Fair and Frank: Global Insights for Managing School Performance

20 February, 2017

All children deserve access to a quality schooling experience. Unfortunately, the Initiative’s reports show that New Zealand has a long way to go yet.

But, in New Zealand, we resist talking about school failure. And even where school failure is visible, sometimes government interventions have been ineffective. The result is that thousands of students end up receiving a sub-par education.

Learning from failure lets organisations adapt and survive tough times. But organisations that stigmatise error discourage innovation and hide their failures. These organisations are eventually weeded out in competitive markets. But things are different in the New Zealand schooling sector. Other mechanisms are needed to measure and manage school performance.

We went abroad to see how other countries handle the problem. 


Figure 1: School review reports (England and New Zealand)

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England's effort to transform its failing schools: Shaking up the status quo

  • Parents in England do not have to second-guess if a school is good or inadequate. School review reports clearly point to where each school is effective and where it’s lacking (Figure 1). 
  • In 2002, the Academies policy introduced independently run but state-funded academies to replace failing schools. In an effort to inject fresh ideas into the sector, private and voluntary parties were invited to invest capital and expertise to improve schools. 
  • The policy, which politicians of all colours supported with rare accord, has transformed England’s schooling landscape. Over a quarter of all state schools are now academies.
  • Time, money, expertise and school-to-school collaboration have contributed to success for the earliest group of academies, particularly for secondary school students. The failings of more recent academies have been attributed to a lack of performance oversight, rapid expansion, and fewer high quality sponsors.

New York City charter schools: One Big Apple solution for disadvantaged students

  • New York City’s charter schools are highly desired by students who had disproportionately failed in traditional state schools. Many in Harlem, one of the city’s poorest areas, attend charter schools and the choice for these students has, in general, paid off (Table 1). 
  • Parents have been demanding more seats in charter schools than are currently available. In 2016, 98% of students applying for charter schools were selected through a random lottery as schools were oversubscribed.
  • Some of the most effective charters in the city have delivered on their promise to act as hubs of new ideas so other schools can learn from their successes.


Table 1: Learning gains in NYC charter schools compared to district schools 

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SOURCE: Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (CREDO), "Charter School Performance in New York City" (Stanford, California: Stanford University, 20 February 2013).

Massachusetts: Where complacency is not an option

  • Though a national leader in educational rankings, Massachusetts also has stubborn achievement gaps and failing schools.
  • The school restart model provides an opportunity for the state to partner with successful education management organisations to improve student outcomes.
  • Students in the turn-around schools got almost half a year worth of additional learning in a year in maths across grades. 

The District of Columbia: How much teachers matter

  • The District of Columbia has gone from the worst performing jurisdiction in education to the fastest improving in America. 
  • Reforms focused on improving the quality of teachers. Prior to 2009-10 school year, teachers were subjected to the traditional step-raise structure that rewards time in the job rather than success in the classroom. 
  • The IMPACT appraisal system implemented in 2009-10 school year, among others, helps isolate the impact of teachers from other factors contributing to student achievement outside the classroom.
  • Schools are now able to better identify and reward their most effective teachers. Information from the evaluation also serves as a basis for tailored professional development. Ineffective teachers are usually replaced with better performing teachers who improve student achievement.
  • The District’s teaching profession has become highly valued with quality teachers among the highest paid in the country and more of them choosing the District as a place of work.

Figure 2: Teacher career ladder in D.C

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Source: District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), "IMPACT: The District of Columbia Public Schools Effectiveness Assessment System for School-Based Personnel 2015-2016" (Washington, DC: 2015).

The Houston opportunity: Implementing lessons from successful schools

  • Faced with dire educational outcomes, Houston leaders looked to other successful schools for inspiration and guidance.
  • The political courage Houston leaders showed in partnering with academics led to a nation first: applying evidence-based practices from successful charter schools to traditional public schools.
  • Convinced by the evidence of what worked in other schools, the federal government, and the philanthropic and Houston communities made significant investments in order to tackle persistent poor performance. 
  • There were observable improvements in maths performance in each year of the programme although it is not clear whether the gains were sustained beyond the programme’s duration.

Policy analysis documents, ours included, often talk about school performance in terms of statistics and data points. But behind these statistics are young pupils with potentially bright futures. Our future doctors, engineers and administrators will come from the students in classrooms today. But students depend on the adults in their lives, their parents, principals, and teachers to help them unleash their potential.

Looking abroad, we can see what’s possible when politicians will not accept failure as status quo and have the courage to do the politically challenging.

New Zealand needs to be much bolder in the way it measures and responds to school performance with the learners at the heart of all solutions. The third and final report will recommend how New Zealand can achieve this so that every student can get access to adequate schooling. 

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