Monday, July 2, 2012

The Wedge



Your children are drowning. There is no time to lose. How good is your plan? How strong is your rope? You must do everything in your power to save them.


This is education in the neoliberal age: a quest not for success, but for survival. You ask what it is that will give your children ‘a better chance’. You find a dispassionately technocratic answer, based on the rigorous analysis of academic achievement data. You discount every factor that might make your children non-average, beginning with their attitudes and desires. While you’re at it, you put out of your mind the very idea of social relationships and of the social good. Remember: your children are drowning. It would be quite absurd at this time to wonder what your friends’ children, what their own friends are up to.

It is a perfectly smooth, well-oiled capture mechanism: a topic that families obsess about, carefully wrapped in a foil of middle-class insecurity. If Auckland’s Metro were a conservative magazine, it would just get on with telling you what the best schools are – that is to say, the most exclusive ones – and intimate that you would be a fool, or a person whose priorities are criminally flawed, not to send your children there (not that you’d need to be told). But this is a liberal publication, and so it must proceed with circumspection, and make some convoluted noises about the socio-economic realities that counsel against judging schools solely on the basis of academic achievement before doing it anyway. Therefore editor Simon Wilson proceeds to write a story designed to make you feel like you’re not crass enough to look at a league table of schools, for you know better and are a better person than that, and then produce a league table of schools, as if such a document could be compiled, purchased and read without actively participating in the system that perpetuates inequity.


The master trick employed by Wilson and Catherine McGregor, who assembled the data, is to introduce a ‘relative score’ in order to adjust results by decile group, and give schools that operate in poorer socio-economic areas a fighting chance. So much of a fighting chance, in fact, that the single school that comes up on top of most of Metro’s tables is a decile-1 establishment, McAuley High School, by virtue of how much it outperforms schools of comparative decile. Once you’ve bought this part of the argument, which the author does a consummate job of selling, you can safely proceed to ignore the relative score column and get on with the business of comparing the raw pass marks of the schools, which is the whole purpose of the exercise. After all, why would you care that a school that works with disadvantaged kids outperforms another school that works with disadvantaged kids? Your job is to give your children a better chance, not make them relatively better off than a bunch of children whose chances aren’t very good.

However the relative score isn’t just a liberal’s conscience-stroking device (although by God it is that). It serves also to extend the logic of competition to low-decile schools, thereby making it universal. Wilson is masterful here: he introduces with an affectation of ill-concealed contempt the fierce rivalries that consume the most prestigious schools – King’s College versus Auckland Grammar, the richest private school versus the state school with true elite status – as a key to the peculiar psychology of the popular middle-class obsession with school choice (which he has the gall to chide: ‘why do we worry so much? We know most kids go to their local state school and do just fine’), and then extends it to the communities that don’t share this obsession, no doubt in part because they don’t have the luxury of choice. How many working-class families would you say are likely to be able to afford (or be allowed) to send the children out of zone, let alone to a private school? What use would this information be to them?


But a subtler yet equally important point is this: that by this stage, even as you read this blog post, you might have unwittingly, reflexively accepted as factual the proposition that McAuley High School is a better school than the other schools in its decile grouping. And if you have, then you have also agreed just as tacitly that academic achievement – being the only meter employed – is the sole determinant of the quality of a school.

The unequivocal claims made by the magazine’s cover notwithstanding (THE BEST SCHOOLS… AND THE WORST!), this is a proposition that the author, determined to have it every which way, both supports and rejects, suggesting at one point that there are in fact as many as five indicators of how good a school is. These are as follows: across the board academic achievement, top academic achievement, values, safety, and breadth and depth of opportunity. However the tables refer only to the measurable achievement criteria, so the remaining criteria are totally irrelevant to the 'unique information' that Metro is selling. ‘Values’ don’t fit in the table. ‘Breadth of opportunity’ doesn’t fit in the table. The above-average results among Māori and Pasifika students reported by some of the schools in the survey don’t fit either, and so the fulfilment of one of the core objectives of our national education framework is liquidated with a condescending nod (‘good on them’). But what is missing even more glaringly are ‘special needs [sic] and/or refugee students or others in “Alternative Education”’. All of these kids are literally a footnote in Metro’s tables, a footnote that simply states that they are not included in the calculations. And, not being included in the calculations, they disappear. In fact Simon Wilson doesn't see fit to use the word ‘inclusion’ in his ten-page story, not even as a vague, generic value to tick off a list of pious concerns. Not once.

