Are Our Standards Slipping? Debates over Literacy and Numeracy Standards in New Zealand since 1945

Gregory Lee (The University of Canterbury)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 14 October 2011



Lee, G. (2011), "Are Our Standards Slipping? Debates over Literacy and Numeracy Standards in New Zealand since 1945", History of Education Review, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 191-193.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Many readers will know that national standards were introduced into Aotearoa/New Zealand primary and intermediate schools recently, and that this move has been highly controversial. To this end Openshaw and Walshaw's book is a timely and welcome publication, providing a comprehensive and scholarly account of debates relating to literacy and numeracy standards in post Second World War New Zealand society until 2010. The authors analyse public and political concerns about the perceived need to raise achievement standards in the above two “basic subjects” as rapidly as possible. They also explore proposals aimed at enhancing pupils’ literacy and numeracy proficiency, and examine “crises in benchmark standards” (p. 8) involving pupils, teachers, principals, politicians, and policy makers.

In their introductory chapter the authors argue persuasively that moves to improve the literacy and numeracy skills of the New Zealand youth population for more than two generations have been motivated by at least two concerns. First, they have been linked automatically to intelligent citizenship, to the individual attainment of a “good life”, and to improving the quality of people's working lives. Second – as was to become more evident from the 1970s – a direct, uncritical relationship was forged in the minds of parents, politicians, and of various interest groups between a drive for higher literacy and numeracy for youth and the enhancement of New Zealand's economic and fiscal standing internationally. Openshaw and Walshaw maintain there is a paucity of academic research into the factors that have underpinned the high level of interest in these domains over the period 1945 to 2010. What is evident, they assert, is an abundance of “bad news stories” (p. 10) about decreasing literacy and numeracy standards and a lack of academic and other attention to the reality that the word “standards” has been utilised differently over the past 65 years. They identify three eras in which criticisms of falling standards in primary schools were to the fore: in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, and from the 1990s. The latter culminated in the passage of the Education (National Standards) Amendment Act of 2008, a statute that introduced to primary and intermediate schools tests for reading, writing, and mathematics. This legislation is significant, the authors assert, because it points to an overtly unapologetic political perspective on a perceived schooling dilemma, one that has also fiscal, social, and cultural elements.

One of many strengths to this book is the authors’ ability to examine comprehensively “the intellectual history of [New Zealand] primary and secondary school reform” (p. 13). They place debates over literacy and numeracy standards into this broader context, because these reveal not only the existence of certain priorities – reflected often in schooling policies – but also perceived crises, deficiencies, and pedagogical dilemmas. They emphasise, tellingly, that “notions of literacy and numeracy are formed at the intersection of competing claims to truth” (p. 14), and suggest that educators be (more) willing to interrogate what we/they mean whenever “standards” are invoked and what their implications are or might be.

Openshaw and Walshaw devote a chapter to discussing significant 1940s’ New Zealand schooling reforms in particular, as the first of their three era‐specific case studies. Here, they analyse literacy and numeracy teaching – specifically, formal whole‐class reading contrasted with phonics teaching – and the persistent emphasis on “fundamental drill” (p. 33), speed, and accuracy in primary school arithmetic. The authors examine issues as diverse as curricular contestation between liberal/progressive and conservative commentators (over what counts as worthwhile school knowledge), differing opinions about the “proper” purposes of formal schooling, and the emergence of mass secondary schooling and its curricular implications. This analysis leads smoothly into a thorough examination of 1950s’ concerns over allegedly declining standards in the basic or “tool” subjects, which forms the substance of the authors’ second case study. There is evidence of secondary school authorities blaming primary school teachers for poor, declining, performance in “the basics” and of growing criticism of “the modern education revolution” (p. 41) in the primary school curriculum.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s much debate over primary school literacy and reading centred on perceived or anticipated consequences of the “progressive education” policies and practices that were introduced to schools more overtly from the 1940s. The outcome was that the new mathematics taught from 1960 was seen by conservative mathematics educators, parents, and politicians sometimes as antithetical to the development of much‐needed, “relevant”, fundamental arithmetical skills. Several attempts to justify “new maths” in terms of New Zealand being able to compete better internationally in an allegedly rapidly developing technological age fell largely on deaf ears. At the core of this continuing controversy lay persistent disagreement over the very aims of schooling as reflected in a progressivist or modern perspective compared with a more formal, instrumentalist, approach to both learning and teaching.

Antagonism between progressive and more traditional educational spokespersons did not diminish in either frequency or intensity during the 1970s, mainly on account of increasing anxiety about New Zealand's worsening fiscal situation, rising youth unemployment, and a lower standard of living. Taken together, these negative indicators of prosperity served simply to deepen the rift between commentators, reflected in more vociferous criticisms from academics of any national assessment initiative that might be introduced, a firmer stance against phonics‐based approach to reading, and more public criticism by teachers’ professional associations of perceived teacher‐bashing rhetoric and behaviour from the Muldoon National Government, with the notable exception of its Minister of Education, Les Gandar. Furthermore, the release of a substantial Department of Education report in 1978, that concluded basic subject standards had not declined and that factors beyond the control of schools and teachers had impacted adversely on schooling, failed to satisfy critics that all was well with the New Zealand state schooling system. From the late 1970s there was more lobbying from some interest groups for greater teacher and institutional accountability for “sub standard” pupil performance in the 3Rs.

Notwithstanding international comparisons that revealed New Zealand performed favourably on literacy and numeracy measures from the late 1990s, and Labour Government initiatives (2000‐2006) designed expressly to enhance skill in these domains, business and financial sector spokespersons in particular continued to lament low standards. Conservative spokespersons declared that the answer to New Zealand's alleged literacy and numeracy “problem” lay with the prompt introduction of a national standards regime. The onset of a worldwide economic recession circa 2007 added weight to this cause.

In an elegantly written concluding chapter the significance of the authors adopting a historical approach to their subject matter is explained by using historical scholarship as a lever with which to examine a contemporary problem in education, that of literacy and numeracy standards. They note the absence of any universal agreement about what types of knowledge and skills pupils should gain – indeed, about the kind of society New Zealand ought to become – and the presence of several competing interest groups that tried to capture the public mind with their concerns and solutions. The “political, social, and intellectual tug of war to control the meaning of literacy and numeracy” (p. 166) apparent for more than half a century has done little or nothing to alleviate public perceptions of deteriorating standards, the authors declare. Until the core roles of New Zealand primary schools are revisited Openshaw and Walshaw fear that a testing regime, accompanied by greater teacher surveillance, the promotion of league tables, more school accountability instruments, and conflicts between governments and teachers’ associations will dominate the New Zealand educational landscape.

This aesthetically pleasing and highly readable publication fully deserves a wide audience. It should be required reading for conservative and liberal politicians, policymakers, educational administrators, and parents of primary school children.

Related articles