PISA Study Says that Competition Between Schools Lowers Student Achievement in Australia

A report analysing cross-country results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that competition between schools in Australia lowers average results in reading by over six months of schooling. It also shows that across all OECD countries competition for enrolments does not produce better results.

The results are contained in a report published by the OECD titled PISA 2009 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices. It was published as part of the 2009 PISA study.

Advocates of choice and competition between schools say that it will increase student achievement. It is said that competition among schools will provide incentives for schools to innovate and create more effective learning environments.

However, cross-country correlations of the PISA results do not show a relationship between the degree of competition and student performance. Across OECD countries, the proportion of schools that compete with other schools for student enrolment is unrelated to the school system’s overall student performance, with or without accounting for socio-economic background [p.42].

A positive relationship between the degree of school competition and schools’ performance is evident in ten out of 34 OECD countries when the backgrounds of students and schools are not taken into account. In these cases, schools that compete for enrolments perform 15 points higher in reading, on average across the OECD, than schools that do not compete for enrolment. This positive relationship between competition for enrolments and school performance exists in Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Turkey.

However, in all of these countries except Germany and Turkey, the positive relationship is no longer statistically significant when the socio-economic background of students and schools is accounted for. That is, the higher average performance of schools that compete for students is the result of the higher socio-economic status of the students in these schools.

For Australia, there is no statistically significant relationship between school competition and performance when student background is not taken into account [Table IV.2.4b, p.168]. However, when student background is taken into account, average student performance is 24 points lower in reading where schools compete for enrolments [Table IV.2.4c, p.169]. This is quite a significant difference, amounting to over six months of schooling.

Competition between schools for enrolments is widespread in Australia, more so than in any other OECD country. Ninety per cent of Australian students are enrolled in schools where principals report that they face competition from two or more schools and 96 per cent are enrolled in schools which face competition from at least one other school [Table IV.3.8a, p. 222]. These percentages are the higher than in any other OECD country and much higher than the average for all OECD countries (61 and 76 per cent respectively).

The study says that one of the reasons that choice and competition does not improve overall school results is that socio-economically disadvantaged parents have more limited choices of schools for their children because of financial constraints.

If children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds cannot attend high-performing schools because of financial constraints, then school systems that offer parents more school choices for their children will necessarily be less effective in improving the performance of all students. [p.42]

The OECD study also confirms the results of other research studies which show that school choice and school competition is related to greater levels of segregation in the school system and, consequently, lower levels of equity.

This is done by comparing the relationship between school competition and variation in student results between schools and within schools that can be attributed to socioeconomic differences. It found a positive relationship between school competition and between-school variation attributable to socio-economic differences and no relationship between school competition and within-school variation attributable to socio-economic differences. These statistical relationships indicate that greater competition between schools leads to greater social segregation between schools [p.43].

The results from PISA also show that the proportion of private schools in a school system is unrelated to the system’s overall performance, after the socio-economic background of students is accounted for.

Within OECD countries, on average, students who attend private schools perform 27 score points higher in reading than students who attend public schools. This relationship holds in 15 out of 34 OECD countries, including Australia. In Australia, students who attend private schools scored 41 points higher in reading than students in public schools.

However, students who attend private schools are also from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, so part of the positive relationship between private schools and performance is due to the socio-economic characteristics of the school and students rather than to any intrinsic advantage of private schools. After accounting for the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of students and schools, the OECD average is reduced to three score points, which is not statistically significant [p.43].

Of the 15 OECD countries that show a positive relationship between attendance in private schools and performance, only three show a clear advantage in attending private school – Slovenia, Canada and Ireland. In Australia, there is no statistically significant difference between the average results of public and private schools.

The findings of this study have major implications for Australian education policy. They show that the policies of the Howard and Rudd/Gillard governments in promoting choice and competition between schools have failed to lead to any improvement in student results. Far from improving student achievement, greater competition between schools has reduced average results when differences in socio-economic background are accounted for.

Private schools have been supported heavily by government funding to increase choice and competition. However, they do not achieve better results than public schools when differences in the socio-economic background of students are taken into account.

The latest PISA results show market-based education policies to be an abject failure across OECD countries and in Australia. All they have succeeded in is to increase social segregation and inequity in education.

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