Sitting on the floor of their library, the dozens of students dressed in red and navy blue were an eager audience. Parkinson and the others explained how students are placed in their classes and what kinds of activities they can take part in during fifth period, such as beginner golf, orchestra, and karate. They mentioned a brand new sports facility that was under construction, called the “BBI Sports Cloud,” noting that incoming seventh-year students will be the first class to have use of these basketball and netball courts for their entire Intermediate School careers.
Students asked questions about science classes, whether there was a biking team and if they would have chances to play dodgeball. (The answer to the last one was yes, prompting a wave of hushed, happy murmurs.)
“Who’s excited?” Parkinson asked at the end of the visit. Almost every hand in the room went up.
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Other principals don’t even bother to spend time and energy recruiting students. In rural Greta Valley, located about an hour north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, Principal Malin Stone takes a more laid-back approach. He says he’s happy to show any prospective parent around the tiny Greta Valley Primary School, which has two multi-age classrooms that serve first- through sixth-year students, but doesn’t pressure them to choose his school. He also deliberately tries to minimize the competitive feeling between his schools and others. Any time an interested parent stops by, for instance, he’ll call their child’s current school to let the principal know.
Similarly, he believes that if a family wants to leave his school, it probably means they’re not a good match. “If they don’t want to be here, we don’t really want them here,” he said.
Currently, two families who live closest to Greta Valley chose to go to another school, and three families bypass their local school to come to Greta Valley. But, they have to drive their kids there each day.
That’s another reason school choice hasn’t had the impact its supporters may have hoped in New Zealand: New Zealand only provides direct buses for students who attend their closest school. (Students not attending their local school can get on the bus at any point in its route, but this generally still requires extra travel on the family’s part.) So, the degree of choice parents have largely depends on where they live and what their resources are.
Victoria King wasn’t impressed by the local school when she was making her decision last year, so she drives her 6-year-old son about 20 minutes each way to get him to Greta Valley every day. She’s not sure if she’ll keep doing so, though. She’s taking on more responsibilities at the family’s farm, and has heard promising things about the impact a new principal is having at her local school.
“I am having to work out if the hour-and-a-half travelling a day for an excellent school balances up better than potentially having more time and also having better quality time with my children,” she said. “If the bus from Greta Valley were to come much closer to our house, I wouldn’t change schools at all.”
King originally looked at two other schools before picking the 40-student Greta Valley. She liked the teachers and the small size, and believed her son would get plenty of attention. She says she knew almost instantly after walking into Greta Valley’s campus that it was the right school. “It took no more than two and a half seconds” to decide, she said.
Parents often rely on gut feelings when choosing schools. Location, extracurricular activities, and current or past attendance by other family members are also important considerations. And that’s another likely reason why school choice here hasn’t had the effect advocates hoped for. Academics aren’t always on the top of the list when parents choose a school and – even when they are – parents don’t always know what quality looks like.
That means there’s no guarantee that parent choices will empty out low-performing schools or fill up high quality ones.
The country’s Education Review Office publishes reports on the quality of education at each school, which includes information about student performance, curriculum and leadership, about once every three years. At the elementary school level, parents can also look up what percentage of students meet national standards each year, and at the high school level, the pass rates of an optional national exam are available.
A 2015 NZCER survey found just 18 percent of parents or guardians of New Zealand high schoolers said they looked at a school’s annual test scores when choosing a school. By comparison, 23 percent said they looked at the school website and two-thirds attended open houses at the schools.
The same survey found that 35 percent of parents said academic results informed their choice — the same percentage that said a child’s friend going to a school was a factor.
The results track with international data. An 11-country survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that more parents said it was “very important” to consider a school’s reputation, safety and “active and pleasant environment” than its academic achievement. Research in the United States has also found that parents look at a variety of factors in addition to academics when making a school selection.
In some ways, that can be a good thing. Just about anyone in education would agree schools should be judged on more than just test scores. The New Zealand government explicitly warns families against picking schools based on only national standard results. But when parents are given free rein to choose schools, they may also consider non-academic factors that are problematic: the race and income of a school’s students.
Critics around the world have worried that one unintended consequence of more school choice is more segregation. U.S. studies have found charter schools can exacerbate segregation.
In New Zealand, segregation is also on the rise, researchers say.
Minority students in New Zealand, including indigenous Maori, are concentrated in the nation’s poorest schools, while fewer than 1 percent of students of European descent are enrolled in schools with the highest number of low-income students. Other research has shown that the number of students in poor schools is decreasing overall, while the number in rich schools is growing, suggesting that parents with means are increasingly turning away from low-income schools.
“We’ve started this white flight and class flight,” said Liz Gordon, managing director of Pukeko Research, a New Zealand-based group that focuses on education, social services and justice. “It was not based on the quality of the school.” She said that middle and upper-middle class families in New Zealand tend to trade up, picking schools just above their own social class.
New Zealand has inadvertently made it very easy for parents to pick and choose based on the demographic profile of a school. The country’s education funding system labels each school as decile 1 through 10 based on the socioeconomic makeup of its students. A decile 1 school has the poorest population, while a decile 10 school has the richest. Lower-decile schools get extra money. Critics warn that a well-intentioned funding system has become a way for wealthy parents to avoid schools with low-income students.
Hokitika Primary School is a decile 4 school in a small town on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. When acting Principal Nicola Minehan moved to the small town two years ago, locals advised her against applying for a job at Hokitika Primary School. She changed her mind when she visited. “All I could hear was the laughter coming from the classroom,” she said. She submitted her application for deputy principal and also enrolled her granddaughter who lives with her.
The school’s biggest competitor is in a wealthier part of the town and is a decile 7. Former Hokitika Principal Kath Martin said the other school “is seen by locals to be the ‘best.’” She said the school lost 10 students earlier this year when the wealthier competitor opened up more slots.
That’s despite the fact that Hokitika received a generally positive review from the Education Review Office in 2014, which found that “most students are achieving at or above expected national levels in reading, writing and mathematics” and concluded “the school is well placed to sustain and improve its performance”
The competing school performs better on national standards, but Hokitika’s students made gains in recent years after new leadership and a new curriculum focused on social-emotional learning was introduced. Though kids at Hokitika are poorer and tend to arrive further behind, data shows the school has been successful at helping them catch up with the kids at the wealthier school by the end of primary school.
The school’s progress has stalled according to its most recent review, published in October, and reading achievement has started to dip. But, the review noted, the school had already put programs in place to monitor and improve student achievement.
Minehan and the school’s other educators are frustrated that the successes they have had Hokitika have yet to make a difference in its reputation.
So now, Minehan says, school officials are focusing on other things to raise their profile: sponsoring a float in the local Christmas parade and holding a Twilight Market. They try to get photos in the local newspaper every chance they get. “We’re getting better at that,” she said. “The pressure is there.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for our newsletter.