World class education? Why New Zealand must strengthen its teaching profession

14 Oct 2013

This is the first in a series of three reports, which will use comparative research to explore how leading jurisdictions attract and retain world class teaching talent, and how these policies can be applied to New Zealand.

Executive Summary: The greatest asset in New Zealand’s education system is teachers. Teacher salaries make up the bulk of education spend, and teachers are the most important factor for student achievement and development.

Thus New Zealand must design policies that attract the best and brightest into the teaching profession, and design attractive career structures so that teachers can develop their full potential and so that the best teachers remain in the classroom.

New Zealand’s education system is often heralded as world class and, indeed, our top students are doing extremely well in reading, mathematics, and science. Yet there is wide variation between the top and bottom students, and Māori, Pasifika and lower SES students are overrepresented in the lower end of the achievement spectrum. Primary school students are way behind their international counterparts in the three core subjects, and there are particular concerns around poor performance in mathematics. Some researchers argue that low expectations of students are partly to blame for poor achievement.

Improving the performance of the schooling system has concerned governments and educationists around the world for the last 50 years. The plethora of educational reforms, each intended to be the ‘silver bullet’, have exhausted teachers and yielded very little progress. No education system is better than its teachers yet these reforms have failed to respect teachers as trusted professionals and partners in reform. Furthermore, key policy areas that influence who becomes a teacher and how teachers are developed professionally have been largely ignored.

Effective teachers must have strong subject knowledge, knowledge and skills in teaching that subject matter (pedagogical knowledge), the personal qualities required for developing children and young people, and a passion for teaching. While it is difficult to measure the quality of the teaching workforce, experience dictates that New Zealand has some excellent teachers, but too many ineffective teachers.

While New Zealand’s teaching profession is highly qualified - 86% have at least bachelor’s degrees - teachers are not necessarily qualified in the subjects that they teach and this is particularly concerning in the area of mathematics where research shows a clear link between teachers’ and students’ mathematics ability. New Zealand has a lack of qualified mathematics teachers:

  • 20% of schools say that a lack of mathematics teachers hinders the ability to provide instruction.
  • One-third of year 9 students’ mathematics teachers do not have a mathematics qualification.
  • 19% of teacher vacancies are in mathematics.
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