League Tables Will Create a Stalinist Education System?

Sunday Star Times: 24 June, 2012

Keywords: Education;

I was shown over a model Berlin dairy farm is 1990 when it was still in a Communist regime. They proudly displayed a cow which produced twice as much milk as the New Zealand average. Our farmers were unimpressed. Shoveling enough grain down the throat could get very high gross output, but the New Zealand dairy farmer aims for the maximum output from the available inputs.

Market economies focus on value added while the communist ones – we called them ‘Stalinist’ – were more concerned with gross output, which is one reason why their economies did not perform as well.

The proposal to publish league tables of school achievement is as Stalinist because it, too, focuses on gross output. Children are not equal in educational attainment when they begin a school. One who is bright with supportive parents may find it easy to get up to a high scholarly achievement level compared to someone who is dyslexic, who missed out some schooling because of poor health, and comes from a home (or homes) with a poor learning environment. Yet the Stalinists treat the two as equal, to be measured by their NCEA attainment. In truth a school may add a lot more value by giving a child from a bookless home a love of reading than by enabling the child of a professor to win a scholarship.

Stalinist production could lead to absurdities. Asked to produce shoes, one factory produced its quota but only for left feet, since it was easier than having to change the lasts over for the right foot. ‘Ah’, said the planners, ‘produce pairs’. The factory did, but all the pairs were of the same size.

Soviet stores were stacked with consumer goods produced to plan, exceeding quota, but which no-one wanted.

The same applies to a Stalinist school system. Set the goals and, as Gilling’s law says, the scoring system determines the way the game is played. Parents will be misled by the Stalinist imprimatur of an otherwise meaningless indicator. They dont really want a school with high gross achievement; they want one that gives the best deal for their child.

External grades do not tell them much, its improvements in net achievement which matter; how the school adds value to their child who may be struggling but has potential.

More of the boys from my intermediate school class made jail than university. Today probably more of the girls would have had teenage pregnancies. I dont want the inmates and teenage mothers to have higher educational qualifications, I want fewer of them. Scoring schools by a gross output target of attainment will not do much for my goal, even though it is critical to the sort of society we shall have. It may not do much for most students either.

A teacher at a private school told me their strategy was to put a lot of effort into their top students to get the scholarships and other marks of public acclaim, and to ignore the needs of the rest of the students. Is that what we want?

We were not allowed to see the milking sheds on the farm, they said, for hygiene reasons (I am told this is nonsensical). But for Barry, who sold milking equipment throughout the world, the suck, suck, suck of the milking machines was as seductive as the Sirens were to Ulysses. He thrust his camera into my hands, leapt over the fence and sprinted towards the objects of his desire. He was escorted back. I asked him about what he saw: ‘Probably donated to the farm by Kaiser Wilhelm’.

The country would greatly suffer if our dairy industry were focused on gross output, and ignored value added. It would suffer even more greatly were our education system also to be organised on Stalinist principles.