League tables short-change students

Student in class, Flickr image by foundphotosljSince the OECD started testing students worldwide through its Program for International Student Assessment, Finland has been adjudged to have the best education system among developed countries. So when a member of the Finnish Board of Education criticises the practice of national testing and ranking of school performance, as Pirjo Sinko did at a gathering of literacy experts in Hobart last week, it's worth taking notice.

Many educators were already disturbed by Federal Government moves to make school performance 'transparent' to parents. The New South Wales Teachers Federation, as well as the South Australian branch of the Australian Education Union, have recently committed themselves actively to oppose the use of national test results to rank schools. According to federation president Bob Lipscombe, league tables reflect 'a lack of respect for the profession'.

It would be easy enough to dismiss his statement as sentimental. Many might argue that how teachers feel about their job is not as important as producing comparative data on schools for the purpose of providing information to consumers.

But if we're going to talk about 'best value for money', we should note that studies show a reciprocal link between teacher morale and student achievement. This suggests that publicising data to lift student achievement may actually be counterproductive if it leads to demoralisation within the teaching profession.

The proposal highlights a weakness in the Australian education system. Relationships between stakeholders are adversarial. Education is no longer the great social enterprise it once was, when parents and governments worked to support schools in their function within the community. Instead, much of the argument for league tables focuses on the right of parents to choose the right school for their children.

This is a false argument because parents are able to make this choice, and have been making such choices, without league tables. It is also a dangerous argument because it sets up a culture of hostility towards schools and teachers, in which parents are always right.

This is a far cry from the situation in Finland, where, in the words of its foremost education expert, Dr Reijo Laukkanen, 'We can trust that [teachers] are competent. They know what to do.' Nobody will be surprised to know that the morale of Finnish teachers is high.

The most concerning feature of the arguments about parental choice and school accountability is that they do not address the role that families play in children's achievement at school. Values, attitudes and expectations — the 'curriculum of the home' — greatly influence a child's preparedness for learning. In a practical sense, parents determine how their children perform at school well before the teacher even gets a chance.

For instance, it matters whether parents provide proper nutrition, because the developing brain needs glucose to process and retain new information. It also matters whether the child feels secure at home. Sources of anxiety — parental unemployment, marital conflict or divorce, violence, abuse and neglect — activate stress hormones that can severely disrupt the way the brain collects and stores information.

As yet, teachers and schools are not expected to feed their students or fix problems related to their home life. Therefore, it does not seem reasonable for them to be charged with the sole responsibility for students' preparedness and motivation for learning.

Governments need to recognise that, although it is easier to hold teachers and schools to account than parents, education does not exist in a vacuum. The four walls of the classroom do not insulate students from the rest of their lives. In fact, the classroom is the space in which their advantage or privation is magnified.

The quality of parenting and home life that young students experience must have its place in the conversation, if we are to be sensible about what the data means, and if we are to enable our young people to succeed.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria.

Topic tags: fatima measham, teacher morale, leage tables, national testing, ranked by performance, Pirjo Sinko



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An excellent piece which contributes to understanding another facet of teaching/learning process. We forget that its learning as well as teaching that influences outcomes.....teaching does not equate with learning!
Children need effective nurture both physical and emotional, to manage the task of learning. I suspect it is beyond the capacity of the teacher to make up for lack of nurture in the early years before more formal teaching/learning begins

Judy | 15 July 2009  

A lucid and well written article. Any ideology that treats schools and education as a 'market' fails to see the fundamental difference between the 'great social enterprise' that is education of our young and the 'few winners - many losers' nature of our market economy.

Mark Freeman | 15 July 2009  

Should we also ban other published League Tables such as Sporting competition tables, Gold Medal tallies, Sport results, Stock exchange comparisons etc?

Peter | 15 July 2009  

Peter needs to know that sporting competitions measure what they say they measure the number of games won. League tables for schools claim to be a measure of academic success of a sort, but they will not, as yet, if ever, supply the background information which illuminates that success. Schools which draw on an area with a high socioeconomic background start, with with an advantage for identifiable reasons. Schools which pay above award rates for teachers may start with an advantage. Schools where the staff are suffering under an inappropriate change of educational leadership may, for a short or longer time, be at a disadvantage. Schools which attempt to educate the whole person to be independent, to show initiative may be at a disadvantage if the testing system is based on rote learning. A school which suits one child may not provide the best educational atmosphere for another despite being placed highly in league tables and so on. Parents beware of being "conned" by league tables.

Sheelah | 15 July 2009  

I am surprised that "... studies show a reciprocal link between teacher morale and student achievement ...", since the term 'reciprocal' has a reasonably precise mathematical meaning, under which a reciprocal relationship between variables is one under one variable varies in inverse proportion to the other. A reciprocal relationship between teacher morale and student achievement would then have utter demoralisation of teachers as a desirable condition for the maximisation of student achievement.

When I was a school child, my class certainly counted such utter demoralisation events among our greatest achievements; educational bureaucracies and their political masters apparently still strive to maximise student achievement by teacher demoralisation.

I suspect that whoever is reporting these studies does not understand what 'reciprocal' means. I suspect that the studies actually show that there is a positive correlation between teacher morale and student achievement. If the person summarising the results of these reports for decision-makers understood the term 'reciprocal', then they wouldn't use it, said bureaucrats and politicians would get off the teachers' cases, everyone would be happy, and for the first time in over two centuries, Australian bureaucrats would have refrained from importing a malmanagement practice from our Anglophone allies.

