Why 107 Academics are wrong

Lance Wiggs

Lance is normally left of centre in his thinking but in his post he tears apart the very wonky thinking of 107 academics….they will of course probably sneer that he isn’t peer reviewed and not a teacher so he should STFU. Have read, he makes very good sense unlike the first commenter Ben Gracewood who thinks that buckets of money should be poured into education even though we know that little discernible progress has been made on the long brown tail despite millions of extra funding.

Basically Lance is saying what gets measured gets done…a point lost on most, and especially teachers:

A group of academics signed off on a letter against school league tables. The stated logic may work in an academic research setting but is inappropriate to apply to the real world. We should instead publish the measurements, improve the measurements and their context over time and, most importantly, focus energy and resources on understanding the issues and helping the schools at the bottom of the league.

That is perfectly logical…as one would expect for a tech-head. Now to the details:

1. National Standards data are unsuitable for comparing schools The performance of schools cannot meaningfully be compared with each other unless it can be demonstrated that assessment measures, processes and moderation have been used consistently across schools.

[T]o improve something we first need to measure it, and if we can’t measure it accurately then an approximation will do. In business that means using surveys of customers that have clear sampling bias, reacting more to customers who complain and even believing what we read in the papers. We know all of these sources are incomplete and have bias, but we can account for it somewhat, and are much improved by using the input. The online advertising industry is a lovely example, using a system for measurement that is clearly wrong to measure traffic, but while it is wrong, it is wrong for everyone, and it’s only the starting point for a conversation.

The academics and teachers don;t want that conversation they are simply saying that we shouldn’t have it at all.

2. The contextualising data are incomplete

Many elements of the school’s local community context affect teaching and learning processes and children’s achievement. These include socio-economic and other intake differences (such as ethnicity, student transience rates, the proportion of English language learners or children with special needs) and other school and area characteristics (local labour market, urban/rural location, popularity compared to surrounding schools).

There are also internal school contexts, such as past leadership or reputational issues, significant staffing changes or schools being damaged.

Many attempts at comparing school performance do not even try to use the best available statistical methodologies. Instead the school decile rating is typically used as a proxy for all these contextual indicators. 

[W]e need to start somewhere, to create a minimum viable product and steadily improve it over time. While many criticized the early versions of iPhone, Xero and even Powershop, the steady improvement in functionality and usability were what won consumers over time. It’s the same with a measurement system that relies on a variety of data. Some of the early data will be wrong, and some of the things measured will be missing, but we should accept that and move to steadily improve the quality and context over time. If we don’t have the right socioeconomic data, for example, then someone will find it and mash it up with the National Standards data. The 107 academics are ideally placed to perform this work.

The reference source of information on schools will be the website (no doubt) that combines the highest quality information in a way that is meaningful to parents, teachers and students. Releasing the data in an open form is the first step towards creating  complete school reports across a broad spectrum of facets.

I understand the natural academic reluctance to never release data that is potentially wrong, and I see that in business sometimes where companies do not want to release an imperfect product. But while they are polishing the bezels yet again competitors are releasing their inferior but higher selling versions. Similarly we should release the data, and call on the power of academics, hundreds of thousands of parents and even students to provide both sunlight as a disinfectant and the right context.

Except we can’t use those academics because they have now introduced bias into their work. They have pre-determined the outcome of anything they touch…they are actually tainted.

4. The political argument for league tables is weak

The argument that the Ministry of Education should release league tables in order to prevent the media doing so, does not address the problems that their effects will be damaging and the data used to compile the tables will be incomplete. 

A long piece containing several arguments about why releasing the data is bad.

However while it might be considered bad by the academics, it is not by myself, and more pertinently, at least some parents. While even a small minority, and this is not a small minority, wants access to our data, New Zealand has a policy and obligation to provide it. Arguing against releasing data is quite remarkable for a group of academics. It should be easier to understand school performance than to read about individual student’s private lives on Facebook.

I would suggest that the numbers of people actually wanting the data is measured in the thousands…as in thousands upon thousands of parents with children in school. Why on earth do teachers and academic resume to pretend they know better for our own children.

In particular, the moral principle of social justice demands that the situation of the most disadvantaged in our society should not be made worse through the release of official information. 

[T]he moral principle of social justice demands that the situation of the most disadvantaged in our society be identified and fixed, and not hidden from public view. We can fix these broken schools, and we don’t have to look further than Wellington High or Pt England to find great examples.

I am somewhat dismayed at the attitude of the educators, although I do understand their reluctance to release what is seen as incomplete data from an academic study perspective.

From a society perspective there is at least some demonstrated demand from parents.

From a business perspective there are a number of businesses and individuals who would  love to mash this data up to create something new and useful.

But, most of all, from an educational perspective, releasing the data as a league table will allow us all to ask the hard questions of everyone involved – how are we going to help the schools at the bottom?

That is the key…not a single teacher or academic has even the slightest idea about how to address the long brown tail or the 20% of kids the current much vaunted “world-class” system is failing those kids. Instead they know, implacably that Charter Schools, League Tables and National Standards must be opposed with every breath in their bodies. They should be ignored until they demonstrate how they are going to solve the tail.

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