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6.3  Educational underachievement

The evidence suggests that schooling (and formal education more broadly) can make a difference to many aspects of adult well-being. While mechanisms through which schooling affects adult outcomes are not fully understood, they involve the acquisition of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, the positive effect of education on measured cognitive ability, and of wider behaviours, traits and social skills that are taught and reinforced through participation in schooling.

There is good (though incomplete) evidence for the effectiveness of schooling. This suggests that raising the performance of the school system is one of the less risky and less complex interventions to improve outcomes for children and young people.

Strategies that are likely to lead to learning gains for all students include improving school readiness, teacher quality, and school improvement. Given the importance of education and qualifications as correlates of adult well-being, raising the educational achievement of those with the fewest skills is a priority. The most effective approach is likely to be through early interventions to raise literacy and numeracy. There is some evidence that such interventions may also have a positive effect on behavioural outcomes, though the direction of the relationship between reading and behavioural difficulties is not well understood. Early interventions to address problem behaviours may also improve educational outcomes.

A synthesis of the research on the impact of school resources on student attainment concludes that the most cost-effective strategies for raising student achievement in areas of low socio-economic status are expanding pre-kindergarten participation; providing teachers with more resources; and implementing targeted pupil-teacher ratio reductions (Grissmer, Flanagan, Kawata and Williamson 2000). However, this finding may be specific to the time and place studied and not directly applicable in the New Zealand context.

If children begin school inadequately prepared, it is likely that they will fall behind from the start. A bad start is likely to carry through into the later years of schooling and involve increased risk of delinquent and antisocial behaviour (Doherty 1997, Yoshikawa 1995). Educators see the behavioural aspects of school readiness as being at least as important as academic readiness (Currie 2000). The most important elements of school readiness have been identified as: age-appropriate language; general knowledge; cognitive skills; enthusiasm; curiosity; physical health, being rested and well-nourished; being able to take turns and knowing how to sit and pay attention (Doherty 1997, Lewit and Baker 1995).

Parents can and do provide many of the foundations for school readiness by providing cognitive stimulation and a secure stable and caring home environment. However, paid work can reduce the time available to parents for interacting with their children. In addition, many parents lack the time, skills and other resources needed to provide the optimum level of stimulation for infants and toddlers. Early childhood education or childcare can complement parenting in helping to prepare children for school.

A number of studies indicate that early childhood education leads to improved school readiness (Boocock and Larner 1998, Cleveland and Krashinsky 1998, Doherty 1996). Newman et al (2000) argue that there are significant savings from quality childcare due to reduced crime and delinquency. However, because of the lack of random control groups, it is difficult to control for all the household factors that could plausibly also have an effect such as the likelihood that parents with a greater interest in their children’s education will choose to place their children in early education (Fergusson, Horwood and Lynskey 1994c).

Additional evidence is available from targeted early childhood programmes, where subsidised early childhood education is available to families on the basis of assessed need. The US Head Start programme, which provides early education to 3 and 4 year olds in families assessed as being below the official poverty line, has been evaluated a number of times, although there have been no control-group studies. Some evaluations found that gains in test scores in the earlier years of school for Head Start participants tended to fade later on. However, a recent study found that Head Start appeared to have a positive effect on a variety of long-term outcomes, including completing high school and reduced involvement in crime (Garces, Thomas and Currie 2000).

School readiness can be enhanced by childcare subsidies that aim to help mothers remain in or enter the paid workforce. Childcare subsidies may be cost-effective in the short term as they help low income families move off and stay off benefits, and enable them to access higher quality childcare (Rohacek 1998). Both these outcomes may have benefits for children’s school readiness. Improved outcomes for young children resulting from such programmes may result from better access to quality childcare rather than from increased family income per se (Duncan and Chase-Lansdale 2000, Huston 2000).

