ACT Legislation Is A Model for Consultation on School Closures

Thursday June 30, 2011

The consultation on school closures by the Tasmanian Greens Minister for Education, Nick McKim, is a sham. It is restricted to only four weeks, which is not nearly enough time for school communities to prepare their case. The impact statements prepared by the Minister amount to a list of benefits of closing schools and fail to spell out the full effect on families and communities.

The Minister should follow the consultation process mapped out by his ACT Greens colleagues who amended the ACT Education Act in 2010 to ensure an independent and open consultation on the full impact of school closures.

The ACT Education Act provides for an independent consultation process on proposals to close or amalgamate schools. The consultation must take place over a period of at least six months.

An independent committee must be established to prepare an impact analysis which is to be used in the consultation process and to conduct the consultation. The committee consists of three people who will be selected after consultation with a standing committee of the ACT Legislative Assembly. The committee must report to the Minister on the consultation.

This provision takes control of the consultation process away from the Minister and the Department of Education. It does not guarantee full independence in the process, but it is an improvement on past processes in the ACT where the Department of Education conducted the consultation at the bidding of the Minister of the day. The Minister now has less control over the process and school communities have more opportunity for their voice to be heard and taken into account.

The legislation provides for a detailed impact assessment of school closure and amalgamation proposals. The Minister is obliged to obtain a report which assesses the educational, economic, social and environmental impact of closing or amalgamating a school. This report is to be made available for the community consultation.

The legislation details a number of educational, economic, social and environmental factors which must be assessed in considering proposals to close or amalgamate schools which are much broader than those considered in the Towards 2020 plan.

The educational impacts include the range and depth of education programs, teaching resources and workloads, the social and learning environment for children; parent participation in school, the findings of research studies on school size and access to public education.

The economic impacts include savings and costs of closing a school for the Territory. This ensures that the wider costs such as increased bus transport costs and traffic and safety arrangements are also considered in future and not just the savings to the Education Department. Other economic factors to be considered include the financial impact on parents and local businesses.

The social impacts to be considered include demographic projections, the implications for low income, Indigenous and non-English speaking families, the safety of children walking or cycling to school, access to recreational and leisure facilities and community support networks.

The impact on environmental factors such as traffic congestion, air and noise pollution and green space adjacent to schools must also be taken into account.

The impact assessment report must also identify alternatives to closure or amalgamation for consideration in the consultation. This is a key change from past practice.

The ACT legislation also sets out a series of consultation requirements the Minister must comply with before making a decision to close or amalgamate a school. These provisions ensure that a future government cannot decide to close a school and then consult only on how it will be done as had occurred in the past.

In making a decision to close or amalgamate a school the Minister must now take specific account of the principles applying to education in general and to government schooling in the ACT Education Act. These include principles such as improving equity in education, ensuring reasonable access to public education and providing for partnerships in education.

The changes made to the ACT legislation last year reflect proposals made by Save Our Schools Canberra in its submission to the Legislative Assembly’s Education Committee inquiry on school closures in 2009 as well as other amendments it proposed. Save Our Schools worked closely with the ACT Greens in preparing the amendments.

It’s not too late for Minister McKim to have a proper consultation. He should take the ACT legislation as a model. He should extend the consultation period and publish a comprehensive impact statement for each school on the educational, economic and social impacts of closing them. He should appoint an independent committee to conduct the consultation and provide a report.

Trevor Cobbold

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Charter Schools Segregate Students by Race and Class

Thursday February 17, 2011

With the imminent release in Australia of the US education documentary “Waiting for Superman” which spruiks the role of charter schools in improving education outcomes, a study on charter schools published last month provides some sound research to assess the film.

The study found that charter schools segregate students by race and class in the United States. It found that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area.

In some regions, white students are overrepresented in charter schools while in other charter schools Black and Hispanic students have little exposure to white students. It also found that while data about the extent to which charter schools serve low-income and English Language Learners (ELL) is incomplete, it does suggest that a large proportion of charter schools do not enrol these students.

The study analysed the relationship between charter schools and segregation across 40 US states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrolments of charter school students in 2007–08.

It also notes that extensive studies exploring the benefits of charter schools reveal no net academic gains for students as indicated by test scores. There is little known about the impact of charters on other achievement benchmarks like graduation rates or college matriculation, especially for racial and ethnic sub-groups.

Despite this, several new federal initiatives by the Obama Administration will likely result in an even more rapid expansion in the coming years than in the previous decade. The policies encouraging charter growth are built upon the belief that charter schools can contribute significantly to improving public schools. However, impact of charters on diversity in schools is almost never mentioned.

The study demonstrates that, while segregation for Blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. Two out of every three Black charter school students attend intensely segregated schools in fifteen states across the country. In four of those states, 90% of Black students attend a hyper-segregated charter school. These figures are staggering, and remain considerably higher than in states with the highest Black segregation among regular public schools.

In addition, more than two-fifths of black charter school students attended schools where 99% of students were from under-represented minority backgrounds. That figure was, by far, the highest of any other racial group, and nearly three times as high as black students in traditional public schools.

While patterns of charter school segregation are most striking for Black students, other racial groups have also experienced greater isolation due to charters. In the West, where traditional public schools are the most racially diverse, and in some areas of the South, White students are over-enrolled in charter schools. In some cases, White segregation is higher in charter schools despite the fact that overall charter schools enrol fewer White students. These trends suggest that charter schools are contributing to “white flight” in the country’s two most racially diverse regions.

