Is there ‘evidence that independent public schools lift student performance’?

Asked by Senator Penny Wright at a session of the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment whether there was any evidence that Independent Public Schools (IPS) lifted student performance, Mr Tony Cook, Associate Secretary, Early Childhood Education and Care in the federal Department of Education answered that there was “a range of evidence”. Continue reading “Is there ‘evidence that independent public schools lift student performance’?”

School Autonomy Fails to Increase Student Achievement and Undermines Collaboration between Schools

This is a slightly abridged version of a submission by Save Our Schools to the Senate Education Committee Inquiry on Teaching and Learning. References are available in the submission.

Save Our Schools believes that the claims made about positive effects of greater school autonomy on student achievement are greatly exaggerated and ignore the weight of evidence from research studies that it has little to no effect on student results and can lead to greater inequality and social segregation. Continue reading “School Autonomy Fails to Increase Student Achievement and Undermines Collaboration between Schools”

Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 3

This article is the third in a series on mapping the extent and differences in school autonomy across jurisdictions and school sectors in Australia. The aim is to provide an up to date information base for further discussion of issues around school autonomy.

The information provided below and in forthcoming articles is a first go at developing a comprehensive overview of school autonomy in Australia. Comment is invited with a view to correcting mistakes and omissions.

The “Contact Us” facility on this website can be used to directly provide comments and information or to contact SOS for another address to send information. Continue reading “Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 3”

Finnish Lessons

Monday March 5, 2012

Viewers of the ABC’s Lateline last week had a special treat – an evidence-based discussion of education policy. Finland’s director of education, Pasi Sahlberg, was interviewed on the success of his country in international student assessments. He said its success was due to a focus on equity in education:

….one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done…. equity is the one that is also bringing excellence – just like this, not only Finland, but also Canada and Korea, for example, are the same. So I think the systematic way of addressing those who are in special need and need more help is the key.

He contrasted the priority given to equity in Finland with other approaches which focus on parent choice as the way to improve overall student results. He said that education policy in Finland has always been to focus more on equity and equality in education rather than choice.

Trying to make sure that every single school is a good school in Finland, and all the schools have good teachers, so that this would minimise the need for parents to choose the school, and we are exactly in this situation today.

Sahlberg said that improving equity starts from equitable funding of schools. He said that Finland had been doing for 20 years what the Gonski report has just recommended for Australia.

Our schools are funded very close to what this report is recommending you to do. So we give schools a kind of a basic funding equally based on the number of students they have, and then we adjust the school budget based on the school’s need. For example, if there are more immigrant children or pupils coming from the single parent families, the schools normally receive more funding so that they can deal with these issues easily. So there are many similarities in what we are doing now to those recommendations in the Gonski Report.

Sahlberg also contrasted other aspects of Finland’s education policy with those given precedence in Australia and other countries. For example, Finland’s approach to school autonomy emphasises trusting teachers and providing scope to design their own curriculum and teaching to meet the needs of students rather than financial management.

I think the most important thing in this school autonomy in Finland is that all the schools are both responsible and also free to design their own curriculum as they wish, based on the quite loose national curriculum framework. So financing and managing the school is one thing, but I think the… using teachers’ knowledge and skills that we have in our system to design how they want teaching and learning to take place is the most important thing.

Sahlberg also criticised the publication of test data to hold schools and teachers accountable:

Anywhere where these types of things had put in place, teachers have started to focus more on teaching to the test, and curriculum has narrowed. If the test data is only collected through two or three subjects – like is often done measuring literacy and mathematics – this means that these subjects will become the most important things in a school. And the other thing is that these knowledge tests often measure only the things that can be measured and not, for example, problem solving or creativity to the extent that they should be, and this leads teachers and schools to focus on these things more than they could do otherwise.

He said that Finland has concentrated on building trust and responsibility rather than accountability to ensure a quality education for all. He pointed to co-operation and sharing as the important things in making sure that everybody will be able to improve and do things better.

He contrasted Finland’s approach with that of other countries such as the UK, the US and Australia which he said have been infected by the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability, and testing. He said that “….these GERM elements are actually opposite to what Finland has been doing”.

The GERM virus has badly infected education policy in Australia under the Howard and Rudd/Gillard Governments. They have put their faith in competition and choice in education against all evidence that it fails to improve student achievement. Rather, it has led to greater inequity and segregation in schooling. Sahlberg has provided a much needed antidote to this virus in his book on Finland’s education system called Finnish Lessons. Read it!

