Where is New Zealand’s Excellence Gap? – Part 1


This post is my contribution to the Blog Tour for New Zealand’s Gifted Awareness Week 2012. It asks:

  • Whether New Zealand is too ready to adopt proxies for educational disadvantage and
  • If that hinders its capacity to narrow the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners, especially the ‘excellence gap’ between gifted learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is written with half an eye to the New Zealand audience, while the other half is trained on a global readership. The former may find I am telling them too many things they already know; the latter may feel that some essential background material is lacking. I have tried to steer a middle way.

I present this analysis with all due humility – as appropriate for a non-Kiwi who has never once visited New Zealand and is relying exclusively on material available online – but in the genuine hope that it will stimulate further discussion and debate.

I have divided the text into two parts on an entirely arbitrary basis, simply because it is too long to form a single post.

Reflections on Last Year’s Post

In 2011 my contribution to the New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week (NZGAW) Blog Tour was a two-part analysis – here and here –  of how vouchers could be applied to gifted education, featuring the proposals in Step Change: Success the Only Option.

As we all know, education vouchers are a controversial market-based education reform, increasingly prevalent in the United States but with a relatively limited foothold elsewhere. They are as yet almost entirely unknown in gifted education.

I am afraid I was rather dismissive of the politically-inspired proposals within ‘Step Change’, though I did not dismiss outright the potential of voucher schemes to support gifted education. Despite the shortcomings of the Step Change scheme, its originators deserve some credit for framing the suggestion in the first place.

I thought my post was rather provocative, but it raised barely a whimper.

Vouchers may excite policy wonks but they are some distance away from the everyday concerns of busy educators. As far as New Zealand colleagues were concerned,  they were little more than a theoretical irrelevance, because the Step Change proposals had been ditched, publicly and unceremoniously, by the time I published my post.

In Search of a Topic for 2012

Charter schools are the latest ‘big idea’ imported into New Zealand, currently receiving consideration by a dedicated working group. At this early stage it is hard to know whether the report it will produce in due course is destined for the same treatment as ‘Step Change’, though that is a distinct possibility.

I could have written about charter schools but, in reflecting on them as a possible topic, I found myself distracted by a much more fundamental, sensitive and controversial question to which I did not have the answer.

Unlike vouchers – and probably charter schools too – it goes to the very heart of New Zealand’s educational policy and practice, and is directly relevant to how New Zealand policy makers and practitioners envision and implement gifted education.

Quite rightly in my view, New Zealand places very strong emphasis on a socially and culturally inclusive approach to education, and gifted education is no exception. It is rightly expected that gifted learners will be drawn from across society, including from Maori, Pasifika and disadvantaged backgrounds.

But, although this expectation is expressed in terms of ethnicity and disadvantage, it often seems – at least from this distance – that the issue is being addressed almost entirely in terms of ethnicity.

It seems that there is, quite rightly, a big investment in meeting the needs of Maori and Pasifika learners, including gifted learners, much of it on the basis that belonging to those cultures is synonymous with disadvantage.

Now I perfectly understand that learners from those backgrounds are heavily and disproportionately represented amongst the socio-economically disadvantaged population in New Zealand.

But I am also sure that there is a minority of relatively advantaged Maori and Pasifika learners and, perhaps more to the point, a significant number of socio-economically disadvantaged learners who are not from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds.

I wondered whether this appearance is reflected in reality and, if so, why New Zealanders have reached a position where Maori and Pasifika cultural backgrounds have become an imperfect proxy for socio-economic disadvantage.

I was curious if, as a consequence, poor learners from other backgrounds are relatively neglected, perhaps even overlooked. I wondered whether that circumstance might apply equally to gifted education.

This topic seems almost taboo in New Zealand educational circles. I am sure that many readers will feel I am trespassing into territory I do not understand – and clumping around in hobnailed boots where angels fear to tread.

It may be that the evidence overall does not support this analysis, in which case I am more than ready to adjust it accordingly. But I feel the need to pose the questions nevertheless.

A Drive to Remember courtesy of WanderingTheWorld

 New Zealand’s Educational Policy and Priorities

To get a grasp on how national educational priorities are articulated within Government, I began with the Ministry of Education’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister (December 2011).

The Executive Summary illustrates beautifully the disparity between expectation and implementation I outlined above.