Latinos are under-enrolled in charter schools in some Western states, though they make up the largest share of students. Latino charter students are less segregated than Blacks overall; but in a dozen states, a majority of Latino charter students are in highly segregated minority schools, including states (like Arizona and Texas) educating large numbers of Latinos.

Charter schools are most likely to be established in urban locations, alongside traditional public school systems that educate a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students. More than half of charter schools located in cities enrolled at least 90% students of color in 2007–08, indicative of considerably higher segregation in urban charters even when compared to their regular, already isolated, public school counterparts.

The study says that there is a severe lack of some essential data on charters. It says that basic questions about the extent to which charter schools enrol low-income and ELL students cannot be conclusively answered.

One-quarter of charter schools did not report whether they enrolled students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL), a common measure of students from low-income households. In a number of states, charter schools which did not report FRL data had more extensive concentration of White students than those that did. Estimates suggest that charter schools may under-enrol ELL students, but the data are inconclusive on this point.

All this suggests that low-income, minority, and English Language Learner students may not have access to some charter schools to the same extent as white and middle-class children do.

The study notes that US states often have weak civil rights and equity policies regarding charter school establishment and enrolment. Little state or federal direct action has been taken to change or correct racial isolation in charter schools despite growing evidence about this persistent and growing problem.

The Obama Administration, like its predecessors, is emphasizing choice and innovation, primarily in the form of new charter schools, as a way to improve the education of all students. The study states that if, as the Administration has proclaimed, education is the “civil rights issue of our time,” then federal leadership is needed to provide incentives for improving the integrative quality of charter schools, along with clear safeguards to prevent the resegregation of public schools via increasing charter school enrolment.

More than half a century after the US Supreme Court ruled that separate schooling was fundamentally unequal, a massive and accumulating body of social science evidence continues to affirm that unanimous decision. This new study shows that charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of the already deeply stratified public school system.

Trevor Cobbold

Erica Frankenberg; Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Jia Wang 2011. Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 19 (1).

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Learning from Finland

Sunday January 2, 2011

The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that Finland has once again outperformed Australia and other countries which have resorted to market-based approaches to education. Finland achieved higher average results and much lower differences in results between rich and poor than Australia, England and the United States.

Finland has adopted a different approach to education than these countries. Key differences were recently spelled out by Pasi Sahlberg, director-general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, in an article in the Boston Globe.

Sahlberg states that Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. The public is informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based tests which place no pressure on schools.

Instead, teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. It is thought that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge.

Sahlberg says that parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.

Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.

Sahlberg suggests that education policies based on choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement should be re-considered. He says that none of the best performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and co-operation – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system where all children learn well.

He also says that paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charter schools or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

He suggests that education authorities should provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.

These are lessons that Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett would do well to heed.

Trevor Cobbold

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Closing the Gaps

Wednesday November 3, 2010

This is a summary of a new research paper called Closing the Gaps published by Save Our Schools.

Private schools are better resourced than government schools
Total expenditure per student in government schools in Australia is much lower than in Independent schools and similar to that in Catholic schools. Average total expenditure in Independent schools in 2007-08 was $15,147 per student compared to $10,723 per student in government schools and $10,399 per student in Catholic schools. The average total expenditure for all private schools was $12,303.

Many elite private schools in Australia have total annual resources of between $24,000 and $30,000 per senior secondary student, which is double or more that available to government secondary schools.

The gap in total expenditure between government and Independent schools has more than doubled since 1998-99 while the gap between government and Catholic school expenditure decreased by more than half. The expenditure advantage of Independent schools over government schools increased from $1,971 (in current $’s) in 1998-99 to $4,424 per student in 2007-08. The expenditure advantage of government schools over Catholic schools decreased from $852 to $324 per student.

The above figures remove some major incompatibilities in the way government and private school expenditure are measured, but they are still likely to significantly under-estimate private school expenditure in comparison with government schools for several reasons.

Expenditure on school transport by governments is included in government school expenditure but not in private school expenditure. In 2007-08, school transport expenditure in NSW and Queensland was $402 and $220 per student respectively.

Private school expenditure does not include government expenditure on administration of funding and regulation of private schools and expenditure on shared government services for private schools, whereas these items are included in government school expenditure.

The expenditure figures do not include the cost to government of tax deductible donations, which are much more significant for private schools than government schools. Government school expenditure does not include the use made of parent financial contributions, but these are very small. For example, they amounted to $72 per student in NSW and $31 per student in Queensland in 2009.

Increases in total expenditure (adjusted for inflation) by private schools outstripped those in government schools between 1998-99 and 2007-08. Government school expenditure increased by $1,147 per student compared to increases of $1,739 and $2,207 per student in Catholic and Independent schools respectively. The increase in Independent schools was nearly double that in government schools while the increase in Catholic schools was 52% more.

Total expenditure per student (adjusted for inflation) in government schools increased by 1.9% a year compared to 3.1% a year for Catholic schools between 1998-99 and 2007-08 and 2.6% a year in Independent schools.

Education disadvantage is greater in government schools
Government schools have to do more with their resources than Catholic and Independent schools because the extent of education disadvantage is much greater in government schools than in private schools.

Government schools are the main provider for educationally disadvantaged groups. The vast majority of low income (77%), Indigenous (86%), disability (80%), provincial (72%) and remote/very remote area (83%) students attend government schools.

