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The Nation: NZ Initiative's Oliver Hartwich

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews The New Zealand Initiative's Executive Director Oliver Hartwich

How do you rate a secondary school's performance?

For many parents the decile rating becomes the default measure.

But libertarian think tank The New Zealand Initiative has crunched the numbers and come up with a new tool they say is better.

Simon Shepherd began by asking Director Oliver Hartwich why did The New Zealand Initiative decided to develop this tool?

Hartwich: Well, because often you hear parents think that you have to send kids to a higher decile school to get a better school performance, and we think that is not quite accurate because we think there are some schools in the lower deciles that are doing a phenomenal job. But so far, they couldn’t see this in the data because typically what you do is you just see how many NCEA credits they generate, how many university entrance qualifications these schools generate. But you never really account for the differences in students attending these schools.

Right, so why are those particular schools’ NCEA pass rates not good enough?

Well, because actually sometimes it matters not just what the school does, but actually what kind of kids you’re dealing with, and what kind of family backgrounds you’re dealing with. So of course, if you’re looking at lower decile schools, you’re dealing with students who are coming from different socio-economic backgrounds, and therefore would have had parents that don’t read to them, perhaps, or maybe they come from a background where the parents don’t have a tertiary education. And then it’s not surprising that these kids also struggle at school where kids coming from different backgrounds actually have a much better background, really, that enables them to thrive at school. So it’s not really the schools themselves actually contributing to their students’ success.

Right. Okay, so you decide to crunch a whole lot of data that you got from Stats New Zealand. It’s 400,000 secondary students from 485 schools — that’s an enormous amount of data. How far did you go into that data?

Basically what you have to imagine — in New Zealand we have a data set in Stats New Zealand that is a data set like no other country has. So we have, actually, a government that has integrated all existing data, whether you are paying taxes or whether you’re dealing with a welfare system or whether you’re dealing with criminal justice, and all of this data goes into this one data set. And you can get access to it as a researcher—

So you guys did, right?

We did. Of course, this is anonymised. We can’t see any names, we can’t see addresses.
Okay.

There are strict confidentiality rules, so you don’t have to be afraid of that. But you can use real data to figure out what’s happening in our schools, and we did that. So basically, we did it for 400,000 students, and we looked at all of their family backgrounds.

All right. So on the basis of that, where would you send your kids to school? If you’re trying to strip out the socio-economic background of a school and that school’s performance, where would you send your kids to school?

See, I can’t tell you at the moment because we are not allowed to take that data out of the data lab yet. We can tell on average that when we’re looking across all deciles, we have 85% of all schools in the country performing as you would expect them to perform, given the student populations they serve. But we couldn’t tell you, at this stage, an individual school is working well or not.

So you can’t pinpoint each school, but—

Because we’re not allowed to by confidentiality rules.

But you can tell me from this data that 80% of schools are performing the same?

85% of schools are performing as we would expect them to perform, given the students they serve. And what we found also was, that in each decile you find schools that are over-performing and schools that are under-performing.

Right.

So actually, that is the message, really, from our report, is not to accept the status quo as a given. We think we should improve, but we should say we have to learn from those schools in the lower deciles that are doing a fantastic job. We want to figure out what’s going on in these schools. We would like to send people from the ministry into the schools once we’ve identified them and figure out what is so different about these schools — what can we learn, what can we share?

So the decile one and twos that are out-performing everybody else. That’s something that you’d like to get involved in?

Exactly.

Okay. Why is the New Zealand Initiative, which is, sort of like, a think-tank which is sponsored by CEOs and business, involving itself in education?

Well, obviously because education is the single biggest factor for long-term prosperity. We want to lift productivity levels. We want to make sure that this is a prosperous country, where people from all sorts of backgrounds have a good chance in life, and education is the key factor in all of this.

Okay. A school doesn’t exist in isolation, right? So how— Is this just an academic exercise, really? Because you can’t separate a community from its school, can you?

It is not an academic exercise. It is actually a revolutionary tool, and actually it would enable the Minister of Education to be the most revolutionary education minister in the world because no other country has the database like New Zealand, and no other country has a tool now that we have developed like ours.

Okay. So you’ve run it past the Education Minister, what does he say?

He’s absolutely interested in it because he can see the revolutionary aspects of this. He can see that it will enable him to do his job better because he could actually test education policies. He could see what works, what doesn’t work. He could actually help the Education Review Office to check on the performance of schools. But we think the benefits of the model go far beyond that. We think this is something that should be available to all principals, to all boards of trustees because we think they should want to know how they’re performing, how their schools are performing.

So you’re talking about an annual report card on each school?

Absolutely. At the end of the school year, push that button, and let us see what that school did.

Okay. Oliver Hartwich from the New Zealand Initiative, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.


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