Knowledge is power & information on education should be more accessible to parents, the NZ Initiative's Martine Udahemuka argues

By Martine Udahemuka* 

Dr Adrienne Alton-Lee, Chief Education Advisor for the Ministry of Education’s Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis programme, argues that no dollar should be spent on any initiative that does not have a research design linked to student achievement. 

I concur, especially when the education sector is forecast to spend $13.1 billion in the 2015/16 fiscal year. The taxpayer needs to know whether this massive investment does indeed add value. In this regard, one of the key objectives of the Better Public Services (BPS) programme was to improve agencies’ capacity not only on measuring, but on reporting on performance as well. 

A myriad of education initiatives by the Ministry of Education were rolled out as a result of the announcement of BPS targets, which were introduced just over three years ago. The ministry has reported positive progress in this regard, having lifted student achievement for Maori and Pasifika students, NCEA outcomes as well as increasing participation in early childhood education. 

Education Minister Hekia Parata attributes the achievements to the hard work and professionalism of teachers and principals. 

Although commendable, the problem is that the public have to take the minister and the ministry at their word. Evidence that these initiatives and the ones before meet objective tests of effectiveness, as referred to by Dr Alton-Lee, is hard to come by from the parents perspective. If schools want to trial new models of teaching, for example, what information is available to help parents understand what the model might mean for their child? 

Current forms of information are inaccessible for the parents who have a vested interest in this information. A recent report commissioned by the ministry indicated that the clarity of evaluation reports provided to parents is an ongoing concern, with less than half of the National Standards reports rated as clearly understood by parents, families and whanau in 2013. 

To me, it currently reads like the market of lemons, where the seller holds much more information than the buyer. In a sector where the risks of getting it wrong are greater, compared to say buying a car, there ought to be better information to enable parents to make informed choices about school performance and quality. Otherwise, parents might continue to rely on proxies such as decile rankings to make these decisions.

In a speech, Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf stressed the fact that “he found it frankly incomprehensible that data on student achievement is seen as dangerous.” More recently ERO reported that some data is available, but there is a gap in its analysis to determine patterns of success and failure, as well as a gap in communicating this more widely. 

It could be possible that top down changes in an autonomous school system create confusion on who is accountable for the results between schools and the ministry. Schools should build capacity to monitor, evaluate and communicate how their programmes are contributing, or otherwise, to changes in student performance. Equally, governments need this analysis in order to make the best decision when funding dwindles, or have to make decisions on new initiatives.

Sir Peter Gluckman in his advice to the Prime Minister reiterated that “evidence of non-performance would allow both the public and politicians to accept, and indeed require, redirection of effort”. Changing policy without fully understanding the consequences risks creating more problems in the education system, such as damaging teacher morale due to increased workloads brought on by these changes. And if teacher quality is said to be related to student achievement, then parents really have a reason to ask for more.

Knowledge is power, and is in itself an economic resource in a global economy. If the evaluative knowledge does exist, it should be better communicated to parents so that choice is not limited to reading between the lines.

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*Martine Udahemuka is a research fellow at the NZ Initiative. This is the Initiative’s weekly column for interest.co.nz.