Would parents use league tables?

The NSW Opposition has landed itself in political trouble for cooperating with a Green proposal to ban league tables of school performance.

School league tables are part of a strange obsession with lists and rankings, which in my view are very rarely of much value (eg here, here, and here).

The public education lobby believes school rankings are worse than worthless, since any ranking system must have those who come last, and we can be pretty sure that public schools will be heavily over-represented in the lower ranks.

Implicit in this worry is an assumption that parents will misunderstand what published school performance data means and rely on rankings based on school academic performance, without taking into account the significant socieconomic factors which influence student results. An Essential Research survey, reported at Pollytics blog, starts to explore this assumption.

Given the choice between assessing a school’s performance by the percentage passing tests, and the improvement shown by students (the school’s value adding), 59% thought that the improvement was the better measure, with 30% going for the percentage passing tests.

Unfortunately, the results are not broken down between respondents with school-age children and those without. At a guess, those who have had reason to choose a school or are concerned about the school their kids attend, would be more likely to focus on improvement, which is what they need to help make a sensible choice between the schools in their area.

How their school compares to other schools that may be hours away in a different part of the city or state, the kind of information a league table provides, is of little use.

39 thoughts on “Would parents use league tables?

  1. School result lists do make some sense. For most Australians who live in large cities there is a real possibility that they could send their kids to different schools.

    There are failed schools that could be closed with kids sent to nearby non-broken schools.

    In NSW with the large number of selective state schools the point is made that most of the top 20 schools in NSW are not private. This compares well to Victoria where only McRob and Melbourne High get into the top 20.

    This can matter. If you have a smart child in NSW you can happily send them to a government school and now they will get ‘specialised’ education for them. This can save you a lot of money. Indeed, it would be interesting to see if fees charged in NSW and Victoria for private schools were different.

    Given that this information shouldn’t be too hard to gather why not trust the public with it?

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  2. It is dangerous to give the public data that it doesn’t understand and doesn’t have the sophistication to interpret. Most people do not understand data and do not think critically about what is presented.

    News Papers will inevitably publish the listing in some sort of rank order (picking one of the numbers) and then most parents will try to get their kid into the highest rank school in their area.

    The NSW selective schools are good for those kids, although some make the argument that they hurt the rest of the public system by extracting most of the academic talent.

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  3. The Victorian goverment has for several years been publishing results on post-school outcomes without, so far as I am aware, league tables being constructed (though I only occasionally read the Herald-Sun).

    If the data is well presented, I am confident that most parents will use it sensibly as one input into a school decision (if they are permitted to make such a decision). I am certainly more confident of that than the alternative, that state education bureaucrats will act in the interests of the students at under-performing schools.

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  4. Andrew – isn’t there a simple solution to publish data by $ per head (at marginal and average rates) taken at school A compared to B, to get an ENTER score of 30, 40, etc to 99, discounted by how many generations of family have tertiary education with a factor for current income plus inheritances expected and current assets?

    “If the data is well presented, I am confident that most parents will use it sensibly as one input into a school decision”

    How does Mr and Mrs Apsirational Bogan of Braybrook decide that given that Geelong Grammar has the best outcomes they’ll shoot young Brandon off there at an early age?

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  5. What $ – fees or inputs? We want to avoid dubious indexes. The cost is one factor parents need to consider in their trade-offs. Places like Geelong Grammar offer facilities that are of little or no educational value but give students the same standards of facilities they would expect at home. If parents want to pay for this it is their business, but it is not relevant to judging the school’s educational value add.

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  6. So background and wealth or lack of are sunk?

    Thats like starting the Melbourne Cup horses each year from where they finished last year – it’s pretty easy to pick a horse for a place then.

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  7. Education is not a race in which only one person can win. 100% of people who went to school ought to be better off than those who did not. We evaluate the school system according to how successful it is in making people better off. Even within the upper classes, the dreaded bell curve still exists, so why use a proxy (family income and occupation) for the educational starting point when we can use real information, eg test results.

    School resources are also a weak proxy. Internationally high-spend countries do badly (eg US) while low spend countries do well (S. Korea from memory). Catholic schools in Australia alway outperform government schools despite lower average resources per student. As I said, in the elite private schools resources are spend on things that are not directly related to education.