Educationally disadvantaged students comprise a much larger proportion of government school enrolments than in private schools. Students from low income families comprised 40% of government school enrolments in 2006 compared to 25% in Catholic schools and 22% in Independent schools. In contrast, only 27% of government school enrolments were from high income families compared to 43% of Catholic school enrolments and 53% of Independent school enrolments.

Indigenous students accounted for 5.7% of government school enrolments in 2008 compared to 1.9% in Catholic schools and 1.6% of Independent school enrolments. Students with disabilities comprised 5.5% of all government school enrolments compared to 3.3% of Catholic school enrolments and 1.9% of Independent school enrolments;

Students in provincial areas comprised 28% of government school enrolments in 2008 compared to 21% of private school enrolments. Students from remote/very remote areas comprised 2.9% of government school enrolments compared to 1.5% of Catholic school enrolments and 0.7% of Independent enrolments.

Overall, the extent of education disadvantage in government schools in Australia is much greater than in private schools. Low income, Indigenous and disability students comprise over 50% of government school enrolments compared to 30% in Catholic and 26% in Independent schools. The extent of education disadvantage in government schools is 1.7 times that in Catholic schools, and almost double that in Independent schools.

There are large achievement gaps between low socio-economic status (SES) and high SES students; between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students; and between provincial and remote area students and metropolitan students.

In 2006, 22-23% of low SES students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 5% of high SES students. On average, low SES 15 year-old students are 2-2½ years behind high SES students. Low SES students enrolled in low SES schools are nearly four years behind students from high income families in high SES schools.

About 40% of 15 year-old Indigenous students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science in 2006 compared to 12% of all Australian students. On average, 15 year-old Indigenous students are 2-2½ years behind non-Indigenous students.

In 2006, 24-28% of 15 year-old students in remote and very remote areas did not achieve expected international proficiency levels in reading, mathematics and science compared to 12% of metropolitan students. On average, remote and very remote area students are about 18 months in learning behind metropolitan students.

Thirteen to twenty per cent of provincial area students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science, respectively, in 2006 compared to 12% of metropolitan students. Provincial area students are about six months or less behind metropolitan students.

Apart from the large achievement gap between low and high SES students there are also large gaps between Indigenous and provincial and remote area students and high SES students. On average, 15 year-old Indigenous students are about 3½ years behind high SES students; remote and very remote area students are about 2½ years behind high SES students; and provincial area students are about 18 months behind high SES students.

These large achievement gaps are a grave social injustice and a waste of talents and resources. They curb productivity growth and lead to higher expenditure on health, welfare and crime. Closing the gaps is the major challenge and priority for Australian governments. Low SES, Indigenous, and provincial and remote area students should achieve similar outcomes to students from high SES families.

Government funding increases have favoured privilege over disadvantage
Australian government funding policies have favoured privilege over disadvantage for the last decade. Despite the higher level of education disadvantage in government schools, the largest percentage increases in government funding (federal, state and territory) have gone to private schools. Schools serving the wealthiest families in Australia continue to receive large and increasing amounts of government funding.

The most privileged school sector – Independent schools – received the largest increase in government funding over the last decade. Between 1998-99 and 2007-08, government funding per student in Independent schools increased by 112%, 84% for Catholic schools and 67% for government schools. The average increase for all private schools was 89%. The percentage increase for Independent schools was over 1½ times the increase for government schools.

Many high fee private schools have total expenditure per student which is two to three times that in government schools, yet they receive $2,000-$4,000 per student in Federal Government funding. For example, the most expensive private school in Australia, Geelong Grammar with Year 12 fees of nearly $28,000, will get $3,456 per student in federal funding in 2010. King’s School, one of the most expensive schools in Sydney with Year 12 fees of nearly $25,000, will get $3,211 per student.

In contrast, the additional federal funding to be provided to disadvantaged schools under the Smarter Schools National Partnership program is less than $500 per student. Thus, Federal Government funding for high fee private schools is 4 to 8 times greater than the additional funding provided to disadvantaged schools.

Moreover, Federal Government funding per student in many elite schools increased by 100-200% and more since 2001 compared to increased funding (federal, state and territory) for government schools of 67% since 1998-99. For example, it increased by increased by 236% for Kings School and 268% for Geelong Grammar.

Thus, huge increases in government funding have gone to the wealthiest and least needy schools in Australia, while those most in need – government schools – continue to be denied the funding they require to provide an adequate education for all their students.

Supporting privilege is seen by governments as more important than eliminating disadvantage and inequity in education. It is a policy which extends the advantages obtained from a wealthy background rather than reducing them. It effectively places more value on enriching the lives of those from privileged backgrounds than those who are not as well favoured in society.

This is indefensible in a society that calls itself a democracy. A fundamental change in the funding priorities of Australian governments is required to close the achievement gaps in education. A massive funding increase for government schools is needed to transform our high quality, low equity education system into a high quality, high equity system.

Government schools need a massive funding boost
Overseas research studies show that the additional expenditure required for low income students to achieve at adequate levels is 100-150% more than the cost of educating an average student.

If average government school expenditure is used as this benchmark, some 22-33 times the level of funding for low SES government schools provided through the Smarter Schools National Partnership program is needed to close the achievement gap between low SES students and the average for all students in Australia. This amounts to at least an additional $6.3 – $9.2 billion a year. Double this amount ($13.6 – 18.4 billion) is needed to close the achievement gap between low and high SES students.

