October 25th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd's desperate gamble

EDITORIAL: Can Australia weather the storm?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defending Australia's independence

CHINA: Milk contamination scandal: tip of the iceberg

NEW ZEALAND: November 8 election: Helen Clark's last hurrah?

FAMILY: Will paid maternity leave help mothers?

VICTORIA: Behind Victoria's radical new abortion law

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Can the US adjust to changing world realities?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Barbarossa II / Our friends

EDUCATION: When the wrong answer is 'right'

SCHOOLS: Minister Gillard backs faulty ranking system

SRI LANKA: Plight of persecuted Tamils worsens

TAIWAN: Ball in Beijing's court for Taiwan's WHO entry

EUROPE: Germany backs Russia against Georgia, Ukraine

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Health and safety obsessions stifle childhood

BOOKS: BLUE PLANET IN GREEN SHACKLES: What is Endangered: Climate or Freedom? by Vaclav Klaus

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Minister Gillard backs faulty ranking system

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, October 25, 2008
Education Minister Julia Gillard wants to copy a New York Department of Education school evaluation system that has reportedly lowered standards each year so that more children can succeed. Kevin Donnelly reports.

It's no secret that, like the US singer Billy Joel, the federal Minister for Education Julia Gillard is in a New York state of mind. After a trip earlier this year, Ms Gillard has waxed lyrical about the success of the Big Apple's education system.

So impressed is the minister that she has invited Joel Klein, the head of the New York Department of Education, to Australia next month to convince state and territory authorities that they should also start singing from Klein's songbook.

In New York, school results in state-wide tests are made public, and schools are ranked in terms of performance. Teachers are also monitored and either rewarded or punished depending on whether their students improve or not.

On the surface it looks good. For too long, parents have been kept in the dark about whether Australian schools are up to scratch or not, and under-performing teachers have been able to keep their jobs.

At the level of rhetoric, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's call to make school data public - such as academic results, teacher morale and student behaviour - also deserves a tick. As the PM said, if parents find out their school is no good, they can vote with their feet and move to the next one.

Reality check! Unfortunately, matters are not that simple. For, despite all the extra millions spent on New York education (rising from $12.5 billion in 2002 to a projected budget of $22 billion in 2008) and all the Joel Klein initiatives to make schools and teachers accountable, the system is not any better.

While students' results, measured by state tests, have seemingly strengthened under Klein's watch, according to the more credible and objective National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), students' scores have flat-lined.

As argued by Sol Stern, a New York-based educationalist, the reason why state-controlled results have improved is because the bar has been lowered each year so that more children succeed.

Someone should also tell Minister Gillard that, in every major international test since the 1970s, America has failed to perform in the top category. Why should Australia follow New York's example while world's-best performers like Singapore, Japan, Finland and the Netherlands are ignored?

The way New York schools are ranked is also open to criticism. Instead of rewarding schools that get the best results, each year schools are ranked according to how well they improve performance.

The US academic, Diane Ravitch, argues, "There is so much emphasis on progress that schools that consistently have high scores may be graded F because they did not improve, while schools with abysmal scores that went up a few points would get an A."

If the New York system was adopted by the AFL, based on the 2007/2008 home-and-away results, Geelong at the top of the table both years would get an F as there was no improvement. The Western Bulldogs, on the other hand, would be rewarded with an A as the team moved from 13th on the ladder to 3rd.

The result? As noted by New York education activist Leonie Haimson, the faulty ranking system leads to a situation in which the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice can be cited by US News and World Report as one of the top high schools in the nation, despite receiving an F under the New York ranking.

The system used to evaluate teachers is also open to criticism. Not only are teachers rewarded or punished largely as a result of only one criterion - student performance in standardised tests - but the margin of error, according to the New York Department of Education's own research, is as high as 15 to 20 per cent.

In the New York system, one that Minister Gillard now wants to mimic, its impossible to know whether a teacher's ranking signifies his or her being below average, average or above average.

Unlike Ms Gillard, parents strike a discordant note when talking about New York's education system. In a 2008 survey carried out by a group called Class Size Matters, the majority of parents argued that there was too much emphasis on testing.

Cause for complaint

More important for parents were reducing class sizes and spending more on school maintenance. Children being kept down a year if they failed a test, with other children being paid for getting a high score, were also cause for complaint.

Over the last 10 months, Ms Gillard has argued that gone are the days of guesswork and unproven fads. Kevin Rudd's education revolution, she argues, is based on sound research about what works and what doesn't.

It's a pity, when singing the praises of New York and Joel Klein, that Minister Gillard fails to follow her own advice.

- Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of Melbourne-based Education Strategies and author of Dumbing Down (available for $24.95 from News Weekly Books).

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