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  8. “It is dangerous to give the public data that it doesn’t understand and doesn’t have the sophistication to interpret. Most people do not understand data and do not think critically about what is presented.”

    Um… am I the only one here who thinks this is a rather worrying argument?

    Also, what actually is wrong with the fact that”most parents will try to get their kid into the highest rank school in their area.”? Isn’t this somewhat the fundamental point of market-based competition?

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  9. What’s the point of providing comparative data to parents if they can’t act on it? Say you’ve got a kid about to finish primary school and you find out the local high school is not so great compared to others. Assume you can’t afford private education and your kid isn’t smart enough to get into a selective school. You can’t just decide to send the kid to a better high school across town. You can try, but they are under no obligation to accept any kid that is out of area. So your choices are either put up with the local no good high school, or move to where the better schools are. But that is very expensive. The stamp duties alone are killers, and a good high school is usually to be found in a place where house prices are high.

    So until parents are given the opportunity to act on this comparative information, then giving them this information is just a tease.

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  10. Tim. You said “It is dangerous to give the public data that it doesn’t understand and doesn’t have the sophistication to interpret. Most people do not understand data and do not think critically about what is presented.”

    Um… am I the only one here who thinks this is a rather worrying argument?

    When I read these words, I thought M was being sarcastic. Surely you aren’t suggesting they should be taken seriously:-)

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  11. S of R – I agree this information is more useful where there are immediate choices. But even within the public education framework there is value, in that the information can be used politically.

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  12. “How their school compares to other schools that may be hours away in a different part of the city or state, the kind of information a league table provides, is of little use”
    .
    I’m not sure I’d believe that (especially not of some population groups — you’re obviously not Chinese!). How many hours do you think kids travel to get to Melbourne High every day, for example, and how many missed out on getting in that would have been willing to travel a lot?
    .
    My guess is that the main effect the tables will have is that the elite but unknown public schools will suddenly get inundated, and people will try and get out of the bottom schools. I doubt it will make the system much better or worse overall (I think there are far more pressing problems, like actually getting good teachers to start with, and cultural problems due to post-modernism afflicting too many Australian parents).
    .
    Despite this, I don’t see why the info shouldn’t be available. Even if only a small number of parents/kids are enthusiastic enough to use the information, they should be able to. Otherwise, I’d see it as a case of anti-intellectualism, where some people simply want to stop the success of others, even though the success of others has no bearing on themselves.

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  13. “So your choices are either put up with the local no good high school, or move to where the better schools are. But that is very expensive. The stamp duties alone are killers, and a good high school is usually to be found in a place where house prices are high.”
    .
    I think most of this is just whinging. It seems to me that most people want big cars, big houses, etc. and this is more important than good schools. I think this is one of the reasons the lower end of our school system is shitty. That’s not how it works in many countries.
    .
    I personally live in an area where there is a selective public school that uses a catchment area, and rent is pretty cheap, as are smaller apartments. So, for most people, if you really want to send you kids to a good school, you can, you just have to make a few sacrifices.

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  14. I grew up in Canberra where the schools are fairly equal but it was known that there were some weak schools and strong schools. Savvy parents gamed the system to send their kids to better government schools. Special music programs, The Bac and other methods were employed.

    These things helped the government schools. It was known that a few schools were better, better indeed than any of the private schools. Sure enough kids from the private schools and heaps of out of area kids would wind up those schools.

    It’s hard to imagine this sort of thing doesn’t happen in other capitals.

    Publishing league tables would allow more parents to do this.

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  15. Conrad, the point is, in practice the kids/parents can’t use the information. If the only one school that you can get your kid into is the local school, then finding out that there are better schools out of area is about as useful as finding out that there are better schools in Bolivia.

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  16. S of R – As I suggested above it isn’t useless, because it strengthens the only remedy parents have now, which is complaint and lobbying. It’s better than anecdotal evidence.

