The government has begun a review of the Education Act and it is asking the most fundamental question of all - what is education for?
The 1989 legislation does not clearly state New Zealand's education goals, the review said.
The review has also proposed changes that will affect how the government intervenes in struggling schools, when children start school, and how many schools one board of trustees can govern.
But Principals Federation president Denise Torrey said deciding on the goals for education was the most critical part of the exercise.
"Without a purpose we don't know why we're doing things and we've got lots of initiatives that have been coming into New Zealand over the last few years that are never tested against the purpose of education."
The federation's members will meet next year to decide what they think the goals should be, Ms Torrey said.
Educational Institute president Louise Green said the education system should aim to remain world class.
"That's really, really important. And to do that it really needs to be inclusive of all children and their learning and also to be equitable and fair so that all kids get a really good chance."
Post Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts said the curriculum and other education documents already gave some idea of what New Zealand wanted from its education system.
"There's a lot of groundwork already been done. I don't think it hurts to have that conversation and re-check that's where we want to go, but we don't want it to be narrowed down to a very basic set of numbers," she said.
"Our kids are much more than numbers and we want to make sure it is broad and aspirational."
As well as goals, the government also wants to set priorities for schools and early childhood centres.
Education Minister Hekia Parata has said that for schools those priorities would be focused on reading, writing and maths.
Ms Green said those skills were important, but they were not the whole picture.
"Reading, writing and maths are important, but actually education is bigger than that. Education is about equipping children for the future, for their future, and to be really satisfied and contributing citizens."
Ms Torrey said there was already a focus on reading, writing and maths and it was not working very well.
"Let's go back to a really good rich broad-based curriculum and make sure that our children are being taught some of those critical skills - creativity, thinking for themselves, what the employers call the 'soft skills'."
Submissions on the Education Act review close on 14 December.