School league tables

Julia Gillard has announced that the new national website for schools will include average NAPLAN scores. Principals hate the idea, as do some education academics. The Minister has responded to the criticisms by being uncharacteristically evasive. She invokes ‘transparency’, but always uses less controversial examples than the NAPLAN scores to illustrate the merits of transparency.

Much of the noise in the media has been generated by the political sideshow in New South Wales, where parliament passed legislation, introduced by the Greens, prohibiting the publication of school league tables; the Government then tried to revoke the new law but was blocked by the Opposition. In an act of phony bravado, the SMH last week defied the legislation by publishing NAPLAN scores for three government schools — enough to breach the letter of the law, but not really the spirit. No-one is likely to prosecute. It’s obviously not viable legislation, and will be overhauled one way or another eventually. George Williams thinks it may even violate the constitution.

In fact every state has its own sorry history of back-peddling and meaningless commitments.

But the real issue is whether education departments, whether federal or state, should be publishing school-level data on external tests. Is it good for society if schools compete for customers on the basis of their students’ performance on standardised exams?

Opponents think that comparing schools’ performance by average test scores is as silly as comparing hospitals using a measure of their patients’ average health scores. Apart from being meaningless, the tables humiliate low-ranking schools, ‘distort priorities’ toward narrow exam coaching, and disrupt children’s lives as their parents shift them between schools in search of illusory quality. (Andrew Norton thinks parents deserve more credit.)

Supporters of league tables believe they give enough indication of performance to be genuinely useful to parents in choosing schools, and that people have a right to information that’s useful to them. To the most enthusisatic supporters, school education is like any other consumer product, and the more information the better. Performance in external exams reveals the quality of the school’s product. The best performers will attract the most students, command the highest fees, earn the biggest profits, and encourage the others to emulate them — to the benefit of all.

But the standard consumer model is not self-evidently applicable. National policy on releasing information should be based on answers to some fundamental questions: How does the information affect families’ choices? What pressures and incentives does this create for schools? Do league tables really contain information that prospective students can use to advantage? Does society benefit on balance from the way that schools and parents respond to the information? If some individuals benefit, but society in aggregate is harmed, by the publication of school-level data, does the public still have a right to see data at some particular level of aggregation? No-one, for example, seems to be arguing that parents have a fundamental right to class-level NAPLAN scores to help them choose among the teachers at a given school. So the cut-off point for disaggregating the data is somewhat arbitrary.

These questions don’t apply only to NAPLAN — schools have been competing for years on the basis of various measures of HSC performance, with major consequences. It’s anecdotally well established that families move suburbs just to be in the catchment for a public school that ranks highly on the newspapers’ league tables. The mania about school-level HSC data is due to the HSC being the main rationing device for scarce places in university courses, which in turn confers labour market advantages.

Once papers begin publishing NAPLAN league tables, parents will inevitably become just as obsessed with them as they are with HSC league tables. They will assume that good NAPLANs predict good HSC scores, and, as with HSC results, that their child will do better if he goes to a higher ranked school.

It hardly needs pointing out that this assumption is not necessarily true: the school may register a high average score simply because its pupils are of higher average ability. Furthermore, if the high average scores attract more high-ability applicants, this will push the scores higher still in a self-fuelling cycle, which has nothing to do with the quality of teaching in that school. In this extreme case, both the individual families and the schools are worse off due to unnecessary travel costs, and emotional trauma caused by moving children from school to school in a futile chase for higher scores.

Alternatively, it may be true that children perform better individually when surrounded by clever kids. In this case it’s definitely in their individual interest to attend schools with higher average scores, even if — again — the high scores have nothing to do with the quality of teaching. But this is a zero sum game: every time a bright child shifts to a ‘better’ school, this worsens the environment for the classmates he leaves behind at his old school. Thus there is no net social gain, only a streaming process that benefits stronger students at the expense of waeker. So the transport costs and disruption are still not justified.

Of course if we change the premise, and suppose that students benefit from streaming, that changes the outcome. In the jostling for places in the best schools, children will be arranged by an invisible hand into schools populated by children of similar ability, allowing them to be taught more efficiently. But if this is the real philosophy underlying the system, it’s based on manipulation. One would think that an explicit policy of streaming, going beyond the current selective school system, would be more transparent — to use the buzzword of choice.

