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The education horse race

Written By: - Date published: 11:38 am, April 9th, 2015 - 15 comments
Categories: education, journalism, schools, uncategorized - Tags: , , , ,

education-horse-raceIt really annoys me to see complex educational issues reported in the idiotic “horse race” format that the media is so fond of. Case in point, the front page header for a piece in today’s Herald. Who wins? Who losses? Bring on the league tables!

Despite disclaimers (and this particular article commendably includes one, “This cannot be used as a ranking table in any way”) most of the reporting of NCEA results every year is framed in this superficial horse-race style. That was always National’s intent. It obscures the social and demographic factors that influence outcomes, and the history of where each school is coming from. It creates perverse incentives to manipulate NCEA outcomes, how can we trust the data? For example, also in today’s Herald:

University Entrance change hits low-decile schools hardest

Educators warn drop in student pass rates at low-decile schools is worrying.

Our poorest students have been hit the hardest by changes to University Entrance, with up to 50 per cent fewer pupils making it over the new threshold in low-decile areas.

The changes to University Entrance (UE), brought in by the Government last year, have also affected universities, with 960 fewer students enrolling across six of the eight providers this year. But experts fear some students are missing out because of schools’ resourcing as opposed to teenagers’ academic ability.

On the one hand the government are pushing for more and more NCEA passes to feed the league tables, and on the other they are acknowledging that those passes are no longer enough to suggest success at Tertiary level and tightening criteria to exclude students. From the same piece:

“Lower decile schools would have found themselves in a bind.”

For many it was a juggle between getting NCEA Level 3 with a non-approved UE subject, or risking going for UE but not achieving Level 3.

Labour tertiary education spokesman David Cunliffe said the drop in UE pass rates was a “giant shambles” linked to poor communication around the changes, and some schools pushing students towards “softer” subjects earlier on.

Mixed messages, perverse incentives, a giant shambles.

If we actually cared about educational outcomes in NZ we would stop the ideological posturing, look at systems that actually work in the real world, and implement them.

15 comments on “The education horse race ”

  1. ianmac 1

    Well. Just now we have been coincidentally discussing with two University lecturers, the change in student competency. The questions around NCEA may be a cause for concern in those competencies.

  2. Jones 2

    “If we actually cared about educational outcomes in NZ we would stop the ideological posturing, look at systems that actually work in the real world, and implement them.”

    It may come as a surprise but there are many people working in the education system, including the Ministry of Education who I am sure would agree with you.

    One of the biggest hurdles to overcoming this are parents who have expectations, often a generation or two out of date, of what a good education system should look like for their children. For example, many parents struggle with the concept of a 100% pass rate for students sitting NCEA, and still cling to the 50/50 pass/fail concept.

    Politicians often don’t help, favouring hyped-up solutions that make good headlines but will return very little benefit for the expenditure.

    One of the biggest shifts inside the NZ education system thinking in the last few years, is a move to “contextualised learning” but attempts to introduce it have been limited by the political will to implement it, teachers’ ability to teach in this way, as well as schools ability to resource it alongside the need to juggle parental expectations. However, Finland, one of the world leaders in education, is doing exactly that – moving away from teaching by “subject” towards teaching by “topic”:


    For some good educational thought leadership on education systems, I would highly recommend Ken Robinson’s TED presentation on ‘Changing Education Paradigms’, animated by RSA Animate:

    • r0b 2.1

      It may come as a surprise but there are many people working in the education system, including the Ministry of Education who I am sure would agree with you.

      It wouldn’t be a surprise at all, lots of good people in the system. It’s the political direction from the top that is wrong.

    • KJT 2.2

      Universities seem to miss the point.

      Education is to give a good grounding for everyone. Not just the 17% who obtain University degrees, or higher.

      School is to give a good grounding in life skills. Not just to ensure that the University does not have to teach first year engineering students, calculus.

      • Jones 2.2.1

        From talking with educationalists, this seems to be one of the major conversations: what is the purpose of education? There is a divide between those who believe it is there to support humanity in assisting in the development of well-rounded individuals, and those who believe education is simply there to serve the economy.

        At present, we seem to have a model that is being/has been co-opted to serve the interests of business, and it is happening at both the secondary and tertiary levels. The cynic in me, from way back in the day when I went to school (some 30 years), was of the view that the purpose of school wasn’t to teach the life-skills but find the 10-15% of students who would matriculate into tertiary education. The remainder would enter into a trade or service related job, often by way of an apprenticeship or some work-based training. I haven’t seen much that shifts that view.

        We now have a funding model for tertiary education that has resulted in the commercialisation of universities and universities are increasingly competing head-on with polytechnics and private training establishments. For example, there now seem to be degrees offered in courses, that were initially taught to a diploma level, while other subjects, particularly in the humanities, are falling away as they appear to have no commercial value.