The opening paragraph expresses the overarching aim thus (the emphasis is mine):

‘Our over-riding goal is a world-leading education system that equips all learners with the knowledge, skills and values to be successful citizens in the 21st Century. Although New Zealand’s education system has many strengths, with systematic under-achievement for Maori, Pasifika and other learners from poorer backgrounds, we are a considerable way from achieving that goal. New Zealand’s highest achieving learners compare with the best in the world, but those groups least well served by New Zealand’s education system achieve outcomes comparable with the lowest performing OECD countries.  The social consequences of this are all too clear. The economic consequences are equally unacceptable.’

This text might be criticised because it implies that Maori, Pasifika and poor learners on one hand and high achievers on the other are two mutually exclusive populations but, that aside, it states New Zealand’s fundamental educational problem with admirable clarity.

But, having stated the problem in this manner, the next few paragraphs make no further reference to those ‘other learners from poorer backgrounds’, implying that there is no policy solution targeted specifically at them.

Instead, the issue is addressed entirely in terms of ethnic background:

‘The attainment gaps between learners of different ethnicities are stubborn and in danger of being viewed as inevitable. They are not…

the issue of Maori and Pasifika underachievement is pervasive and needs to be addressed in every setting, and in schools of every decile…

….Educational achievement for all is the single most important issue facing New Zealand education and in order to achieve a step change in outcomes for Maori and Pasifika we need to be relentless in our focus on good education outcomes for every single child and adult learner.  We need to “stress test” all of our current policy settings, including funding mechanisms, programmes and interventions and ask if they are doing all they can to address this fundamental weakness in New Zealand’s education system.’

The original point about the distribution of disadvantage is reinforced later in the Briefing, within an analysis of performance against key indicators by ethnic group:

‘Despite some overall improvements, the gap between our high performing and low performing students remains one of the widest in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These low performing students are likely to be Maori or Pasifika and/or from low socioeconomic communities.

Disparities in education appear early and persist throughout learning. The Table below highlights some of this participation and achievement disparity between Maori, Pasifika and non-Maori/Pasifika…Although there is a relationship between socio-economic status, ethnicity and achievement, these are not pre-determinants for success or failure. There is a spread of achievement within these groups.’

We will return to the Table later. For now the critical point is the recognition of a complex relationship between ethnicity, socio-economic disadvantage and achievement.

Given that understanding, one might expect the next stage of the argument to be insistence on a personalised approach, designed to meet the very different needs of disadvantaged learners, who are affected in complex ways by the interaction of these and several other variables.

Instead, we are told that that a key challenge has to be addressed:

We must support Maori, Pasifika and students with special needs to realise their inherent potential to achieve educational success.   This goal requires giving full effect to the Government’s strategies for these groups: Ka Hikitia: Managing for Success, the Pasifika Education Plan and Success for All – Every School, Every Child.’

Special needs makes it into the equation, but what has happened to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the misfortune to sit outside the Maori and Pasifika communities?

This is by no means an isolated example. The same elision features in the Ministry of Education’s Statement of Intent 2012-17 which again identifies four priority groups:

Improving education outcomes for Maori learners, Pasifika learners, learners with special education needs and learners from low socio-economic backgrounds’

But when the ‘operating intentions’ are spelled out, we seek in vain for separate and specific reference to targeted support for the latter group:

‘We will improve education outcomes for our priority groups by focusing on the evidence of what works best. We will use policy, accountability and funding levers to maximise improvement for these learners. To make the system work, it is critical to have and use information that informs best practice and makes it possible to target support and resources effectively….

We will report regularly on the progress the system is making towards improving its performance for and with Māori learners, using Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success as the framework. We will implement a refreshed version, Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success 2013-2017, based on emerging research and evidence. This will further focus the Ministry’s activity and that of education providers to improve the education system for and with Māori.

As part of the refresh of Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success, specific targets will be set and communicated. These targets will address the Government’s priorities and will align with the Better Public Services result areas. Targets will be set to increase the proportion of:

    • Māori children participating in early childhood education
    • Māori learners with NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification
    • Māori 25- to 34-years-old, with a qualification at level 4 or above on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework…

…We will implement a new, updated Pasifika Education Plan for 2013-2017, which will support the education system to perform better for Pasifika learners, and to focus on sustainable and continuous improvement. The plan will set ambitious targets to increase Pasifika participation in early childhood education and the percentage of Pasifika learners with NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification, aligning with the Better Public Services result areas.

