While our new Education Minister, Chris Hipkins has welcomed the results of an international study (PISA 2015) showing New Zealand students are among the best in the world at collaborative problem solving, a closer look reflects an all too familiar and painful picture.

There are always two sides to any story. As a Pasifika father and educator, I am compelled to tell the story about our Pasifika 15 year-olds from PISA 2015.

According to the PISA 2015 report, New Zealand students ranked in the top nine (out of 52 countries) for their ability in collaborative problem-solving. Collaborative problem solving is defined as students’ ability to “work together with others to solve a problem through establishing and maintaining shared understanding and team organisation.” Students’ ability to collaboratively solve problems was evaluated through the three key competencies (i) establishing and maintaining shared understanding; (ii) taking appropriate actions to solve the problem; and (iii) establishing and maintaining team organisation.

The reality is 51% of New Zealand students scored at level 2 and below. This means that just over half of New Zealand 15-year-olds can deal with low-level problem-solving tasks involving some level of complexity.

When broken ethnically, an even more concerning picture emerges with 44% of Pākehā students, 48% Asian, 65% Māori and 70% Pasifika at level 2 and below.

Scoring at level 3 or above means that a student can complete tasks with complex problems and collaboration demands. Only 30% of Pasifika students were at this level.

Clearly, there is nothing to celebrate in these figures for our Pasifika learners, parents and communities.

It is clear that New Zealand’s top performing students in science, reading and mathematics (mainly Pākehā and Asian) are also more likely to be top performers in collaborative problem-solving. New Zealand cannot continue to pretend that all is well by using its “top students” as a measure of its international reputation.

Students’ ability to solve problems collaboratively are fundamental skills required not just for employers. These skills are key to daily living and essential for full participation in the 21st century. Local and international educators enjoy talking about our world-renown New Zealand Curriculum. However, a key measure of a quality curriculum is its intended impact on student outcomes and the actions of educators. Clearly, we have got plenty of work to do.

What does this mean for Pasifika learners in New Zealand?

It means there has been so much pisa (Samoan word for noise) and very little active engagement and commitment to solving a well-known New Zealand problem. Since 2001, five Pasifika Education Plans (PEPs) have contributed more pisa than good news for our Pasifika peoples. The fact that these plans are not mandatory neutralise their intended purpose and give school leaders something to let go on the assumption that they are targeting the achievement of every learner anyway.

The good news is that we know so much already about how to best support our Pasifika learners. Numerous research, resources, theses, newspaper and journal articles have been written on the topic. Multiple initiatives like the Secondary Student Achievement (SSA) Contract and The Starpath Project have been implemented over the years with some success as well as many schools that are actively doing something different to address the achievement of their Pasifika students. Academic careers have been built on our students’ and peoples’ perceived limitations. Yet, we do not seem to find the will to collaboratively problem solve to help a significant group of students who will support the future success of our country.

Even worse, New Zealand educators, officials and the general public at large are making the current state of our Pasifika students’ achievement an acceptable part of their professional and casual conversations.

The challenges for Pasifika students are multidimensional. They cannot be solved by a universal strategy or approaches dependent on a political whim. Let’s not play the blame game as well. Rather, we should be focusing on what is really important – the success of every learner. To achieve success for Pasifika learners, we need to know them, understand how they see the world, promote difference as a strength and help them understand that their identities, linguistic and cultural assets are vital to their educational success in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Pasifika students themselves should be key contributors to solving the problems we currently face in New Zealand education. Our students are mere instruments in our system rather than key stakeholders in the design, delivery and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of programmes.

As a father of three adolescents, I look forward to the day when I do not have to confront the low expectations that people have of our vibrant and talented youth.

Let’s wait and see if the new Minister sets out a high expectation blueprint to tackle the inequities that Pasifika students continue to experience in our supposedly high performing education system, and give our kids your promise that they deserve better.

Let’s do this, strategically together.

Siliva Gaugatao is a Professional Learning Development Facilitator at Team Solutions, School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice, Faculty of Education and Social Work.


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