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Fair to compare?

By Jennifer Aberhart - posted Wednesday, 29 March 2006

It would seem that the media is intent on berating the Teacher’s Federation for its opposition to the release of “meaningful” statistical data that would compare the performances of schools.

One might pause for a moment and wonder why a large majority of teachers, not only from the “worst schools”, but also the “best schools”, are united in offering their support to the federation. Surely there should be a great division in the ranks and only those so-called under performing schools and teachers should be scared of exposure. Confident schools and their staff should surely want to boast of their prowess and be happy to embrace a system that would clearly show them as winners.

Fortunately most teachers are aware of the truth. Their opposition to the release of this data is because they know that it is not only meaningless but also generally misleading. The presentation of such data leads the public to believe that if we put the same team of teachers into half-a-dozen different schools then we would produce the same results. Schools and teachers are therefore assumed to be entirely responsible for the academic prowess of their pupils.


What a complete load of codswallop! It’s a magnification of the old mistaken perception that the teacher who had the privilege of having the A stream, quiet studious children who produced the best work, was a better teacher than his colleague who did daily battle with children not as academically able or as well behaved. Every teacher knows that this is not necessarily true and in fact, the best teachers are often to be found in the worst classes, because they are better able to teach difficult children.

To rate teacher A against teacher B on the basis of the children’s end of term test results is therefore ludicrous. Most thinking people would agree that it’s entirely unrealistic to expect a B stream class to outperform an A stream class no matter how good the B class teacher is. Why then should we expect similar results from vastly different schools? How can we possibly fairly rate one school against another?

Unpalatable as the fact may be to some people, there are very marked differences in the performances of schools simply because of the particular community they serve. Some schools have a much larger proportion of academically able, willing and better behaved children than others do.

Some schools have children who are easy to teach. Some schools have children who are hard to teach. Some schools have a large majority of supportive parents who are themselves very literate and encourage their children’s academic performance. Other schools have larger proportions of children from impoverished backgrounds and teachers have to work very much harder to attain reasonable literacy and numeracy levels in their pupils.

What then is this "meaningful data" really measuring? Children are not clean slates for teachers to write on. They are products first and foremost of their families and communities. If people want the truth about schools, they must first accept the truth about families and their communities.

The release of this data will no doubt confirm what most people already know - schools in poorer socio-economic areas do not do as well as most private schools or public schools in more affluent areas. Do we really expect that “public pressure on poor schools” will ever change this fact? What is more likely is that the most able students in these schools would be the first ones moved to a “better” school by their parents thereby creating an even larger percentage of struggling students in the “poor” school.


It might also be expected that teachers would also seek employment in “better” schools as that they might not like their reputation tarnished by being in a lower-ranked school. One might be forgiven for wondering whether there is some remote possibility that there is a hidden government agenda to encourage the current trend towards private education.

Governments are, of course, entirely aware of the great disparity between schools. They know that academic excellence often has more to do with parents’ own educational levels, where they live, or how much income they are prepared to spend on securing a place in a more socially and economically advantaged school, than it has to do with local area teaching standards. They know that even though they will publish data that will rate every school against another, they also know that, much and all as they might like to, they cannot fairly berate a socially disadvantaged school for not performing as well as its socially advantaged counterpart.

How then do they propose to successfully identify these under performing teachers and schools they are threatening to deal with? They intend to use even more statisitical data to create a number of school categories to allow them to discover their targeted scapegoats.

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About the Author

Jennifer Aberhart is a primary teacher by profession with a particular interest in both children with literacy problems and the inadequacies of our educational system that significantly contributes to the failure of many of these children.

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