Setting, and then achieving, the goals and targets of the plan will be a joint project between the Ministry and the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs. We will work with education agencies to ensure their plans for increasing Pasifika learners’ achievement align with the Pasifika Education Plan….

…We will continue to implement Success for All – Every School, Every Child to ensure all learners with special education needs are able to learn and succeed in the education setting of their choice.

The Government has set a performance target of 80% of schools demonstrating inclusive practice of learners with special education needs by the end of 2014, with the remaining 20% demonstrating good progress. No schools should be doing a poor job of providing an inclusive learning environment for these learners.’

Are we to conclude that, for learners from low socio-economic backgrounds who fall outside the other ‘target groups’, there is no need for targeted intervention? If so, what is the rationale for this decision and where is the evidence presented?

The Remarkables courtesy of WanderingTheWorld

The Elision is Repeated in NZ Gifted Education Documents

Some of the key reference documents for New Zealand’s gifted educators perform exactly the same trick, though this is not universally true. The older documents appear more inclusive, perhaps suggesting that the socio-economically disadvantaged did not disappear from view until midway through the last decade.

The Ministry of Education’s publication: Gifted and Talented Students: Meeting their needs in NZ Schools (2000) notes that:

‘New Zealand is a multicultural society with a wide range of ethnic groups.  The concept of giftedness and talent that belongs to a particular cultural group is shaped by its beliefs, values, attitudes, and customs. The concept varies from culture to culture. It also varies over time.

It is important that each school incorporates relevant cultural values into its concept of giftedness and talent. These values will also influence procedures used for identifying students from different cultural groups and for providing relevant programmes. Culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged students are grossly under-represented in programmes for the gifted and talented. Schools must make a special effort to identify talented students from these groups.’

It moves on to consider identification issues for each of a series of vulnerable groups and offers specific guidance on identifying disadvantaged gifted learners:

‘Students from Low Socio-economic Backgrounds

Disadvantaged gifted and talented students (or gifted and talented students from low socio-economic backgrounds) are difficult to identify and are seriously underrepresented in programmes for the gifted and talented. Since the performance of these students generally declines the longer they are at school (by comparison with students from more advantaged backgrounds), it is critically important to identify them as early as possible. Attention should focus on early childhood education and on the junior school.

Traditional identification methods tend to be ineffective with this group of students. Standardised tests of achievement and intelligence may penalise students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Non-verbal tests of general ability, such as the Standard Progressive Matrices, are more culturally fair although they do not predict academic performance as well as some tests.

The accuracy of teacher identification can be increased with the use of checklists designed specifically for identifying disadvantaged gifted students. Peer nominations have proved promising, particularly where peers have identifi ed areas of special ability outside the classroom, such as art, music, sport, and leadership. Of particular value, however, has been the responsive learning environment approach for this group of students. When coupled with early identification and intervention, it is usually the most effective method.’

But, moving ahead to 2008, while the ERO Report on ‘Schools’ Provision for Gifted and Talented Students’ follows the earlier Ministry publication in advocating identification processes that:

‘Identify special groups, including Maori, students from other cultures/ethnicities,            students with learning difficulties     or disabilities, underachievers, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds’,

when it comes to reporting on and exemplifying effective practice, the latter group simply vanishes.

  • In establishing indicators of good practice for defining and identifying giftedness, ERO sought evidence that Maori and multicultural concepts were incorporated and that students identified ‘reflected the diversity of the school’s population’.
  • Only 5% of schools could demonstrate a ‘highly inclusive and appropriate’ approach on these terms, with a further 40% deemed ‘inclusive and appropriate’. Practice in the remaining 55% of schools therefore fell short of this expectation.
  • The ensuing discussion of good practice references the incorporation ‘of Maori or multicultural concepts of giftedness and talents’ in schools’ definitions (the majority of schools had not demonstrated this).
  • Just 15% of schools included Maori theories and knowledge in their identification process and even fewer – 12% – incorporated ‘multi-culturally appropriate methods’.
  • ‘Identified gifted and talented students reflected the diversity of the school’s population at just under half the schools. This diversity included ethnicity, year levels, gender, and curriculum areas’.

Socio-economic factors are neither explicitly identified in ERO’s template of effective practice, nor referenced explicitly in the practice they surveyed. There is a clear problem in respect of Maori and multicultural representation, but the issue of socio-economic representation is entirely invisible.

