Primary and intermediate school principals have accused the Ministry of Education of a lack of leadership in tackling New Zealand children's declining performance.
The Principals Federation says achievement in maths and science in particular should be ringing alarm bells and schools need more direction on what they should be teaching and the best ways to teach it.
In a letter to the secretary for education, Iona Holsted, the federation's president, Perry Rush, said New Zealand's falling scores had not provoked an urgent response and the lack of "thought leadership" was a serious weakness.
Holsted responded with a letter that said the Ministry of Education (MOE) was already working on the problems the federation raised and schools already had the ability, and the funding for teacher training, to change how they taught.
However, the balance of power between schools and central agencies like the MOE was up for debate, Holsted said.
The federation's letter followed a string of poor results in a variety of tests. Last year, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study reported falling scores for New Zealand 9 and 13-year-olds, with the older children's results being their worst ever.
In 2019, New Zealand recorded its lowest scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of reading, maths and science among 15-year-olds.
Rush told RNZ his letter was prompted by those results and by New Zealand's own National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement which showed most children were achieving at the curriculum level expected of them in year 4, but by year 8 many were not, especially in science and maths.
"We're seeing declining rates of achievement," Rush said.
"The national monitoring of student achievement shows a very low level of achievement for our Year 8 students. We have 45 percent of year 8 students in mathematics achieving at or above expectations in curriculum and only 20 percent in science. Now, those statistics should ring alarm bells."
The school curriculum was deliberately generic with the intention that schools could adapt it to reflect the interests and needs of their local community, Rush said.
"There is a question about whether we have gone too far, whether localisation is damaging the ability of that curriculum to be nationally coherent."
The MOE should make clearer what was expected at each level of the curriculum and it should also review the requirements of level four of the curriculum, he said.
"We need more clarity when it comes to the knowledge that teachers and principals use when they're engaged in teaching and learning, so that's about what is in the curriculum.
"When it comes to something like the teaching of mathematics, yes, we need a conversation with our ministry around the appropriate approaches because there's growing concern about the Numeracy Project, about the efficacy of that teaching approach.
"That approach has been in place for 20 years and there's been no movement away from the encouragement to continue to implement that even though we have many, many, many schools in our country dropping it."
Rush's letter said many principals missed the former system of centrally-funded advisory services that provided courses for teachers.
That had been replaced by a free-market in which schools decided for themselves what training to purchase for their teachers and which organisations would provide that training.
"If we are to make positive progress on achievement challenges and grow effective professional practice in a co-ordinated manner, we need nationally co-ordinated and coherent professional development (PLD) to limit the damage of the market-driven professional learning model that is currently in place," he wrote.
Rush also said principals had noticed new teachers were avoiding taking older age groups in primary schools because they were worried they could not teach the required maths.
In her letter responding to the federation, Holsted said a maths strategic plan was a priority for the ministry this year and it was also working on a plan for literacy.
"The persistent inequities characteristic of our education system are concerning, as is the pattern of decline becoming evident in international studies. I am pleased that this is now high on the agenda for the New Zealand's Principals' Federation," she wrote.
The federation's concern about the extent of localised decision-making was echoed in MOE advice to minister of education Chris Hipkins last year.
"We need to get the right balance of tight (at the centre) and loose (devolved) decision rights to engage education professionals, provide voice for ākonga/learners, whānau, families, communities and employers, and maintain high expectations across the system."
Holsted said the MOE expected schools would use the money they received each year for professional development on training that was aligned with the curriculum, and in the past four years the MOE had given $40 million to schools where maths training was a priority.
"This significant investment was not sufficient alone to change the achievement trajectory and suggests that our strategic action plan for mathematics needs to take a fresh look across the whole 'mathematics ecosystem' rather than just at PLD."
The National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) found most principals believed their teachers taught maths well, she said.
"NMSSA shows that learners aren't getting enough mathematics teaching time, and that they aren't getting a good balance in their 'maths diet' because teachers are not confident teaching what they don't know.
"I trust that leaders are looking at these findings and thinking about what that means for how they structure the curriculum in their schools, and for the support their teachers might need to be confident teachers of mathematics."
The levels of achievement expected of year 8 students were already under review and the MOE had commissioned the Royal Society to report on what children should be expected to know in maths at different stages of their schooling, she said.
'They will get that guidance'
MOE associate deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement Pauline Cleaver told Morning Report teachers were coming into the system with the fundamentals of teaching maths, but needed support as they learned on the job.
"I think we are providing the leadership that enables schools to have that guidance and that advice... we know that leadership is a collaborative exercise so we want to work alongside principals and other experts in maths to pull together a maths strategy that's based on the best evidence, that supports practising teachers [and] meeting the needs of the pupils they are teaching," Cleaver said.
The national curriculum could be "much clearer" around expectations, she said.
"That's something that the ministerial advisory group that the government commissioned a while ago were clear about and that's work we've got underway in maths and right across the curriculum.
"Having clear national statements means the local decision making can be more robust and we can make sure that the tools, the resources that sit alongside teachers ... will be as strong as the need to be.
"They will get that guidance."
The three efforts the MOE was making to improve the performance of children were applying evidence-based approaches for best teaching of maths, working on the national curriculum framing, and working on resources for teachers, Cleaver said.
The MOE was not supportive of streaming, Cleaver said.