These children don’t matter. If you’re a parent of one of these children, you don’t matter. If your school does great work with some of these children, it doesn’t matter.


Your children are drowning, and what are you going to do about it? I wrote last month that the current wave of attacks against public education in countries such as New Zealand operate by driving a wedge between the aspirations of the middle class and the realities faced by the working class. Well, this is it. The wedge. Look at the perfect, smiling, non-drowning children in the ads for private schools that accompany Metro’s league tables, and that I've included in the post. Who wouldn’t want their children to be like them? And so a story that, at the peak of its disingenuousness, set out to critique the proposition that ‘we are failing our kids if we don’t send them to a private school’, turns out to be about the privatisation of the very idea of education. By the end of it, public education has ceased to exist simply in that there is no longer a public. Just endlessly mobile individuals, their able-minded children and their freely-made choices.

It’s hard to tell if this idea is a product that is being sold to us, or if instead we are the product that Metro is selling to its eager advertisers. Most likely both. But since politics nowadays is a secondary product of marketing, it is also important to correctly interpret Metro's cover and the story's paid advertisements as vehicles of political content aimed at the liberal consumer/voter for the purposes of promoting wider acceptance of school league tables. Private schools and corporate commercial media produce these messages in the normal course of business; our liberal politicians may be a little more conflicted, but having espoused every other aspect of free-market ideology will be under considerable pressure to relent, as they have in the UK, the US and Australia. This is a battle that I don’t expect progressives to win. It is all but lost already. But cling to public education as an idea and as a institution we must, and protect what we can. Otherwise we might as well go ahead and close down the schools.




30 comments:

Ben Wilson said...

It's funny how much of a focus there is on academic achievement in this mentality, and yet actually being academic at tertiary level is considered a flaw.

merc said...

Great post, all of us need to check ourselves at the school gate, and our kids, for drugs apparently,
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10816991
This tidies up nicely that old drug testing for dole wasters, indeed it tidies up a whole lot of things.
That Hon Bennett, she who adores the Iron Lady. That this Govt. gets so much skewed airplay is remarkable.
The Govt. no one willingly admits to supporting at the ballot box.

merc said...

The Prime Minister said data should be presented in a way that compares schools in the same decile group. "There is no point assessing the results of a decile 1 school against the results of a decile 10 school.
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10816964
Too ropey?

katy said...

"By the end of it, public education has ceased to exist simply in that there is no longer a public. Just endlessly mobile individuals, their able-minded children and their freely-made choices." Love it.

I am thinking broadly about League Tables and school choice a lot at the moment but I am not quite ready to analyse my immediate situation as a parent which so far has involved finding an ECE centre for my baby daughter. I would love to have the fortitude to think about how our flourishing private ECE sector normalises these ideas years before your child even gets to school. The ECE sector also gives us a glimpse of the future of our primary schools, only ten years ago the private/for-profit/corporate part of the sector was the minority, now by far it dominates and is able to expand easily due to deregulation: http://www.trademe.co.nz/jobs/education/preschool

Lew said...

Relevant, especially in light of Katy's comment about ECE and Ben's about stratification: A short piece by Jack Elder a few months ago on how ECE funding cuts, National Standards, Charter Schools and constraints on student loans and allowances "ossify" these socio-educational strata at preschool, primary, secondary and tertiary levels respectively. An end-to-end stratification strategy.

L

Simon Wilson said...

