Competition between schools

Sep 11, 2014 by

By Kevin Donnelly – The recent OECD PISA In Focus report titled ‘When is competition between schools beneficial?’ is being used as evidence to criticise Australia’s so-called market driven policies in school education represented by state and Commonwealth governments promoting autonomy and choice.

Trevor Cobbold, for example, in a comment piece published in the SMH September 3rd describes the OECD report as a “damning verdict on education policies that promote competition between schools” and uses it as evidence to conclude market-based policies have failed to raise standards.

It’s true that the PISA In Focus report states “Across countries and economies, performance is unrelated to whether or not schools have to compete” but, relying on one study to reach such a conclusion ignores other studies that prove the opposite.

School choice advocates like Ludger Woessmann, Eric Hanushek, Patrick Wolfe and Caroline Hoxby argue that a more market-driven approach involving competition between schools, plus other factors such as vouchers, school autonomy and external examinations, leads to stronger outcomes.

Based on the assumption that the existence of non-government schools facilitate school choice and, thus, competition between schools Woessmann and Hanushek conclude “students in countries with privately managed educational institutions scored significantly higher in both mathematics and science”.

In the OECD Working Paper No 15, also involving Woessmann, the argument is put that governments supporting school choice by properly funding non-government schools is also beneficial.

The paper notes, “In short, a level playing field between public and private schools in terms of government funding seems to create an environment of choice and competition that raises student achievement”.

As noted by the US researcher Patrick Wolfe, the benefits of school choice are also proven by the Milwaukee school voucher and charter school programmes where students in such schools outperform public school students in reading and gaining entry to college.

Instead of increasing disadvantage and leading to greater inequity in education it is also true that many of the voucher and school charter programs in places like Washington DC, Florida and Milwaukee successfully serve disadvantaged communities.

Contrary to the argument that school choice, represented by the presence of Catholic and independent schools, leads to nearby government schools underperforming both Ludger Woessmann and Caroline Hoxby argue that a more market-driven approach represents a tide that will lift all boats.

Balwyn High School in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, where non-government schools predominate, provides a good example.  The pressure of losing enrolments to nearby high performing non-government schools is proving a powerful incentive for Balwyn High to achieve equally as good, if not stronger, academic results.

Trevor Cobbold’s statement that “Bipartisan support for more competition between schools has created one of the most highly competitive education systems in the world” is also open to question.

The PISA in Focus report’s definition of competition, on which Cobbold basis his claim, is  “the percentage of students in schools whose principals reported that one or more schools compete for students in the same residential area”.

Not only is there no independent evidence confirming what is anecdotal in nature but, based on Caroline Hoxby’s definition of a market-based model of school choice and competition, Australia’s education system is not a market-driven one.

Take the example of the Western Australian Independent Public Schools initiative.  While often criticised for opening the floodgates to unwarranted competition and choice in education such schools are still very much part of the state controlled education bureaucracy.

Schools, while being granted greater autonomy over staffing, budget and curriculum focus compared to other state schools, must enrol students living within their enrolment zone and do not have full control over staff in relation to conditions of employment.

The absence of parental choice, represented by school vouchers that would allow the money each student is entitled to follow the student whether to a government or non-government school, also proves that we do not have a market-driven system.

It’s also the case that there are many government and non-government schools, especially in rural and regional Australia, where government and non-government schools, instead of competing against one another, share facilities, staff and resources.

In Victoria, for example and as noted in a recent Age story, in the small rural town of Nathalia St Mary of the Angels and Nathalia Secondary College share VCE and VCAL subjects.  In Kyabram government and Catholic secondary schools have jointly established a trade training centre that is available to all students, regardless of school attended.

When measuring success and arguing that competition between schools is not beneficial the OECD’s PISA In Focus paper bases its claim on only one measure, performance in the 2012 PISA test results for mathematics.

At a time when the tide is turning against measuring school success or students’ learning outcomes by one dimensional, standardised test results it should be noted that there are many other measures that should be used when evaluating the success or otherwise of schools.

via Competition between schools – On Line Opinion – 11/9/2014.

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