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  17. S of R,
    .
    I think my other comment hit moderation, but it isn’t true there is only “one” school for most parents. Most people are rich enough to send their kids to all manner of places, but people simply arn’t willing to sacrifice their big house, big car etc. for it.
    .
    I personally live in an area where there is a selective public school that uses a catchment area, and rent is pretty cheap, as are apartments (cheaper than than McMansions in places with poor schools). Big houses, alternatively, cost a packet. So, for most people, if you really want to send your kids to a good school, you can, but you just have to make sacrifices, like not living in a huge house, like a fair chunk of the world does.

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  18. Conrad, what you say is not true of “most people” having the ability to send their kids to “all manner of places” is simply not true. It is only true of a minority. And the point about selective public schools is that they are selective. Only the intellectual or musical or sporting elite get accepted. Which is fine, for them. but does not provide a general model. Andrew, ‘voice’ is only effective if it can be backed by the threat of ‘exit’. Otherwise, it’s like complaining about the train system. “You don’t like that train system? You should take the other train system. Oh that’s right, there is no other train system”.

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  19. S of R – This isn’t true. Politics is inferior to markets in responsiveness, but politicians do respond to local concerns. After screaming loudly enough, we Victorians are getting new trains and trams, and the old service deliverers lost their contracts.

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  20. My sister-in-law works in the NSW Department of Education. So my brother and she based their home-buying decision so they were in the catchment area of the two comprehensive high schools (both single sex) with the highest value-added in the state.

    The data the department already collects, collates, and bundles as reports is absolutely amazing. The fact this data is not publicly available is a scandal. They will not even give it to Julia Gillard! The whole lot should be freely available on the department’s website.

    Oh, and to “M” above the only people to dim to handle the data are the AEU/

    Guess which school has one the lowest value-added scores in NSW? James Ruse!

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  21. “Conrad, what you say is not true of “most people” having the ability to send their kids to “all manner of places” is simply not true. It is only true of a minority.”
    .
    We can answer that question empirically. You can see from here that the average gross household income was $1300 in 2005-2006 (you can add about 10% to that for today’s figures).
    .
    I checked out rents in my good-public-school neighborhood, and you can get a reasonable 3 bedroom place for $400 per week. So that’s clearly affordable.
    .
    It seems to me that too many people are willing get so up to their eyeballs in debt, they think they are poor and don’t mind sacrificing their children’s education for it. That’s quite different to not having enough money.

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  22. Conrad, your good public school is a selective school, according to you. So it is irrelevant. And your average income figure is before tax.

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  23. “Politics is inferior to markets in responsiveness, but politicians do respond to local concerns. After screaming loudly enough, we Victorians are getting new trains and trams, and the old service deliverers lost their contracts.”
    .
    Yes, but how long did you have to put up with bad trains? If that’s you, at a poor school, you’ve missed your chance already.

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  24. Russell – Precisely why I recommend using markets. No need to run lengthy campaigns, just move your kid. But statistics help the argument if you are stuck with voice over exit – for example the percentage of late or cancelled trains, which was not published before it was built into the performance contracts of the public transport providers, turned into a major political issue last summer.

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  25. conrad – i find it hard to imagine which “public selective just like a private” suburb has good 3 bed homes for $400 a week. Or homes with 3 /4 beds and yard for $400k or less- all the selectives are in high cost inner tertiary educated lefty/greenie/andrew norton suburbs. and sele ctives still do the private school thing – french class $4k trip to france, private tutors etc – try getting all that from Braybrook

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  26. Andrew – as pointed out you can’t just ‘move your kid’ because the better school somewhere won’t have a few spare classrooms. Besides, classes have their individual characters so although the school might generally have a better result you might move your kid into a class that doesn’t do particularly well; the point I tried to make before is that although we can talk about big, school/system-wide differences, your kid will take his only schooling chance at one particlar place and time.
    .
    The problems facing schools are as complex as the problems facing society. Governments do an OK job but should do much better, but ‘a market’ is much too simple a suggestion: it’s physically impossible to provide everyone with lots of choices, many people won’t have or understand all the information to make informed choices on behalf of their children, and the penalties for having bad decisions made for you are unacceptable, equity-wise.
    .
    I don’t know what the solution is – it would be nice if everyone prioritised education as Conrad does – but I’m sure you’re wrong to say that the resources of the elite schools don’t affect educational outcomes. If nothing else those resources can powerfully lift motivation – it’s quite stimulating to have an artist-in-residence, concerts by visiting musicians, terrific library and laboratry resources etc.