The only reference to disadvantage is in terms of schools:

‘In general, high decile schools were more likely to have good quality provision for their gifted and talented students than low decile schools. Similarly, urban schools were more likely to have good quality provision for their gifted and talented students than rural schools.’

which leads to a recommendation that the Ministry:

‘Provide targeted, high quality professional development to rural and low decile schools on providing for gifted and talented students’

We shall return later to the issue of support differentiated according to school decile, since that too is a questionable proxy for individual socio-economic disadvantage.

The current TKI Gifted site follows the 2000 publication up to a point:

‘Disadvantaged gifted and talented students (or gifted and talented students from low socio economic backgrounds) are difficult to identify and are seriously underrepresented in programmes for the gifted and talented. Since the performance of these students generally declines the longer they are at school (by comparison with students from more advantaged backgrounds), it is critically important to identify them as early as possible. Attention should focus on early childhood education and on the junior school.’

But it carries no links to programmes or resources that explicitly address this issue.

The letter signed by various New Zealand organisations and just issued to Members of Parliament references their commitment to a vision that:

‘All gifted and talented learners have equitable access to a differentiated and culturally responsive education. They are recognised, valued and empowered to develop their exceptional abilities and qualities.’

But there is no mention of disadvantaged gifted learners in the associated recommendations for practice, though there are references to research in ‘Pasifika concepts of giftedness and Maori perceptions and understanding of giftedness’.

This formulation cannot be criticised on the grounds that it focuses exclusively on Maori and Pasifika disadvantage. Rather, the emphasis on disadvantage is missing entirely – and only the need to account for different cultural perceptions remains.

There is a fascinating – and in my view telling – extract in The Extent, Nature and Effectiveness of Planned Approaches in New Zealand Schools for Providing for Gifted and Talented Students (2004).

It appears during a discussion of cultural issues, and specifically the representation of Maori and Pasifika students:

Socioeconomic factors. Keen (2001) hypothesized that the under-representation of Mäori and other Polynesian children that emerged in his research could be related to socioeconomic status rather than ethnicity. He notes that children of beneficiaries and unskilled labourers are also under-represented amongst the gifted and that “a disproportionate number of Mäori fall within these occupational categories” (p. 9). Similarly, Rata (2000) maintains that ethnicity has been credited with a greater influence than it actually exerts and that poverty is principally responsible for the educational and social inequalities that exist in New Zealand. However, Blair, Blair, and Madamba (1999) argue that it is virtually impossible to separate the potential effects of ethnicity and social class, while Bevan Brown (2002) and Glynn (cited in Bevan-Brown, 2002) maintain that it is a pointless exercise anyway as both these dimensions need be taken cognisance of in any educational provisions for poor Mäori students with special needs and abilities.’

It appears that, around the turn of the century, various experts were arguing that poverty rather than ethnicity was the real problem that required addressing in relation to under-representation in gifted populations.

Others regarded these two factors (quite wrongly in my view) as indistinguishable. Others saw the issue entirely through the lens of support for Maori learners, and so entirely missed the point.

Is this the real heart of the issue? Have the arguments advanced by Keen and Rata been set aside too readily in an effort to address the under-representation of Maori and Pasifika gifted learners?

Earlier in this Report we are told:

‘It is beyond the scope of this review of the literature to examine the recommendations for each potentially under-represented group of gifted and talented students; however, given the cultural diversity of New Zealand, issues related to the identification of minority cultures, and specifically, Mäori students, are of utmost importance. This is discussed in the section on cultural issues of this literature review.’

Is that the nub of the problem, and have we identified the turning point in New Zealand’s gifted education discourse?

Waterfalls at Midnight courtesy of Stuck in Customs

Is this Conflation of Ethnicity and Disadvantage Borne Out By the Data?

I want to turn to the statistical evidence about the extent of disadvantage in New Zealand, the composition of the disadvantaged population and the impact of disadvantage on educational outcomes.

The Extent of Disadvantage and Breakdown by Ethnic Background

I haven’t found it an easy matter to derive estimates of New Zealand children living in poverty broken down by ethnic background. Such statistics are less readily available than one might expect.

The 2010 Social Report defines low income as 60% of the 2007 household disposable income median, minus a 25% deduction to account for housing costs. The total is adjusted to reflect inflation so it remains level in real terms.

In the year ending in June 2009, 15% of New Zealand’s population had incomes below this threshold. However 22% of children aged 0-17 lived in households with incomes below this level.

