrina Casey, the ministry's head of sector enablement and support, says it isn't clear what led to his impression as no evidence was outlined to back the views.

"We are always looking at how we can do things better but we have no evidence to suggest that fear, mistrust or a lack of communication is prevalent in the ministry - quite the reverse in fact."

She points to the praise in Mr Riley's report for the work that Secretary for Education Peter Hughes has underway to build trust with the education sector.

"Yes, there has been a lack of trust in our relationship with teachers, schools, principals and others ... we didn't listen enough, and we didn't involve them enough in our decision-making."

To that extent, the ministry had made important changes including shifting its role from being "sector leaders" to "stewards of the education sector", with principals now recognised clearly as the leaders.

Ms Casey says the ministry now joins forces with the education sector to fix "gnarly issues".

The ministry's senior leadership had been restructured to make them more accessible to schools.

Ms Casey says encouraging greater collaboration between schools is a central aim of the Government's new Investing in Educational Success policy, that will cost $360 million over four years.

The scheme aims to identify the best principals and teachers and pay them more to spend time in other local schools or provide an example within their own.

Leading principals spoken to by the Weekend Herald agreed that many schools had long-held frustrations about the ministry. However, the appointment of Mr Hughes was viewed as a positive.

"My feeling is that trust levels are improving and that Peter has been a key part of that," said one.

Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand's Education System - Full Report