Thursday, January 28, 2010

My School is fine thank you

...but what about the others?

I went to have a look at the schools in our area on the My School website that Julia Gillard has launched today. I figured I should at least have a squiz before I bitched loudly about it. (For non-Australian, or uninterested Australian readers, this is a Government sponsored website which reports basic stats and results on standardised tests for all schools in Australia - none of the other myriad things that go into making a school what it is are mentioned.)

The school my son goes to doesn't do NAPLAN tests, because it only goes to year 2, and they start in year 3. However, the school he will move on to next year is there. It's fine. It scored above the national average and about the same or better than its statistically similar cousins. Surprise, surprise. We live in a pretty good area, with an ever decreasing number of children who don't speak English at home (the last main migration wave in our area happened about 10-20 years ago, so we are very, very multicultural, but with an increasing majority of second generation or later migrants) and enough local schools for kids to be able to move about and find the environment that suits them.

But what about all the places where this is not the case? An enormous number of factors influence the marks that get spat out of a standardised test. The basic premise of this website which claims to provide "a new level of transparency and accountability to the Australian school system" is that the teachers and other staff of a school are accountable for the results the kids in that school get. And yes, to a point, they are. However, there are so many other factors.

Good schools attract good teachers, for one. Which is not to say there are no good teachers at schools which don't perform so well on standardised tests - there are some amazingly wonderful, dedicated teachers at troubled schools - but it's going to be a harder job, so many of our best teachers will opt for the easier schools to teach in.

Also, in areas where parents are poor, have little social support, a very low appreciation for education and therefore low attendance rates, no teacher, no matter how wonderful, will make those scores look wonderful. They may, however, inspire a love of learning in some kids who otherwise would never have found it. Surely that is as valuable, if not more so, than managing to teach my kid to read to the state sanctioned level.

There are also issues of culture, language background, focus on specific results rather than the whole educational experience. The list of reasons why this thing is stupid are long.

It's kinda hard to talk about this sort of stuff without sounding like you're blaming someone. As I'm writing this, I'm trying not blame the parents of kids who don't go to school, because that's not how I see it. It's more complicated than that. Which is why this one dimensional website is disgusting. It fails to recognise that kids are human beings who live surrounded by other human beings, and instead treats them as a product. I don't know where this thing will go, but I sent this email to Julia Gillard, just because I don't want to sit here silently and let it go on.
Dear Ms Gillard,

I'd just like to register my disgust at publishing the kind of information available on the My School website. The number of ways it can be misused and misinterpreted is endless. I have school-age children, and they are fortunate enough to live in a socially advantaged area and all their local schools look fine on this one dimensional measuring stick. However, many other children are not so lucky. I can't see how this can do anything but further disadvantage already struggling schools.

The underlying premise is that these results say something meaningful about the staff and the way the school is run, which is dubious at best. The Government should be committed to maintaining a high standard everywhere, not vilifying schools which are already strained to breaking point.
And this doesn't even begin to address such things as school leavers having prospective employers looking up their schools and writing them off as a result of what they find. If this information must be collected it should be used only to see where extra funding, both in schools and in the community in general, should be directed.


  1. No no noooo! The Australian Education Union have a massive propaganda campaign going against publishing NAPLAN results. The media have picked it up because it creates controversy. Read this first: school_performances.pdf

    Barb (yes that Barb)

  2. That url isn't working for me Barb.

    I just had a doorstep discussion about this with a mum who'd come to pick up her son's DS that was left when he was here for a play with Tom. I too need to do more investigating before opining too vehemently but from what I know so far I'm not happy about it

    If this information must be collected it should be used only to see where extra funding, both in schools and in the community in general, should be directed.

    Yep, that's my feeling too.

  3. I had a hunt around on that website and couldn't find the document you're referring to. I'm happy to read it and see if it changes my mind.

    I haven't seen much of the media coverage though - it barely rated a mention on the Triple J news until it was launched today. I saw a few headlines on the ABC news feed, but didn't read any of it. So I'm not convinced that my position has much to do with propaganda campaigns.


    I found the document, google is a wonderful thang. I believe NAPLAN is a great tool for parents, teachers and education administrators. I only read the executive summary yesterday since I am time poor. The executive summary ended with the statement that the use of NAPLAN figures should not used as league tables, which the report admitted had happened overseas. I note with interest that is exactly what has happened this morning in at least three news organizations and then I stopped counting. You can view the TOP 50 primary and secondary schools, completely ignoring attempts to compare “similar” schools.