The Report does not provide an analysis by ethnic background because sample sizes are said to be too small to provide a robust time series. I am no statistician but this seems a rather convenient and only partially accurate excuse.

The August 2011 publication ‘Household Incomes in New Zealand: Trends in Indicators of Inequality and Hardship 1982 to 2010’ informs us that:

  • New Zealand does not have an official poverty measure – the Report uses the 60% of median household income and also a 50% median household income measure. It notes that both are regularly used by the EU and OECD
  • Of New Zealand’s total population of 4.26m (2010) some 500,000 to 750,000 are in poverty depending on which definition is adopted.
  • The childhood poverty rate is 22% to 25% depending on the definition adopted. Of the 1.07m dependent children under 18 in New Zealand (2010) between 170,000 and 270,000 were in households in poverty
  • Over the period 2007-2010, one in three Maori children one in four Pasifika children and one in six European/Pakeha children were living in poverty.

(For those readers outside New Zealand, ‘Pakeha’ is the Maori word for New Zealanders of European descent.)

The Social Report tells us that, at 2006, 72% of 0-17 year-olds were reported as of European or ‘Other’ origin (‘Other’ including ‘New Zealander’); 10% were reported as Asian, 24% as Maori and 12% as Pacific Peoples.) Some were obviously reported as belonging to more than one ethnic group.

Using the Statistics New Zealand Table Builder, one can derive estimated numbers of 0-14 year-olds and 15-19 year-olds by ethnic background in 1996, 2001 and 2006.

So the totals for 0-19 year-olds in 2006 are:

European or Other (including New Zealander) – 645,300 + 222,370 = 867,670

Maori – 215,300 + 65,980 = 281,280

Pacific peoples – 110,300 + 31,830 = 142,130

Asian – 83,600 + 35,840 = 119,440

Recognising the inaccuracy of the figures – one can roughly estimate an order of magnitude for the number of children from each background (other than Asian) living in poverty, by applying the proportions given in the Social Report:

European or Other (including New Zealander) – 16.67% of 281,280 = 46,890

Maori – 33% of 281,280 = 92,820

Pacific Peoples – 25% of 142,130 = 35,530

One can conclude that:

  • the total number of children living in poverty in New Zealand is relatively small in absolute terms, but constitutes a significant proportion of the total population of New Zealand children.
  • While only a minority of Maori and Pasifika children live in poverty…
  • In numerical terms, roughly twice as many Maori live in poverty as European/Pakeha but the latter significantly exceed the size of the Pasifika-in-poverty population.
  • Almost 50,000 young New Zealanders – well over 4% of the total national population of 0-19 year-olds – are neither Maori nor Pasifika yet live in poverty.

It is this group that seems most at risk of neglect when it comes to the delivery of education interventions, including gifted education interventions.

Data on Educational Performance by Ethnic and Socio-Economic Background 

Ethnic Background

As noted above, the Ministry of Education’s Brief to the Incoming Minister carries a Table showing several indicators of relatively poor Maori/Pasifika educational performance. This is reproduced below.

These figures tell a bleak story and they are reinforced elsewhere, though the data does not always give a consistent picture.

The Social Report 2010 provides evidence of performance by both ethnic background and disadvantage, but unfortunately no analysis of the relative impact of each of these two factors.

In relation to ethnic background:

  • The proportion of secondary school leavers who left school with an upper secondary qualification at NCEA Level 2 or above: in 2008, 71% of all school leavers achieved this benchmark. The comparable figures by ethnic background were: European – 75.2%; Maori – 50.4%, Pacific peoples – 62.9%.
  • The proportion of the population aged 15 and over enrolled at any time during the year in formal tertiary education leading to a recognised NZ qualification: during 2009, 426,000 young people achieved this benchmark (12.4%). The age standardised ethnic breakdown was: Maori – 17.1%; Pacific peoples – 12.1%; Europeans – 11.4%. The age standardised percentages for enrolment in bachelor’s degree courses was: Europeans – 3.5%; Maori – 3.1%; Pacific peoples – 3.0%. Females from Maori and Pacific backgrounds were more likely to be enrolled than males from European backgrounds.

Education Counts provides an analysis of the proportion of students leaving school with a university entrance standard in 2010. Overall, 42% of leavers achieved this measure. The ethnic breakdown was: Asian 65.3%, European/Pakeha 47.5%, Pasifika 25.8%, Maori 20%.