But now let’s suppose that schools can in fact influence their students’ performance in the tests. From the individual student’s point of view, assuming his main goal is to get into a scarce university place, it’s clearly in his interest to go to the school that achieves the best results by preparing pupils for tests. For the individual, the knowledge is valuable. However, the services of top-performing schools are valuable to society as a whole only if the same skills and knowledge useful in exams are also useful in work and life. If the schools merely ‘teach the test’ — rather than provide a rounded education, impart an appetite for learning, teach critical thinking, and so on — then the students are collectively worse off.

These arguments can’t be dismissed as mere fear of the unknown: if British experience is anything to go by, teachers don’t warm to these schemes once they’ve seen them in action. Ken Boston, the former Director General of Education NSW who later ran the UK’s ‘Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’, said in August that the problem in Britain was not so much ‘teaching to the test’, but rather

…drilling practice tests. In spring term in England in key stage two at the end of primary school, there are many schools which spend 70 per cent of the term simply doing practice tests, to the neglect of music and outdoor education and physical education and history and geography and all those things which are so important in a full and rich curriculum for primary aged children. The – an important lesson for Australia is to keep NAPLAN for the purpose for which it is designed, and not bolt onto it a host of other functions as well which’ll make it terribly high stakes and potentially then distort teaching practice and curriculum in schools.

Though one might expect private schools to be the worst offenders when it comes to distorting priorities, it seems that state education departments are already responding to the incentive.

Boston prefers ‘rich reports which explain why a school may be performing less well, not just simplistic league tables. Don’t massage the data, no jiggery pokery, no smoke or mirrors, just present the data as it is. My belief is this would offer greater public accountability than league tables.’

Perhaps Boston’s solution is the most practical. Don’t withhold the unhelpful information: just swamp it with better information. This might include ‘value added’ data, although Boston himself thinks it’s too probably too hard to devise a widely acceptable measure of the improvement in a child’s results that’s due to his school’s input.

But there remains the basic philosophical question: does this issue involve a ‘right to information’? Governments withhold information in the interests of safety and privacy, but what about situations where a case can be made that the information will cause people to act in a manner whose aggregate outcome is socially detrimental? I confess I’m having trouble thinking of analogous cases and precedents.

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33 Responses to School league tables

  1. conrad says:

    I have a different opinion on this — I think it’s basically being cynically used to make the government look like it is doing something towards its education revolution (or devolution if you work in Higher Ed.). The are far more serious problems which have effects where we don’t need to argue about whether the likely outcomes are good or bad. An obvious example of this is that large numbers of our teachers come from a pool of the least academically capable people that go to uni. In Victoria, for example, Ballarat Uni (the biggest trainer of teachers in the state) and Aus. Catholic Uni will let essentially anyone in — I think the policy is that you have to get over some rather minimal TER score or have worked for some time. Being lucky enough to teach in a course where the TER is 60 and many people are let in on other special grounds, my bet is that a lot of these teachers will have fairly poor literacy and numeracy skills even after training and many will not be able to deal well with the complex types of learning problems that many kids have. Until these sorts of problems are fixed, things like publishing league tables are at best picking around the edges and a diversion from many of the real problems — you create a big fuss, you get lots of media attention, you look like you are doing something, you get lots of strong opinions so it looks like you are being tough against those that don’t agree with you, but in the end you achieve very little of substance apart from looking good politically.

  2. James Farrell says:

    I’m sure you’re right that publishing test scores is a shallow reform, and perhaps also that it’s a deliberate distraction from deeper issues. But, having seen how the culture of scores, rankings and coaching poisons education in selective schools (you may recall our discussion a year ago), I don’t think the effect of league tables will be insignificant.

  3. conrad says:

