My School Reports Will Name and Shame

I can absolutely guarantee there’s not one part of the Education Revolution that’s about naming and shaming schools. I won’t do that, I don’t believe in doing that….it’s not about naming and shaming.

So said Julia Gillard in a doorstop interview just hours after she unveiled the My School website last month.

Her statement is either a crass deceit or it reveals her complete ignorance about what she is doing and that she just sprouts whatever her advisors put in front of her.

The My School reports will humiliate and shame. Schools with the lowest results are to be flagged ‘red’, meaning ‘red for danger – keep away’.

This is public shaming of the worst possible kind. By ‘red flagging’ schools, Gillard is aiding and abetting an annual ritual hunt for the worst performing schools around Australia and in each city and region.

The My School reports will use colour codes to grade schools on their results. Results substantially below average are to be graded ‘red’; those below average are to be graded ‘pink’; schools around average will be graded ‘white’; those above average will be graded ‘pale green’ and those substantially above average graded ‘green’. The colour codes are to be used for all results in each literacy and numeracy test at all Year levels.

In effect, it partially mirrors the grading system used in New York City by Gillard’s hero, Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein. My School uses five colours to grade schools while Klein uses five letter grades to grade New York City schools. However, there will be no overall grade ‘F’ for ‘fail’ as in New York City. Instead, the lowest performing schools will get red flags across a range of test results. Schools with many red flags will be identified as the worst performing schools.

The My School report template released by Gillard is clearly designed to mislead about the extent to which schools will be ‘red flagged’. It provides examples of test results in four literacy domains and numeracy for a school at three Year levels. The full range of colour codes are used to grade these various results, thus suggesting a full range of average results within schools.

While there will be some variability in school performance on each domain for each Year level, few schools are likely to experience the full range of grades exemplified in the template. It is more likely that the lowest performing schools will receive a number of red and pink flags.

The media will be able identify the worst schools by counting the number of red flags received. This can be done very simply by employing an IT firm to write a program to collect the codes for the red flags from the webpage for each school report and compile a table of the schools with the largest number of red flags. This is what several English newspapers do to produce their league tables and lists of the best and worst performing schools.

Giving schools a ‘red flag’ is designed to punish. Why else was the colour red chosen for these schools? It should be seen as the first stage in the application of sanctions against schools who fail to improve as has been foreshadowed by Gillard and the Prime Minister.

Punishing schools by publicly labelling them as ‘failures’ in this way is not the path to school improvement. It is likely to be counter-productive because it undermines teaching and learning.

NAPLAN tests are only conducted at two Year levels in both primary and secondary schools. It means that students in these cohorts are easily identifiable as the “culprits” for a school receiving the ‘red flag’, especially in small schools, of which there are many in rural areas of Australia.

These students will be humiliated and demoralised. This is not the way to encourage improvement. Students who are humiliated for their learning accomplishments are unlikely to respond positively in their future learning. This makes the task of teachers and schools that much harder. Far from creating incentives for better performance, ‘red flagging’ schools is more likely to impair the future learning of some students.

Labelling schools as failures is also likely to set off a spiral of decline. It may cause some parents to leave the school. Reduced enrolments make it harder to retain adequate resources and to keep and recruit good teachers. It could well lead to lower student achievement and lower average school results.

‘Red flagging’ schools with the lowest results on My School will unfairly highlight schools in the most difficult circumstances and make their task harder.

However, just scrapping the colour coding of school results is not enough to stop the naming and shaming of schools using My School. It is an inevitable consequence of publishing school results because data published on a webpage can be collected, manipulated and re-published according to purpose.

Newspapers, other media and websites providing information on schools to parents have a commercial interest in producing tables of the best and worst schools. My School will provide the raw data.

If Gillard is at all serious about not naming and shaming schools, her only option is to scrap My School.

Trevor Cobbold

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