An alternative measure of the funding needed to address disadvantage in learning in Australia is to apply the ratio of targeted equity enrolments in the government and private sectors to the average level of resources in private schools. As government schools have 1.8 times the learning need of all private schools, they should receive 1.8 times the level of average private school expenditure. On this basis, additional funding for government schools of $26 billion per year is required to resource government schools to the level of private schools taking into account the greater extent of education disadvantage in the government sector.

Whatever, benchmark is used, it is clear that a massive funding increase for government schools is needed to close achievement gaps in Australia and turn our high quality, low equity school system into a high quality, high equity system.

Trevor Cobbold

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The Great School Accountability Hoax

Sunday June 20, 2010

Diane Ravitch’s latest blog shows how school accountability in the United States is a great hoax. It serves as a major warning on the future of school education in Australia under a policy regime that slavishly follows the US lead without regard to the evidence.

The following is an edited version. Read the full version at Education Week.

The evidence continues to accumulate that our “accountability” policies are a great fraud and hoax, but our elected officials and policymakers remain completely oblivious to the harm caused by the policies they mandate.

Over the past several years, efforts to “hold teachers accountable” and “hold schools accountable” have produced perverse consequences. Instead of better education, we are getting cheating scandals, teaching to bad tests, a narrowed curriculum, lowered standards, and gaming of the system. Even if it produces higher test scores (of dubious validity), high-stakes accountability does not produce better education.

In their eagerness to show “results,” states are dumbing down their standards. The New York state education department dropped cut scores on the state tests from 2006 (the year that annual testing in grades 3-8 was introduced) to 2009. In 2006, a student in 7th grade could achieve “proficiency” by getting 59.6 percent of the points correct on the state math test; by 2009, a student in the same grade needed only 44 percent of the available points.

When New York state’s education department was criticized for dropping the cut scores on its tests, officials responded by insisting that the department dropped the cut scores because the tests were actually harder than in previous years. This was utter nonsense because the passing rates soared as the cut scores fell, which would not have been the case if the tests were “harder.” So, although it never acknowledged its past chicanery, the state education department claimed that the tests would really, really, truly be hard this year and that standards would once again be high.

The scandal of high-stakes testing is not limited to New York and Illinois. Last week, The New York Times reported about the ubiquity of cheating scandals across the nation. My guess is that it revealed only the tip of the iceberg.

I was in Baltimore on May 27, when The Baltimore Sun wrote about a major cheating scandal at an elementary school that had been widely recognized for its excellent test scores. In 2003, only one-third of the students in the school passed the state reading test, but within four years, almost all did. This was a “miracle” school; it won a federal Blue Ribbon for its remarkable gains. But it turned out that the school’s success was phony: Someone had erased and corrected many student answers.

The more that test scores are used to measure teacher effectiveness and to determine the fate of schools, the more we will see such desperate efforts by teachers and principals to save their jobs and their schools.

Yet even as more cheating scandals are documented, even as the perfidy of state testing agencies is documented, our federal policymakers plunge forward, blithely imposing unproven policies as well as “remedies” that have been tested and found wanting. Latest example: The June 9 issue of Education Week has a front-page story with this headline: “Merit-Pay Model Pushed by Duncan Shows No Achievement Edge”.

Merit pay has been tried and found ineffective again and again since the 1920s, but repeated failure never discourages its advocates, who are certain that if the incentives were larger, or if some other element was adjusted, it would surely work.

More emphasis on test scores. More money for teachers if the scores go up. More punishment for teachers and schools if the scores don’t go up. More cheating. More gaming the system. More concentration on basic skills (they count) and more indifference to the arts, history, science, foreign languages, etc. (they don’t count).

Diane Ravitch is Professor of Education at New York University and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Snr. Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

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Paying Cash for Better Test Scores is no Silver Bullet

Tuesday June 1, 2010

One of the more zany ideas to improve student achievement is to pay students cash to improve their results. For economists, however, this is a no brainer – cash incentives always work.

ANU Economics Professor, Andrew Leigh, who was recently pre-selected as Labor’s candidate for the seat of Canberra in the next federal election, says that cash payments to improve test scores should be trialled in Australia. He says providing cash incentives for students to improve their results could be tried in any low-income school in the country, but that the most likely place to start would be for Indigenous students.

Several trials have been conducted in the United States over the past few years, including one in New York City which was whole-heartedly endorsed by Julia Gillard’s mentor, Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor.

The trials were organised by Professor Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, and involved 38,000 students in 261 public schools in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Washington, DC. Over 80% of the students were from low income families and nearly 90% were black or Hispanic. Over $6 million was paid out in incentives to students.

Students in New York and Chicago were paid for better test scores or grades while those in Dallas and Washington, DC were paid for activities which may contribute to better test scores such as reading books, increasing attendance and better behaviour. In each city, about half the participating schools were randomly selected to be ones where students received money. The progress of these students was compared with that of their peers in the other participating schools.

In New York City, the program was trialled in over 60 schools. Students were given cash incentives for their performance on six computerized exams (three in reading and three in math) as well as four predictive assessments that were pencil and paper tests. For each test, fourth grade students earned $25 for a perfect score and could make up to $250. Seventh grade students received $50 for a perfect score and could earn up to $500. Fourth graders also received $5 for taking each test and seventh-graders got $10.

In Chicago, ninth grade students were rewarded on a sliding scale for good grades in five courses, including English, maths and science. Getting an “A” was worth $50; a “D” meant no money. In theory a student could earn up to $250 every five weeks and $2,000 in a year.