    I guess one way to look at this is what the maximum benefit you could get out of it is, even ignoring possible negative consequences like teaching-to-the-test. This is actually not as hard as it might seem because if we assume that there are not enough teachers, or at least not enough in many important areas, then it must be the case that no matter what happens, you are essentially stuck with the same pool of teachers. Therefore, even if students move around, schools close etc. the overall benefit from factors just relating to teachers as individuals is going to be the same. This means that gains are either going to have to come from school management or because streaming kids increases the overall performance due to factors not related to either the teachers or the schools.
    .
    This means you need to estimate: (a) the difference between good and bad management; (b) the probability that you get management changes (and not just more recirculation) from the students moving; (c) whether school management increases performance due to the new measures. I won’t bother to consider this, because I assume that almost all school management is already trying pretty much as hard as they can, and that any increase in performance would be outweighed by the types of negatives identified in your post (and others, like management becoming more stressful, people being falsely implicated as poor management etc.); and (d) whether streaming works.
    .
    Take (a) and (b). Let’s say new management is 10% more effective than old management and the new rules cause 10% of managers to be replaced (that would be huge!). That would increase performance by 1% overall. I’m not sure about streaming (too bad Herbert Marsh left UWA for Cambridge, as I’d love to hear his comments!), but I can’t see why it is going to improve performance — especially because streaming is already done commonly within schools. As a random guess (maybe other people have better ones), how about I give you a 2% overall increase.
    .
    Given this, the best case scenario for overall improvements I can come up with is tiny. I’m personally not against the information release, or students moving around to better schools, but this is why I just don’t think it’s going to increase overall learning much.
    .
    You might like to compare that number I came up with with those that you can find when comparing means across states. At least on the PISA and TIMMS, you’ll find that the difference between states is massive (try comparing NSW with WA!), although is always strangely ignored (Australians seem to prefer the far more meaningless international comparisons). However, what it suggests is that one of the simplest ways to increase performance would be to look at what the different states are doing and identifying the relevant factors that increase/decrease performance. Unfortunately, incrementally changing the curriculum etc. for the better doesn’t sound like a revolution, no matter how well it works.

  4. Andrew Norton says:

    While I don’t think information should be kept secret because some newspapers might try to construct league tables from it, releasing more information has similar problems to what I would call naive voucher schemes, which focus on the demand side. There is only marginal value in empowering parents with choice or added information if the main supplier (ie public schools) remains very limited in what it can do in response.

  5. billie says:

    Conrad, I am not sure that University of Ballarat churns out the largest number of trained teachers, I would have thought that Monash, Melbourne, Deakin and La Trobe graduated more teachers.

    Re Managerial gobblydegook
    Recruitment: In Victoria the school hires its own staff, and I have noticed that secondary schools prefer graduates from Melbourne, Monash and Deakin. I have noticed that the recruitment process in Victoria doesn’t work because
    a. hidden costs of time interview panel takes to write position description, selection criteria making sure they demonstrate they comply with departmental guidelines
    b. hidden costs of interview panel shortlist candidates making sure they demonstrate they comply with departmental guidelines
    c. hidden costs of interview panel conducting interviews and selecting successful candidate making sure they demonstrate they comply with departmental guidelines
    d. effort applicants put into job application approx 6-8 hours per job application
    e. applicants may have to reapply for current job as they are funded into a temporary position and they will of course apply for all available jobs until they have secured next years position
    g. applicant has time off for current position
    h. applicant has time off for interviews for likely positions
    In 2005 the government gazette listed all positions that were vacant for more than 2 weeks, today Online Recruitment advertises all vacancies for more than 6 months
    Intending teachers are told to talk to the principal of the school they are interested in, bad luck for Rainbow and Glenelg and Currum Downs.
    Anecdotally principals can’t find teachers and 5000 teachers can’t find jobs each year so they start the year in the CRT (emergency teacher) pool.

    The stated aim of NAPLAN tets is to inform parents so they can chose the best school for their children. As good government schools are zoned ambitious parents will buy houses in the zone of a good school. Check out the real estate ads for in the Balwyn or McKinnon zone. This happens in Britain as well.

    If Gillard was serious about increasing standards of education she would allocate more money to teacher salaries, school maintenance rather than expensive consultant to develop expensive testing software to micromanage the classroom

  6. conrad says:

    Billie,

    I got the numbers from the vtac data here. It looks to me like a close call between Deakin and Ballarat, depending on how many students take up the places and how many end up teaching that finish their degrees. Looking at the numbers two things stand out to me:
    .
    1) It’s no surprise some new teachers can’t get a job since the distribution of what type of teacher people want to become is not well spread (do we really need so many PE teachers?)
    .
    2) The entry scores are exceptionally low (and the scores are obviously diddled to some extent given the large number of Fringe entries). Perhaps the most important thing about that is how low the primary school teaching scores. In my unhumble (but reasonably well informed) opinion on this matter, this is a disaster if you happen to believe that primary school is perhaps more important than high school (although it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges). It’s no wonder lots of kids with developmental problems never get picked up and then bomb out in high school.
    .
    Give this, I especially agree with your last paragraph — I think teacher salaries are a big problem and until this is solved, the quality of teachers is going to be poor. I also live in McKinnon, so I’m also well aware that entry into good public schools is certainly not possible for many!

  7. billie says:

    Conrad it doesn’t really matter how low the TER scores are at Ballarat because there are so many teachers graduating that there is a surplus of teachers. Each year at least 5000 people looking for teaching are unable to get a position. These people are migrants and graduates from regional campuses.