Even the students might see that there are greater achievements to be had than demoralising the teacher.

David Arthur | 15 July 2009  

David Arthur:

The definition of reciprocity that you're using is a mathematical reciprocity. Dictionary.com lists that as the 5th meaning of the word.[1]

I would suggest that the studies are using the 2nd meaning: 'given, performed, felt, etc., in return: reciprocal aid' or possibly the 3rd meaning: 'corresponding; matching; complementary; equivalent: reciprocal privileges at other health clubs'

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/reciprocal

Josh Hillman | 16 July 2009  

I'm grateful to Josh Hillman for clarifying the meaning of 'reciprocal' for me. It seems I've been too mathematically-minded.

The proposal to introduce "3R" league tables for school performance indicates that my (now-corrected) misunderstanding is shared by educational bureaucrats, and populist politicians. Perhaps someone should explain 'reciprocal' to those folk as well, and they might cease demoralising teachers.

(I understand Donald Rumsfeld was a mathematics graduate who became a bureaucrat. Could that account for anything?)

David Arthur | 16 July 2009  

@ weeks ago I spoke to a year 12 student(now ex). She was told by a teacher at her school that she would not pass(?) at the end of the year. So she would be better off leaving school. I suspect that the real reason was to stop her messing up the school's VCE results at the end of the year.

Peter Renkin | 16 July 2009  

League tables can show us how we are short changing students, teachers and society. They are one of the few ways that Joe Public is able to get an idea of how schools are performing.

Measurements are important. At school surely we can agree that there must be some change in a student from the time he has entered the school room at nine a.m. and leaves at three p.m. What is the change we are looking for and how can we measure it? What part has the teacher played? How can such a change be effectively taught?

Sadly teaching colleges are not much help here.They only have an effect size of 0.11 on imparting effecting teaching to trainee teachers. (An effect size above 0.4 is significant , whilst effect sizes over 1.0 are rare.)(Hattie 2009,110)

Teaching colleges promote a constructivist, postmodernist approach to teaching, which has an emphasis on theories but not on empirical evidence.

'learning styles' (this was called ATI , apptitude-treatment interactions, some thirty odd years ago) being a case in point.

Teachers should be taught how to use, evidence based teaching strategies.

Is not about blame, its about learning how to be better educators.

Rich | 17 July 2009  

Thanks all for the comments. I enjoyed reading your perspectives.

A couple of points:

* It seems that we need some clarity on the essential purpose of the data because improving pedagogy and providing information to parents are two distinct issues.

From what I understand, Finland undertakes some form of assessment of schools, but the results are not made public. Schools are given information that is pertinent to their students, and they start the process of improvement from there. In Australia, schools are already doing the same after last year's NAPLAN tests, e.g. having in-situ literacy and numeracy coaches to support staff in developing and implementing strategies.

* We also need to be wary of the elitism underlying the argument about parents' right to choose. This right is only ever exercised by families who can afford it. (Families who send their children to independent and Catholic schools tend to be wealthier than those who send them to public schools, which cannot refuse entry).

Any further thoughts?

Fatima Measham | 17 July 2009  

Fatima's point about the effect that home background has on children's results at school cannot be stated too strongly.

I have seen this among students I have tutored but also, and more dramatically, in the school experiences of my own two children. They were raised by tertiary-education parents who considered reading an essential part of life, books and maths puzzle games were favoured presents and they were familiar with their regional library from the age of three. The results when they started school in a satellite town to a rural city, which was populated for the most part by clerical, shop and trades workers (many of whom I knew did not own book-cases)? They were about two years ahead of their classmates in literacy, maths and general comprehension, and they maintained that advantage throughout their primary schooling. The teachers were good but few teachers could overcome that degree of advantage.

Our society is demanding a higher level of literacy and general intellectual competence in day to day living and even the most basic work environments. Too many of our children leaving school have low skill levels, low self-esteem and are virtually unemployable. A common outcome is self-destructive and/or anti-social behaviour. Certainly we need to examine the competetence of teachers but we need to look at what happens BEFORE five years of age.

The US has experimented in the past with enrichment programs for pre-schoolers in areas where most children had very low academic records. Their results were positive.

It would be interesting to see an economic assessment of the long-term impact of higher academic achievement in school graduates on government expenditure on unemployment benefits, policing, custodial care, etc. The savings might just pay for that early intervention.

Of course the benefit to the quality of human life is more important but sadly it's unlikely that that will create any impetus towards minimizing disadvantages of the class differential in our supposedly classless society.

Gabrielle Bridges | 22 July 2009  

My experience echos that of Gabrielle. We had two children growing up as we moved to places of better employment oppurtunity. Through this time they experienced government,private and home study options. My wife, a Finn by birth and a new English speaker as an immigrant at age of 10 was taking epidemeiology dictation for the national chief specialist at the age of 20. We never had such a grading system to choose schools, but would follow closely the classroom/correspondence interaction to check on the inputs for their eager minds.Our children are now in work force as honours graduates in science after our constant encouragement.To some degree education is now about the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and the ability to analyse to make correct choices.The home environment is just as important as the system in child development.The grading is merely an indicator.Too often measures used in economics are too quickly used, or weighed too greatly, in the wrong context.For most families the choices are limited by geography and demands of parental time and attention, due to competition for best use of resources during that most important time in a person's life:growing up.

Stephen Coyle | 02 August 2009  

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