A year since the first partnership schools opened their doors JUDE BARBACK considers what the first independent evaluation of the model should be considering.

With four more partnership schools opening their doors this year, and more likely to follow, charter school opponents are eager for evidence to support their arguments that partnership schools either won’t work, will threaten public education, or both.

Struggling Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru has seemingly provided the proof they have been seeking that partnership schools won’t work.

Whangaruru – the scapegoat

Poor Whangaruru. Besieged by infighting, bullying, drug use, poor teaching and a falling roll, there is no doubt that Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru is the weak link in the chain of the five fledgling partnership schools.

It was always going to be a challenging school, given the large proportion of students who have been out of education for years. The Ministry is helping the school work through its problems, and its reluctance to set a precedent with closing a school in such a short time frame can be understood. But how long will this approach continue before the decision is made to close the school, and direct the Whangaruru funding elsewhere? From the outset, the Ministry promised transparency around reporting on partnership schools, and it promised it would close them down if they were failing.

As Rose Patterson recently stated in the New Zealand Herald, the whole point of charter schools is that innovation is fine as long as failure is acknowledged and eliminated.

“The success of the charter school model is predicated on eliminating failure. Schools are given much more rope. They innovate and try new things to improve learning and serve their students. But the corollary of that is sometimes they will hang themselves with that rope.”

Opposition against charter schools runs so deep that an actual example of a failing school prompts opponents to affirm their claims that the entire charter school model is, as Labour education spokesperson Chris Hipkins described it, “fundamentally flawed”.

Such a claim might be considered unfair based on the successful first year experienced by the other four partnership schools to open in 2014. The success or failure of an entire model shouldn’t be attributed to the performance of one school, but rather the overall impact and effectiveness of the charter schools on New Zealand education.

Good reports – but are they enough?

The problem is, for those desperate to know the impact and effectiveness of the model, the number of schools and students is small and it is perhaps too soon to tell.

That said, four out of the five partnership schools have performed well in their first year, according to their Education Review Office (ERO) reviews.  Vanguard Military School is said to have made “a very good start to its operation”. At South Auckland Middle School the “small class sizes, the well-organised timetable and teacher expertise in subject areas contribute to a sense of academic purpose for the students”.

However, a favourable ERO review and good results are, on their own, not enough to convince an already sceptical sector. To support these measures, it is necessary to ask not only whether students are achieving, but how well they are achieving compared to similar cohorts of students outside the charter schools system.

An earlier Cabinet Paper Developing and Implementing a New Zealand Model of Charter School stated that “a strong evaluation programme will be put in place that thoroughly examines the impact and effectiveness of the first such schools”.

The evaluation programme will consist of an independent evaluation of the Partnership Schools model, to support other forms of evaluation, namely the schools’ data provided to the Ministry, their ERO reviews, and the oversight of the Authorisation Board. The Ministry has confirmed that this independent evaluation has been contracted to Martin Jenkins Ltd and is underway with the first report expected to be completed mid-2015.

However, information on the process indicates the independent evaluation will take a more inward focus on the schools rather than delving into the sort of comparative analysis necessary to draw any real conclusions about the impact partnerships schools are having on New Zealand education.

Instead, the evaluation plan will focus, over a four-year period, on how schools are using the Partnership Schools model to deliver a different education to state schools, on how they are interacting with family, and what has helped or hindered implementation. It will then look at how the schools are developing conditions to achieve their outcomes, and by the third year whether the schools are actually achieving these outcomes.

Evaluation – outward focus needed

The evaluation process, including the schools data and ERO reviews, is bound to give a clear picture of whether the partnership schools are performing well or not. What it doesn’t look set to do is consider partnership schools’ performance in the context of other schools, which is the main concern of charter school critics.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) is particularly perturbed by the apparent lack of comparative analysis.

“We’re concerned that the New Zealand public are never going to really know the impact of charter schools,” says president Angela Roberts. “There are a couple of things that the Ministry has to do to show us their impact.”

The first is to do a “high-quality, matched cohort evaluation” – essentially comparing the outcomes of the students in charter schools with the outcomes of students from a group who are, as far as possible, similar.

Roberts says comparisons made on the basis of ethnicity or decile alone is not adequate. Instead, comparisons should also take into account the fact that students have chosen to attend a partnership school – the motivation factor.

In the United States, it is possible to compare students on these bases, evaluating the performance of students who were granted a place in a charter school through a ballot or lottery system, against those who missed out. Recent US research compared students in regular state schools with those in schools that were converted from state schools to charter schools, thus eliminating the motivation factor.

However, in New Zealand the partnership model is much too small and new to be able to make these sorts of comparisons.

The second thing that Roberts says the evaluation should be looking at is the impact on the other schools near the charter schools.

“If the charter schools are getting great outcomes for their students, but the surrounding schools all have worse outcomes, then what we’d be seeing is simply that the motivated students are changing schools. This doesn’t seem to be what anyone wanted from the policy.”

Under this logic, it would seem partnership schools are doomed whichever way you look at it: better outcomes than neighbouring schools mean they are damaging state education; worse outcomes mean the partnership schools are failing, and the same outcomes mean the schools are pointless.

So, despite the first measure – comparing student cohorts – being almost impossible to evaluate, and the second – determining the impact on other schools – likely to result in only negative outcomes for charter schools, the PPTA claims that without a thorough analysis of these two measures, any evaluation of the partnership school model will fail to expose their true impact on New Zealand education.

The fact is that the PPTA, like many sector groups, remains strongly opposed to charter schools. At times over the past 12 months its opposition has taken an ugly presence, but more recently the union appears to be focusing less on direct attacks on individual schools, and more on the ideological arguments against the model.

Charter school critics believe that partnership schools are robbing New Zealand’s state schools of students, resources and funding. The main argument is that the funding per student is considerably higher than state schools. It follows that the more aspiring families in low decile areas are likely to choose the partnership schools, removing role models from the nearby state school and further disadvantaging the community.

Meanwhile, proponents don’t perceive charter schools as an attack on state education, but rather a means of providing an alternative option to students who may not be achieving under the current system.

No one can feel bad about an increase in students’ achievement, and hopefully this is what the independent evaluation of partnership schools will reveal. However, whether or not students’ achievement is to the detriment of students in nearby state schools is a valid concern. It may well be difficult to probe these issues in any evaluation of partnership schools, but if the model is to work alongside our state education, it must be addressed.

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