If it’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well?
League tables work well in sports. The way the competition is defined means that ‘games won’ really is the dominant factor in ordering teams, it matters who is at the top, and people don’t try to use the table for inappropriate purposes such as deciding which team to support. For schools and hospitals, not so much.
The main problems with league tables for schools (as proposed in NZ) or hospitals (as implemented in the UK) are, first, that a ranking requires you to choose a way of collapsing multidimensional information into a rank, and second, that there is usually massive uncertainty in the ranking, which is hard to convey. There doesn’t have to be one school in NZ that is better than all the others, but there does have to be one school at the top of the table. None of this is new: we have looked at the problems of collapsing multidimensional information before, with rankings of US law schools, and the uncertainty problem with rates of bowel cancer across UK local government areas.
This isn’t to say that school performance data shouldn’t be used. Reporting back to schools how they are doing, and how it compares to other similar schools, is valuable. My first professional software development project (for my mother) was writing a program (in BASIC, driving an Epson dot-matrix printer) to automate the reports to hospitals from the Victorian Perinatal Data Collection Unit. The idea was to give each hospital the statewide box plots of risk factors (teenagers, no ante-natal care), adverse outcomes (deaths, preterm births, malformations), and interventions (induction of labor, caesarean section), with their own data highlighted by a line. Many of the adverse outcomes were not the hospital’s fault, and many of the interventions could be either positive or negative depending on the circumstances, so collapsing to a single ‘hospital quality’ score would be silly, but it was still useful for hospitals to know how they compare. In that case the data was sent only to the hospital, but for school data there’s a good argument for making it public.
While it’s easy to see why teachers might be suspicious of the government’s intentions, the rationale given by John Key for exploring some form of official league table is sensible. It’s definitely better not to have a simple ranking, and it might arguably be better not to have a set of official comparative reports, but the data are available under the Official Information Act. The media may currently be shocked and appalled at the idea of league tables, but does anyone really believe this would stop a plague of incomplete, badly-analyzed, sensationally-reported exposés of “New Zealand’s Worst Schools!!”? It would be much better for the Department of Education to produce useful summaries, preferably not including a league-table ranking, as a prophylactic measure.
Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. See all posts by Thomas Lumley »