Center on International Education Benchmarking

New Zealand Overview

A top performer on the 2009 administration of PISA, New Zealand fell out of CIEB’s top performers list in 2012 only to reemerge in 2015. Today, New Zealand students consistently score above the OECD average in science, reading, and mathematics, and the country has one of the highest proportions of top performers in science and reading across participating countries in PISA. That said, New Zealand scores relatively poorly on measures of student equity, which may reflect the decentralized, market-driven environment that students have to navigate, as well as the historical economic disparities between students of European descent and the nation’s indigenous Maori population.

An archipelago of 4 million people, New Zealand has a national Ministry of Education that decides high-level policy for all students in compulsory education (ages 6 to 16) as well as early childhood, higher education, and vocational education. However, the nation is notable for the emphasis it has placed on school autonomy and market-based choice systems since 1989, when then-Prime Minister David Lange, himself a former education minister, instituted sweeping changes to education governance. The Ministry maintains control over setting high standards for all students through the New Zealand Curriculum Framework, a foundational policy statement covering teaching, learning, and assessment for all students in all New Zealand schools. The Ministry also provides each school with examples of student work that meet the standards. However, all schools are given considerable autonomy when it comes to the implementation of evaluation and assessment. They are also governed by local, parent-led Boards of Trustees responsible for hiring educators and principals and setting strategic goals for growth. In essence, New Zealand governs schools based on the theory that local control and autonomy should be buttressed by a common, nationwide understanding of the goals for education and the standards students should meet, and a Ministry that can provide the supports students, schools and teachers will need to get them to meet those goals.

Despite its strong outcomes to date, New Zealand remains unsatisfied with its performance and the disparities between its low and high achievers, and continues to strive to improve. Recent promising initiatives include a voluntary “Communities of Learning” approach to teaching that incentivizes teachers to collaborate across schools, using designated professional learning time and facilitated by technology, to share lessons, materials and best practices and give one another feedback. The nation is also proposing to further professionalize teaching by instituting a new career ladder for teachers and principals that would reward the most talented and accomplished educators with increased responsibilities, differentiated roles and higher pay.

For more about the structure of New Zealand’s education system and the recent policy initiatives that have enabled it to attain such high performance, please look forward to CIEB’s forthcoming profile of the top performer, coming soon.



Ethnic Makeup

European 71.2%, Maori 14.1%, Asian 11.3%, Pacific peoples 7.6%, Other 8.1%


$177 billion; $37,300 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 69.2%; Industry: 26.5%; Agriculture: 4.2%


Unemployment: 5.1%; Youth Unemployment: 11.1%

Educational Attainment

Upper Secondary Graduation Rate: 87%

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