  3. Colonial Rawshark 3

    Philip Ferguson posted a link on OM to this article criticising what university education has become.

    Our universities are turning out thousands of young people a year who are debt ridden and hence dependent on supporting and continuing the status quo to get ahead. Including very many young people trained up in the best that neoliberal economics and modern finance have to offer. I’m sure that kind of education will be very helpful to society given the realities of climate change and energy depletion that these new graduates will be facing in the next 20-30 years.


    an event as momentous in its own way as the Cuban revolution or
    the invasion of Iraq is steadily under way: the slow death of the
    university as a centre of humane critique. Universities, which in
    Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as
    ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the
    distance they established between themselves and society at large could
    prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the
    values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up
    in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much
    self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being
    diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus
    and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced
    priorities of global capitalism.

  4. red-blooded 4

    I think we have to acknowledge that NCEA pass rates have been ranked a reported as horse races from the start, and this includes under Labour administrations. It was this kind of simplistic viewpoint that created all sorts of perversities like the (defunct) credits in picking up rubbish and the still widespread practice of not entering the results for students who haven’t achieved internally assessed standards.

    Ridiculously, this administration have insisted on higher pass rates at all levels whilst a standards review has lifted the level of challenge at each year level of NCEA and the UE requirements have also been made more difficult to achieve. And extra resourcing…? Forget it.

    • Jones 4.1

      Students themselves are also gaming the system, by looking at the model and determining the best way to attain NCEA is simply by doing subjects which they find easier than others. Consequently science and maths at NCEA Level 2 and 3 are dropping away as subjects as students can achieve the same level of certification by doing arts and english-centric subjects.

      I suspect this is one of the underlying reasons why so large a number of students failed to attain the required standard to enter university this year. They may have got the NCEA Level 3 certification but was it in the right subjects necessary to gain access to university?

  5. repateet 5

    Something to look forward to is the same brain-dead publicity of National Standards results from primary schools.

    The whole approach is down to leadership, the leadership from politicians not educators. That leadership from Anne Tolley and Hekia Parata is educationally and intellectually bereft.

    The people like Gordon Tovey and C. E. Beeby will be rolling in their graves. The unknown educational bureaucrats, the sycophantic simpletons will not be remembered for their slaying of the world leading NZ schooling system. They deserve to be remembered as arch criminals in our history.

  6. Molly 6

    You may be interested to know that the current project being scoped by MoE is to raise the pass rates for special/high needs students to the same as all other students. This rate is the (as yet unachieved) 85% of school leavers with NCEA Level 2.

    I had an interesting discussion with an educator about how this is a wrong-headed approach. There are no more resources to be allocated, and alternative educational pathways and work opportunities are not involved, and the focus is solely on achieving qualifications, even though students may not be suited to that level or further study.

    In my mind, that is taking already vulnerable students, and exposing them to further failure instead of finding alternative ways that they can contribute. For those that want to achieve academically, then further resources are required. Current personal learning plans are not being met, so I can’t see how further requirements are going to help.

    • repateet 6.1

      They are not interested in those special/high needs students. They are interested in numbers on bits of paper.

      The type of mentality in the thick intelligentsia at the top, is that only when everyone has a PhD will we be able to say our education system is working.

    • Scintilla 6.2

      I presume they would be Supported Learning Standards, rather than regular NCEA standards which are beyond the reach of most Special Needs students. These typically cover areas such as safely negotiating road crossings, for instance, or identifying body organs and their functions/location. Ability to meet the criteria is highly dependent on the individual skills and aptitudes of the student. While success in achieving them gives the students a buzz, (which may be rapidly forgotten as many students cannot retain knowledge over a longer time-frame) I seriously question the value to our students of focusing on standards.

      I’ve yet to meet the parents/whanau of a Special Needs student who was ambitious for their son or daughter to achieve academically in a broad, want to pass ncea and get into tertiary kind of way. Happiness, independence as much as possible, useful and satisfying activities, social skills and fun is the answer usually provided when one asks what their hopes and expectations are. Occasionally a student will show definite talent in one particular area alone – it might be maths, esp. computer apps/coding, music, art, cooking, gardening … isn’t it better to make these flourish?

      The answer lies in being able to meaningfully get a grip on each individual’s existing talents and skills and building on those. Being boxed into standards would stifle opportunities to really respond to students’ strengths and work with them. But it takes $$ for the concentrated, individualised approach.

      Next thing you know, Parata will be holding teachers accountable for not getting those disabled students out of their wheelchairs and walking on water.

  7. fisiani 7

    Far too many students with no chance of getting a degree were wasting money. Stopping this waste is a good reform.

  8. mpledger 8


    But the kids who are missing out aren’t the dumb kids but the poor kids.

  9. millsy 9

    This all goes back to the Picot reforms.

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