    My advice to year 12 students is don’t study at Ballarat, Bendigo, Wodonga as you are unlikely to get a job, but you will still have to pay back your HECS debt.

    Actually there is far more CRT work for Phys Ed teachers than any other discipline.

  8. James Farrell says:

    Andrew

    While I’m grateful for your comment, it doesn’t actually answer any of the points I made. What overall social benefit should we expect if parents start to use NAPLAN scores as a basis for choosing schools? Your only reservation to publishing school data was that schools don’t have flexibility to respond, but the implication of Boston et al.’s arguments is that schools do respond, and do so in a way that’s detrimental to broader educational objectives.

    Billie

    Your comment about house prices fits my analysis, but you didn’t say whether this is good or bad. You refer to good schools rather than ‘good’ schools — does that mean you’re comfortable with the idea that NAPLAN averages capture schools’ quality?

  9. billie says:

    I think NAPLAN averages will capture a schools’ quality in the areas it tests.

    A school’s quality is often a reflection of the community it serves. Schools that serve professional enclaves will perform better than schools based in under privileged areas.

    Although commentators remember back to their school days with a certain level of jaundice at the old battleaxes that tormented us and wonder whether the fossils should have been teaching – those days finished in the 1970s. Since the 1970s teachers in Victoria have to be qualified. In 1993 schools dismissed many teachers. Since the 1990s there has been surplus in teacher graduates. You would be hard pressed to find an incompetent teacher in Victoria.

    I think its unfair to pay teachers based on NAPLAN results. Teachers in poor schools often find themselves funding breakfast club. Paying teachers based on NAPLAN results will just entrench privilege and increase social inequality. I think a more equal society attains a higher GDP than an inequitable society ie a more equal society is happier and more prosperous.

  10. billie says:

    if NAPLAN was used to direct additional resources to low performing schools for expenditure on speech therapy, additional maths, English as a second language, lower pupil to teacher ratios to reduce the inequalities between schools then it would be good.

  11. Tel_ says:

    From the point of view of individual parents, obviously there is an advantage to getting their kids into the best performing schools. Thus parents (who tend to also be voters) will demand access to league table data or some near substitute.

    From the point of view of teachers, even an unexceptional, middle-of-the-range teacher is going to have a brighter day, and get better outcomes when teaching a class of bright kids than struggling with a class of dopey kids. Thus, to the extent that teachers can choose their place of work, most will want a high performing school rather than a low performing school.

    From the point of view of the system as a whole, you get better results at every level by grouping together classes where students are of a similar ability. Admittedly, the concept of “ability level” is vague and difficult to determine but having one smart kid in a class full of thickies doesn’t work, and having one thick kid in a class of bright kids doesn’t work either. The league table merely assists this stratification process, and I’m well aware that the very concept that some people might have different abilities to others is an anathema to some ideologies but that doesn’t change any of the incentives at work here.

    The only real problem I have with league tables is that a single score cannot represent the very complex nature of real-world ability. It is however, better than nothing and if the Education Dept releases the raw data then various groups can construct specialist league tables based on their own interpretation (e.g. a sport-oriented league table).

  12. billie says:

    In another forum on joblessness Conrad said he thought that TAFE was useful for retraining the jobless. In Victoria most of the TAFE teachers are employed as casuals who are paid for the hours they are in front of classes. Its reduced the operating costs so significantly that the NSW government is following. One tiny problem, experienced tradespeople won’t teach at TAFE because instead of earning a full time wage of $80k to $120K they might earn $60 per hour for 4 hours work. There are some skills that you can only learn from a practitioner so I wonder about the standards of future electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, secretaries

  13. billie says:

    Tel_ I feel sorry for the able child stuck in a class of thickies. Its sounds like the entrenched inquality of the 11+ exam for entry in grammar school in Britain.

    NAPLAN tests allow us to openly wipe off whole suburbs of children highlighting the hollowness of the myth of an egalitarian Australian society

  14. James Farrell says:

    Tell says:

    From the point of view of the system as a whole, you get better results at every level by grouping together classes where students are of a similar ability.

    I argued that, if this is true, it would be better to have an explicit streaming policy, either within schools or among a geographically group of schools, than to publish NAPLAN scores and set a chaotic, spontaneous streaming process in motion.

    Billie

    Is there or is there not a net social benefit from publshing school-level NAPLAN scores?

