As a boy I was briefly captivated by this band called Devo. I thought they were cool, much like I thought birthday parties and robots were cool. It turns out Devo weren’t cool. They wore silly costumes that were a cross between Star Trek and The Wiggles. And their music was forgettable.

However, Devo did get noticed for their name. Devo is short for ‘de-evolution’, the name the band members gave to the concept that society is no longer evolving and is now starting to regress. That idea still has validity.

Most people would agree that NZ is, in many ways, worse off than it was thirty years ago. We seem to be on the wrong track in critical areas like: the standard of living, the environment, the family unit, community connectedness, housing for the poor, mental health, drug abuse, political activism, income inequality and the national cricket team. Sure, our TV’s are better quality; but in terms of the comfortable, egalitarian New Zealand we reminisce about, we’re on the slide.

Most disturbing of all, our once revered educational standards appear to be in a dramatic state of decline. In the recent 65-country PISA study, NZ 15 year olds fell from 7th to 18th in Science, 7th to 13th in Reading and 13th to 22nd in Maths. China, Singapore and Hong Kong make up the top three places in all three categories.

While I’m a cynic about Chinese statistics, there’s no doubt about their demanding school system. My sister has taught in China for half her career and is now principal of a school there. She confirms attitudes of students and parents there are much more intense than in New Zealand. Children understand it’s a ‘dog eat dog’ society, with a hard life ahead for the mediocre student.

Asian students bring their appetite for academic excellence to New Zealand and are disproportionally apparent at school awards ceremonies. While Auckland is full of Asian immigrants, they are not the only ones with an appetite for hard work. Ubiquitous in restaurants and bars are Eastern Europeans and South Americans. These kids are smart, hardworking, and don’t want to go home. If our youth don’t start fronting up, the immigrants will be running the show in a generation.

So, how can we turn our floundering academic performance around? Here are six ideas to shake the tree.

Define student performance

At the centre of our declining educational standards is the lame NCEA system, with its ‘Did not achieve’plus three ‘Achieved’ levels. This avoids students being demonstrably ‘beaten by their peers’ and they can happily sit in a large mediocrity called ‘achieved’.

In the old days students got a percentage. I got 58% for the midyear maths test, while Bruce got 70%. Bruce did better at maths than me. When I got 58%, my teacher said “Come on Paul, put a bit more effort in. I want to see your result starting with a six at the end of the year.” Why did we trade a precise measurement of performance for an imprecise one? These days. many students, come exam time say “I’ve already ‘Achieved’ so the final exam isn’t that important. I can’t really be bothered working too hard.”

Reward teacher performance

Most successful people I know can point to a teacher or two that changed their lives. Sadly these superheroes of teaching didn’t get paid any more than the rest. In fact, my best teachers had between five and ten years experience – enough to know what they were doing, but not so much they were worn out. The highest paid teachers are often the long service types, in yesterday’s brown jacket, marking time until retirement. I know many passionate teachers that leave the profession as it just doesn’t offer financial rewards for excellence. The prevailing teacher culture seems to grind them into getting an ‘Achieved’ grade too.

Let’s pay our best and brightest more in teaching, like we do in most professions. To do so, we’ll have to make some assessment of how each teacher performs – something the unions are sure to vigorously oppose. How might we grade and pay our teachers? Why not let the students do it for us? Even now I can recall very clearly how I’d rate my teachers. Let the students rate all the teachers, then pay an extra 10% to the top quartile and 10% less to the lowest quartile. In this way we can reward the best and give the worst a message.

Encourage educational innovation

The education system is run by the government. This guarantees it’s inclined to be a bureaucratic monoculture. Even when they do come up with a new idea – NCEA, Charter Schools, Bulk Funding, or whatever – there are howls from the schools that it won’t work. They may be right, but every business I know, tries new things. What is clear from the innovation experience is that there are more good ideas than bad ones.

In education we should be trying many different things to see if they work. The roll out doesn’t need to be nationwide. We can test individual schools, groups of schools, types of schools. What is important is that we’re trying things. History shows a great deal of progress has been made by tinkering – not bold national policy frameworks or UN initiatives, but people at the grass roots, messing about.

