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Schools need a report card too

By Andrew Leigh - posted Monday, 4 February 2008


When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sat down with premiers and chief ministers at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in December, one of the topics of conversation was how to implement Labor’s “education revolution”.

Past education policy debates in Australia have often been unproductive. While the Howard government proposed some useful reforms, they were ultimately unable to find a way to work with teacher unions, and found themselves caught up in distracting debates about Maoism. For its part, Labor’s rhetoric can give the impression that the party believes reform requires little more than opening up the funding spigot.

Breaking the ideological deadlock requires attention to the new productivity agenda in Australia: making public services work better. In the case of schools, there is strong evidence that reform is needed. Despite a significant increase in funding, literacy and numeracy scores of Australian teenagers have failed to rise over recent decades. On average, new teachers are less academically talented today than they were two decades ago.

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Boosting the performance of Australian schools is far from straightforward, but one sensible reform would be to begin reporting on the performance of individual schools, so that parents can better choose between their local schools. Such a reform would bring us into line with Britain and the United States, where policymakers across the board take the view that a school’s test scores are quintessentially public information.

Now, new research has shown that better information has direct benefits for children. In a novel experiment in North Carolina, Yale University economists Justine Hastings and Jeffrey Weinstein randomly provided some parents with more information about the quality of their local schools. They found that one in 20 parents responded to the additional information by switching their child into a better school. Notably, African-American parents were more responsive to test score information than white parents (perhaps because they had less school information to begin with).

But does school choice really benefit kids? The following year, Hastings and Weinstein followed up the children who switched schools, and compared their test scores to the non-switchers. They found that moving to a better school raised test scores substantially. In other words, the new schools didn’t just skim the cream; they added value.

In Australia, very little information about school performance is presently available. Some states only release information on the top students, while others provide data to newspapers on the condition that schools be listed alphabetically. Most public information relates to year twelve, though the Western Australian government publishes a website with primary school results shown in a graphical format. The most restrictive rules apply in New South Wales, where an infamous 1997 Daily Telegraph headline (“The class we failed”) has stymied test score reporting for over a decade.

Fortunately, there now seems to be a bipartisan federal consensus for change. Prior to the election, Labor’s then education spokesman Stephen Smith said that a Rudd Government would attempt to make available test score data at a school level for literacy and numeracy tests in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9. Over the next few months, federal Labor can expect pushback from the states and territories, and should have its answers ready.

Some critics will argue that test scores aren’t all that matter. True, there is more to education than standardised tests, but a thorough knowledge of the basics complements critical reasoning. Moreover, plenty of research shows that employers prefer to hire literate and numerate workers. In the North Carolina experiments, Hastings and Weinstein estimate that switching to a better school may end up raising students’ lifetime incomes by as much as $100,000.

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Others will claim that raw test scores don’t provide useful information. The simple answer to this critique is to produce what Bill Louden of the University of Western Australia calls “smart” league tables, which are adjusted to account for socio-economic status, or which measure value-added.

Another common criticism is that parents can always visit the school to get more information. Yet for disadvantaged parents, making an appointment with the school principal can be daunting. As the North Carolina experiments suggest, making test score data readily available may well benefit the underprivileged most of all.

As a first stage in the education revolution, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard should bring more sunlight into the schooling system, making public all test score data for all schools in Australia. School league tables are no magic bullet, but you can’t have a revolution without information.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on December 20, 2007.



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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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