  15. billie says:

    I don’t like the idea of publishing NAPLAN scores because most students are unable to switch schools because they are zoned into their local government school. Schools which rely on good NAPLAN results will teach to the test resulting in a narrower educational focus which will be more detrimental to the development of the academically weaker students than the current curriculum.
    NAPLAN results reinforce what educationalists know intuitively now.

    Streaming is absolutely beneficial to bright kids in the top stream. The difference in the amount of information you can impart to a well behaved class compared to what you can teach a class with clowns in it is so staggering its shameful. No parent should permit their child to be in a class with a discipline problem. I think teenage ‘discipline problems’ are such a disruptive waste of space they should be babysat away from schools. Sometimes when they go berserk they are dangerous to their fellow students and the teachers delivering hospitalisation level injuries.

    Parents concerned about little Johnny’s ‘disruptive behaviour’ should not buy Red Bull, cordial, processed foods, chips, twisties, sugar, fast foods. Children should have regular meal times and be in bed before 8:30pm. Its child abuse to never say “No” to your child, the parent’s job is to set boundaries.

    On the other hand NAPLAN promotes transparency, a quality that is missing from the current mechanism for weighting year 12 assignments marks into the final HSC mark is unfair, lacking transparency and accountability and reliant on the assessment of the schools worth. Students from ‘bad’ schools have their assignment marks discounted. A easier and fairer system is just to rely on exam marks. I don’t know how useful that is for woodwork or art.

  16. Chris Lloyd says:

    It is pretty obvious that school level results will depend very much on the students they catch,. I am attracted to the idea of value add and also to the idea of streaming within schools. I reckon that NAPLAN could be used to measure baseline abilities at year 7, or perhaps something more sophisticated and intensive since the baseline measurement will be important. You then publish school multipliers for each successive year. So there are five multipliers for the five subsequent years.

    Parents will look for the school with the highest level specific multipliers. Provided the school has a class for my child’s ability level, I will consider moving him/her to the appropriate stream in that school. The disruption cost of moving would presumably stop parents chasing statistical noise.

    Streaming is problematic if done too rigidly. One might have the department mandate four streams with the mean performance would have to fit within a range for each ability level. But also allow some overlap between the four groups. Schools could choose to have more or less variability within a class. You might then actually get some hard data on whether having diverse ability within a class is good or bad for the overall learning outcome i.e. the multiplier.

  17. billie says:

    Chris Lloyd you are assuming that the parent can choose the stream their child is in, but the reality is that the top 25 kids go into stream A, next 25 kids into stream B, bottom 25 kids into stream N.

    Schools like Scotch College in Melbourne do not stream, the boys are placed in class alphabetically. Imagine the pressure on the headmaster to place boys in stream A.

  18. James Farrell says:

    Chris’s scheme doesn’t seem to assume that parents can choose the stream. Rather, each school has several streams defined by a minimum qualifying score in the last test the child did. Parents want to maximise the child’s chances of progressing to a higher stream either within that school, or another one if it doesn’t cater. They choose the school based on its published ‘multiplier’ for the relevant grade, which is presumably the average percentage improvement in scores between that grade and the one above.

    It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not clear to me what would be the schools’ incentives to maximise their ‘multipliers’. To do so they would need to attract realtively weak students in the early years. Knowing this, how would parents interpret a school’s high multipliers?

  19. conrad says:

    In case you’re interested in streaming, it might be worthwhile having a look at a review article looking at effects of overall school/class ability on individuals. I’m not sure if this will work from some addresses, but this is a good review paper examining the issue and shows how complex it really is.

  20. Ken Parish says:

    I’m not at all sure what the “big fish little pond” theory has to do with the current discussion. Are you suggesting that a positive self-image flowing from being a big (high performing) fish in a small (low performing) school pond necessarily translates into better performance in any absolute sense?

    Surely, even if positive self-image results in better performance (and it probably does), any such effect is likely to be counteracted by the “living in a fool’s paradise” effect i.e. I think I’m really smart until I get out into the real world of work or a large university and discover that I’ve been “coasting” on the erroneous assumption that I’m a top performer.

    I couldn’t see anything in Conrad’s linked article that dealt with such issues per se. Maybe it’s a bit like the Kath and Kim sketch though, in terms of short term ego gratification:

    Brett: Well, there it is. I know it’s the worst house, but it’s on the best street. It’s what you’re supposed to buy.
    Kim: No, you’ve got it all wrong. You’re supposed to buy the best house on the worst street, ’cause then you can lord it over people.
    Brett: I don’t want to lord it over people.
    Kim: Well, doesn’t that just sum it up, Acting Assistant Deputy Sales Manager in Charge of Software. Wow, I’m impressed… not.

