Friday, July 03, 2009

In a League of Their Own

The last few weeks have seen further wrangling between politicians over the publication of league tables comparing schools. The NSW Opposition combined with the Greens and minor parties to push an amendment blocking newspapers from publishing tables comparing school performance data.

The Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard and her NSW counterpart Verity Firth naturally took a swipe at the New South Wales Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell, calling him hypocritical and accusing him of "political vandalism" and calling the move "a ploy that did nothing to benefit schools".

While this response was quite predictable, it does rather beg the question. Does the publication of such tables really benefit schools? A scan of some recent letters to the SMH reveals some interesting ideas "out there" such as this offering from one Lydia Sharpin:
This is what the real fear is behind league tables - they will lead to the migration of the brightest talents from schools. The better schools will get the better kids and the worst schools will be forced further down the ranking tables, which could then lead to the closure of schools and loss of teachers' jobs. But are we protecting the teachers and schools at the cost of our students' futures? [Link]
Personally, I find the suggestion that blocking league tables is about protecting teachers' jobs to be rather short-sighted. While there are students, there will be a need for teachers – exactly where those students and teachers end up may well be affected by the publication of league tables, but Ms Sharpin needs to think it through a bit more. If the "better" schools do get the "better" kids, (and I'm assuming that by better, she is referring to academic results), does that necessarily lead to school closures? If it does, where do the students and teachers go? (They have to go somewhere.) If it doesn't result in school closures, what is the impact on students and staff at those schools identified as underperforming?

O'Farrell's position doesn't exactly excite me either: "What we support are parents getting information about their child, about their child's school and their child's school's performance against the state average and against like schools." [Link] This really isn't very far from the Commonwealth's plan to publish results about 'similar' schools. Similar in what way? The likely measure here is socio-economic, but the current methods used by the Commonwealth for determining the socio-economic level of schools are badly flawed. And is socio-economic really the most appropriate measure?

However, the biggest problem (in my opinion, at least) lies in how the public understands the situation. Filtered through TV sound bites and jejune summations by newspaper columnists, the public ends up with a caricature instead of a proper understanding of what the issues really are, which in turn leads to these kinds of comments:
"For the record this is absolutely no logical reason why schools - as with any other public service - should not be benchmarked against each other to determine the poor performers. Anyone who argues otherwise has a vested interest." [Link]
Presumably this person would also expect that police, fire and ambulance stations should be benchmarked against each other and the results published so he can work out which suburbs he should avoid living in or visiting.

The politicians who are for league tables keep talking about transparency. But why should transparency necessitate the publishing of league tables? If the Commonwealth required that all schools make their results from various tests publicly available, wouldn't that be transparent enough? Schools would no doubt also put up a lot of other data about their school, filling out the picture of what their school is like, and isn't that a good thing? Won't parents be better informed by this, rather than simply looking at a table of figures comparing results on tests? Verity Firth keeps trotting out the same canard:

"Providing more information about schools' performance is not about naming and shaming schools, it is about helping and supporting schools ... Full transparency will enable us to channel resources to those schools that need them most." [Link]

Except that identifying where the needs are and channelling resources doesn't require publication of anything!

This entire exercise seems to be yet another example of politicians being seen to be doing something, in this case neatly wrapped up as 'giving parents more information'.

Maybe the teachers unions should fight fire with fire and propose the publication of league tables for politicians - number of divisions voted on, attendance rates, number of days actually spent in the electorate, whether or not the member actually lives in the electorate, number of overseas trips, etc. I'm sure we'd all appreciate such full transparency come next election.