Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Press Ban Is Not The Way To Protect Students

The teachers of New South Wales have voted in favour of industrial action, including strikes and bans on testing, to prevent the publication of so called league tables of the performance of schools. It may not come to that as the New South Wales opposition has supported a bill by the Greens to make it illegal to publish such comparison tables, even if they are collated from publically available information. Unless the government is able to overturn that legislation latter in the year, the teachers won’t have to worry. But it does illustrate the depth of feeling on both sides of this very contentious argument.

The core of the concern is that making comparisons between all schools does not take into account variable factors such as socio-economic disadvantage, geographic location, cultural issues, and other circumstances which impact on the students themselves. As such, any comparison would be likely to result in an unfair judgment about the success or failure of individual schools, and the students who attend them. Such a fear reflects the publication a few years ago of a newspaper story under the headline of “The Class We Failed”. Even with the best intentions, such publicity can reflect unfairly on the students and their future job prospects, as well as the school itself.

Of course, the performance of schools is assessed all the time. It is necessary for a range of information to be collected and collated for the education administrators and the politicians to determine funding and policy decisions, but usually that information is not made public. The real heart of the matter however is the fact that whether it is published or not, any attempt to measure the performance of schools runs the risk of labeling individual schools and their teachers as failures unless the individual circumstances of students and their communities are taken into account.

A classroom full of students who have learning difficulties will always produce a lower academic score no matter how well the teacher and the school might do their job. This is the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of implementing performance pay for teachers and of rewarding top performing schools with more funding and facilities. Such a process can result in those needing the most attention and recognition actually receiving the least. Even before anyone contemplates comparing one school to another, the process of assessing performance in the first place is itself fraught with potential anomalies.

Nevertheless, the ultimate purpose of school is to provide an education, and there must be a way to assess the success or failure of that endeavour. It is essential that students are tested for literacy and numeracy, as well as for their knowledge of the curriculum as it is taught. It is important to monitor the levels of achievement of students, not just to determine how well they are performing, but also how well the system is performing. Ultimately the result that counts is whether or not the student can read, write and calculate sums. That’s an empirical result, regardless of what the socio-economic conditions might be.

Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to it. In fact, the whole issue is further complicated by the fact that the New South Wales legislation imposes significant penalties for news organizations collating there own comparisons from publically available data. That measure is quite simply wrong. It is contrary to the principles of a free and open society which professes to have freedom of speech. Preventing the news media form reporting the facts will not protect students from the effects of failures in the education system, or from their socio-economic circumstances. Whether or not such tables are beneficial, the news media should not be punished for simply collecting information which has already been published. Otherwise we might as well outlaw travel magazines from drawing up their lists of the top tourist destinations, or car magazines making comparisons between different cars, or even newspapers reporting on the relative merits of different political parties’ policies.

Remember it is not the information itself which is dangerous. It is how you interpret it, and put it to use, that matters.

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