Curriculum, the culprit?

March 2014


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SHANE KENNEDY discusses why he believes rhetoric is masking poor education in New Zealand.

Current debate over the quality of our education system abounds with claims and counter claims. The debate misses the core issues of choice, fairness, and accountability, all of which are sadly lacking in today’s New Zealand schools and classrooms.

For years the mantra, ‘New Zealand has the world’s best education’ has been incessantly chanted by incompetent ‘educrats’, bureaucrats, and short-sighted teacher unions. The truth, of course, is very different. The recent PISA report details

New Zealand’s considerable slide in the OECD rankings in reading, mathematics and science.

Experts offer various explanations for the international results and comparisons. Excuses given include questioning the reliability of such tests, inadequate teacher training, and systemic weaknesses in NCEA. The Government claims to be fixing it; the political opposition is blaming it on too much assessment, and the teacher unions are, of course, attributing it all to a lack of resources and funding. Nothing new there!

So what is the problem? Well, it is both specific and general. Specific in the sense that to have a successful education system, key components must be addressed and improved such as: teacher selection, teacher training, curriculum and its delivery, as well as ensuring a credible assessment structure is in place. From a general perspective, we need to examine the ‘big picture’ and challenge the current educational assumptions about choice, fairness, and accountability.

New Zealand Curriculum to blame

Among all the rhetoric and blame-shifting is one of the real culprits: the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. It is a document that continues to sell New Zealand children and teachers short. Sparse on actual content, it makes ‘experience’ central to teaching and learning rather than knowledge and skills. We are in desperate need of well-trained, highly qualified, intelligent teachers who teach a ‘content rich’ curriculum where knowledge and skills are paramount. We do not need ‘facilitators’ who masquerade as teachers and elevate the ‘child’s experience’ to the supposed cornerstone and pinnacle of all learning.

In all the recent commentaries and expert opinion, very little mention has been made of the detrimental impact of the national curriculum or of the inadequate methods and standards of teaching. There are plenty of examples that highlight the shortcomings in The New Zealand Curriculum and some sources may surprise you.

Take, for instance, the science curriculum, which has been described as a document of ‘unintelligible tripe’. Not my words but certainly my sentiments. David Chapman, senior lecturer in Massey University’s College of Education, made this comment in 2007 about the then newly-released curriculum. Under the heading ‘Physical World’, Year 5 and 6 students are required “to explore everyday examples of physical phenomena … seek and describe simple patterns in physical phenomena.” To be fair, some suggested topics are listed, but there is no particular content requirement. Anything physical will do, whether it has significance or not. There is no required method apart from ‘children investigating’ and there is no reliable knowledge to pass on to the children: they must describe their own ideas.

On top of all this nonsensical ‘eduspeak’, Chapman points out that the majority of teachers he is training have such a poverty of knowledge that they could not give a proper explanation of many basic physical phenomena anyway.

Let us move on to maths. In more recent times, the Herald reported that Education Minister Hekia Parata considered a return to basic arithmetic for primary school children in an attempt to lift our faltering performance in maths. New Zealand nine-year-olds finished equal last in maths among peers in developed countries, in a survey published last year. Almost half could not add 218 and 191 in a test. Officials analysing the results of the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) test found there were “significant proportions” of Year 5 children who could not add or subtract simple numbers.

This problem persists on into high school, where there are still students who have difficulty with the very basics such as knowledge about whole numbers and decimals. Government schools and teachers have had it drummed into them that memory work for pupils is detrimental and destructive to the learning process. Teachers can lose sight of the importance of achieving a balance between understanding maths concepts as well as the actual mastery of basic skills and knowledge. Understanding concepts must go hand-in-hand with knowledge of basic facts and an ability to use simple mathematical algorithms.