Data from PISA 2009 adds a further dimension. The NZ Ministry of Education publication ‘PISA2009: Our 21st Century Learners at Age 15’ provides useful evidence of the impact of ethnic background on achievement in literacy.

We learn that:

  • Overall, 16% of New Zealand’s students achieved level 5 and above on the PISA 2009 literacy test and 14% achieved below Level 2. The former is comparable with or exceeds the outcome in other high-scoring countries but the proportion of weaker readers is relatively larger than in most other high-scoring countries other than Australia and Japan.
  • 19% of Pakeha/European students achieved level 5 and above, as did 16% of Asian students. The comparable figures for Maori and Pasifika were 7% and 4% respectively. Conversely, the figures for those achieving below Level 2 were 11% Pakeha/European, 18% Asian, 30% Maori and 48% Pasifika.
  • Amongst the eight highest-performing countries, New Zealand had the widest gap between the scores of its top 5% and its bottom 5% of performers.

Punctuated Sky courtesy of Chris Gin

Socio-economic Disadvantage

The Social Report 2010 reveals  the proportion of secondary school leavers who left school with an upper secondary qualification at NCEA Level 2 or above in terms of school decile, showing that 57% of pupils at relatively disadvantaged schools in deciles 1-3 achieved this benchmark, compared with 67% at schools in deciles 4-7 and 82% at schools in deciles 8-10.

Education Counts similarly deploys school decile when considering the proportion of students leaving school with a university entrance standard in 2010. It notes:

‘A clear positive correlation between the socio-economic mix of the school the student attended and the percentage of school leavers attending a university entrance standard…Students from schools in deciles 9 and 10 were three times more likely to leave school having achieved a university entrance standard than students from schools in deciles 1 and 2’

However:

There is a large variation in the proportion of school leavers achieving a university entrance standard amongst schools within each decile.’

This is exemplified in the table below. If similar distinctions occur in the achievement of disadvantaged pupils in these schools, then the shortcomings of a decile-based approach are clear.

Interestingly, New Zealand’s domestic analysis of PISA 2009 does not examine variations according to socio-economic background, so we must turn to the original PISA 2009 Results (Volume 2).

This provides useful international comparisons of:

  • The percentage variation in student performance in reading explained by students’ socio-economic background (the strength of the gradient showing the association between student performance and background) and
  • The average gap in reading performance of students from different socio-economic backgrounds (the slope of the gradient measuring by how much student performance changes when socio-economic status changes).

The table reproduced below shows that, on the first of these measures, New Zealand is three points above the OECD average of 14%, so in the upper part of the distribution but not too far distant from other high performing countries (eg Singapore 15%, Shanghai 12%, Korea 11%, Canada 9%.

But on the second measure, New Zealand’s score of 52 exceeds that of every other country in the table. Competitors’ scores include: Singapore 47, Korea 32, Canda 32, Finland 31, Shanghai 27 and Kong Kong 17.

The text tells us:

Where the slope of the gradient is steep and the gradient is strong, the challenges are greatest because this combination implies that students and schools are unlikely to “escape” the close relationship between socioeconomic background and learning outcomes. In these countries, this strong relationship also produces marked differences in performance between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Where the slope is steep and the gradient weak, the relationship between socio-economic background and learning outcomes is an average tendency with many students performing above or below what is expected by this general trend.’

Only Belgium and New Zealand demonstrate ‘high average performance and large socio-economic inequalities’.

I sought in vain for a publicly-available and reliable outcome measure – whether of achievement or destination – that would throw further light on the existence of an excellence gap between advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers.

But one can reasonably assume that the relationships identified in this PISA analysis apply at each level of performance, so that New Zealand’s excellence gap is likely to be fairly pronounced.

Cross-referencing Data on Ethnic and Socio-Economic Underachievement

Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right place, but educational achievement data that cross-references ethnic and socio-economic background seems conspicuously thin on the ground.

