Earlier this week, I went in for a blood draw. I revealed myself as an American, the nurse said, not by my accent, but because I gave my date of birth in the wrong order. After explaining to her why I’m here, she said, “So you’re coming here to study our messed-up education system?” I was taken aback; I’d heard mostly great things about the education system here. The nurse said that maybe 10-15 years ago, New Zealand had something to brag about, but since then, it’s gone downhill. Subjects like physical education, swimming, and woodshop, once taught in every school, are no longer funded adequately, and then she started talking about the decile system.
The decile system is used to determine the amount of funding a school receives. It is based on the proportion of its students in the school who come from the poorest households. The lower a school’s decile, the more funding it gets. School deciles are public knowledge. A quick search told me that Eliza’s school is a decile 7. This system is intended only as a tool to determine school funding, not as a measure of the quality of the school. Perhaps the intentions are good. After all, schools with higher needs are given more resources to meet those needs.
Here’s why it’s controversial. Even if the decile system only measures household income, people associate higher income with better quality. It is surprising to me that the Ministry did not anticipate the consequences of making this system public. Critics, like my nurse, say that it contributes to social stratification and limits people’s ability to move beyond their socio-economic status. Okay, my nurse didn’t say all that, but she did say it’s a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. The system has a stigmatizing effect, making it difficult for lower decile schools to attract new families or outside funding. Although not intended, deciles are used by schools and sometimes real estate agents as a marketing tool to attract families to a school or neighborhood.
In Chicago, schools are rated using the School Quality Rating Procedure or SQRP. The SQRP is used to communicate information about quality of the school to parents. Schools receive a rating with 1+ being the highest and 3 being the lowest. It’s also used to guide decisions about schools, including whether to restructure or close a school. This score is based on standardized test scores, attendance, graduation rates, and the results of a survey designed to assess the climate of the school. Like the decile system, anyone can view a school’s rating online. Although socio-economic information is not included in the SQRP, schools in poorer neighborhoods tend to have lower ratings than schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Because of the school choice movement in Chicago, families with the means to do so will send their children and their resources to the highest ranked schools. Even the difference between a Level 1 and a Level 1+ can be a deciding factor for parents. Schools in Chicago are funded based on the number of students in the school. When students move to a higher rated school, the lower ranked school loses funding. A loss of funding usually means cuts to teachers, programs, counselors, or school resources, making it increasingly difficult for that school to change its rating or attract new families.
While different in intention and purpose, the decile system and the SQRP draw controversy for the same reasons. Neither system gives a comprehensive view of the school, yet are used by parents and the public to compare schools and teachers. People in New Zealand and in Chicago share the concern that these systems, instead of increasing equity among public schools, segregate neighborhoods and make it more difficult for people to break out of cyclical poverty.