Trevor Cobbold

See more at Pasi Sahlberg’s website and blog.

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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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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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A Devastating Critique of Choice and Competition in Education by a Former Advocate: Part 3

Tuesday March 23, 2010

The final part of a review of Diane Ravitch’s new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

Call to rejuvenate public education

Ravitch ends her book with a clarion call:

At the present time, public education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival. We must turn attention to improving schools, infusing them with the substance of genuine learning and reviving the conditions that make learning possible

Above all, it must be recognised that education improvement is hard work and there are no miracle cures: “…history teaches that there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no easy answers” The New Republic, 15 March].

A quality curriculum for all is central to school improvement. She says that “what we need is not a marketplace, but a coherent curriculum that prepares all students” Wall Street Journal, 9 March]. In her book, she says that a broad curriculum for all students is fundamental: “You can’t have a full and rich education by teaching only basic skills”.

Ravitch emphasises the need to deal with poverty and its affect on learning. She says that schools cannot be improved if this is ignored.

Disadvantaged children need… preschool and medical care. They need small classes [and] extra learning time. Their families need….coordinated social services that help them….acquire necessary social and job skills, and…..obtain jobs and housing. While the school itself cannot do these things, it should be part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families.

Ravitch says that every neighbourhood should have a good public school. She notes that neighbourhoods were once knitted together by a familiar local school that served all children in the neighbourhood, but this has been undermined by choice of schools. She says that most parents want a strong stable school that is within reasonable distance of their home.

Ravitch also supports a greater community voice in education decisions. She says that the integration of a corporate agenda for education and centralized education administration is denying a public voice in education. She points to Julia Gillard’s much admired New York City model as a classic case of how corporate interests and autocratic control of public education combine to deny parents and teachers a voice in education policy.

It solves no problems to exclude parents and the public from important decisions about education policy or to disregard the educators who work with students daily. Public education is a vital institution in our democratic society, and its governance must be democratic, open to public discussion and public participation.

She argues that the promotion of democratic citizenship is the central mission of public schools, an important corrective to big business reformers who focus only on test scores and satisfying “consumers.” In the penultimate paragraph of her book she writes:

Our public education system is a fundamental element of our democratic society. Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving them the tools to fashion their own lives and to improve the commonweal. To the extent we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy.

Timely warning for Australia

Ravitch’s book is a timely warning for the Australian public as the Rudd Government embarks on an extension of the market in education that David Kemp could only dream of.

Test-based accountability is now entrenched in Australia with the launch of the My School website. There is no strong evidence that it will increase student achievement. Even the head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Council, Peter Hill, admits that there is very little evidence to support Gillard’s faith in reporting school results. Ravitch’s book shows that it narrows the curriculum and denies children a well balanced education.

Gillard has threatened schools that fail to lift their performance with sanctions, such as firing principals and teachers and closing schools. Sanctions are now a feature of the American education system. Ravitch clearly shows it has had little success in raising performance. Firing teachers is a punitive approach that demoralises the profession and turns people away from teaching. Closing schools in the US is now at a farcical stage as many school districts are closing schools that were opened after closing other schools.

At least one Australian state is now experimenting with a teacher pay system partly based on student test scores. Gillard has also floated the idea of adopting the New York City approach of basing teacher tenure on student test scores. Once again, there is very little evidence to support such schemes as Ravitch shows.

The Rudd Government has continued the privatisation of Australian education through the SES funding model of the Howard Government which has underwritten the expansion of private schools and undermined public education.

Further privatisation of public education is behind the agenda of calls for greater autonomy and independence for schools within the public system. It will create a wedge for greater business involvement and control of public education. The new system of autonomous schools in Western Australia is the start of a form of charter schools in Australia. The next stage will be a greater role for big business and private foundations. The recent call by former Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, for big business to help schools improve and to play a greater role in funding and shaping public education should be seen as part of this agenda (_The Age_, 19 March). Bracks is now a senior advisor of the National Australia Bank.

The prospect is that these measures will cause Australian education to more and more resemble the parlous state of American education. There has to be a substantial re-think. Just as Diane Ravitch was forced to confront her own hopes about test-based accountability by the accumulating evidence that it does not work, Gillard and other education ministers around Australia should do so too. Ravitch’s new book is the place for them to start.

Trevor Cobbold

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Unregulated School Choice Exacerbates Segregation and Inequity

Monday July 13, 2009

New research studies continue to demonstrate the harmful consequences of greater choice and competition in schooling.

