Dr Liz Gordon: The school decile debate

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National announced it was going to abolish the school decile funding system two years ago.  Quite rightly, Labour paused on that policy and reconsidered. Now it has come up with a scheme similar to National’s, using administrative data instead of the census to calculate funding for school disadvantage.  Instead of deciles, there will be a score of up to 200, presumably then not ranked into deciles.

The reason given for the change is always that parents use deciles as a proxy for school quality, when in fact they are a measure of the level of disadvantage of the school families as a whole, and this unfairly impacts on poorer schools, which have been getting smaller and smaller for 30 years.

There is a kind of hope that, with the language of decile removed, parents will make better judgements about schools in poor areas. Sorry, but this is faint hope.  The reason is that all of the research – yes, all of it – that has looked into why parents choose schools has found that parents make social, not educational, choices in deciding on a school for their children.

In research studies, the sort of things they say are: “I want my children to go to a school with others with the same values”.  This means, in the absence of a decile shorthand, parents will just go back to making judgements on the basis of ‘poor’, ‘brown’, ‘gang’, ‘naughty’, ‘don’t push the children to learn’ sorts of judgements. Sorry, but this is what will happen.

The new measurement options are dizzying.  We can know a lot about the children living in particular areas.  Rooms full of analysts can fine tune exactly how many extra dollars each school needs on the basis of the enormous amount of data pouring out of the Department of Statistics through what is known as the IDI.  

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It will cost a fortune and yet will barely make a difference to the actual funding that schools receive.  The existing measurement system is cheap and has been extremely efficient. The failures of the 2018 census may have put a blip in that system.  But isn’t this change just an excuse for a massive expansion in the Ministry of Education’s data division? It is, after all, a National Party policy.

There is only so much one can do with figures. Issues relating to school failure and success are highly complicated and cannot be resolved with better metrics alone.  Nor can schools free themselves from the label of failure by abolishing the decile numbers.

Minister Chris Hipkins promised to address the issues of school choice. There is an urgency in so doing, because communities have become increasingly fragmented along class and ethnic lines. This measure does not do this. It simply removes one shorthand number that parents use to choose schools.  This will lead to other names, some which are racist and unacceptable, being used instead. For as long as we allow parents to send their children to any school that will have them, for as long as school choice is mandated in our system, very little is going to change.

People are dreaming if they believe that this measure to remove school choice habits will change school choice outcomes.  The government desperately needs to bite the bullet and announce that, in the future, children will go to their closest/ easiest to access school, and the government will provide a guarantee of a quality education at all schools.

This may include things like free school lunches in some areas, additional counselling and health services, kaupapa Māori services (and avid readers will know that I have recently called for the compulsory teaching of te reo Māori in all schools) in the poorest areas.  We need to do more to achieve the same goals. Everyone, including the poorest communities, need to know that their children will be safe and will receive a world-class education in their local school.

A mingy-mangy data driven model that replaces deciles with something else will not achieve the gains beyond school choice that progressive educators are looking for in our schooling system.

I am disappointed indeed in what Labour has announced today.  It is far less than we have been led to believe. This government has raised our hopes of a move beyond neo-liberal policies of choice and competition to a community-oriented approach.  But I now wonder if they have the ability to deliver.

 

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Changing the decile system is a start but it will take decades to kick in such is the extent of the racism and discrimination in our country this practise is so entrenched it will take a very long time for change to happen why did we let it get so bad ? ask our government leaders why they sat back and did nothing and so did our teachers and principles when national were in power they were weak and in that 9 years our kids suffered and our public schools were so run down this wouldn’t happen in a private school.

  2. Changing the decile system is a start but it will take decades to kick in such is the extent of the racism and discrimination in our country this practise is so entrenched it will take a very long time for change to happen why did we let it get so bad ? ask our government leaders why they sat back and did nothing and so did our teachers and principles when national were in power they were weak and in that 9 years our kids suffered and our public schools were so run down this wouldn’t happen in a private school.

  3. Those hoping for a move past neo-liberal policies have been repeatedly disappointed. Having taught at a decile 4 rural school last year, I can say the problems aren’t going to be solved by more accurate data. Many of the children require specialist intervention. These are not special needs students, they are simply children dealing with the effects of decades of neglect of our communities and on their families. They see no upside in engaging with the school to receive an education. It would be great if the more accurate analysis bought the kind of wrap around services these kids actually need. But treating the symptoms instead of the causes is just a waste of time, and we know initiatives which actually make a difference will not be funded. The teachers do their best. The school is achieving at the top level in terms of success of at risk children. Despite this they were ripped apart by ERO. Morale is at rock bottom driven at part by the largely pointless collection of data. Kiwibank and NZ post are leaving town, something that wouldn’t be happening if we were moving past neo-liberalism and trying to rebuild our communities. I suspect most MPs, wouldn’t have a clue what is going on in this country. This move to rejig National policy, looks like the rearrangement of more deck chairs.