    Nevertheless, to save readers from wading through Conrad’s linked article, the only section I could find that was relevant to the question of the benefits or otherwise of academic streaming is as follows:

    Effects of Ability Tracking, Achievement Grouping, and Gifted Education Programs

    In their discussion of gifted-education, Dai and Rinn (2008) note that: Related to this issue are the effects of ability (homogeneous) grouping on self-concept as compared with that of heterogeneous grouping. Findings seem mixed in that regard (see Kulik and Kulik 1991, 1997) (p. 12). However, their summary of research in this area is not entirely accurate. Indeed, there is a large literature on the effects of tracking, ability grouping, contextual effects, and compositional effects on diverse learning outcomes. Particularly tracking and ability grouping are often evaluated from the perspective of contextual effectsthe effects of school- or class-average achievement after controlling for the effects of individual student achievement and other individual characteristics. The main focus of this research has been on the implications of ability grouping for academic achievement. Although distinct from the effects of such ability grouping on ASC that is the focus of the BFLPE, this research on academic achievement is relevant. A comprehensive review of this research is beyond the scope of this article; however, Hattie (2002) conducted a meta-analysis that incorporated data from all existing meta-analyses of this research, providing a comprehensive summary of this research. He concluded that tracking had almost no effect on academic achievement; average effect size=0.05 (se=0.03, n=261 studies, 784 effects). Although there was some evidence that tracking benefited the most advantaged students in terms of academic achievement, the effect size was small (0.08), whereas the effect size was close to zero for low-tracked students. Particularly relevant to the Dai and Rinn (2008) review, Hattie emphasized that it is important to separate gifted programs from high-ability tracks when evaluating the effects of tracking. Hence, when the effect of special gifted programs was excluded, Hattie reported that the average effect size for high ability tracks was reduced to 0.02. Hattie argued that positive effects of gifted programs are due to changes in the curriculum and quality of education rather than to ability tracking per se. Many of the features of gifted programs reflect good educational practices that would likely benefit students in homogeneous classes as well.

    For what it’s worth, my own ad hoc view, derived from second hand experience of being married to teachers for the last 25 years and from teaching the products of high school education at university for the last 10, is that the biggest payoff in terms of outcomes would be gained not from ability streaming but from ruthlessly excluding behaviourally difficult children from their mainstream peers of whatever ability stream. Maybe that happens in other States, but it doesn’t in the NT in any meaningful way, despite the fact that such kids are profoundly disruptive of the educational progress of everyone else. Maybe that’s why NT results are measurably worse in NAPLAN, PISA etc than all other States.

  21. Tel_ says:

    Given that there is some disagreement over the details of what makes a good education, parents and prospective students should be in the best position to make informed choices. This way, everyone selects what they believe suits their needs (and what suits their transport and budget I guess). I’m all in favour of schools publicising their approach to streaming and various other aspects of teaching practice. For that matter, schools should publish the average annual budget spend per student (and I sincerely doubt that the pay at Scotch College in Melbourne averages out the same as Mt Druit in Sydney).

    Naturally our system of examinations (with score mangling, re-normalisation and what have you) are less than ideal ways to identify an educated mind, but they are what we have; and if a better design appeared tomorrow it would at least be given consideration. Publishing league tables today still leaves the door open for improvements. What’s more, the current examination system (flawed as it is) seems to be regarded as perfectly acceptable for making decisions about a student’s future. If it’s good enough to grade students by examination scores, then what makes teachers and principals so special that they cannot be graded?

  22. conrad says:

    “Are you suggesting that a positive self-image flowing from being a big (high performing) fish in a small (low performing) school pond necessarily translates into better performance in any absolute sense?”
    .
    Yes, at least that factor does. However, as the article suggests (and as you’ve noticed) there are negatives associated with sitting in a class thicker on average than you too (it’s worthwhile noting that that question is about streaming and the individual, not what the effect of reducing variance in abilities in classes is — i.e., the effect of streaming on groups). There are also predictions concerning what streaming does across schools (i.e., schools for dummies and schools for smarties, or what happens if you’re a smart kid stuck in a dull school-zone). So ASC is really important if you want to identify what the underlying factors are that cause higher academic achievement, and streaming is important because it’s one of the things that changes the amount of variance in classes and hence the extent that kids will be affected one way or the other by sitting in classes with different levels of variance. Practically, this is important because it means people can be well informed about the effect of sending their not-so-bright kids to a bright class or vice-versa (will their smart kids be affected sitting in a dull class?).
    .
    This is relevant because much of the debate here is talking about achievement as if it is one homogenous measure and as if things like streaming can be done into single groups across all subjects. What the BPLFE shows is that streaming is best done in individual areas (really only possible if you pick kids either great at everything or poor at everything), and, more importantly, academic outcomes are mediated by a number of things (like ASC, which is affected by streaming).
    .
    “Maybe thats why NT results are measurably worse in NAPLAN, PISA etc than all other States.”
    .
    I think NT has a rather big handicap other states don’t (median scores would be better in this instance, but they don’t get reported a lot), which is why I think, say, NSW versus WA is a better comparison. Also, it’s not clear to me that given all states are obliged to provide free education to everyone up to a certain age, how you can exclude disruptive kids easily anywhere in Australia (where do they go apart from another public school?).

