Talk-ED: Thwarting the belief in freedom of information

Stuart Middleton
EDTalkNZ
19 June 2012

 

The Prime Minister thinks it a good idea that parents have more information about the schools their sons and daughters go to. Who could argue against this? It seems reasonable, in fact it is almost a right I might have thought.

But the trouble is that while each of us individually is beyond reproach in the use of information, we don’t trust the other bloke. Of course they are going to misuse it. Of course they are going to use it for purposes that are not proper. Worse, the other bloke is going to construct a league table!

What added to the fire on this occasion was that the comments from the PM came  on top of some discussion with decile rates – the ultimate league table if ever I saw one. Decile ratings drive the quest for houses in Auckland and parents ascribe the power of holy writ to  them. There is no room for a reasoned discussion – high decile rating good, low decile rating bad. And this is whipped up even more by the exhortations of the real estate industry.

So who is kidding who in the discussion about decile ratings and information about school performance?

Decile ratings were devised to help schools – we would come up with a formula that assessed the factors that impact on the degree of difficulty in teaching and learning and which depress the differences made explicit by talk that compares rich and poor, black and white,  leafy suburb and suburb under the power pylons, and so on. I remember thinking at the time that this was real progress. At last a measure that reflected the accumulative nature of disadvantage.I also recall the promises that such a formula would allow funding to be allocated fairer.

But it didn’t take long before I started to have doubts. The school of which I was Principal at the time was denied access to a programme and membership of what became the AimHi Group, because “it was Decile 2”! My best efforts to show that in fact the school roll of about 1,300 could be clearly divided into a Decile 1 school that was as large as several of the smaller schools in the programme and a Decile 4 school. The Fallacy of the Decile was exposed. At the very top of the decile scale, a school is as homogenous as its decile rating would suggest. At the bottom it is as evenly disadvantaged as the rating is meant to show.

But in between is something of a dog’s breakfast. The rating is simply the blended assumption of what the school would be like if everyone who went to it was the same. Those schools in the middle have a huge range of students in them that is not captured in the “think of a number between 1 and 10 game.

But let’s put the issue of the decile rating to one side and get back to the issue of information. Of course information about the schools should be available and it should be on some basis that looks objective. Wait, is that possible?

The Government has faith in the National Standards – the teacher organisations do not. The truth will as always be somewhere in the middle. the information will be as good and as accurate as the school makes it so it is in their interest to do a good job that is fair to the students and reflects the good work being done in the school.

In Australia the government set up the website www.myschool.edu.au for members of the public to get a snapshot of the schools. I took a look at it and found it to be helpful. It seems fair and I certainly got a good feel for the school that the grandchildren go to. I wouldn’t say that it represented a threat to anyone.

For the fact is that middle class parents will continue to compare schools in making choices about where their little ones will go. The genie is out of the bottle on that one. And generally the schools that do well out of it love it. Let’s be honest about it. They are flattered that so many scramble to get through the gates and they dine out on it at the drop of the hat.

It is not what others will do with information about schools that should worry us. It is what we do to ourselves and each other. And there could be protections in law about using information to construct league tables – I think that New South Wales has such restrictions.

But it is the league tables in the minds and hearts that does the damage.

Meanwhile, if the information is there and tells us that some schools are struggling and in some cases might be able to be expected to do better, why aren’t we using it to address the issues?

 

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