League tables

Over the past week newspapers all over Australia have featured articles and editorials on the Federal Governments new tax payer funded website “My School” which will allow parents [and others] to see how their schools rates against the national average in a series of tests [NAPLAN] and benchmarks [ i.e. retention]. The site allows parents to compare up to 60 schools with similar social and economic profiles.

The site becomes live this coming Thursday January 28th just before students start the new school year.

The Herald Sun write that “the most controversial element of the website will be the ability to automatically display the outcomes of individual schools against the performance of up to 20 nearby schools effectively providing a localised ranking list”.

Teacher Unions across the country are threatening to boycott the implementation of the 2010 national tests to protest against the publication of league tables. The Age newspaper featured an editorial column saying:

“Many will feel some sympathy for teachers about their suspicion that national literacy and numeracy tests are the forerunner of school league tables. Such tests have been linked to school funding and teacher bonuses in other countries as diverse as Britain and South Korea, with devastating effect, resulting in principals setting aside broader education to storm the tests. League tables produced from simplistic comparisons of narrow data, without taking into account student backgrounds, can have demoralising results and actually reinforce disadvantage rather than helping equalise opportunity.”

It concluded saying teachers boycotting the tests was misguided however if Ms Gillard really wanted an education revolution, apart from providing computers and new school buildings, she needed to build human resources so that teaching was a prestigious vocation sought by the top graduates.

Teachers and teacher unions in other countries like Britain have expressed similar concerns as show by a recent article in the Guardian written by John Bangs, National Union of teachers:

“There is only one answer to the annual traditional hunt for “the worst school in the country”. Governments now and in the future have to drop their deeply ingrained habit of naming and shaming schools as their principal method of school improvement.

Currently, our high-stakes test results and inspection-driven system are damaging not encouraging improvement, particularly for the very children who most need the best education.”

Education Minister Julia Gillard has been quoted as saying that the transparency agenda would shine a light on the best practices. I would ask how it shines light on best practices for it just publishes results which can be misleading and need analysis?

The Australian newspaper published a piece saying league tables won’t work unless the government gives school principals more autonomy to manage their schools and parents vouchers to decide which public school they attend. Unless I have missed something parents already have the right to choose which public school their children attend and school funding is already tied to enrolments or bums on seats.

Yesterday the Age Newspaper published a piece saying that a recent poll said that most of parents were in favor of the website

A Sunday Age readers’ poll found 60 per cent of parents thought the My School website, which goes live this Thursday, was a good idea and 90 per cent believed they had the right to know how their child’s school compared with others.

And finally today in the Age Newspaper

“Barry McGaw, the chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which has created the My School website, said it would show which schools in affluent areas were ”coasting” – performing above the national average but not as well as other schools serving similar student populations.”

The Victorian’s Government’s response to the transparency agenda was to publish school data in context last year.  The website makes it difficult to publish league tables yet conveys data about school performance comparing it to state benchmarks and similar schools. Did this state government site about school performance create the same amount of press coverage? The simply answer is no – so parents have access to school data already.

So what is the agenda if school data is already available – perhaps what happened in NSW over 10 years ago when a newspaper used some leaked data sets to name and shame a local school portrays the real agenda – improvement through public shaming? Currently its illegal to publish league tables of school results in NSW.

I await the results but accept the political reality that I must continue to brief staff and the school community on our response to published school data, namely:

  • students assessments including NAPLAN tests are used as diagnostic tools to plot individual student needs and inform our curriculum planning. We have used a range of tests for a number of years and continue to update our assessment tools on an annual basis.
  • that we already have a strategic plan which is committed to maintaining our high standards in literacy and improve student performance in mathematics over the next 4 years
  • that the annual report published on our school website has lots more information for parents to access about school performance.
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