Wednesday, 7 December 2011

More on Charter Schools

I have no doubt that John Pagani is wrong about the charter schools proposal. My fear is that Banks and Key are making the same mistake.

Pagani starts off with similar criticisms to Dim-Post linked to by Eric yesterday: Charter schools will cherry pick the best students and then use raw achievement results to trumpet their success; they will charge top-up fees to provide be able to afford better resourced schools, etc. He may be right, he may not be; the devil is in the details that have not been worked out yet. I hope he is wrong, but I will avoid cheering the policy before the details are known. But this is not why I say that Pagani is clearly wrong. It is this comment that misses the point:
The problem is this: If there is something that a charter school can do better than a state school, why don't we make the state school do it?
This is where I fear that Key and Banks are making the same mistake. The point is not that there is clear evidence that there is an alternative way of doing things that are better and that charter schools will deliver on this. Eric has pointed to useful U.S. studies, but we don't know anything in a New Zealand context. We simply don't know what will work, and experimenting with different approaches will give us useful information. So here is my plea to all the parties involved:
  1. Please, all read Tim Harford's Adapt.
  2. Involve competent social scientists in the design of the policy, with a view to making sure that useful data is available by which different schools and the system as a whole can be judged. This will involve both making sure that there is some random assignment of students to schools, and also making sure that similar data is collected in areas where the system isn't trialed to tease out whether any differences in outcome between charter and state schools is because of an effect on both with no change in the aggregate. 
  3. To the Government: make it your stated policy that this is a trial and that you are not committed to the model if it doesn't seem to work;
  4. To the Opposition: make it your stated policy that you accept that this is a trial and that, while you have doubts, you are interested in investigating anything that might help our education system, and will keep an open mind while waiting to see outcome data.


  1. 3 should be easy. Its ACTs policy so National can keep the necessary distance to ensure political fall out from a failure leaves them laughing on along with the cockroaches, yet still be able to bask in the warm light of a success.

    They bought a policy option. Nice position to be in.

    4 is impossible. Labour, NZF, and especially the Greens have no incentive to act like adults. Expect hysterical cries from Labour/Unions throughout the trial.

  2. A very sensible plea.
    It's hard to see Labour going along with things, though. They're genetically predisposed to dumping anything that looks like it'll work, and then they bring in their own crap instead (think Working for Families).

  3. @Kimble,

    3 would be easy but for 4. As long as the opposition show intent to make any political capital out of a trial's lack of success, then a government can't keep an open mind about rejecting a trial if there is a lack of success. Which means 2 is impossible; a government that knows that it will lose political capital from a failed experiment cannot afford to collect data that might show conclusively whether a trial has been a success or failure.

    So what we need is a more adult level of politics in opposition rather than the silly "the job of the opposition is to oppose, oppose, oppose".

    But @Kimble and @Thor 42. You can't single out Labour or the left for this. The Nats are equally culpable of this kind of politics when in opposition.