School performance data key to collaboration

Briar Lipson
The New Zealand Herald
4 June, 2019

Through his review of NCEA, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has demonstrated how successful consultations can be.

The six Big Opportunities presented last year by the Ministerial Advisory Group were a mixed bag. A group of principals gave them a fail grade. Hipkins then wisely created a Professional Advisory Group encompassing a broader range of voices. Together, both groups have worked out how to improve NCEA for everyone. To use the minister's words, the two groups "ended up in the same place".

The challenge now is to achieve the same with Tomorrow's Schools.

Of course, the details of the NCEA changes are still being worked out. For example, will the new "strengthened" literacy and numeracy benchmarks be appropriately high?

If they are, NCEA pass rates will drop, at least in the short run. This will be hard for the minister to watch. But it will be easier for him if schools can collaborate to address their failures.

Greater collaboration was also a high priority for the Tomorrow's Schools taskforce. With collaboration in mind their report, released last year, called for the creation of new education hubs to sit between individual schools and the ministry. As well as taking on all the legal responsibilities and liabilities of school boards of trustees they want hubs to "be active in leading learning across their network of schools" and "build a culture of sharing and collaboration".

As the taskforce explained: "Ensuring that every learner/ākonga succeeds is demanding work and sharing what works is essential."

This is undoubtedly true. However, what if the lack of reliable data, not the lack of a hub, is curbing collaboration.

Like in New Zealand, schools elsewhere in the world compete with one another for pupils.

The crucial difference is access to school performance data. Where schools have access to reliable information they can know their own and others' strengths and weaknesses.

This transparency builds trust which leads naturally to collaboration. It also creates unlikely heroes.

Thanks to data-rich resources like England's Families of Schools database, tiny schools located in the middle of gritty state-housing estates have become meccas for teachers looking to improve writing and reading. Principals and trustees from coastal villages make pilgrimages to schools in far-off northern industrial towns to see the reality of high expectations.

For some "A-list" schools, the requests for visits and collaboration have become so overwhelming that they now charge for their teachers' time and package professional development accordingly.

It is exciting to think the same could happen for schools in Stratford, Manurewa and Hokitika.

Evidence-based collaborations by their very nature grow organically. They weed out ideas that sound exciting but do not deliver. They value great teachers and keep them in classrooms.

This is the kind of collaboration we should be striving for in New Zealand: bottom up, evidence-based and school to school.

Although the Tomorrow's Schools taskforce wants schools to do more to share good practice, its proposed education hubs will not change their underlying constraints. Data, on the other hand, would empower them, and unleash collaboration.

It's like the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish; one creates dependence while the other is self-sustaining.

There may well be a useful role for a new middle tier of bureaucracy between the ministry and schools. But to sell hubs as the key to collaboration is misleading and counterproductive.

During a recent Newstalk ZB interview, Associate Minister Tracey Martin said some of the proposals for NCEA in the original Six Big Opportunities were "somewhat on the edge", "quite extreme" and "to provoke conversation".

Although not presented in the same provocative light, this is exactly how the Tomorrow's Schools taskforce proposals ought to be viewed.

So long as the minister realises this, his consultation could still succeed.

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