Cooking the schoolbooks

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The Federal Government’s My School website, which shows the NAPLAN results of Australian schools (‘to allow greater transparency and accountability for the performance of schools’), went online on Thursday.

It’s transparently a ploy to win public support for so-called performance-based pay tied to purported ‘productivity’ differentials between teachers.

Putting that aside, though, it’s worthwhile taking a quick look at the methodology used.

It’s widely known that much of the variance in education test results is explained by things like household income and parents’ education levels. These variables are clearly beyond the control of our humble educational service providers, so raw test results don’t accurately reflect their competence or effort.

To allow ‘meaningful and fair comparison to be made across schools’,  each school is assigned a scalar value reflecting its ‘socio-educational advantage’, then grouped with schools of similar values.

Ideally, then, a wealthy private school like Scotch College compares test results with others of its kind, while poorer outer-suburban or non-metropolitan schools have their own cohort, within which comparisons can be made.

All fixed then? Not really.

My School supposedly allows readers to see how the various schools performed on NAPLAN, controlling for their respective students’ socioeducational advantage. But the Index of Community of Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) shows how each school performed controlling instead for the socioeconomic index of the locality from which the students were drawn.

Unless schools draw students randomly from a local population – and the existence of selective government, self-selective private and denominational schools prevents exactly this – these are not the same thing. Scotch College doesn’t enrol a random selection of students from the richest suburbs: it takes the richest kids, while the least-wealthy kids in those rich suburbs disproportionately go the local public school.

My School assumes that each student possesses the demographic characteristics of the average household in their locality. But the process by which parents send their kids to some schools and not others is not random, so there’s a difference between the average characteristics of an area and the average characteristics of students from an area who might go to a certain school.

The flaw becomes most obvious when considering selective entry schools, like Mac.Robertson Girls or Melbourne High, which take the cream of students from all over metropolitan Melbourne.

Behind such official lapses lay the policy goals for ‘reforming’ education provision shared by the state elite.

This project, now pursued by the federal Labor government, was laid out candidly by economist Joshua Gans and Stephen King back in 2004.

Finishing the Job meant supplementing the Labor government’s privatization of state assets between 1983 and 1996 with a new wave of market-based reforms to areas of service provision like education and health:

[There] seems little reason why funding for schools should be distinguished on the basis of ownership. This does not meant that privately-owned and government-owned schools all need to operate in an identical manner. Rather it means that government funding for these schools should be on a symmetric basis, subject to any practical limitations.

Next, consider management. Government-owned schools have traditionally been subject to highly centralised management procedures. While there has been a move to decentralise school management in most states in the past few years, there is no reason why this cannot go further. Recognising that school communities are providing club goods for individual school members, appropriate management will reflect the tastes and preferences of those school members subject to any minimum government requirements.

[…]

The starting point for rethinking education funding is a universal per student allowance. In other words every child of school age would be associated with an appropriate level of funding. The school attended by a child would receive the allowance associated with that child. The payment of the allowance would not be based on either the ownership or the management of the school, subject to the school satisfying the relevant minimum requirements set down by the government. Schools would need to be registered to receive the allowance and would be monitored to guarantee that minimum requirements were being met. However beyond these minimum requirements diversity among schools could be encouraged, particularly in urban areas and at the high school level where each child potentially has a number of relevant and accessible schools.

The benefits of such an approach have been shown by overseas experience. By both freeing up schools and providing competition between schools, such an approach can lead to better educational outcomes that are more appropriate and tailored to students’ individual needs than can be achieved through a more centralised system.

[…]

[The] proposed allowance is associated with further reform of school management and would not discriminate between the private and public systems.

[…]

[An] area based voucher system raises the prospect that richer families might choose to move to poorer areas in order to gain a higher educational subsidy. However to the extent that such a movement occurred this may have good social outcomes.

[A] universal allowance provides families with ‘ownership’ of their children’s education.

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