Educating Mrs Tolley

Last updated 14:14 29/06/2009

I was wondering when the issue of education league tables was going to blow up.

Education Minister Anne Tolley has been sending somewhat confusing signals over exactly what data will be available to the public once national testing is fully in place next year.

In some interviews she's indicated that school-level data will be available to anyone who asks for it. That would mean that a table of school performance could be compiled - the so-called "league table''.

But then Tolley has also said she opposes league tables and that the Ministry of Education won't be providing the information in such a tabulated form, although others are presumably free to put such a table together.

One thing's for sure, though - the primary teachers' union believes league tables are coming, and it is gearing up to oppose it. The NZEI strongly opposes league tables, saying they are "not in the interests of children's learning''.

Of course their members also strongly oppose it because primary teachers don't want to see themselves ranked in order of their class results and published in a newspaper.

I can understand that. Unfortunately, teaching isn't like a business selling baked beans or aluminium joinery, where sales data can be ranked easily enough to give an indication of performance. A lot depends on the kids, and on the resources, and on the families those kids come from, and the area from which they are drawn.

Everyone knows a good teacher, of course, and feels lucky when their child gets one. But it's quite a different matter to define it on a scoresheet. Same goes for a school. Is it really fair to rank achievement between schools, when the children they teach can be so vastly different, depending on the socioeconomic background they come from?

A low-decile school that actually manages to teach all its kids to read and write might be performing far better comparatively than a high-decile school where the kids arrive practically able to read War and Peace.

On the other hand, I'd also agree that for too long results in the education field have been hidden from parents - partly out of some politically correct desire not to label the children as failures, but also I think because some teachers have preferred we didn't know how badly our children were doing.

As a parent, I've found it practically impossible to get a handle on exactly how well my son is/isn't doing at primary school, and the reports I get are such gobbledygook I can't make head or tail of them.

I know National campaigned on more "plain English'' reporting standards, and I think most schools agree that national standards are a good idea.

The stumbling block occurs over what to do with the data collated. It seems that the NZEI is happy for it to go out to a school's community, but not the media. It also doesn't want any sort of national collation of the material.

It's a tough call either way. As a journalist, I'd generally argue more information is better than less. As a parent, I'm not so sure league tables are a good idea. I'd like the information, but not necessarily in the newspaper.

Central collation makes sense because it would allow the Ministry of Education to plan better and to target schools in need of help. But then, once the information was collated, it would be difficult to withhold under the Official Information Act without a law change.

One thing's sure, though. The education unions are gearing up for a fight over this and I'm not sure it's a fight Tolley wants to have. The sector groups have been pretty quiet since National took office while they assess exactly what the plans are.

But I know from my experience as an education reporter for The Press during the 1990s that when National last tried to force teachers down the path of standards assessment, bulk funding and other contentious issues, the result was a deadlock.

There were strikes, street marches, and nothing got achieved for a very long time. The kids were the losers.

It would be much better for everyone if that didn't happen again.  

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Matthew Pilott   #1   02:22 pm Jun 29 2009

Colin, as a parent, a main concern might also be that once these league tables are put together (and they will be, no doubt about that under current legislation) your children will be taught how to pass a few tests. Some of that might coincide with what is useful and necessary as part of a good education, but the two are never that similar.

Let's just hope we don't have to hear from anyone about the "Education Market", although I guess there's little chance of that being avoided.

Alan Wilkinson   #2   02:42 pm Jun 29 2009

There's a very, very simple answer, Colin. Compile the tables broken down by school decile. The we will easily see where the problems and successes are.

Any problem is always better solved by more openness and information rather than less.

Bill Brown   #3   02:46 pm Jun 29 2009

I am constantly surprised that the depth of reporting that is available at my children's (state) primary school.

I would suggest that if you can not spend the time to understand the detail that is provided, which after all is a tool more for the teacher to enable the targeting of resources to a particular point where it is needed, than a mark to make you feel good / bad about your child's performance, that you either up skill yourself or ask questions during your parent / teacher evenings.

This will leave more time for teaching the kids and less time for providing a dumbed down report for parents.

Alan Wilkinson   #4   02:55 pm Jun 29 2009

Matthew #1, that is a fair comment - though I suspect the same issues apply with more weight to NZQA levels.

What parents really want to know is the future success a school is generating. That's very hard to evaluate since the past is not necessarily a good predictor of the future - as evaluation of the performance of investment fund managers has always shown.

There, I've introduced "market" considerations for you already.

Richard Hurst   #5   03:04 pm Jun 29 2009

Education Market. There I said it. Its why schools in this country advertise on billboards, in newspapers and on radio. The education market is real, it exists no matter how often academics tut-tut. Parents as customers (both state and private) deserve to know and not be left powerless and in the dark. That leads to frustration and resentment towards the school and teaching staff which in turn creates a dysfunctional relationship between parents, teachers and students. This undermines the whole point of the system: education of the child.

George   #6   03:09 pm Jun 29 2009

Matthew Pilott (#1) :"Let's just hope we don't have to hear from anyone about the "Education Market", although I guess there's little chance of that being avoided."

Full marks to you Matt for getting in quick and trying to define the agenda.

David   #7   03:40 pm Jun 29 2009

They did campaign on this platform and they do have a mandate regardless of the unions liking it or not. I like the idea of doing the ranking with the decile. As a parent I like to know how my two are doing in comparison and testing them is a great idea as like you Colin the more info the better. The issue you have is zoning makes it largely irrelevant as you dont really get much choice as to where they end up (unless you move). Why do unions not want measurement in an area where one of the big goals of what you are trying to achieve is to pass an exam so you can be measured. Most teachers are very good and want the best for their students and it is probably quite a good way to measure ones own performance.

Trevor Mallard   #8   04:05 pm Jun 29 2009

There is a pretty easy solution. Measure progress, report kids against national standards, make info on individual kids and classes available to senior teachers and principal for professional development. Make school info available for Board, ERO, Ministry but make it clear under OIA the purpose for collection and that it is not subject to OIA. For more extensive discussion see:-

melbournian   #9   04:13 pm Jun 29 2009

Alan #2 and David #7

There are a couple of more factors needed in the denominator as well as decile. Average household income, educational standard achieved by parents, number of parents at home, number of siblings, number of hours worked by parents between 3pm and 8am.

As Colin alludes to, except for a minimum standard, the absolute standard achieved can be very misleading. On a scale of 1-10 (where 1 is poor performance), a school that moves it's children from level 1-4 is much more successful than one that moves its children from level 9 to 10.

Matthew Pilott   #10   04:27 pm Jun 29 2009

Alan, I agree, you've hit on what's needed. But how to do that without resorting to past indicators? It's not really possible, and when past indicators are provided they are of limited utility, and often work against what you are trying to achieve for the system as a whole. Classic education dilemma.

Richard - considering education a market undermines the whole point of the system: education of the child. Consider the salient features of a market before you reply.

David - the campaigning was for testing, not the publishing of league tables. The premise was that you'd be able to get a clear picture of how your child was doing. No complaints about that (well, it depends on how important the test becomes, over the education itself), although some point out that most parents are happy with the information they already get. Clearly not all of them, as Colin has pointed out himself.

What "The Unions" (in reality it is school principals who are opposed to this, they are being represented by the Principals' Federation and teachers, represented by the NZEI) oppose is everyone being able to see how your school is doing compared to other schools, and with no context around that information - a likelihood given informaiton supplied to the Ministry of Education is subject to the OIA.

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