Julia Gillard has yet again raised the spectre of using school results to punish low performing schools. She said on the SBS Insight program that principals deserve to be sacked if they repeatedly fail to lift their school’s performance.
The Minister failed to produce any evidence that punishing schools succeeds in lifting their results. Her problem is that she has none to produce. There is no substantial evidence that applying sanctions against schools succeeds in improving school results. But, having no evidence to sustain her case does not seem to faze the Deputy Prime Minister. It is has become a feature of her administration of education.
Gillard has threatened sanctions against schools with low student achievement previously, as has the Prime Minister. On her recent trip to the United States, she told a roundtable discussion on education reform at the Brookings Institution that schools which persistently fail “might eventually be closed”. In his address to the National Press Club on education last year, the Prime Minister threatened:
…where despite best efforts, these schools are not lifting their performance, the Commonwealth expects education authorities to take serious action – such as replacing the school principal, replacing senior staff, reorganising the school or even merging that school with more effective schools.
In all likelihood, these threats will apply only to government schools. Although, the Federal Government has no constitutional power to sack staff or close schools, it will presumably implement its sanctions by holding state and territory governments to ransom over funding grants. However, there is no chance it will threaten any private school with forced closure or require any private school to sack its principal or staff.
Gillard and Rudd are taking their cues from England and New York City where blaming teachers and principals has become established procedure. It has allowed politicians and education officials to dodge their own responsibility for the quality of educational services serving highly disadvantaged communities.
In June 2008, the UK Schools Secretary threatened to close any English secondary school that failed to ensure that at least 30 per cent of its pupils achieved five good General Certificates of Secondary Education, including English and maths, within three years. This put some 638 secondary schools, or 20 per cent of all secondary schools in England, under threat of closure. In October, the government also threatened primary schools whose results were below a performance threshold with closure.
In the large majority of cases, the schools targeted for closures or other sanctions are schools serving highly disadvantaged communities. Of the 638 schools threatened with closure, 542 have a student intake that has an above average proportion of students who qualify for free school meals, an indicator of disadvantage used in England.
Julia Gillard’s hero, New York City’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, has also been sacking principals and staff and closing schools for several years because of persistently low performance on New York’s school grading system. The New York Times reported that 14 schools were marked for closure this year because they were deemed to be ‘failing’ schools. Since Klein took over the city education system, 92 low performing schools have been closed. Many have been turned over to charter schools.
The evidence is that none of this works. For example, a review of the use of sanctions and rewards across a wide range of programs, including education, published by the UK National Audit Office last September, found “no quantified evidence of the effect of sanctions and rewards on levels of performance for the programmes in the survey”. The sanctions covered in the review included closing schools and the harm to reputation from a low ranking on league tables.
A study of the impact of sanctions against low performing schools recently published by the American Educational Research Association refers to their “predictable failure”. It concluded that there is a lack of evidence that the sanctions have been successful as an effective and universal treatment for raising achievement levels at low performing schools. It concluded that the sanctions applied under the No Child Left Behind legislation are more likely to result in “unproductive turbulence than in sustained school improvement”.
A report published last April by the Education and Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado concluded that there is little to no evidence that sanctions against low performing schools increased student achievement. It recommended that policy makers refrain from adopting restructuring sanctions such as sacking principals and staff or closing schools and allowing them to be taken over by private operators or charter schools. It said that these sanctions have produced negative by-products without yielding systemic positive effects on student achievement.
Joel Klein’s sanctions against New York City schools have not worked either. National tests show that average student achievement in New York City schools has stagnated since Klein took over and there has been no reduction in achievement gaps.
Using school results to sanction low achieving schools and staff is likely to be highly arbitrary and unfair. A report published by a group of English education academics last week said that using test results to judge school performance can be very misleading. It cited extensive evidence in the UK that a large proportion of students have been marked incorrectly in tests in the past.
The report questioned making the fate of schools hang on a single set of test results, saying that raw test scores only measured part of what a school does and were influenced by factors beyond the control of schools. Sacking principals and school staff on the basis of these results is similarly unfair and arbitrary.
The use of league tables results to target schools for sanctions is also often contradicted by other assessments of performance. For example, an analysis of reports of the UK Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted), showed that a quarter of the English secondary schools threatened with closure were graded “good” by Ofsted school inspectors, and 16 were judged to be “outstanding”. About a third of them were in the top 40 per cent on the government’s “value-added” league tables. Only one in ten needed special intervention according to the Ofsted inspectors.
The use of unreliable test data to apply sanctions against schools and teachers also encourages school responses which further corrupt the results. These include poaching high achieving students from other schools; denying entry to, or expelling, low achieving students; suspending low achieving students on test days; increasing use of special dispensations for tests; encouraging students to take courses whose results are not used to compare schools and cheating.
The underlying assumption behind Gillard’s threat is that if schools are failing to deliver quality education it is the fault of the school’s leadership and teachers and that they should be replaced. It assumes that a ‘culture of success’ in so-called failing schools is just a matter of strong leadership.
A review of the Fresh Start initiative for ‘failing schools’ in England published this month in the British Educational Research Journal calls this assumption into question. It says that it ignores the ongoing impact of severe social inequalities and the context in which school operate. The study concluded that “…managerial solutions are not sufficient to deal with problems that are both educational and social”.
By raising the spectre of sanctions against low performing schools, Julia Gillard has once again resorted to discredited schemes used in England and the United States. She continues to ignore the reality of the impact of poverty on education. Closing schools in poor communities will only disadvantage them further.
The threat itself is enough to set off a spiral of decline. The curse of failure will encourage parents and teachers seek to transfer to other schools. Few will make such a school their first preference for children starting school. Wholesale sacking of staff in schools serving poor communities will only make it more difficult to attract quality teachers. Few principals will elect to take on a challenging school if they face a higher risk of being sacked, and branded a failure on the basis of dodgy statistics.
A different approach is needed as recommended by the review of the Fresh Start program in England:
If we are to improve achievement in inner-city schools, education policy needs to address fundamental matters concerning attainment, such as those related to resources, curricular innovation and pedagogy, and to design measures to raise, in particular, the attainments of pupils who are traditionally disadvantaged. 
Similarly, the AERA study of sanctions in the United States concluded:
…after about 15 years of state and federal sanctions-driven accountability that has yielded relatively little, it is time to try a new approach, one that centres on the idea of sharing responsibility among government, the teaching profession and low income parents. The hard cultural work of broader-based movements, nourished by government and civic action, will have to replace legal-administrative enforcement and mandates as the centrepiece of such an equity agenda. 
Julia Gillard would do well to heed this advice instead of playing to the grandstand of populist rhetoric and discredited policy.