In Dallas, second grade students were paid $2 per book to read up to 20 books per semester and do a computer-based comprehension test to prove they had read the books. In Washington DC, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students were paid for improved attendance, behaviour, wearing school uniform, handing in homework and for class work. Students were paid on a point system and could earn up to $100 a fortnight.

The results were completely surprising according to Professor Fryer. Remarkably, he says, in a paper published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the cash incentives did not increase students’ test results in Chicago or New York. In each case, the effect of the incentives was statistically zero or very small. The paper concludes that paying students to increase test scores or grades does not work. It says that “incentives are by no means a silver bullet”.

Similarly, the incentives paid to students in Washington DC to increase attendance, behaviour and school work had a negligible effect on test scores. Attendance, behaviour and school work improved but there was only a marginal improvement in reading and no statistically significant effect on mathematics tests scores.

The payments to read more books in Dallas schools were more successful. Paying second grade students to read books had a relatively large effect on their reading comprehension, a more modest effect on their language scores, and a statistically insignificant effect on vocabulary.

From this, Professor Fryer concludes that providing cash incentives for “inputs” into student results is a better option “because students do not know the educational production function, and thus have little clue how to turn their excitement about rewards into achievement”. He further concludes that paying students to read more books is a more cost effective approach to improving reading than reducing class sizes in the early years, paying teachers more to work in high need schools and early childhood programs.

This is a very ambitious conclusion on the basis of one very small project involving just 22 schools. But, apart from this, it may not even be cost effective itself. Students can be encouraged to love reading with the right support from teachers and parents at no extra cost. Altruistic incentives seem to have positive results, as witnessed by the various schemes operating in several states in Australia whereby sponsors make monetary contributions to charities based on how many books children read.

Given these results, it can only be hoped that Professor Leigh does not take his proposal to Julia Gillard. Otherwise she might be inclined to take on another failed scheme from her mentor, Joel Klein.

Trevor Cobbold

Ronald Fryer. Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials, Working Paper No. 15898, National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2010.

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Swedish-Style School Privatisation for England

Wednesday May 26, 2010

The ideologues of choice and competition in schooling are at it again. Their latest miracle cure is Sweden, despite the fact that its next door neighbour Finland has the best school results in the world and doesn’t follow the free market ideology in education.

The new UK coalition government has announced that it will allow parents, teachers and charities to set up their own schools in England along the “free schools” model of Sweden. These schools will be privately run, but publicly funded. The plan also opens up state schools to be operated by for-profit companies.

While English law prohibits commercial operators taking over schools, they could provide teaching and other services to the new schools. There is nothing to stop school governors inviting commercial firms to operate state schools. Indeed, the US company Edison already operates one school in north London.

Several for-profit companies are already lining up to take advantage of the scheme. Global Management Education Systems (Gems), a company based in the United Arab Emirates that already runs 12 UK private schools, aspires to run state-funded schools in England. Anders Hultin, chief executive of Gems, said: “We are exploring opportunities right now, supporting groups of parents. That’s a natural starting point.” [ The Guardian, 25 May]

Gems is not alone. Edison, the largest provider of state-funded private schools in the US, envisages running several academies. Kunskapsskolan, which runs 30 state-funded schools in Sweden, plans to sponsor two new academies, in Richmond, south London, and Suffolk.

The new Government’s plan draws on the Swedish “free schools” model introduced in the early 1990s which allowed new schools to be set up that are independent of government control. A variety of educational providers stepped in, ranging from non-profit co-operatives and religious groups to for-profit corporations. These organisations are now running schools funded with public money through a voucher system.

The changes were introduced to provide greater choice for parents unable to afford the fees for Sweden’s small private school sector. They were based on the free-market principle that competition and choice would raise standards in all schools as government schools would be forced to improve student achievement so as to maintain enrolments.

“Free schools” now account for just over 40 per cent of the 945 upper secondary schools in Sweden and about 15% of schools teaching younger children. About 20 per cent of Swedish students attend these independent schools in the upper secondary sector. In larger urban areas such as Stockholm, half of all students attend independent schools.

There is strong evidence is that the Swedish “free school” model has failed to improve student achievement. Far from improving school results, the evidence is that student outcomes in Sweden have declined since the reforms to its education systems were introduced. The performance of its 15-year-olds has slipped steadily in international comparisons, its measures of social mobility and equity have declined, and it now lags behind other Nordic countries, having led them for decades.

Per Thulberg, Director-General of the Swedish National Agency for Education, says that the schools have “not led to better results” in Sweden [ BBC Newsnight, 8 February 2010]. He said that where these schools had improved their results, it was because the pupils they took had “better backgrounds” than those who attended the institutions the free schools had replaced.

This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new schools has not led to better results. The lesson is that it’s not easy to find a way to continue school improvement….The students in the new schools have, in general, better standards, but it has to do with their parents and backgrounds. They come from well-educated families.

Thulberg says that Sweden cannot give the world good examples of how to run an excellent school system [ The Financial Times, 23 May 2010]. “We have had increasing segregation and decreasing results, so we can’t say that increasing competition between schools has led to better results” [ The Times Educational Supplement, 12 March 2010].

Jan-Eric Gustafsson, professor of education at Gothenburg University, says there has been a long decline in Sweden’s school results.

