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Insights 9: 24 March 2023
NZ Herald: Michael Johnston on the urgent need for a conversation about education
Podcast: Oliver Hartwich and Michael Johnston discuss the Initiative’s education manifesto
The Front Page: Michael Johnston on what can be done to repair NZ's education system

Critical failure
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
For a brief moment last year, it looked as if the Ministry of Education was finally going to embrace methods of teaching literacy and numeracy supported by scientific evidence. They published a new literacy and numeracy strategy that made reference to structured teaching methods.
Structured literacy works because it takes account of the nature of human memory and attention, and its limitations. The Ministry has spent more than two decades ignoring mounting evidence in its favour.
To be sure, the new strategy was hardly a full-throated endorsement of structured teaching, nor an especially well-articulated one. Still, I was heartened by their stated intention to develop a Common Practice Model (CPM) incorporating a structured approach to teaching these key skills. As its name implies, a CPM is a guide to teaching methods to be followed by every teacher in the country.
The CPM document was published last week. And it does mention structured literacy. Briefly. Near the end.
The trouble is, the rest of the document constitutes a doubling down on the same failed, and sometimes ludicrous, methods the Ministry has championed for years.
Under those methods, a generation of young New Zealanders has been badly let down. A third of our fifteen-year-olds cannot read at a basic adult standard. Two thirds cannot write at a similar standard and nearly half lack basic numeracy skills.
The CPM should have contained a detailed description of structured literacy and numeracy teaching and nothing else. Instead, the methods we so badly need our teachers to adopt are swamped by such things as ‘critical pedagogies’, ‘culturally responsive pedagogies’ and ‘multiliteracies’.
All of these are distractions and some will actively undermine any attempt to use a structured approach alongside them.
There isn’t the space here to describe all the ways in which these ‘pedagogies’ will harm, rather than foster, sound learning. I will confine myself to one highlight – that of ‘critical maths’.
The CPM asserts that “Ākonga [students] are encouraged to interrogate dominant discourses and assumptions, including that maths is benign, neutral, and culture-free”.
All this before they even know what mathematics is.
There is little enough time as it is during the school years for young people to develop basic mathematical proficiency. I would like to suggest to the Ministry that loading this kind of nonsense on top of that task guarantees further educational failure.
But, once again, the Ministry has shown that it simply isn’t listening.

Anecdotes don’t make for sound evidence
Benjamin Macintyre | Research Assistant |
Tokona Te Raki, an advocacy and research group for Māori issues, has recently released a report titled Kōkirihia. The report takes aim at the practice of streaming in our schools and pushes forward the bold suggestion to ban streaming by 2030.

Tokona Te Raki’s efforts are based on good intentions. Māori students are over-represented in lower streams, and in most statistics relating to poor educational outcomes. Seeking to find a solution to end this inequity and ensure that Māori students have the same opportunities as everyone else is a noble endeavour. Unfortunately, there is one major issue with this report – it isn’t very good.

More specifically, almost all the evidence provided in the report is entirely anecdotal and unreliable. Teacher interviews, student first-hand accounts, and other questionable methods are used to paint an unfavourable picture of streaming. In other words, there is a distinct lack of reliable evidence. This may make for an interesting conversation starter but it is not a substantive basis for major policy change.

Let us take one example to demonstrate what I mean by this. On the website version of their report, there is a subsection headed “streaming case studies”. It contains, unsurprisingly, a collection of case studies on schools that have ceased to stream. Most of these studies comprise no more than interviews with staff members at these schools. The principal of Fairfield College in Hamilton notes in his interview that “most of my evidence so far is anecdotal.”

The experience of educators matters, but are they sufficient for a nationwide ban on streaming? What about the perspectives of educators who find that streaming works in their schools? A more rigorous approach is needed.

Further evidence of the invalidity of this report can be found in its bibliography. Steenbergen-Hu et al. (2016)’s synthesis of meta-analyses is cited in the bibliography but cannot be found anywhere else in the report. Perhaps this is because Steenbergen-Hu et al. found that streaming had either no impact or a positive impact on students in low, middle, and high-ability streams. Perhaps they didn’t read that particular piece.

This should demonstrate that even the noblest intentions cannot mask the fact that Kōkirihia is not a good report. It certainly isn’t evidence for a need to ban streaming and should under no circumstances be enough proof for the Ministry.

The war on cone-tamination
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown is worried, and rightly so. His city is battling an invasion of road cones, and something must be done about it.
It is not just Auckland that is affected. From our cities to our remote rural areas, cones have become a fixture of the New Zealand landscape, clogging up footpaths, roads and even beaches.
The cone-quest of our islands has become a national phenomenon. It would not be an exaggeration to say that New Zealand is starting to look like a giant VLC media player.
Effectively, road cones are New Zealand’s new national flower. Sadly, they have also begun competing with native kiwi birds and other local fauna.
The economic effects are mixed. On the one hand, road cones are an economic burden on local councils. The orange menace (and I am not talking about Donald Trump) is costly to manage and maintain.
On the other hand, the cones have a positive impact on tourism, simply because they created new attractions. The formation of the Great Cone Barrier along some of New Zealand’s most popular beaches is a case in point.
Where we previously advertised our country to the world as “100% pure”, we should adopt a new marketing slogan: “New Zealand: Come for the scenery, stay for the cone-versations!”
And still, Mayor Brown is right. As much as tourists may find it impressive, for us locals, our national cone installation is just a nuisance.
As they say on Karangahape Road: “Why did the orange cone cross the road? To annoy the other side!”
The invasion of road cones calls for urgent action. It will take imagination and courage to drive them back, and we are glad to see Mayor Brown on the case. Politicians like him really think outside the cone. We humbly offer a couple of suggestions of our own to help.
To address the cone-undrum, the government should recruit an elite army of Cone Collectors. Dressed in bright orange uniforms, they will blend right in as they do their dangerous work of removing cones from our roads.
The cone harvest can be used to build new tourist attractions. Conehenge anyone? Or a Cone of Liberty? Maybe even a Millennium Cone? And Cone-tiki tours between them?
As New Zealanders take back cone-trol of their cities from their orange overlords, they will know who to thank.
His name is not orange but Brown. Wayne Brown.

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