Children are unable to understand maths if they have no knowledge to work with. For example, Level 2 New Zealand maths (Year 3/4 pupils) has 18 achievement objectives over the two-year period. Compare this with the Cambridge curriculum where for just one year (Year 3), there are upward of 90 specific learning objectives to be achieved. The point is that Cambridge gives teachers far more specific ‘content’ and more confidence that they are covering learning objectives that will enable children to succeed and develop in their mathematical ability. Modern methods expect children to understand mathematical concepts … but in a vacuum. There is little or no numeric mental framework with which to process and master more abstract concepts.

Much more could be said about the inadequacies of the maths and science curricula, not to mention English. Teaching English grammar in today’s primary schools is considered unnecessary, old fashioned, and out of place in the new 21st century modern learning environment. As Richard Nordquist states in an article on ‘Why does grammar matter?’, “grammar is important because it is the language that makes it possible for us to talk about language.”

Again, the comparison between the New Zealand English curriculum and Cambridge is revealing. In Level 2 English, under language features, one of the indicators reads ‘gains an increasing control of text conventions, including some grammatical conventions’. What is meant by this vague sweeping statement is very much open to interpretation. The equivalent Cambridge Year 3/4 English curriculum under the heading ‘Grammar and Punctuation’ very clearly identifies some key skills and knowledge to be mastered. For example we read statements such as: ‘Identify adverbs and their impact on meaning,’ ‘Learn to use apostrophes to show possession,’ and ‘Use connectives to structure an argument’.

What is missing in The New Zealand Curriculum is a lack of any meaningful prescriptive detail to guide teachers and their teaching at the various class levels. Instead, we have schools and teachers all around the countryside re-inventing the wheel, deciding what to teach in the major subject areas of maths, English, and science. This may be satisfactory in the case of more senior experienced teachers, but many younger teachers have been through a schooling system where English grammar teaching has been virtually non-existent in primary and secondary schools.

The bigger picture

New Zealand’s educational woes will not be solved by just focusing on the key specific components of our education system. Rather, there is an urgent need for government and education policy makers to examine why there is a lack of choice, fairness and accountability in our current education system.

Choice and fairness for parents does not exist, especially for families from lower socio-economic groups. Government state schools hold a virtual monopoly and real choice is only available to those families who are able to afford private school fees. These taxpayers, who have already paid taxes for our state education system, have to pay again to make a choice and on top of this suffer the indignity of paying a third time with the added GST component.

Much has been written about the concept of ‘money follows the child’, or as it is more commonly known, ‘the educational voucher system’. Nearly everywhere this has been deployed around the world, it has resulted in vastly improved educational outcomes, particularly in poor ‘low decile’ areas. It is a simple but powerful idea. Every parent is given a voucher that they can redeem at any registered school of their choice. Parents are able to lever some real accountability. They can choose to invest their educational dollars in schools that get results and meet their child’s needs. Suddenly overnight, schools become far more parent and family focused; the educrat’s power and influence is reduced commensurately. School performance and educational outcomes rise.

Achieving any real change and improvements to our current education system will require political will, courage, and strong convictions. Teacher unions and the‘educrats’ have systematically opposed just about every reform of note in the government-run education system for the past twenty-five years. The principles driving this reactionary bias are fairly obvious: firstly, teacher jobs and conditions must be preserved at all costs; secondly, if any proposed government policy would threaten teachers or the control of the unions over the sector, it will be vociferously opposed.

It will take a government and educational leadership of conviction and purpose, not pragmatism, to make inroads into a system badly in need of a complete makeover. Unless this happens, we will be destined to revisit another round of ‘hand wringing’ accompanied by a plethora of reasons and excuses for further failures, delivered by ‘the experts’ several years on from now.

Shane Kennedy is principal of Manukau Christian School (MCS) in Auckland. MCS was established in 1987 and is a Cambridge affiliated school teaching a Christian curriculum in conjunction with Cambridge International Examinations (CIE).It operates a full primary school from Year 1–8, with plans to commence a Year 9 high school class in February 2015. For references to this article please contact

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