    • +100 – well said.

      “I can say the problems aren’t going to be solved by more accurate data. Many of the children require specialist intervention. These are not special needs students, they are simply children dealing with the effects of decades of neglect of our communities and on their families.”

  4. Well the research is wrong then.

    I, like every other parent I’ve ever spoken to, want my kids to go to a school where my kids will be happy and get a good education.

    What we believe feeds into this is:

    Class size.
    Good teachers.
    Good environment (not built on a road with just a concrete playground).
    Resourcing.
    Behaviour.
    etc etc

    If you force parents to send their kids to the nearest school(s) you’ll just end up with the UK system where the working (aka middle) class can’t afford to send their kids to state school. Yes you read that right. In the UK it can be much cheaper to put the kids through private school! Why? Because the price of houses in areas with good schools are hundreds of thousands of dollars more than houses that aren’t.

    Choice is actually a very good measure of how well a school is doing (it’s certainly better than any other system that can be gamed by providers and/or users). If parents and children are leaving in their droves it might be a sign that the school needs turning around. Perhaps the answer is extending choice to the poor and not just the rich (who are more mobile)? The left love to tell people what to do. Perhaps it would be more successful if it listened more.

    Do I believe that there are parents who put racism ahead of their kids? Yes. Do I believe it’s significant? Not really.

    Rather than wasting money or more measures perhaps we should double teacher’s pay and the education budget. Perhaps this could be funded by not having crap city governance and/or building $1b super prisons (filled with people from a failed education and social system).

  5. +100

    “Rooms full of analysts can fine tune exactly how many extra dollars each school needs on the basis of the enormous amount of data pouring out of the Department of Statistics through what is known as the IDI.

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    It will cost a fortune and yet will barely make a difference to the actual funding that schools receive. The existing measurement system is cheap and has been extremely efficient. The failures of the 2018 census may have put a blip in that system. But isn’t this change just an excuse for a massive expansion in the Ministry of Education’s data division? It is, after all, a National Party policy.”

  6. +1 good point, ” Rather than wasting money or more measures perhaps we should double teacher’s pay and the education budget. Perhaps this could be funded by not having crap city governance and/or building $1b super prisons (filled with people from a failed education and social system”

    I’d add in that it is not just the teacher pay at issue, it is at the quality of the recruits, teaching has become a low status job and political football for some reason in NZ, when in places like Finland, they are high status, highly valued professions.

    There is to much negativity towards teachers, and not enough examination of the actual curriculum which is where it is all going wrong set by the ministry of education, including our system now is failing high socio economic groups as well as low socio economic groups… yep just like we all thought that poverty was just expanding for Maori and Pacific Islanders, it’s actually been found that it is now failing high socio economic groups in increasing numbers, so it ain’t just poverty that is the issue in education (although a significant one in many communities and growing) it is actually the changes they made to the curriculum and an increasingly process/tick boxes, ad hoc learning systems, through Rogernomics that is churning out lower educational outcomes in NZ.

    If you look at the horrible and random things kids are doing at school, the constant experimentation at the kids expenses, and the ideology of essentially kids being expected to teach themselves with bad materials and next to no intervention by the teachers (more pass the buck), while our education system is taught ad hoc style for the most part and not generalised throughout all the different schools. Therefore without any standardisation of resources or poorly chosen resources, are not going to be successful to a wider range of students.

    This is an example of what we are churning out here in NZ with out ‘standards’ based approach and a lot less focus on a well rounded education including spelling and vocabulary and general knowledge not just a focus on looking up everything on google, you also have to have basic understanding of vocabulary, to interpret google, let alone what will happen to many youngsters if their internet is unavailable!
    Students launch petition after confusion by word ‘trivial’ in NZQA exam
    https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2018/11/students-launch-petition-after-confusion-by-word-trivial-in-nzqa-exam.html

  7. A few things need clarifying here.

    Money doesn’t automatically provide good education. Already ALL NZ schools have sufficient finances to properly educate their intake, so you have to ask yourself why schools in poorer areas have poorer outcomes.

    Many teachers don’t want to go near low decile schools. They’ll hotly deny it of course, but in reality there is a queue of teachers trying to get in the better schools, so those schools cherry pick the best. One can hardly blame them because trying to teach damaged children and presiding over endless thuggery in the playground is not anyone’s idea of fun.

    Kids from good middle class backgrounds pretty much educate themselves. These are the ones I work with and for the most part they are an absolute pleasure to work with. Half of them started school at 5 already with some reading ability and all of mine are reading and writing fluently by age 7, yet we are told that the prisons are fully of illiterate inmates. So what’s going on?