For the record, at Metro we proceed from a number of bases. One, that our readers want to know about academic achievement in schools. Two, that the most important piece of advice we have is that they should look beyond the simple data of most league tables. Three, that most of the state schools, on which our education system is based, serve most of their students well.
Many other issues come into play. One concerns the current debate about deciles: our analysis shows that while it’s generally true that higher decile schools have better academic results, this is not uniformly true. The anomalies, in both directions, are well worth highlighting.
Which leads to an issue we believe is fundamental. Some of the schools in this city are performing poorly while others that are demographically very similar are doing well. Those poorly performing schools are spread right through the deciles. What good reason for this can there be? Teaching – and teaching leadership from principals – is not a hit-and-miss affair. The pedagogy of good teaching is pretty widely understood and accepted in our schools, and is strikingly similar right through the system. I know this not just from the teachers and other educators I have talked to, and the research I have done, but also from having sat in the backs of classrooms, from decile one to private, and watched the classes in action.
It followed that schools doing poorly could and should be doing better, and also that the ministry and other authorities could and should be helping them. The focus of our analysis is not on whether St Cuthberts College is better than Diocesan School for Girls. I suspect people who want an answer to that question will be quite frustrated at how hard we have made it for them to find one. It is, instead, to celebrate the achievements of mid- and low-decile schools that are getting it right.
Yes, we look only at academic results. But as you say, we make it clear there are other important criteria. We’re not equipped to evaluate them – and in some cases wouldn’t want to. We don’t think it’s our role to rank the “values” of Western Springs with those of Auckland Grammar (especially if, as I have done, you ask them to say what those values are and they use almost identical language)?
Besides, while there are many important factors to consider in choosing a school – or where to live if schooling is a factor – the most important one is academic. A school that tells you it’s relatively unimportant for your children to be intellectually equipped to get on in the world is a school to avoid. This is not a right-wing argument. Left-wingers who quibble with this betray the poor and dispossessed they claim to support.
And yes, we exclude refugees and others in “alternative education” from our tables. We do that at the request of the relevant schools, because we recognise that their results skew the overall results of those schools. It’s disingenuous to say this means we think they don’t count.
Your larger point is that there is a wedge being driven between the aspirations of the middle class and the reality for the working class. By and large, I agree with that, and I agree it is appalling. In my view, though, we have attacked the wedge. Our deconstruction of the usual league tables, our discussion of the impact of the rivalry between Grammar and Kings, our insistence that mid and low-decile schools can do well and our proof that many do, are all part of that attack.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I still don’t get it: what do you think you deconstructed? Where is your critique? To say that ‘while it’s generally true that higher decile schools have better academic results, this is not uniformly true’ isn’t, or shouldn’t be, much of a revelation to anyone who knows anything about education. And while it is true that your story celebrates the achievement of some middle- and low-decile schools, it does so whilst completely buying into – and reselling – the concept of league tables. And a league table of schools is toxic to public education, there are no two ways about it. In fact a ‘smart’ league table is just as bad as a ‘dumb’ league table, if not worse, in that by appearing to be enlightened and co-opting some of the language and ideas of progressive education it convinces more people who are able to choose that they should choose. You say that ‘most kids go to their local state school and do just fine’, but who’s going to be happy with ‘fine’? The imperative – in the permanent state of economic crisis that underlies neoliberalism –is to give your kids ‘a better chance’. It’s right there on your cover. Which, by the way, is appalling, and I think it’s important to acknowledge it. Don’t pretend it’s not a naked grab for league table reader junkies. And don’t try to tell me that it ‘deconstructs’ anything, or that it doesn’t define your argument. You cannot have it both ways.

Now, to what to me remains the most important point. You write:

“And yes, we exclude refugees and others in “alternative education” from our tables. We do that at the request of the relevant schools, because we recognise that their results skew the overall results of those schools. It’s disingenuous to say this means we think they don’t count.”

There is a crucial distinction to make here. In the primary school system currently schools are obliged to include all of these children on ‘alternative education’ in the national standards reporting, and are not allowed to disaggregate the data by stating how many of these children are on their roll. This is a significant problem and you can bet your bottom dollar that Fairfax’s coming league tables will be as dumb as they come and completely overlook this. But – and I cannot stress this enough – excluding these children is just as bad. By excluding them, you’re not making league tables fairer, you’re making ten per cent of the children in our schools invisible, and the efforts of the schools who take them on equally invisible. There are already significant financial incentives for schools at all levels of our education system to dissuade children with intellectual disabilities and other special needs from enrolling. By making the quality of a school all about the academic achievement of everybody else, as your do in your ‘smart’ league tables, you are creating another powerful incentive. And this is bloody unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

Simon is (deliberately?) ignoring the fact that you can't compare a decile 1 catholic school with a standard decile 1 state school. Catholic schools select their rolls and free bussing is provided for the chosen ones. In particular, 5- 10% of the roll is non preference (ie non-catholic) and may be chosen according to academic ability. Just because a cat has 4 legs and a table has 4 legs it doesn't mean they are the same thing, Simon!

