Media school league tables neither National Nor Standard – but that’s not actually the problem

Rugby Ball
Image used under creative commons licence

Imagine, if you will, a national rugby competition.

No one is exactly sure what the exact height and location of the goalpost is. Some coaches get their rulers out and make sure that the goal posts 5.6 meters apart with a crossbar set at 3 meters in height and ensure there are clear line markings. Others use yard rulers and a few more just pace out the distances.

A new rule is put in place that the competition must stop every 20 minutes so that each player in the team can kick the ball from the 10 metre line before play can resume. The winning team is judged on the percentage of players who can kick the ball over the cross-bar.

Some clubs in this competition are fielding teams full of professional players who have been playing for years who come with sponsorship to buy specialist kicking coaches and physio for players who are injured. There are other clubs which have entire teams that have never played rugby before joining the club as well as a number of players carrying injuries and a few more in wheelchairs.

Nevertheless, all teams are put in the same league.

Most coaches will keep the team practising all aspects of the game knowing that although ability to kick goals can win matches there is more to rugby than this one skill. Other coaches are already abandoning tackling, scrum and line out practice to ensure everyone on the team can kick the ball between the goalposts. Full games of rugby become few and far between as clubs devote more and more resources to ensuring each and every player on the team can kick the ball between the goalposts.

And that is the reason that teachers up and down the country are up throwing their hands up in despair at the publishing of league tables this weekend.

No teachers don’t detest league tables because we are trying to hide data that shows how lazy and incompetent we are from the general public. As I’ve shown in my rugby analogy the data that our national newspapers are using to construct these league tables is so poorly calibrated as to make the tables nonsensical.

To be clear, New Zealand primary teachers don’t have freedom to do whatever they please. As a classroom teacher I am required by my school to regularly assess students through observations, projects and formal tests. My students all have learning portfolios which are full of standardized and non standardized tests as well as work samples and the portfolios are sent home once a term. As a professional teacher I have regular performance appraisals and classroom observations while my school also has regular visits from the Education Review Office as an outside check on our school.

That’s all well and good but shouldn’t parents have a right to know how ‘well’ their local schools are doing so they can make the best choice for their kid?

I have totally revolutionary idea.

Rather than spend millions on giving grades to schools and inevitably, to individual teachers, so that parents can make the best choice of school the government should make it a goal to ensure that every child, no matter where they live and how wealthy their parents are, should be able to rock up to their nearest school and receive an excellent education.

In fact that was goal of our education system nearly 80 years ago. And according to educational research, an educational system which values equity, namely making every school a good school, is actually good policy too. National standards and the accompanying league tables are at best, a distraction, at worst, potentially highly destructive to that principle of equity.

I worry that as the standards are given more credence, teachers might be less willing to take a position in a high-poverty are if they know not only does their salary depend on the number of students in their class achieving ‘at standard,’ but also their professional reputation.

Because I’m ashamed to admit that when I an article about a school only a few kilometres from mine own that was being profiled due to the low number of kids ‘at standard’, my immediate gut reaction was ‘I’m so glad I don’t work there.’ And I’m sure I wasn’t the only teacher in New Zealand who had that thought enter their mind today.

The teachers at that school are facing immense professional challenges as unsurprisingly the school is in high-poverty area. Instead of judgement of their professional capabilities what they need is support from everyone.

I don’t understand the disconnect that our national media can have around poverty and educational under-achievement. New Zealand can argue to the cows come home about who is responsible for child poverty or we can get on and fix the problem.

Most developed countries have some form of properly free cooked school lunches available to low income students and nobody bats an eyelid because hungry kids don’t learn. Yet here it is a major political battle. We assume that school choice can magically make up for hunger, for the missed days of school due to preventable illnesses caused by bad housing and the disruptions to education caused by having to move houses. These are problems of poverty. To be sure, individual teachers can make a difference but teachers are human beings not superheroes.

I’m not naive to pretend that every school in the country is perfect. I worry that families who see this data are going to start exiting their local schools, in order to get a ‘better’ standard of education. This will leave schools most likely in high-poverty areas financially vulnerable as funding drops as the kids exit.

But surely if the school is so bad that no one wants to go there, then don’t we need to close it? But here’s the thing; when you create loser schools, you inevitably create a set of loser students. Our educational system simply shouldn’t tolerate things getting so bad that we let school failure happen to any child’s education let alone an entire community. Yet by publicly naming and shaming schools and students that aren’t doing so well we are actually encouraging this to happen.

Instead of investing time and money into putting ‘buyer beware’ signs out the front of schools, why don’t we bring expert teachers to help teachers and schools to improve their practice?

In fact we already have something like that operating in New Zealand. They are called Resource Teachers of Literacy and I wouldn’t mind an equivalent for maths. Right now I have a couple of students in my class who thanks to regular classroom assessment I identified early in the year as needing extra help. However there is only ONE of these teachers in our area who serves a large number of schools so there is a long waiting list.

The students in my class might get lucky and we might have some time with the literacy teacher before the end of the year. This simply isn’t good enough.

Up down the country you’ll find a similar problem as services that actually help students, particularly low achieving ones, are gradually being cut back and the problems foisted back on to classroom teachers (who at least don’t have to worry about increased class sizes for the foreseeable future).

Our national newspapers are missing the BIG story right in front of their noses. Rather than construct league tables using meaningless statistics, the actual story is that National Standards are a way for the government to look like it is doing *something* in education to improve student learning without actually doing anything about the barriers to achievement which successive governments have put in the too hard basket.

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15 thoughts on “Media school league tables neither National Nor Standard – but that’s not actually the problem

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  1. Another great piece Steph, you have hit the nail on the head – there is no such thing as a level playing field with this. And OTJs with no moderation makes the data flawed already. The greatest concern then is: what are the government planning to do for the tail that every school has? And are the public and parents getting distracted by teachers’ concerns for NS rather than our concerns for giving their kids the best education that we can?

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  2. Well done Stephanie, your analogy is brilliant. We have one RT Lit in our area – she has 42 schools. I wonder how many more could have been employed with the $60 million spent on National’s Standards.
    Keep making your voice heard!

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  3. I hope you don’t mind Stephanie as I have shared your blog with my F/B friends – well done…more Reading Recovery funding in Year 2 at primary schools would help as well.

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  4. When I saw the ‘funding per student’ column I cringed. I could already hear the poorly informed raving of those who fear the loss of each tax cent going to any child costing more than average.
    I will need to stay away from talk-back radio. Especially while driving.

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  5. Hi Stephanie. I am going to share this on FB. Often read your blog and love it btw. I am in a low decile school in South Auckland. I have hungry children and high expectations. Love my class and am also very worried about league tables deflecting on fantastic work being done with our children. Coming from England I have first hand experience of being in the school down the road with low results. Pretty soul destroying for all. Keep shouting please we are listening.

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  6. I found your analogy quite illuminating. I was also surprised at how many assessment activities and feedback the average teacher is already involved in, I think this important aspect is largely going unmentioned in the media. I worry about teacher time and energy being diverted into National Standards, particularly when the results of National Standards are considered so questionable at so many levels. I continue to do a lot of thinking – and learning – about this topic, I’m still forming my views on it, but those views are increasingly becoming concern rather than supportive.

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    1. Hi Autism
      Thanks for pointing out that teachers aren’t rejecting assessment. Indeed teachers use all kinds of assessment through their day, term and year to help guide our teaching. However we are mindful that the assessments should be relevant, accurate and help the teaching and learning process.

      Stephanie

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