What we observe is a decline, especially in science and mathematics, and especially from 1995. It has been quite a steep decline, by as much as one grade, so that students in Grade 8 (age 13 to 14) in 1995 performed at the level of Grade 9 students now…..
There is increasing variation between schools. We have widened the difference between students with educated parents and those whose parents are not so highly educated, and girls who were ahead of boys in the 1990s are now even further ahead. [ The Times Educational Supplement, 12 March 2010]

Andreas Schleicher, head of education indicators at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said that although Sweden is still above the OECD average on equity, “…the slide, though not dramatic, is noteworthy” [ The Times Educational Supplement, 12 March 2010].

These conclusions are supported by academic studies. A report published by Sweden’s National Education Agency earlier this year states:

To a certain extent, trends in pupils’ attainments can be seen as a measure of how successful the various reforms have been, and, with a relatively high degree of certainty, we can conclude that grade point averages within several central subject areas have declined over time. The National Agency for Education’s own national evaluations, as well as international studies, present a broadly consistent picture of Swedish school pupils’ results in mathematics, natural sciences and reading comprehension in later years of compulsory school, showing a decline in performance since the beginning/middle of the 1990s. In the systematic review, a re-interpretation is made of the results of the international investigations conducted up to and including 1995. These new analyses indicate that levels of attainment in Swedish compulsory schools at the beginning of the 1990s were particularly high and that the decline is therefore more dramatic than earlier analyses have shown. The decline in performance of Swedish pupils has been from a previous high in international comparisons. [ What Influences Educational Achievement in Swedish Schools, p. 16]

In addition, the report also shows that achievement gaps have increased:

….the variation in results between schools and between various groups of pupils has become more pronounced. From 1993, attainment differentials have increased between various schools, particularly from 1998, when a new grade-setting procedure was introduced for the first time. The analyses have also pointed to increasing differences in grades attained by various groups of pupils (differentiated by social background, gender, and ethnicity) but most particularly between groups differentiated by parents’ educational background. [p.17]

The report says it is difficult to separate out the effects of educational changes from the effects of ongoing social change and that it is also difficult to separate out the effects of different reforms that were implemented at the same time. However, it concludes that:

……an increasing differentiation of levels of attainment coincides with comprehensive changes in the Swedish school system that have occurred since the beginning of the 1990s. [p.18]

Recent academic studies concur.

A study by academics at Stockholm University and Uppsala University published in 2008 found that the introduction of independent schools in Sweden did not increase student achievement in high schools and had no impact on the years of schooling or subsequent university attainment [Bohlmark & Lindahl 2008: 22-23]. It found a very small positive short term effect on the grade point average in year 9, but which was not sustained over the medium or longer term.

The study concluded that despite the large increase in enrolments in independent schools in Sweden between 1995 and 2003, the findings of the study show that “school choice and competition is not a panacea for improving overall educational achievement” [p.23].

Another recent technical study concluded that there was no evidence that competition from independent schools had either a positive or negative effect on the performance of public schools [Waldo 2007: 246].

A more general review published earlier this year concluded:

….17 years after the reform was enacted, it seems that it has not managed to bring decisive changes (either positive or negative) into the educational system. Despite almost 1000 new independent schools and 150,000 students attending them and many others changing between public schools, despite an intensive ideological offensive for competition and a vivid public debate on the effects, most researchers and evaluators still claim that the outcomes in terms of segregation, costs, and achievement at the national level are ambiguous or at best visible but small. [Bunar 2010: 13]

It is truly amazing how advocates of markets in education persist in ignoring evidence that rebuts their claims. Their approach is based on blind faith: “we believe; therefore it is true”. Yet, the countries that have dallied with the market in education for the longest – England, Sweden and the United States – have all failed to achieve improvements in student achievement, while inequity in student outcomes and social segregation in schools have increased.

Trevor Cobbold


Bohlmark, Anders and Lindahl, Mikael 2008. Does School Privatization Improve Educational Achievement? Evidence from Sweden’s Voucher Reform. Discussion Paper No. 3691, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn, September.

Bunar, Nihad 2010. Choosing for Quality or Inequality: Current Perspectives on the Implementation of School Choice Policy in Sweden. Journal of Education Policy 25: 1-18.

Slolverket 2010. What Influences Educational Achievement in Swedish Schools? Stockholm.

Waldo, Staffan 2007. Efficiency in Swedish Public Education: Competition and Voter Monitoring. Education Economics 15 (2): 231-251.

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Gillard Concedes Under the Collective Pressure of Teachers

The agreement of Minister Gillard to set up a working party to oversee the My School website has been the consequence of many teachers across the country making it clear that we are unhappy with the government’s intolerable treatment; silencing us, and leaving us without any say in our professional conduct whatsoever. Continue reading “Gillard Concedes Under the Collective Pressure of Teachers”

Misclassification Errors in My School Comparisons: A Response to Professor McGaw

Monday April 26, 2010

The Chairman of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Professor Barry McGaw, has rejected criticisms made by Save Our Schools (SOS) that the “like school” comparisons on the My School website are biased in favour of private schools. But, his response effectively proves the SOS case and he fails to produce any evidence to support his claims. Indeed, the available evidence supports the SOS case.

The basis of the SOS criticism is that My School uses a methodology to determine so-called “like schools” which is based on the socio-economic status (SES) characteristics of small geographical areas rather than on the SES of families. The problem is that each area contains a mix of families and the higher income families more often choose private schools. For example, 55% of high income families choose private secondary schools compared to 26% of low income families.

This causes My School to systematically over-estimate the level of socio-economic disadvantage in private schools and under-estimate disadvantage in government schools. Consequently, My School compares the test results of supposedly similar private and government schools, but which may have large differences in the SES composition of their enrolments.