  23. conrad says:

    I think my comment has gone to Spam…

  24. Tel_ says:

    … the biggest payoff in terms of outcomes would be gained not from ability streaming but from ruthlessly excluding behaviourally difficult children from their mainstream peers …

    For the student getting nothing out of the class because it is either stupidly easy or stunningly difficult, what do you expect them to do? Some will sit and quietly introvert, (maybe learn something after school by accident) but others will want to complain about the hopeless situation in which they find themselves. So where is the complaints department in our school system?

    Oh that’s right, there isn’t one.

  25. billie says:

    Going from personal experience, students from restricted entry high schools, i.e. University, Melbourne and MacRobertson High schools have very high university entry scores and those students get to study whatever they want. Contrast that with Ferntree Gully High School which might have 10% of their students gaining university admission.

    Also from personal experience I have “team taught” streamed groups listening to an outside presenter. My observations were that streams A and B heard more material than the second group. Streams C and D had children with behavioural problems so much time was spent trying to quieten them down. The language used to explain the concepts was limited [and actually vague] and there was no attempt to cover the topic in any detail [which possibly made it less accessible].

    Agree with Ken Parrish that children with discipline problems should be ruthlessly excluded from mainstream classes. I spent much of high school watching teachers wrangle a particularly tortured soul who is now a leading child psychiatrist. Our stream did not get an adequate maths background to support our adult careers and none of us sent our children to that school. As an emergency teacher I have watched children cower as a child went berserk and we all thought someone would be hospitalised by the end of the period.

    Tel_ if you can’t control your child’s behaviour why do you think other people’s children should have to live with the consequences of your brat’s behaviour.

  26. Jen says:

    In my experience innapropriate classroom behaviour is a big hassle for everyone and raises stress levels and correspondingly lowers effective teaching and learning levels for most of the people in the class at the time.

    Where should these students go? Where do they belong? How can anyone decide who is terminal(headed for a stint in the big house’), who is just bunging it on in a temporary kind of a way. and who is truly insane?

    We try to sort the insane ones as best we can. This leaves the other two categories.

    Should we fast track the terminal? Get them into a jazzed up juvenile detention set up filled with a mix of teachers, welfare workers, psychologists and bouncers, and call it school?

    What then about the bungers? Would they became terminal if they attended the juvenile detention set up? Perhaps there is a place for them in the mainstream school, but in a separate behaviourally challenged stream. Here students could operate under the imperative that they get it together within a specified period or they are sectioned to the JDSS.

    The students I know that fail to behave appropriately on a consistent basis are kids whose parents need some help as well. Some people have managed to grow up and have children without the first idea about how to get along in the mainstream. They send their kids to school and they make havoc, then the parents come to the school to help their child and make havoc, and then the school tries to keep everyone safe from everyone else.

    It’s a problem.

    Consider for a moment home detention for one or both parents if their child is suspended more than twice in 6 months for violence. Imagine an extension of the “if your kid doesn’t attend school then you get your benefit reduced” policy. Parental home detention could be enforced by spot checks from ‘welfare’ and police who could be looking to deduct funds if parents don’t know where their children are. Other deductions could be made if children haven’t been fed, if there is filth everywhere, if members of the household are being bashed, if they are drunk or stoned all day, if their children’s clothes stink, if their hearing aids are smashed, if they are being molested, if they haven’t got anywhere to sleep.

    Some parents I know would be permanently in home detention – they might not even really mind!

  27. Tel_ says:

    If you cant control your childs behaviour why do you think other peoples children should have to live with the consequences of your brats behaviour.

