The Government has announced it will review “Tomorrow’s Schools” and establish a 30-year approach to education.

What is lacking for me, though, is a clear and public declaration by politicians as to the problem we are trying to solve. Indications of what it may be, however, are in the relevant Cabinet paper: “Insufficient year on year progress from Year 1 to 8 to enable them [learners] to successfully progress across the curriculum from Year 9 to 13”; “declines in school achievement, particularly in mathematics, both compared to other countries and against our own previous results”, “an overall decline in reading performance at the middle primary level”.

Indeed, New Zealand’s educational performance, as measured by international assessments, has been declining for 20 years. Yet I have never heard this problem put up front and publicly and unambiguously declared by politicians as the “problem to be solved”.

When the latest of these international test results was announced towards the end of last year, educationalists immediately came out with the typical excuses we all enter into as we first look to blame others before reflecting on our own part in the problem. In this case we heard learners were coming to school with less oral language or “less prepared” to learn and parents were not playing their part. What was lacking for me was any real analysis about the part the quality of education played. Educators, who should know better, appeared to blame others. Government officials made no comment as to possible causes of the problem.

Educators often talk about “inquiry” but in practice, not many of us appear to be very proficient at investigating the root causes of problems before addressing them. Where is the real inquiry into the problem itself or the part the education system plays in it? Why are we not performing as well as we would wish? Where is the testing of hunches about possible causes? I realise that performance in international tests is not the only indicator of quality but if we engage in them, we should use their results.

The previous Government showed little commitment to truly understanding why we are not doing better. It jumped to “solutions” such as communities of learning and charter schools (as is the way of governments with policies they take to elections), and of course the money goes out of the coffers but results do not improve. That should be a clue that the real inquiry into how to improve has not been carried out.

Whilst announcing the need for a long-term strategy (a bouquet for the Minister – yes we do need long-term thinking about what works), this trend to jump to solutions is also evident in the current Government’s cabinet paper. There is the suggestion that turning to some “old solutions” that the last Government threw out (such as delivering professional development through University Advisory Services) or completely throwing out the last Government’s initiatives (such as National Standards) is, at least partially, the answer. The problem for me is not necessarily these changes but rather the jump to untested solutions for an ill-defined problem. The analysis has not been done.

We have a history of tacking on solution after solution, yet not solving “the problem” because we do not have a shared view of what the scope of that problem is, or the causes. Many people have pet solutions they like to jump to. The risk with the (laudatory) broad consultation that the new Government is proposing about re-visioning the education system, is that it will involve a collection of “good ideas” as opposed to deep analysis of the problem and its causes.

Let’s have some real inquiry as to what works and why in our education system. Let’s move to a brave new world where improvement in international assessments and our own monitoring of some robust achievement data (another challenge for this Government) is one of the litmus tests of our efforts to raise achievement. And let’s actually adjust in response to the data. Let’s see some real inquiry into our problems and the efficacy of possible solutions, and stop jumping to old, failed answers, or to new fads.

Linda Bendikson is the Director for The University of Auckland Centre for Educational Leadership.

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