Professor McGaw says the SOS argument relies on the geographical areas being heterogeneous [ Australian Financial Review, 17-18 April 2010]. But, “they are not,” he says.

They are fairly small districts of a couple of hundred households and the evidence is that they are fairly homogenous.

Here Professor McGaw contradicts himself and concedes the point by saying that the areas are “fairly homogeneous”. The My School methodology depends on the districts being homogenous, but McGaw admits they are not. Districts that are “fairly homogenous” will include families with different socio-economic characteristics, some with a higher SES and some with a lower SES.

Once it is conceded there are differences in the SES of families within districts, the SOS criticisms of the My School methodology come into play because the higher SES families are more likely to choose private schools. This leakage together with the use of area-based measures of SES to rate the SES of schools leads to bias in the comparison of school results which favours private schools.

The use by My School of an area-based measure of SES to approximate individual family characteristics in the area is based upon an assumption of population homogeneity. That is, it assumes that like people live near like people. The validity of this assumption has been tested by studies comparing individual or family SES values or scores with scores assigned on the basis of the average characteristics of residents living within small areas (called census collection districts). The evidence is that census collection districts are not homogenous.

A study by the Australian Council of Educational Research has shown that the correlation between individual and census collection district measures of SES for a national sample of secondary school students was unacceptably low [Ainley & Long 1995]. The study reported correlations between 0.36 and 0.45 between individual and collection district measures in a sample of secondary school students [73]. They found that the greatest loss in precision occurs in moving from an individual based analysis to the collection district level, and that the additional loss of validity when moving from collection districts to larger geographical areas such as postcodes is not great [81-83].

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has demonstrated that some highly advantaged families live in low SES areas and some disadvantaged families live in high SES areas. In an analysis of census data for Western Australia it found that individual and family relative socio-economic disadvantage was quite diverse within small areas [Baker & Adhikari 2007].

It found that about 20 per cent of people in the most disadvantaged quartile of the individual SES measure lived in census collection districts that were in the highest three deciles of the area-based Index of Relative Socio-economic Disadvantage (IRSD). Over a third of people in the bottom quartile lived in areas in the top five IRSD deciles and six per cent of people in the lowest group in the individual based SES measure lived in collection districts found in the highest IRSD decile.

On the other hand, nearly 20 per cent of people in the most advantaged quartile for individual SES lived in areas that were classified in the bottom three deciles of the IRSD. Over a third of people in the most advantaged quartile lived in areas in the bottom five deciles. Five per cent of people in the highest individual based SES group lived in the collection districts found in the lowest IRSD decile.

The ABS researchers conclude from this study that “there is a large amount of heterogeneity in the socio-economic status of individuals and families within small areas” [1].

This conclusion directly refutes Professor McGaw’s claim that small areas are not heterogeneous. Rather, “there is a large amount of heterogeneity” as SOS has argued.

Heterogeneity in the SES of families in small districts means there will be errors in classifying the SES of individuals, such as students, on the basis of the average SES of the areas. This is emphasised by the ABS:

A relatively disadvantaged area is likely to have a high proportion of relatively disadvantaged people. However, such an area is also likely to contain people who are not disadvantaged, as well as people who are relatively advantaged. When area level indexes are used as proxy measures of individual level socio-economic status, many people are likely to be misclassified. This is known as the ecological fallacy. [ABS 2008: 3; see also Adhikari 2006: 6]

Moreover, the potential for error is quite significant:

These findings indicate that there is a high risk of the ecological fallacy when SEIFA is used as a proxy for the socio-economic status of smaller groups within an area and there is considerable potential for misclassification error. [Baker & Adhikari 2007: 1]

Other researchers have also noted this, for example:

Assigning a value of socioeconomic status to a student on the basis of the area in which they live will introduce a potential error and the magnitude of the error will be greater when the social background of those living in the area is relatively heterogeneous. [Ainley & Long 1995: 53; see also Preston 2010]

The potential for misclassification errors in using area-based measures of SES to approximate individual characteristics was also noted in a report commissioned by the Performance Measurement and Reporting Taskforce of the national education minister’s council [Marks 2000: 27].

Heterogeneity of family SES in small areas has fatal implications for the reliability of comparisons of so-called “like schools” by My School. It introduces the potential for significant errors in classifying students and measuring school SES. This is clearly demonstrated in an analysis of the Penrith statistical area using 2001 Census data [Preston 2010].

The study shows that a government school drawing students from the ten most disadvantaged collection districts in the region would have 16 students from low income families for every student from a high income family. In contrast, an independent school drawing from the same collection districts would have equal numbers of low and high income families. Yet, using an ABS area-based index of socio-economic status which is similar to that used by My School, the two schools would be classified as “like schools”.

Professor McGaw and the Federal Education Minister claim that “like school” comparisons on My School are robust. The evidence so far available overwhelmingly indicates they are not. Apart from errors in the measurement of school SES and being biased in favour of private schools, they also exclude a range of other factors which have a significant bearing on the classification of so-called “like schools”, thereby distorting comparisons of school results [Cobbold 2010ab].

Trevor Cobbold


Adhikari, Pramod 2006. Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas: Introduction, Use and Future Directions. Research Paper, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Ainley, John and Long, Michael 1995. Measuring Student Socioeconomic Status. In John Ainley; Brian Graetz; Michael Long and Margaret Batten, Socioeconomic Status and School Education, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, June.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008. Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) – Technical Paper.

