What has transparency ever done for us?

The answer is pretty much everything. And the debate continues again. The Australian government wants to put all manner of information regarding schools and their performance online. The idea is to highlight to parents and to others differences and so hopefully to put pressure into the system to do something about it. Somewhat predictably, the International Confederation of School Principals has objected. They argue that the information on disadvantage has not helped performance of those schools in England and elsewhere (although it appeared to help their funding). Also, the test scores are supposedly not a good indicator of current performance (being 8 months old). 8 months old! Exactly, what would change about a school in 8 months? They also regard the NAPLAN tests as inadequate. From what I have seen from those tests (and we had two rounds last year), they are at least as informative as any other information I, as a parent, are getting from the school. Indeed, in many respects they are more so precisely because you can see information on the distribution of results as well as your child’s place in it.

The main worry about the MySchool website is that it will be crippled somehow into some aggregate league tables while keeping the underlying data as well as historical information obscure. That is what will be of most use in generating complete information to assist in parent choice and political pressure. Otherwise, it may end up the way of GroceryChoice that never stood a chance precisely because the information was kept hidden.

Hopefully, the Gov2.0 people will get on to this and MySchool will have an open standard and available data as appears to be the case in the US. This will allow others to set up websites to build on the comparative information and provide more subjective comments. Just take a look at GreatSchools. All of the standardised tests are there as well as historical information and comments — not just from parents but (egad!) from students. It was invaluable for us in choosing a school and also working out that thinking about private schools here is just not worth it relative to public options. In other words, high performance can be informative too.

One thought on “What has transparency ever done for us?”

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    I am in favor of more information about schools, teachers and student educational performance because I believe there is not enough accountability by school systems for the educational performance of students and because I believe desirable outcomes should be measured to allow for corrective feedback at all levels of the organization, including school, teacher and student.
    I would think that parents and educators would want information that measured performance and also allowed for corrective actions. Too much information or the wrong set of information is not helpful.
    It is individual teacher and individual student level longitudinal (over time) information, which is almost never forthcoming in any disclosure by school systems, that best measures a student’s and a teacher’s performance. Has the teacher been able to improve the student’s performance over the year? Yes, good school for that student: No, bad school for that student.
    A large data set of information maybe interesting for conversational topics but is costly both to the parents and the schools, in the sense that both must expend effort in learning which data is useful information for improving student performance and which data is  extraneous information.
    The problem with aggregated non-specific student and non-specific teacher information is that over any time period the students and the teachers change and comparisons of increasing or decreasing test scores are made against two different groups. This year’s graduating students with teacher group A are compared to last year’s graduates with teacher group B, for example, without knowing if comparison of the two groups is valid.
    There are indications in educational performance data that there is selection and filtering bias, which interferes with the usefulness of the information for parent decision-making. For example, schools with high scores tend to demand a commitment to more schoolwork than lower performing schools and also over other student interests. Do parents and children who want more schoolwork move into these school areas and produce higher test scores or do the schools and teachers. Whether better performing schools, in the sense of higher student scores, attract better achieving students or produce better achieving students is often ambiguous from most studies of performance. Do good students make schools look better or do good schools make students look better?
    There are also indications that schools signal which students they want to enroll, which students they want to keep, and which students’ families they want to move to another school area. In the US, it is sometimes as simple as whether the school highlights the winning science fair participants or the football team, but often the signals are much more subtle and less obvious. There is a survivability bias. Good schools may look better than other schools because they are better at enrolling, separating and retaining the higher performing students, and the poorer performing students move away from the school. Educational studies almost never control for survivor bias.
    Any educational information to be useful to parents has to allow them to choose a school that would benefit THEIR child. The current state of educational information about schools does not offer information to anyone that allows changes to be made to a school to improve its performance for any fixed student body. Yes, school scores can be improved but it is often by selecting a better performing group of students for testing and not by actually improving student performance. If it were easy to make improvement changes or if people really knew, what changes to make to improve schools, student outcomes at all schools would be improved a long time ago.
    The data is unreliable for recommending changes to schools to improve student outcomes and that is why student performance is deteriorating in many schools. It is also why every recommendation that has come out of previous data studies has failed to produce the desired results.


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