School league tables ignore reality

Jim Traue comments on lies, damned lies, and school league tables.

The statistics gathered on the performance of primary school pupils against national standards in reading, writing and maths are supposed to provide hard evidence of the level of achievement of individual pupils to enable teachers and schools to intervene more effectively to "lift up those left behind" and to enable the Government and parents to identify the best schools and the best teachers.

The statistics released to the public don't give any information at all about individual pupils, so clearly they are intended to give parents and taxpayers reliable information about how well schools and teachers are performing.

An expert in outcome measurement, Paul Duignan (The Dominion Post, October 2) has declared that the published statistics provide only "raw outcomes" of dubious value in measuring the performance of teachers and schools. It will not get any better even if the data becomes less "ropey".

The technical flaw identified by Dr Duignan is that the starting level for each pupil, which is the input into the school, varies considerably among schools and within each school, and this is a big determinant of the outcomes. The value added by the efforts of schools and teachers can be measured against national standards only if the inputs are equal or the starting level at school for each child can be measured accurately.

Consider just reading. A child from a stable middle- class home, intensively engaged in conversation with adults since birth and read to regularly by parents since the age of 2, will know that writing goes from left to right and top to bottom. She will know that black marks on paper make letters, that letters make words, and that words make stories. She also recognises that printed words represent spoken words, that spoken words are made up of sounds, and that letters convey these sounds.

Take at the extreme another child who has had little conversation at home, never been read to, never seen a book. That child knows nothing of these things and has no knowledge of the connections between those marks on paper and spoken language.

By age 3 the first child will be using more than twice the number of words in conversation than the second. By 5 that first child has heard about 32 million more spoken words than the second. A major source of the first child's repertoire of 10,000 words at age 5 will have been the books read to her.

The first child arrives at school with a rich intellectual capital on which teachers can build readily. Within two years that child will be well on the way to reading fluently and be poised to read to learn. The second child, lacking this platform, has been plunged into an alien world of incomprehensible black marks on paper, will feel inadequate, humiliated, and a failure. There is more than an 80 per cent chance that that child will fall further behind and end up in the netherworld of the semi-literate.

Is the major problem failures within the schooling system, requiring radical changes, or is it inequality at the classroom door? Once upon a time there was less inequality for the school entrant. Then, most parents were content to leave the school to teach reading beginning at 5. The development of children's literature, especially that of picture books with brief text specially designed to be read aloud to 2-to-5-year-olds, tilted the field in favour of the children of educated middle- class families.

Many progressive teaching practices, while they liberated the advantaged child, widened the gaps. A 5-year old with a repertoire of 10,000 words had few problems with "whole language" reading. Pupil-centred inquiry learning was a doddle for a child with a supportive home. Reducing "content" in favour of teaching pupils how to learn was great for those who had already learnt a great deal of content at home.

The published statistics are incapable of providing reliable guidance on the performance of schools and teachers. Have they been released, despite all their deficiencies, to persuade the public that that there is systemic failure in the schools as part of a campaign to "reform" the system along the lines of the failing experiments in the US?

Are they of any value? They could be rescued as a measure of the social capital of the schools' neighbourhoods, that is, of the strength of community organisations, parental literacy, books in the home, the aspirations of children and parents, perceptions of the value of schooling etc, and, if the political will existed, could be used by central and local government to strengthen social networks, extend adult literacy programmes, adult education classes and affordable preschool centres and improve school and public libraries, to begin to equalise the starting levels.

Jim Traue is a former chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library and a commentator on social issues when his annoyance levels are high enough.

The Press