    Parents have already had this information, it is part of the report that goes home and the school community have been aware the schools relative performance so the Ministers assertion that "parents are finally armed" is misleading. It will only cause parents who did not notice or care in the past to "have a go" at their children's teachers. A behavior the Minister is encouraging. This action will of course solve their children's learning difficulties, their socio-economic problems and presumably world peace.

    I believe this information will be used by parents when transitioning their children to a new school. I would imagine after viewing the local public schools this will encourage parents to weasel their children into higher ranking out of area public schools or guilt them into paying for a private education. Either result will be detrimental to their local state public school. This is possibly what the federal minister's agenda is.
    I would imagine the league tables will be a boon to the marketing departments of expensive and exclusive schools as well as solidify support around the selective system.
    Finally focus and resources will be on making sure the children test well in these narrow areas, ignoring the other parts of their education that aren’t reported and therefore are not important.

  5. The reports do direct funding. My school was very bad in 2008. They were given extra funding, they changed their methods and things improved in 2009, from bottom to top of our region, according to the principal.

    The only thing that concerns me is that the report does not necessarily reflect the abilities of the teachers. If you have children and/or parents that are just not interested in being educated the marks will be poor and that will lower the result for the whole school.

  6. Thanks Adam - I also read the executive summary, and... well... what you said.

    Toni, my problem isn't with them collecting the data, it's with publishing them in a much advertised public medium. The whole idea that NAPLAN scores alone can tell you very much about your local school is rubbish. For starters, as your school has demonstrated, it can change very quickly.

    And yes, it doesn't even come close to reflecting the teachers. Not to mention the stigma that a child gets to carry around for having gone to a school with all red bars under its scores.

    The minister bleating about asking the media to be responsible with the information and not publish league tables demonstrates exactly why they shouldn't be publishing the info in the first place.

  7. Personally I think this website is a waste of time, effort and money. The powers that be should do some research on Pedagogy before they turn learning into a competition. LEARNING IS NOT A COMPETITION IT IS LIFE!

    I have done a few pracs in different schools and I can tell you what you see on paper is completely different to what you see in the flesh.
    For instance, one of the schools I was at had a good local reputation but what I saw was a middle of the road type school who didn't go out of their way to implement different programs.
    On the other hand, another school I was at had a very high suspension rate, the area was low socioeconomic and many of the kids would turn up without having had breakfast. Yet the programs this school offered-for kids with social interaction problems, was second to none.
    This type of information cannot be found on a website-it is something that has to be seen.

    There are a few reasons why I think this idea is ridiculous (please don't shoot me, this is just my opinion!)

    * Naplan results are based on a test undertaken in yrs 3, 5, 7, 9.

    * Out of 200 or so school days, these results are based on one test on one day.

    * Although it is a national based test, each State has different starting times for school i.e. some have an extra year, some don't.

    * All kids learn differently, whether it's visual, by doing, listening, speaking, etc.Naplan only caters to those who are good at taking tests.

    No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to find two students let alone two schools who are statistically similar. For that to happen every child would have to:

    * Have exactly the same intellect
    * Started school on the same day
    * Have no absences
    * Have the same interests and needs
    * Home life would have to be the same
    * The classroom set-up would have to be identical
    * No special needs
    * The resources used would all have to be the same
    * All the teachers would have to be the same.

    As you can see, to properly compare students they would all have to be carbon copies of one another as would the teachers.

    I don't mean to offend anyone when I say this... if a parent needs to use a website to gauge how they think their child is doing at school then I would really have to wonder at their mentality. You get far, far, far more information speaking to the teacher and principal.

  8. I don't think the point of the website is to gauge your kid's progress though - it's designed to help you decide where to send your kids, which is, by default, a way of creating even more competition between schools.

    The article that Barb linked to makes the very valid point that any useful information about the effectiveness of a school that can be gleaned from NAPLAN scores can only be gleaned from changes in the scores of a cohort over time. That does tell you something. Unlike what's on the website now.

    The problem is, by making it all about NAPLAN, as you quite rightly point out, it devalues all the other critical things that go on in a school.

    Also, you can find statistically similar schools without them being identical, they just have to have a similar distribution of whatever are regarded as relevant factors. Since the scores are averaged across the students, their attributes can be too. It is pretty obvious, however, that the method that the website is using is failing utterly to group schools that are similar in any meaningful way. So in short, it can be done, but this website isn't doing it. :)