So how did your school go?

The ‘League tables’ that often emerge in the media at year’s end are important and valuable. They are also imperfect measures that don’t reflect reality.

So another year draws to a close and with it (at least here in Australia) the class of 2012 wraps up. All that really matters now is for these graduates to see what their future holds. Indeed that was the only thing that mattered from the start really. For some this means seeking full time employment immediately, while others work to secure apprenticeships or wait for offers in tertiary courses.

My concern in this post however is for the schools that they now leave. On the one hand their job is done. However, there would be few schools that don’t reflect intensely on the academic achievements of this finishing cohort and scrutinize it for meaning. Is there credit to be taken? Reflected glory to bask in? Rueful lessons to learn?

You know, ‘What do their marks say about us?’ kinda thing.

I’ve always thought this is a commendable, even valuable, exercise. I also find it extremely frustrating because I feel it’s never done properly. There’s an enormous amount of statistical information collected on students who complete high school in all education systems but, inevitably, this suffers from over-simplification when it is published.

In this State (Victoria) the one stat that rules them all like some malicious Tolkein magical item is the school’s ‘subject mean study score’.  This is a number out of 50 and is therefore easy to comprehend. All schools will have their own individual benchmarks for this but to put it into some perspective, any school that rates itself as a high performing academic institution will be asking searching questions if this metric falls below 34.

I could liken this to the Olympic medal tally that utterly dominates and ruins the Games for me every four years however that would bug me so much I’d probably never finish the post. Instead I’ll try to convey my criticism through the analogy of music – far more soothing don’t you think?

First of all I ask you to watch this clip from the movie ‘Rhapsody in Blue – the George Gershwin story’. See you back here in ten minutes.

Hopefully you enjoyed that. I always do. If you fell asleep however skip to the last 3 minutes.

Obviously the cuts to audience members were to show the important folk in Gershwin’s life – at least as far as the movie was concerned. For my purposes I’d draw your attention in particular to the elderly couple in the audience were supposed to be George Gershwin’s parents. Throughout the movie Gershwin’s dad is portrayed as a proud and supportive figure who simply cannot appreciate music but knows that important pieces are long. Hence the watch. Actually, when you think about it, he’s not wrong but of course he completely misses the point.

It strikes me that this parallels perfectly an obsession society has for educational standards and knowing how ‘we’re going’.

Media all over the world love to show the academic achievement of students in schools and publish this information like a league table.

They do this because their readers love to see how ‘their’ school compares to others. Their interest is genuine and I don’t mean to question it so much as suggest the exercise simplifies and exaggerates something that is rhapsodic in complexity.

In any school you care to focus on I assure you the students there will have experienced an academic journey with a myriad of struggles, challenges, successes, failures, effort, apathy, improvement and regression. There are valuable lessons to be learnt from their journey and looking at the statistical information that is acquired is incredibly useful (if carefully appraised as a whole) in preparing the future cohorts for their journeys.

But what usually captures everyone’s attention is how much the mean study score will look in the paper and this misses the point as much as Pa Gershwin and his stopwatch.

I’ll give you an example. Think about all the students that rarely if ever see an ‘A’ in six years of highschool, yet commendably stick it out and graduate with unimpressive study scores. There are a fair few students like this out there. They get no credit for perserverence in this exercise. These students drop their school’s mean average and imply someone wasn’t trying hard enough. Infact, the study score would look far better if they weren’t so determenied and just dropped out. Hey there’s a thought! Lets just ‘encourage’ all the low achievers to go somewhere else!

For the record, let me state now that, if I thought I was involved in a system that tried to ‘weed’ students like this out, I’d quit tomorrow and become a lawn mower man. At least there the same activity is genuinely useful and wont doom your soul.

Anyway, back to Gershwin. A quick search on Wikipedia before writing this showed me that not a lot is known about his parents. I suppose this was the excuse for the movie to spin a fairly unrealistic narrative around the dad. At no point does the movie suggest he was anything less than a proud and doting father though. Similarly I’m not out to demonise people who read these lists. Heck I read the lists! Proud and doting parents or alumni may read these lists with my approval. Just don’t read the lists and think it’s an accurate reflection of a schools’ worth.

If you’re wondering what actually does constitute an accurate reflection of a schools’ worth, you’ll have to wait for a future post. But I’ll give you a quick hint. If the real life father of George Gershwin was ever in any doubt as to the quality of his son’s achievements, all he had to do was put the watch down and look around at the audience.

3 thoughts on “So how did your school go?

  1. As a Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) teacher I totally agree. I have one to offer. While very disappointed at my English students results, it has made me reflect why? I worked no less than I did in my middle class school of ten years, maybe much harder. Yet I was confronted by a very different student approach to their studies and one in particular stood out. Yes I believe absolutely that students from low socio-economic backgrounds can succeed at high academic levels, I am from such a background. However what I particularly noticed was how part-time jobs were far more important to these 17 and 18 year-olds than in my previous school and how much time these jobs ate into study time. In talking to them, it seems that for maybe the first time they had disposable income and the lure of this income competed with their study time and ambition to a huge extent. How to get around this? I don’t have the answers. Yet.

  2. Can’t seem to let this one go but I’ll just write this and try my very best to step away from the table.If you should bump into a recent graduate you haven’t seen since results came out (as I did earlier today) here’s what you do.
    1. Ask them “Did you get what you need?” and if they say yes you congratulate them and share their joy because nothing else matters.
    2. If they say no ask them “So what do you need to do now to get there?” and if they explain their plan share in their positivity because nothing else matters.
    3.If they lead you to believe they have no plan you encourage them not to give up and take any and all opprotunities they can because, guess what, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!

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