Flawed school data and league tables


This blog was first published on August 10, 2012.  


The New Zealand Herald editorial this morning is blunt: flawed school data is no reason not to publish league tables. “There is no reason for parents…to be denied it,” the newspaper disingenuously concludes.


National Standards were supposed to be about raising quality. South Auckland schools, with the support of schooling improvement experts, have over the last ten years learned to use data and apply it formatively to teaching practice. They have learned to measure student achievement and compare progress against benchmarks. Examples of high quality leadership and teaching have enhanced the opportunities for children in many low-decile schools. The National Standards could have become a way of benchmarking student achievement and measuring progress against a community vision for a network of schools.


But actually, the Herald’s campaign is not about quality at all. It has become about a brutal market that will undermine the very changes that it calls for in South Auckland.


Of course parents want to know – so that they can exercise choice; climb the ladder; search for the middle class advantage in a local and global competition. Real estate agents use schools as marketing tools, because schools are markers of community status and neighbourhood class. Schools can add value to your housing asset – or destroy it. And it is not just parents who are interested in the outcomes of schooling.


Data about children’s progress in a network of schools is vital information for communities, because of its power to inform collective effort and investment. Police, health and social services, other government agencies, planners and politicians, businesses and busy-bodies – all have an interest in schools.


For too long we have fumbled around in communities in a data-less dark. Principals have been very sensitive about their data, and unwilling to share it honestly, consistently and collectively with each other as well as the wider community.  This is very unfortunate. Taxpayer commitment to education is substantial – an investment of 11 or 12 years, sometimes longer, for every child.  It simply isn’t good enough to have only exit data (NCEA) as a public marker of how well the system is doing – in our place.


It would have been very useful to be able to say: this is the percentage of children who arrive with entry level skills at primary schools in Pakuranga; Otara; Mangere; Papatoetoe; Manurewa.  To have been able to track where the kids from each community are at the end of year 4, year 8 or year 12. To understand how, over time, learning outcomes for Maori and Pasifika children in those communities have improved because of the community and school actions we might have collectively taken as a consequence.


Place-based action counts, not just school-based effort. Data that informs collaborative decision-making, rather than a school’s competitive marketing, will be far more useful for the Prime Minister’s priority for schooling (that all school-leavers get NCEA Level 2) than league tables. A brave Minister of Education would release data that is about places, rather than schools.


That is because she will recognise that competition undermines the collective effort that will deliver social transformation. Without network data, collective effort becomes socially and economically inefficient.


Unfortunately, we will end up with league tables for two reasons: because the Prime Minister insists it will be so (and he listens to focus group findings); and because primary and intermediate principals, and dare I say it some of the academics too, have played a very reactive and obstructive game. A pity.


Of course, the Herald editorial mixes up what we have with the Australian, British and US models of ‘nationwide’ testing. We are not nearly at that point yet: but the public debate has only reinforced the perception that this is what we are getting!