    So you are saying that a child who is learning nothing and knows they are learning nothing should stay “controlled” and grow up ignorant? In effect they sacrifice any hope of an educated future for themselves to make things convenient for the teacher and the rest of the class? Sorry, but nothing in the world favours people (children or adults) who do this to themselves, pick any social group you like: religious / political / cultural / disability / socioeconomic — they get attention when they demand it, not when they sit quiet and cop it sweet.

    Brats as you call them (i.e. somewhat self-centered and self-determined people) are running this country, and just about every country, in industry and in government. You go tell them to control their behaviour, see how far it gets.

  28. Tel_ says:

    Consider for a moment home detention for one or both parents …

    So after a few stints of home detention, whatever job they might have had (probably not a good job), they don’t have anymore cos not many employers can deal with workers taking random days off.

    Since the home they are detained in is probably rented they can juggle a home detention order in one hand against an eviction notice in the other — brilliant!

  29. Ken Parish says:

    First, Jen’s comment was partly (but only partly) tongue in cheek. Secondly, the parents she’s talking about are mostly long-term unemployed so losing their job isn’t really an issue. For the few who might have a job, presumably a home detention order would be tailored to operate during their non-working hours. That’s the way it works with home detention orders imposed for breach of the criminal law.

    Moreover, the way the parents we’re talking about neglect/abuse their children is morally worse and much more damaging to their kids than the criminal behaviour for which home detention orders are currently imposed. Why should abusing and neglecting your kids be regarded as less serious than (say) a few minor break and enters (which is typically the sort of behaviour that leads to a home detention order)? Do we simply ignore the parents’ behaviour and let the kids be abused? Or remove their children into welfare (research and experience shows that often brings even worse outcomes)? Or do we fund and resource careful preventative support and interventions which might culminate (in worst case situations – that’s what Jen is talking about) in a home detention order? I don’t know, but it’s worth discussing (although possibly not on this thread because it’s strayed rather a long way from James’ intended topic – sorry James).

  30. James Farrell says:

    That’s OK, Ken. When it comes to comments, beggars can’t be choosers.

    I’m surprised that more of the libertarian, anti–nanny-state warriors haven’t mounted a defense of league tables. It’s probably because the post is so long that no one has the patience to follow my argument.

  31. billie says:

    Tel_ said “So you are saying that a child who is learning nothing and knows they are learning nothing should stay controlled and grow up ignorant?”

    Yes, that’s what I had to do and that’s what teachers expect compliant children to do on a daily basis.

  32. Tel_ says:

    Billie, you still have not answered the basic question: what is the benefit of dumb compliance to those children who are not getting any useful education out of the system as it stands?

    The only answer so far suggested is to use threats of violence against the child and his/her family to beat them into normality. But even these threats can’t actually work when there is no place in normality for uneducated people. This track is a dead end; the only place it can lead is escalation which is the core of Jen’s suggestion. If you want what’s good for society, you do not want to go down the escalation track. Believe me, when it comes to ruthless, don’t pick a fight with someone who has nothing to lose, they can always sink lower than you can.

    You say the restricted entry schools get good results, which is no surprise when you consider that the restriction is keeping people out. These schools have so many people wanting to get in that they would never take a single student who does not absolutely want to be there. Attendance is 100% voluntary and if they extended school hours with optional extra classes then no doubt those would pack full as well.

    The lower end of state schools suffer a substantial percentage of attendees who really don’t want to be there, and indeed who probably have very little rational reason why they should be there, other than because the law says so and for fear of retribution. We have a law of compulsory education that insists the individual must put their future into someone else’s hands. The one-size-fits-all design of state schools guarantees that whilst the bulk of students gain something from this arrangement (some more than others) there will always be a non-trivial fringe who are individually penalised by the compulsion. We solve the moral difficulty here by blaming the individual (rather than the system) because for the system to admit failure in even a single case would also be admitting that these individuals had no escape.

    I suspect that the league tables will drag this problem into the light. IMHO if the state is happy to compel me to pay for a service that it compels citizens to use, the lease it can do is be honest about what exactly this service does.

  33. Tel_ says:

    Funny the way similar issues pop up the world over…

    http://www.hslda.org/hs/international/Germany/200911200.asp

    Homeschoolers are definitely a distinct social group but are not a parallel society the way the German courts are trying to use the term, Donnelly said. The irony of German court decisions is their position that the state must teach tolerance for diversity by forcing children into public schools and stamping out a diverse form of education recognized in all other Western democracies as a legitimate educational approach. Pluralism is supposed to stand for distinctive groups living peacefuly together.

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