Baker, Joanne and Adhikari, Pramod 2007. Socio-economic Indexes for Individuals and Families. Research Paper, Analytic Services Branch, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, June.

Cobbold, Trevor 2010a. Like School Comparisons do not Measure Up. Research paper, Save Our Schools, Canberra, February. See Research section.

Cobbold, Trevor 2010b. ‘Like School’ Comparisons on My School are Flawed and Misleading. Save Our Schools, Canberra, February.

Marks, Gary; McMillan, Julie; Jones, Frank L. and Ainley, John 2000. The Measurement of Socioeconomic Status for the Reporting of Nationally Comparable Outcomes of Schooling. Report to the National Education Performance Monitoring Taskforce, MCEETYA, March

Preston, Barbara 2010. Notes on the ecological fallacy when area-based indexes of disadvantage/advantage are applied to schooling in Australia, Canberra, March.

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School Daze

Tuesday April 20, 2010

The ‘like school’ comparisons on the My School website purport to compare the test results of schools with similar socio-economic student populations. However, like is not consistently compared with like. My School’s measure of the socio-economic status (SES) of schools is systematically biased in favour of private schools when comparing their results with so-called ‘like’ government schools.

The bias works in two separate, but compounding ways. My School under-estimates the SES of private schools that draw enrolments from high SES families living in lower SES areas. It also over-estimates the SES of government schools because high SES families resident in their area tend to choose private schools.

There are two sources of this bias. One is that the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) used to measure the SES of schools is based on the average socio-economic characteristics of the areas in which students live and not on the actual SES of their families. Studies by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that some high income families live in low SES areas and vice versa, so the actual SES of some students will be above the area-average and others below the area-average.

ICSEA also fails to allow for differences in the proportion of high and low SES families that enrol in private and government schools. On average, 47% of high income families choose private schools compared to 24% of low income families. In the case of secondary schools, 55% of high income families choose private schools compared to 26% of low income families.

The greater leakage of high SES students from each area into private schools causes the ICSEA rating of private schools to under-estimate their actual SES because these students are classified according to their (lower) area SES measure rather than by their (higher) family SES.

On the other hand, the ICSEA rating of government schools over-estimates their actual SES because of the leakage of high SES students to private schools. Government schools take a greater proportion of low SES students, but these students are classified at the (higher) area SES rating rather than by the actual SES of their families. The lower SES students carry the higher area SES score influenced by high SES families in the area whose students do not attend government schools. Thus, the level of disadvantage in government schools is under-estimated by ICSEA.

This systematic bias in the measurement of the SES of government and private schools can be illustrated by an example from My School.

My School classifies the wealthy King’s School in Sydney as having the same SES rating as Gundaroo Public School, a small school in a semi-rural area of NSW near Canberra. The King’s School has excellent test results with many green colour codes for above average results while Gundaroo has many red colour codes for below average results.

However, far from being ‘like schools’, they are very unalike schools.

The SES rating for the King’s School is likely under-estimated because it traditionally draws many students from farming families. About 30% of its enrolments are boarding students and only the wealthiest of rural families can afford tuition and boarding fees of over $36 000 a year for primary students. Yet, because these students are resident in lower SES rural areas they carry a lower SES score than their actual family circumstances. The relatively large proportion of these students attending the King’s School therefore significantly reduces its ICSEA rating.

On the other hand, the ICSEA rating for Gundaroo Public School is likely an over-estimate of its actual SES composition

The Gundaroo area has a large proportion of high income, well educated, highly skilled households, but it also has a significant proportion of lower SES families. Census data shows that about 12% of households in the Gundaroo region are relatively low income. Some 32% of the population over 20 years of age did not finish Year 12, 25% had certificate-based qualifications and 30% are employed in lower skilled occupations.

Only about half of Gundaroo’s primary age children attend Gundaroo Public School. Many high SES families send their children to schools in Canberra leaving mostly lower and middle SES families at the local school. However, its ICSEA rating is based on the average SES characteristics of the area, including high SES families who do not attend the school, and therefore over-estimates its actual SES.

This comparison of unalike schools is not an isolated example. There are numerous others on My School.

Another source of bias occurs because of the exclusion of international students enrolled in many high fee private schools from the ICSEA ratings. They are excluded because it is not possible to geo-code their addresses to a Census collection district.

This also artificially lowers the rating of some high SES schools because it is only wealthy overseas families who can afford the high tuition and boarding fees and associated costs of sending their children to Australia. This bias may not be large because of the relatively small number of international students, but it does add to the inherent bias of ICSEA.

Thus, the ‘like school’ comparisons on My School tend to pit higher SES private schools against lower SES government schools. This shows private schools in a more favourable light because students from higher SES families tend to have higher average results than students from lower SES families.

It should also be noted that ICSEA omits a range of factors that strongly influence school results. These include differences in the student composition of schools by gender, ethnic sub-groups and students with disabilities as well as differences in funding, school size, student mobility between schools, student selection and private tutoring.

Some of these omissions may further disadvantage government schools in comparisons with their “like” private schools. For example, schools with higher proportions of students with disabilities participating in tests may have lower average results than other schools with a similar ISCEA value. Government schools generally have higher proportions of students with disabilities than private schools

My School is a travesty of ‘like school’ comparisons. Its biased comparisons in favour of private schools will unfairly affect the reputations of government schools and the careers of their teachers and principals. It will also mislead parents in choosing schools and mislead policy makers in drawing conclusions about best practice in schools.

Trevor Cobbold

This article was originally published in the April newsletter of the Australia Institute.

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