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  27. “parents will misunderstand what published school performance data means and rely on rankings based on school academic performance, without taking into account the significant socieconomic factors which influence student results”

    I think there would be a benefit to having my child in a school with academically successful peers, whether that success comes from good teaching or good parenting, so the information is useful even if you don’t know how much value is being added by the school.

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  28. SoR: “Conrad, your good public school is a selective school, according to you. So it is irrelevant”
    .
    FXH: “i find it hard to imagine which “public selective just like a private” suburb has good 3 bed homes for $400 a week”
    .
    Feel free to look up McKinnon High School, how well it does, how it selects students (a catchment area), and rents in Bentleigh, East Bentleigh, or McKinnon. Then come back and tell me the answer. I could point out other good public schools in Melbourne in a similar situation if you like.
    .
    Also, “Braybrook” isn’t most areas. Pointing to some of the worst areas in Melbourne is not “average”. I’ve no doubt there are poor people, but most can afford a bus or train ticket (I’d probably support a bus fare subsidy for really poor parents incidentally). That’s another reason why they need the information, so they can at least go from “awful” to “ok”, versus my example which was “awful” to “good”.
    .
    Finally: “Or homes with 3 /4 beds and yard”. This is my point. If you want to live like a king in Rowville or Braybrook, then that’s your business, not mine. Feel free to use the last two dollars you have on your children. However, if you want to live like most of the world for a much cheaper cost, you can.

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  29. “I could point out other good public schools in Melbourne in a similar situation if you like”

    Conrad,

    there are two good non selective public high schools in Melbourne. Mckinnon High School is one; the other one is Balwyn High. The property values in the Balwyn High catchment area are significantly higher than in neighbouring areas, as people rationally figure that the money they save on not sending their kids to private schools, they can spend on a house in the catchment area. This effect is very marked, so much so that either side of the area boundaries, the same houses are sold for vastly different prices.

    if you say that rents are reasonable around McKinnon High, I believe you, but unfortunately there is only one McKinnon High.

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  30. Tim and Johno I’m only being a bit sarcastic. But I did read Fahrenheit 451 in my holidays.

    My point is that most people will blindly accept the ranking provided by the paper. This ranking is likely to be either incredibly complex or incredibly simplistic. It is very risky to have people making decisions based on metrics they don’t understand.

    The value added the PJ mentions sounds like it could be useful to know. My concern is the Herald Sun treatment of figures which will obsess about one or two schools being the best/worst and not include the margin of error or statistical significance, etc….

    Everyone knows which are the best non-selective government schools. Real-estate agents tell us in their adds.

    Another interesting measure would be the improvement or decline of a particular high-school. Say you have a two kids one in year 5 and one in year 3. The current ranking of the school is somewhat useful, but given your education horizon includes another 7-9 years, it also matters a great deal what direction the school is heading. A simple rank ordering doesn’t tell you that. School can change character a great deal over timescales of more than 5 years.

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  31. M

    In NSW, all kids sit standardised tests in Years 3, 5, 6,7, 9, 10, and 12. As kids move from school to school or class to class these past results are compared to their present ones. The “value-added” is the amount by which they improve or decline. Now, if there is a high school, whose Year 7 kids – on average improve on their Year 5 results, and then again in Year 9 and so on, that is a good school, right?

    That is what I mean when I say that James Ruse High (the most academically high-achieving school in Australia) is one of the lowest on value-added, because its kids’ overall ranking/relative performance goes down from Year 7 to Year 12.

    But the department also has SES data, parents on welfare, real estate value, single parents, parents in jail, the invoice of every single new toilet seat, tin of paint, or new French textbooks purchased. If the whole lot was just dumped on the website, you, I, or Andrew Norton, or The Green Left Weekly or whoever could spend hours or weeks compiling any kind of analysis we wanted, and distribute it widely.

    Now wouldn’t that be a real Education Revolution?

