School League Tables Lack Logic

I wonder what really motivates our Prime Minister John Key and his colleagues regarding their intense fixation with education (although I do have my theories)? Considering the huge issues we have with child poverty, a budget that won't balance, an ACC system that is highly dysfunctional and a city struggling to rebuild after an earthquake and we see eduction receiving all the attention instead.

Hekia Parata, the Minister for Education, has made it clear that the major priority for this government is the achievement of Maori and Pacifika children and yet I am not aware of anything they have introduced that will realistically address this issue. National Standards have not helped, shutting down residential schools and health camps haven't helped, sacking most of our advisors hasn't helped and under-resourcesing Ka Hikitia (which was designed to actually address the problem) hasn't helped either. The government even tried to increase class sizes by claiming it would improve teacher quality and thank goodness they backed down on that one!

Balancing the budget probably does have an influence on government thinking and education does pose a problem in this respect. There have been some increases in spending in the sector but what most people don't realize, and the government doesn't advertise, is that the bulk of the new spending goes to mitigating an issue caused by a past National Government. $1.5 billion will have to be spent to fix and rebuild leaking, substandard school buildings that were constructed after National changed building regulations in 1991. In an attempt to balance this necessary spending there have been widespread cuts to professional support, specialist schools and even the Ministry of Education itself.

John Key is determined to win at least one battle against education professionals where parents will support him. League Tables won't require much money (just teacher and Ministry time in collecting and collating data) and having a system for comparing and ranking schools appeals to many. It all sounds very simple and logical, we can do it for sports competitions so why not for schools? Parents should be able to see how their school compares in performance to other schools in the country for both reassurance or to choose a new one. The trouble is, it isn't simple or logical and lots of questions arise:

  • When National Standards are based on teachers using their own judgements (OTJs) using a wide variety of assessments, how can the resulting data be consistent across all schools?
  • When an assessment system becomes "high stakes" and is used to compare schools and teachers, will this not shift the focus away from assessing a child so that their true needs can be identified?
  • When the focus is only on literacy and numeracy, what will happen to the amount of time schools devote to other learning areas like Science, Technology, PE and Art?
  • Won't some schools be disadvantaged if they have a large number of children with disabilities and learning and behaviour needs (especially when the government is closing specialist schools)?
  • Won't schools be discouraged from enrolling children with high needs if they pose a risk to their school ranking?
  • Doesn't such a narrow focus of assessment to compare schools ignore many other aspects that make a good school (like an inclusive culture, strong community relationships or a focus on values and key competencies that will provide long term value to students)?
  • Won't Schools that experience a high level of student transiency (dairy community) and have around 25% of their roll change every year be at a disadvantage when the value added by their school cannot be properly assessed?
  • What research has the government used to support the introduction of league tables that won't impact negatively on teaching and learning? 
  • Is this league table announcement just another red herring to shift attention and energy away from all the other areas where the government is struggling?

It all sounds like another half baked populist idea that doesn't stand close scrutiny, all the most successful countries for educational achievement (and that includes New Zealand) don't use league tables. I'm not holding my breath while I await answers to these questions as we are still waiting for answers to queries regarding National Standards, Charter Schools and PPPs and that didn't stop the Government from introducing them anyway.


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