Last week, The New Zealand Initiative released a report detailing the findings of “a comprehensive and year-long econometric analysis of data for 400,000 students”, which shows that when controlling for the family background of students, “there are no significant differences in school performance between schools of different deciles”. The findings, in essence, are not new. The data show that there are great schools at every decile, and that within school variance is greater than between school variance in New Zealand. The New Zealand Initiative rightly suggest that the real value offered by the report (and the methodology underpinning it) is the potential opportunity it offers to identify our best performing schools and to learn from and with them. It is worth noting, however, that given confidentiality agreements with Statistics New Zealand, this currently is not possible.
There is something vaguely unsettling in the report and the reporting of it. There appears to be an implicit assumption that low socio-economic status (SES) students are destined to achieve at lower levels compared to their higher SES peers, and that this is OK. There is of course a wealth of research evidence indicating that children from low SES backgrounds do worse in school. It is not just that they dominate the lower half of the achievement distribution curve, it’s that our highest achieving students from low SES families on average perform at lower levels than our highest achieving students from high SES families. This is perhaps unsurprising given research showing that growing up in poverty can significantly impact the brain development of children. However, my issue here is less that SES currently plays such a substantial role in student outcomes (although it must be noted that I find it deeply distressing) but that this is not called out for being problematic. Instead, The New Zealand Initiative report states: “adjusted for the different student populations they serve, the vast majority of New Zealand’s secondary schools create the education outcomes we would expect from them.”
That is, as a society we expect schools serving a high proportion of students from poorer backgrounds to have lower levels of student achievement. This is highly problematic given the research showing that teachers’ beliefs about their students and what they can achieve have a substantial impact on students’ learning and progress. Furthermore, if young people hear enough of this type of messaging, it substantially impacts their self-belief. That is, students from poorer backgrounds stop believing that they can achieve highly. This is concerning because cognitive psychological research has determined that students’ beliefs about their intelligence and what they can achieve are important predictors of student behaviour in school, and student behaviour in turn predicts achievement.
So what needs to happen? At a school level, it is imperative that more schools are able to accelerate the learning of their low performing students. For those students who start school behind their peers, or fall behind during the course of their schooling, it is not enough for them to just achieve one year’s learning growth each school year because at this rate, they will never catch up. Instead, their learning needs to be accelerated so that they are progressing more quickly than the expected rate.
But schools alone cannot bear the burden of addressing the achievement gap. This is a broader societal issue. US-based research has found that 30% of achievement is the result of what happens at the school level, leaving the remaining 70% determined by out-of-school factors. While it is crucial that we make education – our schools – as effective as possible, it is critical that we also focus on and address the other 70%. We need to understand education in relation to and as one component of a much broader ecosystem. And one small part of this is, that when reporting the findings of research, we do not position the current inequities in our education system as a fait accompli. Instead, we call out these inherent, stubborn inequities as unacceptable. We acknowledge their persistence and the challenge ahead of us as we work to eradicate them, but we also commit to doing just that.