A number of studies find that childcare quality has an effect on measured outcomes for young children, such as performance on tests administered at age 5 and older (Cleveland and Krashinsky 1998, Doherty 1996, NICHD 1999). The three factors most commonly associated with quality are staff-child ratio, group size, and staff training (Smith, Grima, Gaffney and Powell 2000). However, it is not clear to what extent these factors actually measure the relevant dimensions of the quality of early education (Besharov and Samari 2000). Studies showing a link between childcare quality and outcomes may therefore be doing no more than reflecting differences in parental characteristics such as parenting style. A study based in NLSY data found that quality of childcare, based on input measures, makes little difference to outcomes when family characteristics are controlled for (Blau 1999). The impact of childcare quality appears to be more important for children from disadvantaged families than for other families (Currie 2000, Peisner-Feinberg, Burchinal, Clifford, Yazejian, Culkin, Zelazo, Howes, Byler, Kagan and Rustici 1999).

It is likely that standards of pre-school childcare and education in the US are more variable than in most other OECD countries where regulation is greater and subsidies are higher. This may make generalising US results to other countries problematic. However, overall the evidence indicates that childcare quality does make a difference, although some proxies commonly used for quality, such as staff-child ratios and staff pay rates, may be inadequate.

A vast body of literature attempts to explain precisely what it is that schools do that makes a difference to the outcomes of students, and why some schools are more effective than others in developing the cognitive and other abilities of their students. Even so, there remains uncertainty about the precise characteristics, inputs, and processes that operate within schools and the way in which they affect student outcomes.

The evidence indicates that the quality of teachers (as indicated by measures of teacher ability) is strongly related to student achievement and accounts for up to 30% of the total variation in student achievement (Hanushek, Kain and Rivkin 1998, McBer 2000). Teacher in-service training has been associated with significantly increased pupil test scores (Booth, Norton, Sanderson and Stroombergen 2000). However, not all in-service training has an equal impact on student achievement. The efficacy and effectiveness of professional development programmes relies on the extent to which they are well designed and appropriately targeted.

Overall, the evidence suggests that class size influences student achievement (as measured by gains in test scores). The benefits of smaller class size seem to be greater in the first few years of schooling, especially for low achieving, low socio-economic and ethnic minority pupils, and when they are sustained for a period of time (Grissmer et al 2000). A study using data from the CHDS found that persistent class size reduction policies were associated with significant increases in reading performance from age 8 to 13. Lower class sizes were also associated with more completed education at age 21, lower incidence of unemployment spells, and, conditional on experiencing unemployment, shorter durations (Boozer and Maloney 2001). Remaining in a small class has detectable effects, whereas the educational gains of a short period in a small class soon wear off (Finn, Gerber, Achilles and Boyd-Zaharias 2001).

There is little consistent evidence of the effect of mixing students of differing abilities or socio-economic backgrounds within the overall roll of a school on student outcomes (Harker and Nash 1996, Nechyba et al 1999). However, the evidence suggests that organising children into small mixed-ability groups within classrooms has positive effects on the performance of low-SES children, to a greater extent than it has negative effects on high-SES children. However, the research does not explore the causal channel for these effects and does not control for unobserved variables (Nechyba et al 1999).

The best evidence suggests at least a moderate positive impact of parental involvement in schooling for their own children, but that such involvement accounts for only a small portion of the overall family effects on student outcomes (Nechyba et al 1999). Parents’ direct involvement in school work is more beneficial than in extra-curricular activities (Reynolds and Teddlie 2000). In New Zealand, there is some evidence to suggest that cultural barriers may result in Maori and Pacific parents having a lower level of direct involvement in their children’s schooling (Ministry of Education n.d.).

The literature indicates that the most effective approaches to tackling school truancy are comprehensive and collaborative, and target the reduction of risk factors associated with the incidence of truancy. The approaches showing the most promise, not only of reducing truancy, but also of affecting its risk factors, include parental involvement; meaningful sanctions or consequences for truancy; meaningful incentives for school attendance; ongoing school-based truancy reduction programmes; and the involvement of community resources (law enforcement) (Baker, Sigmon and Nugent 2001).

