Better Informed School Choice Will Not Be Enough to Close The Education Gaps Between Rich and Poor

The New Zealand Initiative Report Tomorrow’s Schools: Data and evidence is an excellent piece of research which will bust many parents' myths about which are "good" schools. However, the report concludes with some naive ideas about the way forward for our education system. Our education system fails the poorest 20% of kids, and this is unlikely to change by simply tweaking the school choice model by giving parents better information. If we are serious about reducing inequalities in our education system we either need to spend much more educating children from poor backgrounds, or ensure our schools are as mixed and diverse as our society is. 

NZ Initiative Research

The research adjusts school academic performance for the background of the students at that school. It finds that on average high decile schools don't do any better job of educating students than low decile ones. The research suggests there are better and worse performing schools, but they are found everywhere along the decile spectrum. This is what many educators have suspected for decades, but finally they have the data to prove it. The New Zealand Initiative should be congratulated for contributing this finding to the public sphere. 

This finding will shatter some myths long held by parents over what is a "good school". In the past the decile system has been used by many parents as an indicator of how good a school is. Higher decile schools have better academic results and so are seen as "good" schools. As a result everyone wants to send their kids there. But of course these schools have richer students going to them who are more likely to get better academic results before they even enter the school gates. What this research shows is that many students would, on average, do just as well if they went to their local school. There is no need for them to travel for an hour across town to the supposedly "good" school populated by rich kids. 

In fact the worst performing group of schools were those in middle deciles. Interestingly, when you add parent donations to decile funding the worst funded deciles are 5 and 8. 

Of course, this research is predicated on the idea that academic outcomes are the sign of a "good" school. There is growing evidence that this is no longer the case because the skills that are needed for the 21st Century can't be measured in typical academic tests. Nonetheless many parents are still interested in academic outcomes.

Anyway with this big caveat in mind, the research is sound. But things start to get wobbly when it comes to the policy recommendations. 

What Does This Mean for School Choice? 

The NZ Initiative then leap to the idea that this better information is all that parents need in order to make the existing model of school choice work. If you aren't familiar with the review of Tomorrow's Schools requested by the Labour led Government, then here is a brief recap: New Zealand has some of the most unequal outcomes in the world. This is mostly due to the income gap between rich and poor, but unlike other countries our education system does little to close the achievement gap. This appears to be partly due to the school choice model, which was supposed to reduce the gap between rich and poor but eventually increased it. The problem is that under school choice, all the rich families have flocked to schools in rich areas, leaving poor students in low decile "ghettos". The government funds low decile schools more to help them out, but that is outweighed by the extra resources that richer schools get from the students' parents. 

The Tomorrows Schools review suggested that we need to move away from the school choice model by having School Hubs manage and fund schools (rather than getting individual schools to compete). The NZ Initiative reckons they have a better answer. All parents need is better information, and then the school choice model will stop creating school ghettos. Once parents know their local school is actually better than it looks, they will send their children there. There are several flaws to this approach. 

Firstly academic outcomes is only one factor that determines school choice. Better information on outcomes could still result in a heavily segregated system. 

Secondly there will still be schools that win and schools that lose from this approach. We know from the research that poor families are less likely to change schools in response to information, so we will still see richer families leaving some schools and sending them to other schools. Under the school choice model the poor performing schools lose funding and will find it even tougher to do well. This is the problem with applying business ideas to our schools. What we need to do is help all schools do better.  

How Can We Reduce Inequality? The Two Big Choices

The first question we need to ask ourselves as a country is whether we are serious about equality of opportunity. Should the education system help close some of the natural gaps between the rich and poor? 

Assuming the answer is yes, we have 2 possible ways forward that we should be debating as a nation:

  1. The first is to abandon the model of school choice and make our schools look like the society they are preparing students to live in. For starters that will ensure that the resources of richer parents are better shared around. More importantly students learn from each other as well as their teachers. Other students provide role models that impact on their self belief and aspirations, which in turn impacts on their life long learning outcomes. Students have a much better chance of keeping up with their peers if those peers are in the same class. So having classrooms that are a true cross section of society means that all children have a much better chance.
  2. The only way to reduce inequality under a school choice model is to ensure that we spend much more money on children from poor and troubled backgrounds. The last National Government started to investigate such a scheme (and Labour is continuing this work) but the amount of money that is spent on a child from a disadvantaged background has to be much greater. Basically it involves doubling the amount dedicated to reducing disadvantage in our education system. Where will this money come from? Higher taxes? Or are we going to take it from richer schools? If the New Zealand Initiative and National Party are so keen to keep the school choice model then this is the issue that they need to confront. 

Neither of these options is easy, and both will have a lot of devils hidden in the detail. But that doesn't mean either should be dismissed on the basis of dogma. The "School Hub" model proposed by the Tomorrow's Schools review has been much derided, but it is simply one way to achieve the first aim of making our classrooms more representative of the society they are preparing children for. Perhaps we need to talk about whether that is actually a goal we want to see, before we work out how to achieve it. 

Our education system does pretty well overall, but the performance of our poorest kids sticks out like a sore thumb. The best performing education systems overseas tend to do one of the two options above (or both), so these ideas can be made to work. Let's have the conversation.