Teach money and relationships

Two areas that desperately need a school curriculum are ‘money’ and ‘relationships’. Young (all) people need to understand money, how credit works and many other basic financial concepts. Honestly, the self-help section of the bookstore shouldn’t be filled with How to Make a Zillion in Property, but How I Borrowed Too Much and Went Bankrupt. Similarly they need to learn effective verbal communication and how to manage interpersonal conflicts. I think it was once assumed their parents would teach them these things, but that appears not to be happening. Too many young people are hopeless in these critical areas of life skills.

Get back to basics

I spent years at university, confused and disillusioned. I simply could not find any inspiration in what I set out to study – the fashionable Bachelor of Business Studies. Then I had an epiphany. I may be the only middle-aged man to say this, but I owe my modest education to Woodford House – School for Girls. While I was state schooled, my spirited younger sister was sent to Woodford, for her own good. She wrote to me about Oscar Wilde, The Iliad and Aristophanes. I started reading about these things and discovered my passion. Then I found Kant, Kafka, Koestler; I read them all. The good news is I could spend as much time on my new hobby as I liked, as the ‘non-subject’ business degree seemed not to make many demands of me. After graduation I stayed on to study arts and horticultural science. And so my critique of subject options is founded on hard experience. I found there are three broad subject categories in education.

Firstly there are technical subjects, like chemistry, maths, accounting and, if you insist, IT. Here you need a solid grounding in very precise areas. Students who focus on these areas are often not that well-rounded, but they have learnt some specific skills that society values.

Secondly there are intellectual subjects like history, literature or philosophy. Here students are taught to think critically and develop cultured minds. It’s for this reason our best lawyers often have an arts degree as well. Writers, academics and politicians often have these degrees, but don’t let that put you off. If you study these things you may well be less well paid, but you’ve probably have better general knowledge and a better understanding of people.

Thirdly, there are ‘non-subjects’. These include the likes of management, media studies and marketing communication. Most of these subjects are relatively easy and enjoyable. In many cases you can save yourself a lot of time by reading the three best textbooks on these subjects. For most, that’s all you need to know.

If a subject is easy and fun, it’s probably a waste of time. Sadly academia has to some extent replaced the vinegar of scholarship with a facile balsamic glaze. Success in any worthwhile sphere is borne of sweat and tears. The good news is that, where the road is hard, the personal satisfaction is greater and usually, so is the salary package. Right now the highest paying undergraduate degree across the OECD is a Bachelor of Engineering.

I’ve studied all three categories and in the folly of my youth, mostly took ‘non-subjects’. So take it from me; study arts or science, depending on your proclivities. Avoid ‘non-subjects’ like the plague.


The biggest challenge is to get our young people off the cerebral junk food. Grand future achievements are unlikely to find their genesis in Grand Theft Auto or Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The problem with these things is they are terribly addictive. The disciplined might be able to avoid these terrible afflictions, but for many only the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous will work.

The next step is to get the whole household reading. Professor James Flynn, a lecturer of more than 50 years, has spoken at length about how students’ knowledge of literature has deteriorated over that time. He points out that university often doesn’t help this situation, as there are too many prescribed texts and readings. Students have little time to read in other fields of study, or for pleasure. His solution was to write a book recommending 200 works as worthwhile reading. An hour’s reading a night and you can tick off the lot in about five years. If you are to truly be free, he says, “You need to know something about science, and nations other than your own and their histories, and the human condition.”

The study of the human condition is the greatest study of all. The most successful people I know are all great students of the human condition, and they all read novels.

Young people are unlikely to take my advice, or that of the venerable Professor Flynn, so instead they should look at some recent success stories. If you want to be successful, observe successful people and do what they do. Young Kiwi women are leading the way. We’ve all heard about the recent successes of Lorde and Man-Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton. Both these women have been voracious life-long readers. Their brilliance didn’t just happen, but is a product of lengthy mental development. Lorde reads about three books a week and in 2012 competed at an international secondary schools literary competition in South Africa. She proofed her mother’s 40,000 word masters thesis and knew all about Eleanor Catton before you or I had heard of her.

Reading makes you smart. It’s not so important that your children and grandchildren can read, so much as they do read. Reading, like nothing else, causes the brain to concentrate and to think. Children who don’t read are destined for a Matrix’of high-tech serfdom. If we don’t reignite our love of reading, de-evolution will find us swinging through cyberspace like primates in just a generation or two.

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