Thursday, June 4, 2015

Inequality and the decile rating system

In the recent budget the government announced an increase of $25 a week for beneficiaries - the largest increase since 1972, though they have to wait a year to start seeing this come in. It's a positive move from the government but it is such a tiny drop in the bucket in terms of addressing the growing inequality in New Zealand society. Since the 1980s NZ has faced growing inequality as our society has focussed on competition and conspicuous consumption, rather than collaboration. This is well illustrated on the inequality website graphic here. Sadly, children become major casualties of growing inequality in New Zealand.

One of my current concerns as an educator is the challenges faced by lower decile schools battling the public perception that lower decile, means poorer quality education. Decile ratings are funding mechanisms set to help address the financial disadvantages faced by communities these schools and in no way measure the effectiveness of a school, or the quality of teachers employed there. However, there is no denying the clear trends being exhibited, that overall higher decile schools exhibit higher NCEA pass rates, on average than lower decile schools. The reasons why are so complex and the stories behind the statistics are rarely told but a large part is due to socio-economic factors and cultural capital of the families. There is a strong link between parental circumstances and children's outcomes, whatever school they go to. Lower decile school's will have students from a range of families, but the lower the decile, the lower the average family income. Many of these families face the day to day demands and stresses of constrained choices. Limited resources result in daily decisions on where best to put limited resources. They don't always have the luxury of prioritising education as the stresses of daily survival. In contrast, higher income families can afford to have the choices other families don't enjoy. Their kids can enjoy a range of opportunities that others can't - here's money for camp, the field trip, for the sports fees, for the misplaced uniform item, for the new pair of shoes, for the workbook and the stationery. Then if schooling hits a stumbling block there's the private tuition that can be readily accessed. High income provides choices and opportunities lower income families don't have the luxury of experiencing. Advantage heaps further advantage - through expectation and access to opportunity.

So the trend of decile rating and achievement is as expected - it would be surprising if it wasn't. That said, I still find the publishing of NCEA data and statistics, without the stories behind them, so wrong I despair each time I see them. How can schools of such different sorts be compared. As an example, how can a school with no special education students, no refugee or migrant students be compared to a school who welcomes students with special education needs, welcomes refugees and migrants who are adjusting to a culture and society so radically different from where they've come from and are faced with learning in a high stakes assessment in a second language in which they have limited knowledge of. How can a school which retains students and helps them through levels of schooling and successful transition into work be compared to a school which retains far fewer students and does little to aide their transition into meaningful employment or further training? Statistics and league tables never tell anything about these stories, and as a NZ society, which of these schools do we want in our community?

At the end of the day we have a massive issue to address though. Education offers a significant pathway out of poverty and inequality, yet the public interpretation of our current decile rating, and the resulting complex array of flow-on effects this has, simply reinforces the inequality it set out to address. Undoing this is no simple task but it is something we need to face together as a society, where we see all of society benefiting from the success of each and every individual within it. We all need to be part of the solution by bold decisions to support our schools and not get sucked into seeing decile ratings and league tables as a quality of education score.