Education sector leaders debate latest NZ Initiative research



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Education sector leaders met in Wellington last night to welcome the release of new education research which says student data is ready and waiting to be used by schools to help improve student achievement.

The research, Amplifying Excellence: Promoting transparency, professionalism and support in schools, is the final report in a three-part series by New Zealand Initiative researcher, Martine Udahemuka. It argues that data on students' backgrounds should be used to contextualise schools, so that a school's achievement is compared with that of similar schools and its teachers' performance is compared with teachers teaching comparable students.   

In her reprt, Udahemuka claims that pass rates alone shouldn’t define a school’s achievement.

“NCEA rankings unfairly stigmatise as failures schools with students from low socioeconomic communities, while schools with affluent students sometimes earn undue praise.”

Udahemuka recommends implementing a fairer measure that takes into account students’ out-of-school social factors and compares similar schools. She suggests the Education Review Office should also report a school’s performance in the context of similar schools.

The report makes a similar argument for managing teacher performance. While it stops short of linking performance with pay, it suggests that teachers should be appraised on their measurable impact on student achievement compared to other teachers teaching similar students, otherwise “good teachers with challenging cohorts can look ineffective if their students do not meet national achievement targets”.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye welcomed the research, saying that although there wouldn’t be agreement on every single recommendation, there is broad alignment between the report and the current direction of education policy.

Kaye agreed there was a need to “really get under the hood of disadvantage” and that there was more work needed to better reflect what defines a school’s success.

“We do have to have a national conversation around what progression looks like.”

Kaye said the emphasis needed to change from assessment occurring at a point in time to looking at what leads to learning growth.  She heralded Auckland’s Stonefields School as exemplary for the way it measured student progress.

PPTA president Jack Boyle agreed the focus needed to move from constant assessment to students’ improvement. However, he was critical of the report’s recommendations for linking teachers’ performance to achievement data.  He was also wary of placing too much emphasis on data.

“Data is not the be all and end all,” said Boyle, “Do we think that only what the data captures matters?

“Some children won’t achieve, even with amazing teaching. We need to focus on improving out-of-school factors.”

Former Wellington deputy mayor and educator Ian McKinnon agreed. He gave the analogy of a triangle around a young person with the three sides being family, community and school.

“It is too easy to focus on the school. Let’s try and strengthen all sides of that triangle,” he said.

However, Udahemuka’s report suggested that data on out-of-school factors was ready and waiting to be used to assist schools.

“We have data collated by Statistics New Zealand on student and family characteristics to better measure school performance. But because parents, principals and board do not know it can be done, nobody demands it.”

Forsyth Barr managing director Neil Paviour-Smith said that in his capacity as chair of a school Board of Trustees he liked the idea of using data to inform decisions on student achievement.

“Providing this information to schools would be very powerful,” he said.

“I don’t think implementing these recommendations would take a lot of courage or money,” he said, “I strongly encourage getting on with it.”

In forthcoming reports, the New Zealand Initiative will look at how the recommendations outlined in Amplifying Excellence would work in practice.

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