Simon Wilson said...

Okay, so you’re arguing that all comparative tables are bad, and those that claim to be better than others are actually worse, because they legitimise the exercise of comparing schools, and it’s wrong to do that.
It’s clear we do disagree. In my view, schools that fail their kids through academic under-achievement find it easier to get away with that when there is no media spotlight on them. And showing relative achievement is one way of turning on that spotlight.
We’re not toxic to public education. On the contrary: the best way to strengthen public education is to make it better – to bring the standards of the underperforming schools up as high as they can go. In our small way, I’m confident we contribute to that.
You’ve also now said that the most important point, to you, is our approach to special education. I'm sorry, but our article can’t be everything, and we make it clear we’re not trying to cover everything. It would be far more damaging to the schools with a sizeable special education cohort if we left those kids in the calculations, because that would lower their scores. Does that make them invisible? Not at all. We note the role of the schools with those kids but ensure they are not penalised because of it.

George D said...


A school that tells you it’s relatively unimportant for your children to be intellectually equipped to get on in the world is a school to avoid. This is not a right-wing argument. Left-wingers who quibble with this betray the poor and dispossessed they claim to support.

It tells us something about the state of public ideology in New Zealand that this statement can be made without a hint of irony.

Does every parent want the best for their child? Yes. This is the axiom that you start from.

But what follows is a statement that undermines that, entirely. To be able to choose, there have to be some who cannot choose. This is absolutely essential. It underpins the entire logic of choice. Otherwise, we'd all send our child to Auckland Grammar or its similar equivalent, and these schools would have rolls of tens of thousands. Obviously, the cut-off occurs much before that point. So there are good schools, and bad schools, and the bad schools see their rolls dwindle and their teachers struggle with the students the other schools did not want to choose.

The logic of competition is inherent in choice. A left-wing approach to this problem would recognise ineqaulities of both opportunity and outcome, and work intensively to overcome both. Obviously, when conditions are such that the opposite is occurring, putting ones child in the lifeboat becomes increasingly attractive, even to the parent with egalitarian aspirations.

But to echo Giovanni, it doesn't work both ways. You don't can't maximise the happy community and the isolated individual, at least not in radically different ways. The logic of the right is that eternal competition will streamline society such that the effective will win out; but this ignores the costs inherent in losing, which cannot be ignored. The logic of the left is that building society empowers and builds its constituent individuals. NZ currently enjoys the rhetoric of society while taking a turn away from it, and this is perhaps the source of so much confusion. Simon's comments may be exceptional, but they're certainly not unique.

John said...

Simon, it seems to me that, at the end of your last comment, you have defined your next article: examining how well schools do with regard to kids with special needs or from refugee families, what the systemic problems are with funding for educating these children, and how the impact of these problems can be ameliorated before the problems themselves are tackled by a future government.

Clint Green said...

Wow! One of the best and most to the point pieces I have yet read on this subject it is heartening to know that there are others who think like me! Why we continue to see success defined by such narrow parameters as the free world neo-liberals have us believe is beyond me. The points you make a out special needs students and others who struggle in traditional academic worlds is so true! They don't matter! I think that's the real crunch! So long as the society views wealth accumulation as the only real success marker those who might struggle to make a buck can never be valued!

Taramoc said...

I'm sorry, but can you drop the act, Simon? If your interest was to spotlight the schools that aren't doing so well, to spur an improvement, why build a cover like that one, pretty much telling the concerned parents that they should be avoided?

Obviously, your interest was to sell as many copies as possible to those concerned parents.

George D said...

Taramoc, I don't think imputing motives is necessary (or even helpful). It's possible to believe many things.

Kumara Republic said...

From my own private school experiences in Christchurch, I can safely say that wealth and intellect aren't always proportionallly related. I can also safely say that too much parental pressure to succeed is equally counterproductive as having no expectations at all. Neither did it help that I was probably an undiagnosed Aspergian.

