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Charter Schools, Education policies, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), Partnership Schools, Privatisation of state schools, Research on Education

Charter School Evaluation Report: The Ultimate Example of Rhetoric Trumping Evidence?

charter-schools-look-before-you-leapThe initial report into the evaluation of New Zealand’s version of charter schools is the ultimate example of how rhetoric trumps evidence in modern education policy making.  It makes a mockery of the current fad that “evidence based policy” is what the Government says it is seeking.

The report makes several glowing references to the beneficial impact of small class size and/or small school size.

Surprise, surprise! 

Small class sizes are a direct result of flaws in the original funding model, which saw the first round schools funded with high levels of Base Funding together with Property Funding that was in excess of their actual property related costs.  These flaws were particularly noticeable for the three secondary schools but the middle school also gained from being perceived as part secondary / part primary in how the amount of its funding was determined.

This additional funding has either been shared with the students (small class sizes) or gone into the bank accounts of the Sponsors.  These observations were clear in the analysis of financial statements that was published in August 2015.

But these benefits will disappear if the schools were to grow to any reasonable size.  It is hardly surprising that one of the Sponsors was quoted in the report as saying: “Our success is related to our size – we don’t want to grow our roll too high”.  Too damned right, they don’t!

It is hardly surprising that one of the Sponsors was quoted in the report as saying: “Our success is related to our size – we don’t want to grow our roll too high”.

Too damned right, they don’t!

Here are our observations on some of the key of the report:

  • The evaluation report has completely ignored the failure of the Whangaruru school.Surely, it must dawn on people that you often learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes.  So the lessons learned from Whangaruru must become part of the overall evaluation of the initiative.
  • The report makes reference to various factors that it claims enable the charter school model to succeed.But on almost all of those same factors, Whangaruru provides a worked example of how they can also fail.  For example, simply saying that a Sponsor has a strong vision means nothing.  The original Sponsor’s vision for Whangaruru was praised by the Ministry during the evaluation phase but they have completely failed to deliver the substance of what good quality learning entails for students.
  • It is nonsense to claim that “innovations” in governance and management are the key early highlights.These are not innovations – they are simply the reality of the model itself.  It is Parliament that made these changes and not the schools.  They were always going to be governed differently because that is the essence of the model. Likewise, the ability to hire administrators, so as to free up the Principal’s time, is a direct result of the abundant funding.  Wouldn’t we all like to be able to do this?
  • The intent of the charter school idea was that these administrative changes would enable innovation to occur where it really counts: in the classroom. But the report makes it clear that the reviewers have not seen any significant innovations in curriculum or teaching practices.  This is a major indictment of the model and its first proponents.   The report meekly suggests that perhaps these will surface at some time in the future.  But, if the innovators are supposedly in place now, then why on Earth have they not unveiled their stunning new approaches already?  Why would they be holding back?
  • There is no attempt in this first report to examine student achievement outcomes.Early press releases from the secondary schools, in particular, have attempted to highlight superficially high participation-based pass rates.  But further examination into both quantitative and qualitative aspects of their NCEA achievement results suggests a different story may be unfolding.  Students at Whangaruru seem to have gathered most of their NCEA credits from Fencing and Possum Trapping.  More work is needed to understand if the other two charter secondary schools have gone down a similar path.

But overall these initial findings are entirely consistent with John Hattie’s analysis of charter schools, based on no less than 246 underlying pieces of research.  He concludes that the overall system effect will be “miniscule”.  Why?  Because changes in structure/governance/funding method etc, that simply create another “type” of school do not, in the end, make meaningful differences in achievement in scale across the system.

The propaganda machine will no doubt press on regardless, attempting to spin this evaluation in a positive fashion.  But the clear conclusion of the initial report, regardless of its own inherent flaws, is that there is nothing here that is significant where it really counts: in the classroom.

Bill Courtney

Save Our Schools NZ

2 November 2015

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi

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