There is a large “school effectiveness” literature that seeks to identify the characteristics shared by schools that are successful in raising student achievement. This literature concludes that there is no one single factor that characterises effective schools, but that such schools have a combination of characteristics that interact to create a focus on learning, positive ethos, and strong goal orientation. Several of the qualitative features of effective schools do stand out. They include firm and purposeful leadership by the school principal, the sharing of decision-making and academic leadership; a positive school ethos; a clear, shared sense of common purpose for student learning and clear goal setting and achievement monitoring (Fullan and Mascall 2000, Rentoul and Rosanowski 2000).

Research in the UK has shown that after controlling for background factors and school effects, students who participate in study support (after hours learning) do significantly better in the national GCSE examinations than students who do not. One of the key reasons for the success of study support was an ethos that encouraged self-regulated learning (MacBeth, Kirwan and Myers 2001).

Alternative schools for disruptive youths are often presented as a solution to the problem of disruptive and disorderly students who are at risk of early school leaving through dropout or exclusion. There is little literature in this area, and a US review of an alternative education initiative concluded that the five alternative schools studied were far too variable in nature, student composition, structure, and purpose to warrant any blanket statement about their effectiveness (Gottfredson in press).

6.4  Economic inactivity

Early failure in schooling and prolonged spells of unemployment appear to be detrimental to long term employment and well-being. Long spells of unemployment may damage prospects either by allowing skills to decay or by sending unfavourable signals to prospective employers. The type of jobs that young adults enter on joining the workforce may affect their long-term earnings and employment outcomes.

However, evidence from the USA, UK and Australia on early labour market experience is mixed. Rapid job turnover and short spells of unemployment do not seem to be detrimental and may be beneficial (Savage 1999). Young people entering low paid jobs with higher qualifications are less likely to be trapped in these jobs. They may merely represent a transitional phase in their working careers. But for those with fewer qualifications there may be no real gains from low paying jobs. A number may drift between employment and welfare. Although participation in the labour market is viewed as an important mechanism for achieving further skill development and earnings growth, low paid work may do little to build skills and improve labour market outcomes.

The New Zealand evidence suggests that there may be two broad groups that warrant particular attention. One group suggested by the CHDS dataset is the nearly 14% of 16 to 20 year olds who spend around 70% of those years inactive. Some part of this group is likely to be young people characterised by multiple disadvantage. Another group are those early school leavers who find employment for longer periods, but in jobs that may be part-time, or offer little by way of career paths or earnings progression.

Through the late 1980s and 1990s there have been extensive cross-country comparisons of pathways from school to work to determine what makes some more effective than others. A detailed study of the school-to-work policies of 14 countries in the late 1990s identified five key features of successful transition systems (OECD 2000). They have well-organised pathways from initial education through further study to work. These pathways display connectedness between stages, flexibility in career choice and adaptability of skills. They provide opportunities to combine workplace experience with education. They involve effective assistance with active career planning. Safety nets that assist early school leavers re-enter upper secondary school or to find work are characterised by overall policy coherence, local delivery mechanisms that coordinate and tailor support services, and entitlements that are linked to obligations. Countries achieving good transition outcomes are characterised by strong institutional frameworks, for example in the use of brokers to match employers and employees. Fewer of these characteristics are evident in countries where general education pathways dominate, such as New Zealand, compared to apprenticeship countries (like Germany) and where there is a mix of pathways (Austria, Norway) (OECD 1998). However, the German apprenticeship scheme may not be applicable in more decentralised labour markets (Ryan 2001).

School-to-work transitions can involve building work-related skills. Key questions are the relative merits, for the less academically inclined, of promoting general education rather than vocational training, and of part-time schooling, work and apprenticeships versus full time schooling. The empirical evidence is mixed. Furthermore, comparisons are difficult because less academically able students typically take vocational courses or apprenticeships (Ryan 2001).

The opportunities for improving the poor employment outcomes experienced by these groups appear to lie in providing a better mix of services, in a more integrated way, by providing more options for vocational or work-based training and increasing assistance with training through remaining longer at school, training during post-schooling and pre-employment, or industry training post employment.

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