I'm tempted to think a Little Rock Nine moment would be poetic justice to the Auckland Grammars of this world, but the Americans have already tried compulsory busing and found it wanting.

And to the Metro crew: recent events provide rich fodder for a future story - namely the Thurston College controversy, which has opened up a couple of related issues that have been largely under the carpet. The first issue is inter-decile class tensions, and the second issue is 'model minority' politics straight out of Orange County.

Stephen said...

schools that fail their kids through academic under-achievement find it easier to get away with that when there is no media spotlight on them. And showing relative achievement is one way of turning on that spotlight.

The thing about spotlights is that their light is harsh and they transform the objects their light falls on. The achievement rankings are necessarily crude.

I don't believe relative rankings help schools at all. Even the schools at the top are harmed, in that they are likely tempted to ignore addressing issues that don't manifest in league tables.

How exactly does being labelled as a relative underachiever help a school? Is it through the declining roll, the angry parents or the demoralised staff that improvements are made? When the low measures are caused by external factors, as they sometimes must be, what can the school do? In a complex system like a school, random and external factors like the arrival or departure of a couple of families or teachers, or changes in the local economy can outweigh any efforts on the part of the staff or board.

Another aspect is that schools already have a watchdog in the form of the ERO, who can take into account things that league tables cannot measure. Is it Metro's position that ERO isn't going its job? Now that's an article we'd all read.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Simon: I won’t go again into why I think comparative, omni-comprehensive tables are bad, other than to make a very simple point: if you want to take to task schools that aren’t achieving, you don’t need to present your data in a city-wide table. Write an in-depth story. Present a few exemplary comparative cases. Talk about the many nuances that go into measuring and comparing student achievement between schools and within schools. Bonus: this way you’ll also get to talk about inclusion. But don’t pretend it’s what you’re doing here. It is not, and I’ve explained why at quite some length.

On this however I need to respond:

“You’ve also now said that the most important point, to you, is our approach to special education. I'm sorry, but our article can’t be everything, and we make it clear we’re not trying to cover everything.”

No you really, really haven’t. Your cover says that you have discovered, and are going to name, Auckland’s BEST and WORST schools. That’s what you set out to do. So the message is pretty clear: you don’t think that how a school caters for alternative education children (God, how I hate to call them that) has anything to do with the quality of that school. There is no other rational explanation. Incidentally, raising achievement of children with special needs, along with Māori and Pasifika children, is an explicit focus of our education system (see the document I linked in the post). Those are the areas in which the Ministry of Education thinks that our schools need to seriously improve. Not you, though. How curious. Could it be that Māori and Pasifika families, and families with children with special needs (who tend to be in the lower deciles), are not part of your demographic? And if that is the case, could you at least drop the pretence that you’ve done anything other than peddle to the anxieties of your middle-class audience in order to sell a few metric tons of magazines? The idea that you’re exploding myths about school deciles and achievement is really impossible to countenance based on the evidence.

George D said...

Giovanni (until there is evidence to the contrary), I think Simon is an honest man with intentions exactly as stated. That's where the problem begins.

merc said...

If the intention of Metro was to throw a spotlight on bad teaching = bad schools.
Epic fail.
This is the pillory not journalism. By skewing the data by omitting a significant segment who require education support, smacks of some weird kind of confirmation bias.

Giovanni Tiso said...

“Giovanni (until there is evidence to the contrary), I think Simon is an honest man with intentions exactly as stated.”

I take your point, although when your economic interest happens to align so beautifully with your argument and its ideological implications I think we should be allowed to be suspicious of rationalisations to the contrary. But I’m a fairly strict Barthesian, so when I say that Simon is being dishonest what I really mean is that his story is dishonest – a judgement I fully stand by.

Ben Wilson said...

Could it be that Māori and Pasifika families, and families with children with special needs (who tend to be in the lower deciles), are not part of your demographic?

Must be why I don't read Metro. That's the exact description of my son's school. Which has been almost a fairy tale, so much has he thrived there. Academic achievement be damned.

The boy wowed the Maori and PI parents by standing up unabashed and leading in a recent cultural event, words and actions in Maori, Samoan, English. For a child on the autistic spectrum this is amazing. Then I get the report, twisted against all teacher instincts to report on National Standards, and that event, which he prepared for for weeks, and was a communal highlight, remained completely unmentioned.