    The answer is simple: It has little to do with the school and everything to do with the parents and the environment in the home: Illiterate parents, dietary ignorance, violence, alcohol and drugs.

    So you can play around with the decile system all you like but it won’t make the slightest difference.

    • International results don’t seem to equate with Illiterate parents, dietary ignorance, violence, alcohol and drugs being a factor in our declines not being from those in poverty.

      “Surprising declines in the academic performance of girls, Asian students, and pupils from high socio-economic backgrounds have been revealed in an international report.

      The results of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures how well countries prepare their 15-year-olds educationally to meet real-life challenges, was released tonight.”

      “Compared to 2012 – the last time a PISA study was undertaken – New Zealand students’ scores declined slightly. The biggest drop was in maths, where the average score fell from 500 to 495.”

      https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11761505

      • If they took what they used to do in teaching and combined it with what they do now, they’d have it a lot more well rounded and more inclusive system, that works for a wider range of kids.

        Aka the NZ style used to be single teacher with a set educational book that they ran their lessons from so it was all standardised… things were clear with learning a wide range of lessons and practising the skills each day which is very unfashionable in NZ schools today, where teachers are seemingly expected to reinvent the wheel daily with random sheets and activities.

        NZ curriculum is conceptual and complicated too early probably from so much bureaucratic input. AKA early focus on simple maths is very complicated aka many different strategies for adding and subtracting and it is done in a very rigid way with a lot of focus on reading within maths, so often students are marked down unnecessarily… while internationally there seems more focus on the result… in the real world getting measurements and engineering incorrect (even if you follow a process correctly) can be disastrous, so practicality seems very absent in NZ education!

        It could be as simple to improve NZ results as combine current and previous NZ educational styles, aka have half the lessons in the traditional style with half in the modern style each day so students develop a range of practical and conceptual skills.

  8. “…parents use deciles as a proxy for school quality….”

    This certainly happens; I’ve been obliged to explain the decile system to people labouring under this delusion.

    “….parents make social, not educational, choices in deciding on a school for their children.”

    In our case, we used the schools for which we were zoned. Fortunately, they were high-decile, because that was the nature of the area in which we were living. At that time, our primary school catchment zone was known as “embassy row”, on account of the numbers of diplomatic residences in the area. So there were many different nationalities on the school roll. But we shared a common factor: we were all middle class, and mostly well-educated.

    It’s not for me to criticise other parents for choosing a school on the basis of factors which our in-zone schools already possessed. That was our good luck. I can understand why they do it, though. The quality of peer groups is as important as the quality of education, especially for teens, who don’t listen to a word their parents say. One of us here thinks that the peer group is more important than the quality of the education. We consider ourselves fortunate in that respect.

    I doubt whether scrapping the decile system will make one whit of difference; data collection will still be important for determining which schools need help and what sort of help they need.

    “The government desperately needs to bite the bullet and announce that, in the future, children will go to their closest/ easiest to access school, and the government will provide a guarantee of a quality education at all schools.”

    We’ve had 30 years of choice: while I recognise this as being an aspect of neoliberalism that some people see as pernicious, I doubt that the public will accept a return to compulsion. People will find a way around it, of that I’m certain.

    “…I have recently called for the compulsory teaching of te reo Māori in all schools…”

    Again: this sort of approach would run up against the reality that there simply aren’t enough teachers qualified and competent to teach in all schools. In addition, proponents need to be clear what the objective is. If it’s revival, such resources as are available need to be applied strategically; no amount of teaching it as a second language in schools will save te reo Maori. Language revival requires native speakers; are there any left? I suspect not. In which case, producing native speakers is critical. That won’t happen in schools.

  9. I agree that throwing money at education won’t automatically improve things. There has to be accountability. I think the best (least bad?) approach is for it to be accountable to children (via parents). It’s not perfect but it’s better than the bureaucrats who will just make important what they can measure” rather than measuring what’s important (which is really really hard because it is subjective).

    I don’t agree that the education is well funded. That would suggest that the previous 9 years of National policy (which Labour has done little to change) was anything more than the bare (political) minimum which I seriously doubt. It also matches with what I observe (FWIW).

    On the subject of the quality of teachers and their remuneration I often wonder what would happen if we just started paying them what it’s worth to simply babysit a class of 30 kids? Imagine the extra GDP and tax revenue that is creating. What is 30 x the median wage? Perhaps we could pay them ‘just’ a fraction of that! Of course they do more than that (much more), but it makes you think. How much would the country loose financially (I am making a neoliberal argument) if all the teachers simply stopped working and made us look after are own kids?

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