Monday, February 01, 2010

My School - the very model of a modern Major-General

My heart sank when I heard Australian Prime Minister Rudd announce that, if re-elected, his Government "would work with the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority to further empower parents by surveying their satisfaction with schools with the survey results to be disclosed on My School." The announcement went on:

The survey could:

- look at the issues of bullying and school safety - whether or not parents felt their child was safe at school, how teachers responded to concerns raised by parents and behaviour management strategies;

- look at how the school works with the community - the range of extra-curricular activities, P&C activities, accessibility to school facilities after hours, administration, the availability of information to parents, opportunities for parent and teachers to communicate;

- look at how the school approaches teaching and learning - look at whether teachers are helpful and easy to talk to, whether parents understand and are involved in the here opportunities to innovate in classrooms and strategies to improve performance;

- look at how the school manages transitions - the availability of information for students about subject selection, post school options and career information, access to guidance officers, support for students transitioning to high school.

This is to be done in the name of more balanced reporting on the My School site. So the site will now include the current information, the promised financial data for each school plus the still to be defined parent satisfaction rating. Who knows what else might be added as the Government responds to continuing criticism?

As a social analyst, I find this type of data fascinating. I also think, as noted previously, that it's going to have significant effects on the directions of education spend. It certainly wouldn't be a bad thing if it meant that a greater proportion of funding ended up going to disadvantaged areas.

Mind you, this may well prove to be another poisoned chalice for the Rudd Government. That funding has to come from somewhere so there are going to be losers. Further, if down track (and this is quite likely) the results show no improvement at the bottom, then the Government will have set itself up for another policy failure.

The big problem with the whole system lies in its likely dynamic impacts on schools and school systems. The latest Government announcement extends those effects. While I have discussed some of these previously in passing, I think it worthwhile focusing on them in a little more detail.

To begin with, the new system imposes added costs. It's not just the costs of the web site or of any parent satisfaction survey, although these are not insignificant. The larger if unseen cost lies in the reporting and response costs imposed on schools. These are likely to be quite substantial. Beyond issues associated with straight reporting, principals and teachers will now need to actively manage the school's responses to the information contained on the site and the reactions of others to that information.

The new approach rests on the implicit assumption that parents have a choice in where they send their children to school. In fact, many parents do not, especially in country areas. If their school is poorly performing as measured by NAPLAN and if they perceive this to be affecting the school's reputation and their children's future, the only way they can respond is by placing pressure on the school.

Neither parent nor school can do anything about the demographic structures and socio-economic characteristics in the school's catchment area. These are major determinants of NAPLAN performance. All parents can do is to push for more resources and/or encourage the school to focus available resources more on NAPLAN, less on other aspects of education.

Where parents do have choices, and the wealthier the parent the greater the choices, then they move their children to better NAPLAN performing schools. They may also use the information contained on the website to make other choices. For example, they may chose not to send their child to a school with a lower socio-economic rating or a higher proportion of Aboriginal students.

All these factors interconnect. A lower socio-economic ranking generally means a lower NAPLAN rating, while a higher proportion of Aboriginal students generally lowers the school's socio-economic ranking.

Apparently movements between schools may be already happening. Here I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald:      

The state government was unperturbed by reports that some parents were already using the website's findings to move their children to another school.

"Parents know best what is right for their children and any decision to move from one school to another is a matter for parents," a spokeswoman for the NSW Education Minister, Verity Firth, said.

I am not giving a link here. What began as a campaign for free-speech by the paper has morphed into an almost "I told you so" support for the site. As part of this, the paper keeps running links to its league tables in every story. I don't feel that I should support this.

Many parents have, of course, already been taking things such as the composition of student bodies into account in school selection. To this extent, the new information simply provides another piece of information. Still, the net effect is likely be a further reinforcement of the ghetto effect already taking place.

There is very little that schools in general can do to overcome this type of effect beyond focusing on improving their NAPLAN scores as best they can.

If My School is likely to reinforce division at one end of the school spectrum, it may have the opposite effect at the other end in the competition between private and public schools. Again, and as I have noted before, the fact that some public schools do better than private schools on the NAPLAN evens out a competitive playing field that had been weighted in favour of the private sector. You can now expect those private schools most exposed to competition from the public school system to place much greater weight on NAPLAN.

In all, the net effect is that we have now entered an era of NAPLAN based competition among schools and between the public and private sectors.

The next piece of information to go onto the web site, the details of schools' financial positions, is actually very important from a public policy perspective. For the first time, we will have a feel for relative spend between schools at a micro-level. This, too, will feed into the competitive NAPLAN environment. You can expect this information to be analysed and used at school and system level. You can probably also expect new sets of league tables, such as spend per student.

The provision of the information may have some perverse results. In very general terms, smaller and also disadvantaged schools within the public system are likely to show greater per student spend. To give credit where credit is due, all state education systems have been trying to address the question of relative student disadvantage. This may actually make it harder for some disadvantaged schools to ask for more money, notwithstanding poorer NAPLAN performance simply because they are already getting more.

The final round of information now foreshadowed, the satisfaction data, will also have competitive effects. However, the results here are quite problematic.

This type of data shows the position at a point in time. By its nature, it is retrospective. Further, things like bullying rise and fall with time even in the best of schools. The reason for this is bullying is linked not just to school culture, but also to changing school cohorts. Sometimes, you just get a group of bullies.

All this means that this type of information is normally used to guide corrective action within specific institutions. Its inclusion on a web site of this type is quite inappropriate.

Leave aside the problems involved with comparisons between schools where we cannot even be sure that questions will be answered in the same way. Would you report negatives about your children's school if the result is to be seen on a national web site for all to see? What happens if an employer looks at the school reports? A more fundamental problem lies in the way that it will affect parents' school choices.

Parents generally worry about their kids. Presented with apparent evidence that a school has had a problem, I would really have no choice but to reject that school in the absence of detailed investigation of the facts to establish an alternative position. We are all just too busy to do this in most cases.

The school may in fact be addressing the problem, a problem may be emerging in my alternative school, I just can't know this. Unless the survey is really very carefully worded, I suspect that the information may in fact further distort choices for children.

In all this, the sad thing is that the Rudd Government could actually have gone some distance to solving the initial problems raised by the site through careful use of words. All it had to do was to put appropriate qualifications and explanations on the site, warning about misuse of the data. It either did not or chose not to do this.

In all this, I am increasingly reminded that the words of one of my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan songs really apply to Australia's PM in his role as national headmaster:

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery—
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy—
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

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