Education Opinion

The New Zealand Way: An Interview With Minister of Education Hekia Parata

By Marc Tucker — February 02, 2017 11 min read
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My last trip to New Zealand was in the early 1990s, shortly after that country’s beloved Prime Minister, David Lange, had stepped down. Lange, leader of the Labour Party, was a larger than life figure. After the ruinous oil shocks of the 1970s, New Zealand’s economy was on the precipice. Lange pointed out that New Zealand could no longer count on its special economic relationship with the U.K. If it wanted to continue to be a wealthy country, its workforce would have to be among the best educated and trained in the world. Lange saw globalization coming and was offering a high-skill, high-wage strategy to meet it head-on. So Labour did an about-face, embracing privatization, and New Zealand voters bought Lange’s goals and his strategies for achieving them.

Lange not only became Prime Minister, but he also took on the education portfolio. Little wonder; education was at the heart of his strategy. Here again, Lange turned out to be a revolutionary. He announced that he was slashing the size of the staff of the old Department of Education, creating it anew as the Ministry of Education and sharply circumscribing its authority. He abolished the school districts, which hitherto had run the schools, and created a set of new, more efficient and responsive shared service centers (with no authority over the schools) to provide the resources and services to schools that had formerly been provided by the districts. He created boards of parents and teachers to run each school which reported directly to the ministry, without any intermediary. Then he took the national schools budget, deducted a small amount for the much smaller ministry and deposited the rest in a lump sum for each school in that school’s local bank, to be used by the local board as it saw fit. And, finally, he did what was necessary to make sure that parents had the information they would need to freely choose which school their children would attend. The funds were distributed to the schools on a uniform formula that assured that students with various forms of disadvantage would get more than students who did not suffer from those disadvantages.

So far, this is a story of radical decentralization. But that is not the end of the story. The schools were not free to do anything they wished. Not by a long shot. New Zealand proceeded to develop the most aggressive and most fully integrated system of education, training and job skill standards anywhere on the globe. It created an independent board for that purpose—independent of the schools ministry, the higher education system and the officials responsible for industrial development. The idea was to make sure that the constituencies of these agencies could not drive the standards down below what they needed to be for New Zealand to be globally competitive. So it set the standards very high.

The Ministry of Education developed a curriculum framework matched to the standards and created the Education Review Office to make sure that they were fully implementing the national curriculum.

So the principles of the new system were clear—New Zealand wanted a system in which all students were expected to reach high standards specified by the state, using a curriculum framework also specified by the state, not locally determined. The goals were clear and centrally set, as was the curriculum framework. But the responsibility for achieving those goals, for deciding how resources would be used in each school and for creating the lessons and experiences students would have that would enable them to meet the standards—all that was resoundingly the responsibility of the school’s own board and faculty.

These changes in the design of New Zealand’s system were more radical and sudden than any others I know of. It is hard to believe that they would have even been considered were it not for Lange’s enormous charisma and popularity. No one knew how it would work out then. Now we do.

Except for a brief spell, New Zealand has been among PISA’s top performers since the surveys began in the year 2000. A very high proportion of its students score in the top segments of the PISA performance scale. New Zealand does not compare well to the other PISA countries, however, on equity, though it is making significant progress on that front. And yes, the investment in education and the reforms in that arena have paid off handsomely for the New Zealand economy, too. Its GDP per capita is higher than that of France. It has a very low unemployment rate and has recovered very nicely from the Great Recession.

My questions concerning New Zealand were simple; how did it go after David Lange’s radical reforms? What had New Zealand learned from them? What changes had to be made to make them work? What’s the unfinished business? To get some answers, I talked with New Zealand’s charismatic, dynamic and long-serving Education Minister, Hekia Parata.

Listening to Parata talk, I had only to close my eyes to revive the spirit of David Lange. And little wonder--Parata was present at the creation, a member of Lange’s national advisory body during the period of the great reforms. She seemed carved from the same stone—politically astute, utterly committed, well informed, pursuing her work with a subtle understanding of the way education reforms were working out across the globe. Maybe this is just another way of saying that her approach to the work was a very good match with our own observations about what has worked and what has not across the world over the last 25 or 30 years. We talked for an hour.

I asked Parata first to address what I see as the central tension in the New Zealand design. On the one hand, New Zealand has decentralized its education system to a degree not matched in my experience by any other advanced industrial country, right down to the individual school, vesting enormous power in the individual school board and school faculty. We have seen in the United States that most parents are satisfied with standards that are far below those in other countries. How has New Zealand managed to have high standards and an extreme form of local control at the same time?

