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League tables and school performance

By Des Griffin - posted Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The call to publish test scores for school students has been more shrill recently. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Education Minister Julia Gillard have linked performance statistics to their “education revolution”. Accountability and transparency are common themes in Minister Gillard’s speeches: parents should have access to the information departments of education already get so they can make better choices about where to send their children.

Knowing what differences there are between schools, taking account of levels of resourcing and socio-economic and related factors of the “catchment” from which the children are drawn, will assist in implementation of strategies to improve performance in the Government’s scheme.

At least we can note that what is advocated here involves comparing like with like. Unfortunately Prime Minister Rudd did talk at the National Press Club in August last year of moving out principals and teachers who failed to deliver improved performance after they had been given extra help. Predictably, teachers’ groups objected strongly.


Australian National University economist Andrew Leigh, in “Schools need a Report Card too” (first published in the Australian Financial Review December 20, 2007 and reprinted in On Line Opinion February 4, 2008) reminded us:

Breaking the ideological deadlock requires attention to the new productivity agenda in Australia: making public services work better. … Despite a significant increase in funding [of schools], literacy and numeracy scores of Australian teenagers have failed to rise over recent decades. On average, new teachers are less academically talented today than they were two decades ago.

Boosting the performance of Australian schools is far from straightforward, but one sensible reform would be to begin reporting on the performance of individual schools, so that parents can better choose between their local schools. Such a reform would bring us into line with Britain and the United States, where policymakers across the board take the view that a school’s test scores are quintessentially public information.

The assertions about the qualifications of teachers can be seriously challenged and those about the performance of Australian students are far too general to be of any value whatsoever: performance has risen in some tests and not others. The proposition that Australian practice should be brought into line with Britain and the United States, countries whose students almost always perform to a lower standard than Australian students, is completely unhelpful (to put it mildly) and ignores evidence from well conducted and verified countrywide and international studies.

I would have expected Leigh to be aware of the statement made by celebrated (and reviled) economist F.A. von Hayek in his Nobel Prize Lecture in 1974. He observed, “the aspects of the events to be accounted for about which we can get quantitative data are necessarily limited and may not include the important ones”. In other words simply choosing factors which are susceptible to quantitative analysis does not mean that those factors are important!

The Australian also took up the trumpet on December 2, 2008 when it praised Kevin Rudd's commitment to report on performance:


More fundamental is the right of parents in a democracy to know how their children are going and how their child's school - and other schools they are considering for them in future - are performing … Secrecy about education performance is a prime example of how taxpayers are denied information about how well the services they pay for are delivered.


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About the Author

Des Griffin AM served as Director of the Australian Museum, Sydney from 1976 until 1998 and presently is Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, an honorary position at the Australian Museum, Sydney.

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