Recently the federal government released a review of the My School website, which was launched in 2010. My School provides information about every school in Australia, including its financial resources, the background of its student cohort and NAPLAN results since 2008.
In his response to the review, Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced a number of proposed improvements to the My School website. The proposed changes are designed to make the site easier to use, with more options to compare schools, new data on school outcomes and, importantly, an increased focus on student progress.
Minister Pyne’s proposals are sound, but they are unlikely to make much difference to the quality of Australian schools.
Parents have a right to accurate information about schools. More transparency is good, provided the information is meaningful and takes into account non-school factors such as family background that we know influence student outcomes.
But if we look at achievement data, we may learn more about what students knew when they entered the school than what their school has taught them. A focus on student progress – how much an individual student has learnt over a given period - is a better indication of a school’s performance.
It’s heartening that reporting of the 2014 NAPLAN results focused more on schools with strong student gains than simply on schools with top marks. The review of My School has argued for strengthening this focus on student progress.
But the philosophy underpinning My School extends well beyond the desire to put accurate information in parents’ hands. The government, as its response to the review noted,
believes that transparency and accountability are essential to support parents and community participation in schools and to drive improved school and student outcomes.
How could information on My School improve outcomes?
Parents armed with data about school performance will in theory choose the best school for their children. Faced with competitive pressure on enrolments, schools will find ways to improve learning. The invisible hand of the market, mediated through parental choice, will lift outcomes across the education system. This approach has informed much of the government’s school education policy over the last decade.
Unfortunately, choice and competition are in practice much less effective at improving schools than we might wish. As the Grattan Institute’s report The myth of markets in school education shows, most schools face limited competition, and more information about them does little to increase it. For many reasons, most parents either can’t or won’t move their children from schools that perform poorly on NAPLAN to schools that perform well.
Recent research from the OECD supports these findings. Across countries and economies, educational performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete for students.
This is not to say that information is not essential to school improvement. It is, provided it is put in the right hands.
Teachers need more information on their students’ progress
A wealth of evidence shows that teaching is more powerful when teachers have accurate, precise and timely information about what their students know, understand and can do. Good information guides teachers about what each student is ready to learn next and how to teach it.
These obvious statements are surprisingly hard to achieve in practice. Most schools in Australia fall short. Most systems provide too little support to schools and teachers to collect and harness deep knowledge about student learning.
It is hard to develop accurate student assessments that give teachers the reliable, diagnostic information they need. It is hard to develop materials and methods that tailor teaching to what each student is ready to learn next.
NAPLAN, designed to provide consistent and comparable national information, is not suitable for these highly targeted purposes. The Australian curriculum provides high-level guidance, but it is not enough either. It is hard to know whether each student is learning enough each year. And it is hard to identify and kick-start learning for those students whose progress has stalled.
Classroom teachers must do most of this hard work. But they should be equipped with better skills and better tools.
Governments should invest in teaching teachers how to gather and use accurate information on student learning. The recent Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report made a good start. It recommended higher education providers equip pre-service teachers with data collection and analysis skills to assess the learning needs of all students.
Governments should also invest more in high-quality materials and tools designed to help teachers in the classroom. Most schools, irrespective of their degree of autonomy or level of resources, lack the capacity to develop rigorous teaching materials and assessment tools.
Enhancing My School is valuable, but we should not kid ourselves that additional information on a website will significantly improve school outcomes. Instead, we should focus our energy on finding ways to provide teachers with better knowledge about their students’ learning and how to use it.