This Table offers a beguiling glimpse into analysis across both these variables. It too uses school deciles as a proxy, but groups them into five quintiles:

From this we can infer that, although European/Pakeha tend to achieve more highly:

  • Maori in decile 7-10 schools (quintiles 4-5) and Pasifika in decile 5-10 schools (quintiles 3-5) are more likely to achieve a university entrance standard than European/Pakeha in decile 1-2 schools (quintile 1)
  • Maori and Pasifika in decile 9-10 schools (quintile 5) are more likely to achieve a university entrance standard than European/Pakeha in decile 1-6 schools (quintiles 1-3)

However, the overall variation we have already noted between schools in the same decile on this measure suggests that there will be similar variation as far as disadvantaged students are concerned (to the extent that they are represented in higher decile schools). It is perhaps likely that the strongest schools in deciles 1-5 will tend to out-perform the weakest in deciles 6-10.

So we have evidence of a significant ethnicity-based performance gap and a significant socio-economically based performance gap with a degree of overlap between them, though not to the extent that one entirely explains the other.

The New Zealand Institute’s NZahead report card explains it thus:

‘New Zealand’s overall strong performance in PISA masks three important problems.  First, wide disparities in student achievement exist between ethnic groups.  Māori and Pacific peoples’ average PISA scores are much lower than the average for Pakeha/European students…. the gap has not been narrowing fast enough over the years for Māori and not at all for Pacific peoples.

Over the seven years from 2004 to 2010 Māori and Pacific candidates for NCEA at all three levels and for University Entrance were consistently less successful than European and Asian candidates.  For example in 2010, 61% of Māori and 52% of Pacific candidates gained NCEA Level 3 compared to 79% for NZ European and 78% for Asian candidates.

Second, wide performance disparities exist for students from different socio-economic backgrounds.  In Education at a Glance 2011, New Zealand is shown to have the greatest difference in reading performance between students from different socio-economic backgrounds out of all OECD countries.  Although the relationship between students’ background and school performance is evident in all countries, New Zealand is the least successful at mitigating the effect a student’s background has.

Third, too many young New Zealanders are becoming disengaged and not remaining in education as long as their OECD peers.’

These are clearly overlapping problems but here they are presented as quite distinct, which rather begs the question why they are confused together when it comes to the implementation of educational policy solutions.

GP

June 2012


 

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3 thoughts on “Where is New Zealand’s Excellence Gap? – Part 1

  1. Thanks for this detailed examination of areas which you rightly identify as taboo. The dialogue on race and class in New Zealand is not very joined up as you correctly observe. Having lived here for five years I can report from the ground that it is hard to make sense of any of it, and political correctness prevents much frank discussion of these subjects and how they are related. It’s a political minefield and many people are content to just leave it like that.

  2. Thanks for your response. I got that distinct impression when I was researching the post. I fear that it will be necessary for politicians and policy makers to enter and clear the minefield if New Zealand is to be successful in reducing significantly its ‘long tail of underachievement’ and in narrowing the ‘excellence gap’ between advantaged and disadvantaged gifted learners. Otherwise these efforts will be built upon the distinctly shaky foundations provided by ethnic and school decile proxies, with the consequence that that any policy interventions will be imperfectly targeted.

  3. As a parent of Māori within total immersion who has been assessed to be in the top 5% academically I can talk of first hand experience and frustration with the education system. In order for his learning needs to be met we feel we have had to “reject” Māori medium (possibly because of where we live). We feel we have had to choose between him learning as Māori (in Te Reo Māori) and him getting enough academic stimulation purely because there are not the extension possibilities or understanding amongst educators within Māori medium. This is disappointing. Like it or not the educational system is (still) scarred from colonisation, the relative recent revival of Māori medium, the very real occurrence of internalised racism. Like it or not Māori do live mainly within low decile areas and so if your income is not fitting to that decile rating, to make a positive choice for total immersion one is forced often to low decile areas for those schools. I would argue that the biggest factor of reading etc is the parent’s educational level not the decile of school. Within English medium there is more choice so one can find a good school in a good area, if one wants Māori medium the (same) choice isn’t there and one has to decide high decile in Mainstream or (normally) lower decile in Māori medium? the problem is made worse because Te Reo Māori is not easily accessible as a language to study in mainstream and so a talented child is then forced to make choices with an official language of the country or the parents have to supplement …which is still not meeting the educational needs of the child within the educational system. I would suggest the previous comment is not quite correct – there is very little political correctness in NZ (if there was then the Treaty would be upheld in everything and it is not and hence why there is a political minefield) – NZ does not speak frankly purely because there is a mindset which means Pakēhā needs/feelings are put first and hence why anything Māori is a political minefield)…again I write with firsthand experience of our struggle with the educational system; although I know I have probably just made myself sound very militant!

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