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  32. SoR: “there are two good non selective public high schools in Melbourne.”
    .
    I disagree — there are no doubt many good non-selective public high schools in Melbourne (I seem to remember there is a table with some crude numbers on it for Victorian schools on one of the Education department’s sites, although I can’t remember where I found it right now). The reason you have only heard of two is because people, like yourself, try and restrict this information.
    .
    This is of course all rather strange, because if you really do believe people can’t/won’t move, then obviously releasing the information shouldn’t make much difference. In addition, since I don’t believe that, it means that the people it hurts most are the poorest, since many of them really can’t afford private school fees, so can’t use the second rather obvious option for finding a good school. Alternatively, either moving house (which they are probably renting anyway if they are poor), or paying for a bus fare might not be out of their reach.
    .
    Personally, I find many of the people trying to restrict this info quite hypocritical — I work with a bunch of what might be termed soft left-wing people who no doubt think restricting info like this is a good idea (I won’t even bother to ask), yet everyone of them except one send/sent their children to expensive private schools (as far as I know).

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  33. conrad – I’d suggest McKinnon is $450 – $600 a week rent but your points on this are ok as far as it goes. I take the point that Braybrook is an extreme example.

    I wonder if renting a place near say McKinnon for the education benefit to one’s kids is a better overall investment for both you and your kids future than owning a house in Caroline Springs, Rowville or Whittlesea, and being closer to work, relatives and friends.

    The main issue is how to raise the educational standards/ possibilities across the ‘burbs. There are some crap schools in “good” suburbs and the odd good school in the “crap” suburbs. I’m not sure what post-modernism has to do with it.

    I reckon league table of and in themselves are likely to be counterproductive but no real disaster.

    I’d like to see as much info dumped on the net as possible so that, as someone else has already said, Andrew Norton, Green Lefty Weekly, Prof Neutral Objective and assorted think tanks can play around on excel or databases and re-publish it back.

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  34. I can’t imagine you would be closer to work in any of the three places you mentioned than McKinnon unless you work in a really weird place. I also think people make friends in their area a lot (especially those with kids, where you meet the other parents), so to some extent, many of your friends are going to be located where you are.
    .
    As for the more important question, I imagine you have pretty much found where I’ll bet league tables would be most productive — the good schools in bad suburbs and vice-versa. It seems to me that when there is a big discrepancy between schools in a similar area, the cost of changing schools is minimized. This should place a lot of pressure on the poorly performing school to either do better or allow management from the other school to try and fix things up, as one cannot blame demographic factors. I believe this already occurs in some places. League tables would hasten it.

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  35. Conrad, I favour releasing the information. But I also favour empowering parents so they can do something with it. A good start would be to widen the definition of ‘in area’ so that parents/children have the choice of two or three schools where they have the right to enrol.

    There is also, incidentally, more to information than just academic achievement. There are schools where drug use is absolutely rife and academic results are pretty good.

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  36. “There are schools where drug use is absolutely rife and academic results are pretty good.”

    Now thats a win-win in my book.

    If only it was around in my day.

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  37. fxh, I agree. It’s a big relief for parents when they are spared the need to teach their kids how use to use a bong, because they will learn it at school.

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  38. PJ, those tests are in Vic now as well.

    In lots of schools there is a very strong push to do well on those tests and to squeeze more literacy/numeracy into the tests at the expense of “non-core” subjects.

    The stat that is possibly most relevant (in an purely test score way) is which school(s) have the best outcome for my kid who in grade 5 scores X. Maybe a mid-range kid can get dragged up at a good school, maybe a mid-range kid gets dragged down because being at the lower end of the class they get left behind. Very hard, possibly biased and controversial to extract data to that level.

    Mostly league tables are a way to put pressure on poor performing schools. I think the most likely outcome is that the enrollments from parents who care (and can read) would drop, meaning the place would close. Then this is likely to drag down the surrounding schools when the dregs move across. A bit harsh I know, just trying to emphasize.

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  39. Given the choice between assessing a school’s performance by the percentage passing tests, and the improvement shown by students (the school’s value adding), 59% thought that the improvement was the better measure, with 30% going for the percentage passing tests.

    I’d want both measures. And why the heck shouldn’t we have them if the department has the data.

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