The latest issue of Peabody Journal of Education delivers yet another blow.

It contains several new studies of the consequences of school choice programs in the United States which broadly confirm the findings of many earlier studies.

First, uncontrolled or unregulated choice programs tend to exacerbate segregation of students along race, class and achievement lines. In contrast, regulated choice programs have the potential to increase social integration of students in schools and, at the very least, to prevent further segregation. Finally, there is little evidence that unregulated choice programs lead to improved academic achievement.

These conclusions show that the strategy of the Federal Government to increase choice and competition by encouraging parents to ‘vote with their feet’ by publishing school results is doomed to failure.

Open choice programs increase social segregation

A study of school choice amongst elementary and middle school students in Durham, North Carolina, compared the characteristics of students who opt out of their assigned school with students who do not. It found that well-off families tend to use school choice programs to opt out of assigned schools with concentrations of disadvantaged students and to attend schools with higher achieving students.

The authors note that their findings concerning what type of students opt out of their assigned school and which schools lose the most are consistent with the findings of other studies from settings as diverse as Chicago, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Scotland, and New Zealand. The evidence suggests that many forms of school choice generate greater concentrations of advantaged or high-achieving students in some schools.

They also note that it is widely agreed that schools characterized by excessive concentrations of educationally disadvantaged students often have detrimental effects on student achievement. As a result, expanded school choice tends to benefit higher income and well educated families at the expense of poorer learning environments for those left behind, who are most often students from lower income families.

A study of inter-district school choice in Denver concluded that it segregated students by race and socio-economic background. Students from higher income families were far more likely to participate in inter-district school choice, and overall, choice students were much more likely to transfer to wealthier school districts. White students were more likely to opt out of racially diverse districts and transfer to districts with greater percentages of White students.

Another study analysed the open choice program in the San Diego school district in California. It found that the open enrolment program increased segregation of students in terms of race, socio-economic status and student achievement. Lower socio-economic students were under-represented among those who changed schools. More advantaged students used choice to switch to schools of higher socio-economic status, a finding consistent with the related literature.

Two other recent reviews of research corroborate these findings. The US National Academy of Education concluded that choice plans that do not regulate student assignment to schools in a race-conscious manner have the tendency to increase racial stratification. Similarly, a study by academics at Colombia University and the University of Texas concluded that free market choice policies have led to greater racial and social stratification between districts.

Other articles in the Journal investigated the reasons unregulated school choice increases social segregation in schools. One study found that White parents tend to choose schools on the basis of their racial composition. Another found that parents’ decision strategies appeared to be associated with social class status. Middle class parents’ social networks put them in contact with a higher proportion of non-failing selective schools than did poor and working-class parents’ networks.

Controlled choice programs can reduce social segregation

In contrast, studies show that controlled choice programs have the potential to reduce social segregation of students.

Controlled choice programs do not rely on market competition between schools to initiate school improvement, but attempt to provide choice while maintaining ethnic, racial and socio-economic integration. Controlled choice plans do away with neighborhood attendance districts, create zones, and allow families to choose within their zone, provided that admitting students to their school of choice does not upset the social balance at that school.

A study published in the Journal analysed the impact of two controlled choice programs in San Diego, California. Both were designed to encourage students residing in White communities to attend schools in non-White communities, and vice versa. Unlike the open choice program in San Diego, they provide transportation and regulate the assignment of students. Both programs improved integration in terms of race, achievement and parent education level, in contrast to the impact of the open choice program.

A comprehensive review of inter-district school choice programs carried out by academics from Colombia University and the University of Texas found that desegregation programs, in contrast to open choice polices, are the most effective at serving the least advantaged students.

The study concluded that inter-district school desegregation programs led to greater diversity in the suburban districts and less racial isolation in urban schools.

Free market choice does not increase student achievement

Another study published in the Journal reviewed the research on charter schools and student achievement. It concluded that the effects of charter schools on student achievement are decidedly mixed.

The authors suggest that the racial and economic composition of student populations in certain charter schools may intersect with the academic outcomes they produce. As for other schools, charter schools that serve poor students of colour in isolation, for the most part, struggle to produce good academic outcomes.

There are notable exceptions, but strong performance in exceptional cases may be because of selective admissions criteria, parent contracts, and other criteria that may serve to exclude the more difficult to educate students. – Trevor Cobbold

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