Ben Wilson said...

On the contrary: the best way to strengthen public education is to make it better – to bring the standards of the underperforming schools up as high as they can go. In our small way, I’m confident we contribute to that.

I really don't see how ranking schools does anything at all to influence that. Most likely, it has the reverse effect. If a school is "underachieving" academically, and people who give a damn opt not to send their kids there, then the schools will get worse directly through demographic input. Which is most likely the thing that determined their position on the table in the first place.

So I'm sorry, Simon, but this kind of reporting is harmful to education, if you are of the mind that it should not be elitist. I am not at all convinced that isn't your mindset, from your comments. So much so, that I think you don't even notice it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, Ben. I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but you have to put that reporting out of your mind. It's just a piece of officious cruelty, because somebody decided we should be told in plain English that our children are worth less. But it definitely sounds like it's not how his teacher or his school sees him, and I’m sure his peers don’t.

I’m so excited for you that he is doing so well.

Rob said...

Great unpacking of what's at stake- and why it matters. Thanks Gio et al :)

Clint Green said...

@ Ben.. You have statistics that show most special needs students are in lower decile schools? If this is the case then it might simply be because of the very effect we are wanting to avoid, ie, the creation of elitism because these students are neither welcomed into nor catered for by high decile schools.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't have ready data, but it's a well-known fact. Part of the reason may very well be that schools that exclude children with special needs tend to be higher decile, but to my knowledge this hasn't been properly investigated. However there are other correlations: some childhood illnesses that lead to developmental issues are more common amongst the poor; having to look after a child with special needs often requires one parent to not work therefore lowers the family income, or the costs incurred do that (relatedly: special needs are often diagnosed late in poor families, typically when the child starts school, which makes support harder to obtain); and of course refugees – which are included by Metro in the alternative education basket – are on low incomes and go to low-decile schools for the most part.

But yeah, if only anecdotally we know that high decile and private schools are the most adept at turning some children away. Not all of them, by any means, but many.

Ben Wilson said...

But it definitely sounds like it's not how his teacher or his school sees him, and I’m sure his peers don’t.

I'm certain of it, since we have been doing far more extensive reporting on him via IEP meetings since before he even started. The teacher had the aspect of going through the motions when discussing the report with us, until I diverted the conversation away from the barely relevant (and bleeding obvious), and back to the most important thing to me, his physical issues, and his social interaction, at which she literally beamed. She also said that the class in general was a major contributing factor, that we could not have found a better group of kids, more caring and supportive and inclusive. But from observation, most of the school is like that, the principal has managed to set up an environment in which the kids genuinely care for each other. It's quite a strange thing to be walking around the Avondale township and be called out to by kids (of many ages) "Hi, Marcus' dad!", and they'll often high-five Marcus. That's never going to show up in a league table.

Ben Wilson said...

Part of the reason may very well be that schools that exclude children with special needs tend to be higher decile, but to my knowledge this hasn't been properly investigated.

Yes, it's possible that there is also high-decile avoidance going on. Do special needs kids really need to be surrounded by academic and sporting high-achievers to grow themselves? Or would such an environment, and all the competition and peer pressure that goes with it, be actually off-putting?

Just remembering back to my high-school choice, the most important factor was actually where my friends were going. I rated a bunch of other things about the school highly that turned out to be either irrelevant or untrue. But we did avoid the local school en-masse, not because of academic performance, but because of the culture of violence that was reported by many of the kids that went through there. My brother left because he feared for his life, having antagonized a street kid gang (mostly his own fault, but still).

Chris Trotter said...

Thank you so much, Giovanni, for this discussion.

Our family knows, from direct experience, how large is the debt we owe to those state schools which care enough to welcome and teach children with special needs.

Tables are for turning.

Tamara said...

This was fascinating Giovanni, thank you. I must say I am a bit puzzled. I bought and read last year's Metro Best School issue and I have not read this one. As I remember it last year's (or the year before's) approach was to compare each individual school's students' achievements from year to year. That way the best schools were the ones that lifted their own students' achievements. This seemed quite a reasonable approach to me. The top school was a decile 5 or similar. Has metro abandoned that approach?

ShareThis