The first part of her answer, in effect, is that Lange got the essentials right. Local control has to be matched by the right kind of central control. There have to be clear national standards and curriculum frameworks that apply to all students that describe the goals for the students: what a student should be able to accomplish in a given year, the topics that should be covered, the concepts to be mastered and suggested materials, through the grades. Crucially important, students, parents and teachers are given examples of student work that meet the standards at each grade level, for each topic in the curriculum. So the standards, in effect, consist of both the narrative statements about what students should know and be able to do, as well as the examples of student work that meet the standards.

None of that would have worked without some means of gauging whether the curriculum was actually being implemented and of measuring whether the students were learning what they were supposed to be learning. New Zealand created the Education Review Office to determine whether the required curriculum was being taught, and make recommendations to the local boards as to what needed to happen if the students were not progressing at the expected rate. But they chose not to establish a new, full set of national examinations to measure student progress. Instead, they required their teachers to develop their own measures of student progress, school-by-school, and report to parents against those measures.

But how, I asked, could the state be sure that these teacher-developed measures were on the same scale, so that student progress in one school could be compared to student progress in another? If they could not do that, parents would not have the information they needed to make valid comparisons among the schools from among which they were choosing and the state would not know whether the students were improving or backsliding. The answer is that the state set up a system of what the British call ‘moderation.’ Moderation is a method for getting teachers from two or more different schools (in this case) to assess their own students and then, using their own assessment methods, assess the others’ students, and then construct a table of equivalences so that they know that an X on their grading system equals a Y on the grading scale of teachers from the other school or schools. Is it perfect? No, but it works well enough. Of course, it would not have worked at all without the examples of student work that meet the standards. It is those examples that really set the standard and make it possible for two teachers who do not know each other and who have very different student populations to create a common scoring scale.

This moderation approach to the construction of a uniform data system is the basis of the regular national reporting system for New Zealand schools. It is all focused on how much the students are learning, as judged against the national curriculum.

This whole approach to assessment, of course, is nearly antithetical to the American experience since the No Child Left Behind approach to school and teacher accountability was introduced in 2000. When I pointed this out to Parata, she laughed and said that this was no accident. The New Zealand system is founded on trust; it is a nation that trusts its teachers. Student test scores are not used in New Zealand to assess teachers and personnel decisions are not made on the basis of those scores. If they were, of course, no one would trust the grades or scores that the teachers give their students.

But it turns out that this idea of teachers from different schools working together on instructional matters goes far beyond assessment in New Zealand. This is a function of the second tension in the New Zealand system. The fierce preference for choice in New Zealand which might better be framed as a high value placed on the unique identity of each school and the involvement of both parents and staff in creating that identity and working to fulfill its mission. This is matched by another deeply felt need, which is to make sure that the pathways for young people, from birth to adulthood and from school to school are smooth, and yet another high value that is placed on teachers working together as professional colleagues—not just within schools, but across them. Rugged individualism meets clear student pathways and community and professional collaboration.

The government’s response to these conflicting requirements is the “Communities of Learning” idea. It is voluntary—no school is required to participate. But the government offers money and many forms of practical support to those who do.

“Instead of each school being an independent entity, we are trying to create an archipelago where these islands operate in a unified way with a joint and unified focus on the quality of teaching and learning that every child has as he or she progress along their education pathway,” Parata said.

Teachers work in teams in groups of schools on the curriculum, as well as their instructional methods, to improve their effectiveness and refine them so that there are clear and smooth pathways for the students as they move through the system, from school to school. This is not the government imposing a particular design, but rather government creating an environment in which it is easy and natural for the professionals in the schools to create their own designs to fit their own schools and communities, within an overall structure for the country as a whole.

What struck me about this (only partial) description of the New Zealand approach was the dog that did not bark: the lack of mention of any special categorical programs for poor and minority students, apart from the general feature of the pupil-weighted funding system. I said so to Minister Parata. This, too, was no accident. Parata doesn’t believe in them.

“Every school, every child has a [unique] identity, language and culture,” Parata told me.

She said that New Zealand is investing in system change, not programs, especially not separate programs for separate groups of students. You might think that, with such an attitude, the Maori and Pacific Islander students would have fallen by the wayside in this system. The fact is that these two minority groups have struggled in New Zealand, largely because the strong value placed on choice in that country is a headwind they have to contend with. But, notwithstanding that headwind, during Parata’s service as education minister, the achievement of both groups has improved substantially as she has strengthened the whole system.

Hekia Parata has served as education minister longer than any of her predecessors. If you take the long arc of modern New Zealand education policy since Lange, New Zealand has enjoyed remarkable stability as it pursued those very distinctive policies for close to half a century. That, too, should be taken into account as we search for the sources of its success. Parata has announced that she will soon be stepping down from her post and leaving government. It will be most interesting to see what she does next.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.